For anxious Republicans in Washington about to head home for a month-long recess, there's growing worry about keeping the party's core conservative supporters excited about this fall's elections. That's why, in the last two weeks, the House of Representatives has tried to pass bills that would ban gay marriage and strip power from the federal courts to rule on cases involving the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. This week House leaders will take on two other causes that conservatives have been unhappy about President Bush's leadership on: in three different hearings, they'll continue bashing the Senate-passed immigration bill that would create a guest worker program for illegal immigrants, while on the House floor, they will likely pass two bills that would create commissions to look for ways to cut wasteful federal spending.
But as much as some Republicans (and Democrats, for that matter) might like to make this year's congressional election a contest between competing national agendas, the reality is that it is just as much a series of local races with their own particular issues and considerations. So while Republican John Hostettler, who is in a tough race to keep his seat in a district around Evansville, Indiana, has made the Pledge vote the subject of his weekly podcast for constituents, three Republicans from Connecticut, all in close reelection races in a blue state, have very different priorities.
Chris Shays, who represents southern Connecticut, says the GOP's values agenda, like the Pledge of Allegiance bill, is a "bit of a distraction and detour" from taking on more pressing matters, like global warming. On the campaign and official websites of Nancy Johnson, the 12-term congresswoman from the western part of the state appears in pictures with two senators and one President: Bill Clinton, Joe Lieberman and Ted Kennedy, the chief writer of the Senate immigration bill her GOP colleagues despise. Rob Simmons, who represents the eastern part of the state, doesn't just brag about the pork he's brought back home to the state; it's actually one of the main themes of his re-election campaign.
Such dissonance between the campaign tactics of Republicans in the Northeast and the Midwest will be hard to miss this fall. Of the 36 Republican-controlled congressional districts that should be very competitive this year, according to rankings from the non-partisan Cook Political Report, half of them are in just six states: Connecticut, Kentucky, Indiana, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The Democrats will bombard these states with the bulk of the $30 million they plan to spend on ads attacking Republicans this fall. This sets up what almost appears to be a three-front regional war, where both parties know the national battle will ultimately be won or lost.
That Ohio, where three Republican incumbents are in real danger of losing, is having a very intense campaign is hardly surprising; the state's close balance between the two parties meant it was overwhelmed with attention by both presidential campaigns in 2004. But three members from neighboring Indiana, plus Geoff Davis of Northern Kentucky, are in tight races even though they represent typically reliable Republican areas.
Lawmakers in the three states face the same problems: along with negative feelings about Bush and the war, all three states have unpopular Republican governors. In Kentucky, two-thirds of the state's residents disapprove of Gov. Ernie Fletcher, who has been indicted in an investigation of his hiring and firing of state employees, and Ohio's Bob Taft has a 78% disapproval rating, after pleading no contest to accepting free golf outings from a prominent Republican activist in the state last year. "The Governors are a very big problem in the Midwest," says Mark Souder, a House Republican in an Indiana district who, unlike some of his colleagues, is still considered a heavy favorite to win reelection. "There is no other way to 'punish' the governor."
The Republicans think they have one advantage though: the national Democratic Party. Since voters here are generally more conservative than in the Northeast, the GOP candidates are eager to tie their Democratic challengers to the national party. Chris Chocola, trying to keep his seat near South Bend, Indiana, attacked Democratic rival Joe Donnelly for an ad the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee aired recently showing flag-draped coffins of soldiers who had died in Iraq.
Aides to Deborah Pryce, a Republican in the Columbus, Ohio, area, have continued to call her opponent, Mary Jo Kilroy, a "tax and spend liberal," while Bob Ney, the Republican congressman embroiled in the Jack Abramoff Washington lobbying scandal, has a site called lostinzackspace.com, where he attacks his Democratic opponent Zack Space and links him to his "ultra-liberal" friends: Howard Dean, George Soros and Nancy Pelosi. The Democrats seem to be responding to the tactic. It's difficult to find the word "Democrat" on the web site of Brad Ellsworth, the Democrat running against Hostettler in the Evansville district. And Ellsworth's campaign manager, Jay Howser, calls his candidate "a Southern Indiana Democrat," to distinguish him from the rest of the party. "Democrats need to show their local roots," says Pete Brodnitz, a Democratic pollster who is working on Kilroy's race.
Of the four tight congressional districts in Pennsylvania, three are in suburbs of Philadelphia dominated by traditional swing voters, people who have voted for Al Gore and John Kerry but also for Rick Santorum, the controversial conservative Senator who is in danger of losing this time around. So candidates in this region have less reason to hide their party affiliation. In one of the districts, Democratic challenger Lois Murphy touts her closeness to Pennsylvania Democratic Governor Ed Rendell, while Jim Gerlach, the GOP incumbent, has had both John McCain and President Bush campaign for him.
The campaigns here have the usual dynamics of the national races, with the Republicans calling the Democrats "liberal" (as in "liberal lobbyist Lois Murphy") and Democrats attacking Republicans for voting with George Bush on every issue, particularly focusing on stem-cell research last week. Two of the Democratic candidates are military veterans, Patrick Murphy and Joe Sestak, so they are doing their best to use their military credentials to counter any assumptions that their party is weak on national security.
But with the suburban tilt in these areas, the candidates are also trying to outdo one another in their appeals to the soccer-mom vote. Mike Fitzpatrick, a Republican who represents the Bucks County area, put out a plan two months ago that would require libraries and schools to block access to sites like myspace.com, in an effort to help stop online predators from finding ways to meet and prey on children. So his rival, Patrick Murphy, has now put out his own plan for "online protection," in which he proposes to ban access to sites like myspace for people convicted of using a computer to commit a sex crime.
The problem for the Connecticut Democrats is not simply one of Bush or the war. As the South has trended Republican over the two decades, the Northeast has trended the opposite direction, although more slowly. The state's three Republican members of Congress are almost always in danger of losing, but this year Democrats think they can not only beat them, but win a few seats in upstate New York as well.
While their opponents bash them as too close to Bush and the Republican leadership, these members are constantly emphasizing their differences with leading Republicans, occasionally to the point of sounding like Democrats. Simmons in Connecticut is touting his endorsements from labor unions, while Johnson is calling on Bush to get rid of the penalty for seniors who sign up late for the prescription drug plan. And all three supported the stem-cell bill that Bush vetoed. In this part of the country, every step that GOP candidates take away from Bush may be one step closer to reelection.