Tuesday, August 15, 2006
Here's a great article from the Washington Post regarding incumbant races for this coming November.
For GOP, Bad Gets Worse in Northeast
Incumbents Shy From Party and President
By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 14, 2006; A01
PHOENIXVILLE, Pa. -- When it comes to President Bush and the Republican Congress, Rep. Jim Gerlach says voters in his suburban Philadelphia district are in a "sour mood."
That's why when it comes to his reelection, the two-term incumbent says "the name of the game" is to convince those same voters that he can be independent of his own party. He has turned his standard line about Bush -- "When I think he's wrong, I let him know" -- into a virtual campaign slogan, repeated in interviews and TV ads.
"It is a combination of things, from the war in Iraq to gas prices to what they are experiencing in their local areas," Gerlach said of the surly electorate whose decision he will know on Nov. 7.
The Iraq war and Bush's low approval ratings have created trouble for Republicans in all regions. But nowhere is the GOP brand more scuffed than in the Northeast, where this year's circumstances are combining with long-term trends to endanger numerous incumbents.
Sounding very much like Gerlach, state Sen. Raymond Meier, a Republican running for an open seat in Upstate New York, observed: "People around here are anxious and concerned not just about the national state of affairs, but also their personal state of affairs. As a Republican candidate, the challenge is to show you have even a clue about what their lives are like."
Also sounding very much like Gerlach is Rep. Rob Simmons. His eastern Connecticut seat is the most Democratic-leaning district in the country still held by a Republican. "My friend calls me Salmon Simmons . . . because I am always swimming upstream" against a Democratic current, he said.
Last week's defeat of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut moderate who has supported the Iraq war, in the Democratic primary gave Republicans a vivid look at some of the same angry currents likely to buffet them this fall. A Washington-Post ABC News poll this month found Bush's approval rating at 28 percent in the Northeast -- 12 points below his national average. The Republican Congress fared no better.
Republican losses in the region could echo well beyond the 2006 campaign. Because much of the region is tilting Democratic, history suggests Republicans would find it hard to recapture seats once lost.
That is why GOP operatives in Washington are alarmed not just about Gerlach's predicament, but about that of two congressional neighbors in suburban Philadelphia: Reps. Michael G. Fitzpatrick and Curt Weldon, both in tough districts.
In Connecticut, Republican Reps. Nancy L. Johnson and Christopher Shays -- like Simmons -- are in highly competitive contests. And several New York Republicans are facing their most difficult reelection fights ever.
One reason Republicans understand the risk is that they were beneficiaries of a strikingly similar regional upheaval a decade ago.
Before the 1994 elections, when Republicans won control of the House for the first time in 40 years, Democrats held dozens of Southern districts in which the electorate had been gradually growing more conservative. That year, Republicans picked up 20 of those Southern seats, including several held by Democratic incumbents who -- like Northeast Republicans today -- tried to distance themselves from an unpopular White House and Congress controlled by their party.
Many of those Southern seats are afterthoughts in elections today because the districts are so solidly Republican. Simmons, who plays up his connections to organized labor, a traditionally Democratic interest, said a similar purge of Northeast Republicans would only exacerbate the polarized Washington environment. "For every one of us [moderates] who loses, the Congress becomes more partisan," he said.
GOP moderates have long felt marginalized by the conservative-dominated House Republican Conference. Late last year, however, Republican leaders realized they needed to soften some of their proposals or risk losing Northeastern seats. They reluctantly added money to the 2006 budget for job training and other programs pushed by the most liberal Republicans in Congress. They held a vote to expand stem cell research, a popular idea among moderates that was vetoed by Bush.
Last month, Republican leaders passed a $2.10 increase to the minimum wage, a powerful political issue in the struggling industrial towns. It was defeated in the Senate because it was linked to a cut in estate taxes.
"Our Republican conference needs to do more to put forward an agenda on health care, education and the environment," Gerlach said. "Those are important issues in the suburbs."
Here in Pennsylvania's 6th District, Democratic candidate Lois Murphy is a case study in how her party is trying to make campaigns about an unpopular Bush and Congress. On Tuesday, she traveled to the banks of Schuylkill River to rail against the "Bush energy bill," which she blamed for high gas costs and a dirtier environment.
Standing on a boat landing at a recent campaign event, she planted her shoe in a gob of melted gum. But she quickly went on to stick Gerlach with something the candidate's internal polls suggest is worse -- alleging the incumbent "has been a reliable vote for the Bush administration . . . and not stood up for the 6th District."
C. Ray Kalbach, 81, lifelong district resident, is receptive to the appeal. "My total commitment is to unelect all incumbents, period," said Kalbach, a self-described independent. He said he is fed up with Gerlach and "words spoken in one manner and actions done in another."
The district is a microcosm of other suburban areas in the region, a mixture of wealthy, GOP-leaning communities in West Chester and middle-income, working-class families in places such as Reading. Like many of the areas surrounding Philadelphia, it has been trending Democratic in recent elections, serving as the political base for Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D), the favorite to win reelection this year. Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate in 2004, won the district by three percentage points.
This the second time Gerlach is facing Murphy, a lawyer and mother of two children, and a skilled campaigner. In 2004, Gerlach beat her by about 6,400 votes (51 percent to 49 percent). Both candidates have raised about $2 million, plan to raise at least $1 million more, and are going for the jugular in campaign speeches and television ads.
Murphy's issue conflicts with Gerlach are somewhat amorphous, apparently by design. She would repeal some of Bush's tax cuts, including those for people earning $200,000 or more, but support others. Murphy slams Gerlach for "utterly failing" to stand up to Bush on the Iraq war, but she said her only policy difference is that she would force the president to come up with a "plan for success."
Pressed, she said Democrats "start from maybe worse than a blank slate" when it comes to having a national security plan. "Voters do not feel that they have that definition." She calls herself a moderate, more a "Rendell Democrat than a Pelosi Democrat" -- drawing a bit of distance from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a liberal.
"Political conversation has become so polarized, so emotional," said Susan Bolton, a computer professional in the district. "When people liken Bush to Hitler, I see a lot of similarities myself." Bolton has stopped discussing the race here with Republican friends and said she will definitely turn out to vote for Murphy.
Others are unfazed. "It is the lesser of two evils," said Jerry Cobb, a Republican retiree who has lived in the district for 45 years. "I am not a Gerlach man, but I will probably vote for him" because of -- not in spite of -- his ties to Bush. "They are having a good old time bashing George Bush," but it won't work on him, he said. Most voters interviewed in the area seemed unaware of the race -- or uninterested.
The Gerlach campaign calls the Democratic candidate "liberal Lois" and warns she will raise taxes if elected. Amy Bonitatibus, who took a leave from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's office to assist Murphy, said the charge, while not true, "resonates" with many voters here. Gerlach, who served in the state House and Senate before winning his seat in 2002, has said the two biggest issues are gas prices and immigration -- two areas in which he highlights differences with Bush.
Still, for Democrats to pick up the 15 seats needed to take control of the House, they may need the discontent to spread beyond the suburbs and into the conservative towns and rural communities of Upstate New York.
Meier, 53, is struggling to hold a seat that has gone Republican for a half-century. New York's 24th is not the kind of suburban, well-to-do country that is causing problems for the GOP elsewhere. It is more like the industrial Midwest, where once-vibrant cities bleed jobs, population and money as the economy moves away from factory dominance. Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert, an influential moderate Republican who chairs the Science Committee, has represented the district since 1982. Several times, he beat back conservative primary challenges by convincing voters that his ability to win funding for pet projects -- such as turning Griffiss Air Force Base into a technology center -- was more important than such social issues as his support of abortion rights.
In a normal environment, Boehlert's decision to retire this year might open the door for a more conservative Republican, such as Meier, to lock down the district, where Democrats have 40,000 fewer registered voters. But Meier said there is nothing normal about 2006: "It's a challenging year as a Republican."
In a break with the GOP election-year strategy, Meier said he is largely avoiding wedge issues such as same-sex marriage that party leaders are promoting in Washington and playing up his ability to compromise and create jobs. "People here are not ideologues," Meier said.
Michael A. Arcuri, 47, is the district attorney from Utica, the district's largest city in a county that accounts for about 30 percent of its voters. Handsome and articulate, Arcuri is running a campaign seemingly focused on one thing: tethering Meier to an unpopular Bush and Republican Party establishment. "He is one of the extremists," said Arcuri, between sips of coffee at a Friendly's restaurant.
To emphasize this point, Arcuri is running as a "Boehlert Democrat," highlighting how he shares the retiring GOP congressman's views on abortion, stem cells, tax cuts and energy policies, which are not coincidentally different than Bush's. "There is a huge difference between Boehlert and Meier," Arcuri said.
Reba L. Taylor, a former Democrat who serves as the Republican mayor of Dryden, said there is widespread frustration with Republicans in the area. "They have been a complacent, ruling party too long," she said. "A lot of them have not been touchable for a long time."
But Taylor said she is sticking with Meier because she believes he is the best person to help win funding and assistance for her town and the district.
Said Boehlert: "It will be more of a challenge than in the past, but it won't be insurmountable."