Thursday, August 10, 2006

A November to Forget For Democrats?

A large number of political pundits, as well as Democratic strategists, pointed to the California special election to fill the House of Representatives seat once held by Randy “Duke” Cunningham as a possible barometer of voter sentiment as November’s mid-term elections approach.

In that election for California’s 50th Congressional District, Republican Brian Bilbray defeated Democrat Francine Busby, 49 percent to 45 percent. Busby, a local school board member, also lost to Cunningham in 2004.

Those Democratic strategists saw an opportunity to steal a House seat in a solidly Republican district. It was an opportunity based on growing uneasiness of the American public about the corruption scandals that have rocked the Republican Party and the falling approval numbers of George W. Bush. That the Democratic candidate did not win is less a reflection of the American public’s mood and more a symptom of the Democrat’s inability to temper their optimism.

It seems to be a foregone conclusion that the Republicans are going to lose seats in the House and maybe the Senate in the fall, with the only question being how many. However, if California’s 50th is any indication, and there is much debate about that, the Democrats have some significant work to do before they start handing out chairmanships.

Sure, it was a long shot for a Democrat to win in a district that has a 44%-30% registration edge over Democrats. But with 22% of independents also registered in the district, Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, saw this election as a significant opportunity to help Democrats reach their goal of retaking one or both Legislative branches. More than $10 million dollars was spent locally in the California 50th, and the DCCC was not shy about putting even more skin in the game. “We spent already about a half of a million dollars down there. So I'm committed to be competitive and try to win wherever we can win” said Emanuel.

The final numbers may prove that all that money may have been better spent elsewhere. In the last two presidential elections, Al Gore and John Kerry received 44% and 45% respectively in California’s 50th, which is exactly where Busby’s percentage fell. "Never have so many spent so much to accomplish so little," said Carl Luna, political science instructor at San Diego Mesa College.

More important than the money, however, may have been the campaign messages on which both candidates focused. Busby decided to concentrate on the self-inflicted malaise that has struck the Bush administration and the trials (soon to be maybe) and tribulations of the GOP-led Congress. She also referred numerous times to her opponent as “the lobbyist Bilbray”, an attempt to stir the voter’s emotions regarding the Jack Abramoff scandal.

Bilbray decided to concentrate on immigration reform, in such a way that it put him at odds with not only the White House stance on immigration but also directly with John McCain, who went so far as to cancel a campaign appearance with Bilbray. Bilbray has proposed a fence “from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico” and has strongly supported restrictions that will keep illegal immigrants from receiving Social Security and other benefits. Even with differing approaches on how to deal with illegal immigration, the President and the First Lady recorded campaign phone messages for Bilbray in the final days, sensing that victory was possible.

The goal of the political strategists and campaign managers now is to determine if either one of these messages resonated more with the voters, and that will be difficult to do in a Congressional district where other than the fact that the office holder won’t be a convicted felon, the status quo seems to be the big winner. "What is going on in California, in the 50th District, might be replicated in the rest of the country," said Stuart Rothenberg of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington, D.C.

In 1994, six weeks before the mid-term elections, the Republican Party released their Contract With America. They laid out in great detail the actions that they would take if they became the majority Party in the House of Representatives for the first time in forty years. Although many may argue the effect the Contract had on the election, it definitely put the Clinton White House and the Democratic controlled Congress on the defensive. Ultimately, the Republicans won the House, parts of the Contract were enacted and the Democrats have been looking uphill ever since.

This fall, in lieu of a Democratic Contract With America, what will be the coordinated message that Democratic candidates will take out on the campaign trail, or maybe the better question is, will there be one? What are the issues that will resonate not only with Democratic voters but with Independents and moderate Republicans as well? In order for Democrats to defeat Republicans in those very few contested districts, like the California 50th, they’re going to need more than the campaign message that gave Francine Busby the same percentages as Gore and Kerry.

If the Democrats campaign this fall on Bush’s falling fortunes and a scandal-plagued Congress, retaking the House or Senate will remain a fantasy. Democrats must remember that they will get their share of scandal coverage as Rep. William Jefferson’s money continues to thaw since being freed from his freezer, and in five months, President Bush’s popularity is almost sure to nudge up even slightly. With the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the completion of Iraq’s government, the willingness of the Iranians to at least consider sitting down at the negotiation table, a surprise Presidential visit to Baghdad and a guy named Karl Rove that just got off the hook, that nudge just got a slight nudge.

Absent a Contract With America or something similar coming from the Democrats, the status quo may reign supreme. If this campaign is going to be contested on the issues we saw on display in the California 50th, the Republicans will trump the Democrats, because Republican candidates will run to the right of Bush on immigration, which is a winner, and they are also just beginning to dust off that old chestnut that seems to always come out around election time: opposition to gay marriage.

The Democrats won’t win bashing Bush and a scandal-plagued Congress. It’s time for Rahm Emanuel, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to put forth some serious proposals that will grab the attention of the American public, and not six weeks before the election. Otherwise, the $10 million dollars spent in the California 50th is going to look like chump change if the shake-up that so many seem to predict is coming doesn’t materialize. Then, after the Democrats have wiped the egg from their faces, they get to look forward to 2008 and the possible presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton. They may need to save a few extra napkins, just in case.

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