Monday, April 21, 2008

DCCC Candidates Scoring Well With ‘Bitter’ U.S. Voters

By Stuart Rothenberg

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama may think that some voters “cling” to their guns and their religion out of bitterness and frustration, but the folks at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee seem content to woo those candidates and appeal to those voters.

Indeed, one of the reasons Democrats now control the House of Representatives and continue to do so well in Congressional contests is that the party has dropped any ideological and issue litmus tests it may have once had and recruited Democrats who reflect the views of conservative constituents.

In the previous cycle, pro-gun, socially conservative Democratic candidates such as Brad Ellsworth (Ind.) and Heath Shuler (N.C.) ousted entrenched Republican incumbents in conservative districts. Republicans are hoping to have strong challengers to both incumbents, but the early indications are that Ellsworth and Shuler will win second terms rather comfortably.

This year, the trend of the DCCC recruiting candidates who fit their districts has continued, especially in the South.

Louisiana state Rep. Don Cazayoux’s Web site identifies the 6th district Democratic hopeful as “pro-life” and a strong advocate of protecting gun owner rights.

After being endorsed by the National Rifle Association in the 6th district Democratic runoff, Cazayoux said, “I’m proud to have the endorsement of NRA and the millions of gun owners and sportsmen they represent across the country and here in Louisiana. We’ve passed important legislation in Louisiana over the last few years to protect the rights of gun owners, and I will continue that work in Congress to ensure our Second Amendment rights are protected.”

In the Alabama 5th district open seat being vacated by conservative Democratic Rep. Bud Cramer, the Democratic frontrunner appears to be state Sen. Parker Griffith. When I interviewed him earlier this week, he called himself “pro-life,” “pro-gun” and “pro-traditional marriage.”

Griffith’s positions aren’t surprising, of course, given Cramer’s record. CQ’s Politics in America 2008 described Cramer as “one of the most conservative Democrats in the House” and “among the Democrats supporting the conservative-led effort to intervene in the right-to-die legal case of Terri Schiavo.”

In Georgia’s 8th district, Rep. Jim Marshall (D) has found a way to win three elections in a House district that voted 61 percent for President Bush in 2004. Marshall joined with conservatives in voting to intervene in the Schiavo case, opposed lifting the president’s restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research and voted to build a 700-mile fence on the Mexican border.

Democratic Rep. Tim Holden, who represents a Southeastern Pennsylvania district that stretches northeast from Harrisburg, voted the same way as Marshall did on Schiavo, embryonic research and the border fence. In addition, the eight-term Democrat is quoted in CQ’s Politics in America 2008 as saying that “most Democrats in Pennsylvania are conservative, rural, not pro-choice, not gun control, the exception being the Philadelphia guys.”

And Holden was correct. Indeed, what made Obama’s comment so odd is that, in addition to Holden, at least three other Pennsylvania Democratic Congressmen — Christopher Carney, Paul Kanjorski and Jason Altmire — fit the culturally conservative profile that the Illinois Democrat appeared to demean. In all likelihood, none of them would have been elected to Congress had they supported gun control or been socially liberal.

Both the House and Senate Democratic campaign committees have more than a few assets this cycle, so they certainly aren’t dependent on a strong presidential nominee to help elect Democrats to the House and Senate. But it would be naive to dismiss the top of the tickets as irrelevant.

I have believed for a long time that Obama would be a better general election candidate for Democratic Congressional candidates than would Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.). And I believe that’s still the case, even with Obama’s gaffe about religion, guns and illegal immigrants.

Clinton’s nomination would tear the Democratic Party apart, alienate black voters, turn off independents who have been excited by Obama’s novelty and charisma, and mobilize Republicans, many of whom seem to have a visceral dislike of the former first lady.

That said, Obama may not be the asset that he was once regarded by House Democrats. True, he will likely bring out younger voters and attract more independents than his New York opponent, but he’s well on his way to being tagged a liberal, and that will undermine him as an asset for his party.

Obama’s great mistake was not in calling some small-town voters “bitter.” Instead, it was in treating support for gun control and religion as negatives, as well as in equating “anti-immigrant sentiment” and support for trade with religion.

Obama’s comments ought to worry Southern and rural Democrats about what their party’s attitude might be toward them if and when the party elects a president in November. So long as Democrats have been focused on winning majorities, party leaders have been tolerant of their conservative Democratic colleagues. That could well change if Obama finds himself in the Oval Office.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on April 17, 2008. Copyright 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.