2/13/08

Clever SEIU helps GOP incumbent to defeat

Two U.S. House incumbents, eight-term Democrat Al Wynn and nine-term Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest , were defeated in primary elections Tuesday in Maryland, as voters in their districts sent mixed messages that at once reflected and contradicted two of the main themes that have set the tone for the 2008 presidential campaign.

On one hand, both Donna Edwards, a nonprofit organization executive director and community activist who defeated Wynn in the state’s 4th District, and Andy Harris, the state senator/physician who ousted Gilchrest in the 1st District, ran on themes of political change — a popular message at a time when voters are expressing dissatisfaction with the direction of the nation as a whole and the federal government in particular.

This is, in fact, the same theme sounded by the self-proclaimed “outsider” candidates, Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain , who easily won their parties’ respective presidential primaries in Maryland (as well as in neighboring Virginia and the District of Columbia) on Tuesday.

But both Edwards and Harris won in large part because they promised to more strictly follow the ideological agendas of their party’s most activist voters — conservatives in the case of Harris, liberals in Edwards’ case — than did the incumbents they defeated. This seems to run somewhat counter to the messages of greater outreach issued by the winners in the state’s presidential contests: McCain leans to the right on most issues while Obama leans to the left, but both have promised to diminish ideological confrontation and reach across party lines in efforts to address the nation’s priority issues.

With three-quarters of the 4th District precincts reporting, Edwards was trouncing Wynn by 61 percent to 35 percent. It was the culmination of her effort to erode Wynn’s support base that she began in 2006, when she entered the Democratic primary late but still almost defeated the incumbent, holding him to a 3 percentage-point margin.

Reinforced by an earlier start, a bigger campaign treasury and stronger support from liberal activist and a few organized labor groups, Edwards drove home the issues she sought to raise against Wynn two years ago.

Her attacks were largely two-pronged. Edwards continued to skewer Wynn for voting in favor of the resolution passed in 2002 that authorized President Bush to employ military force against Iraq, describing Wynn’s later determination that his vote was a mistake as too little and too late. The other front was an effort at political jujitsu, in which she went after Wynn on what the incumbent portrayed as a strength: the seniority that had earned him a seat and a subcommittee chairmanship on the influential Energy and Commerce Committee. Edwards argued that Wynn’s position had led him to be too cozy with corporate interests. She singled out his votes for legislation, crafted largely by Republicans in 2005, that overhauled the nation’s energy and bankruptcy laws.

Edwards was bolstered by outside organizations’ independent expenditures either supporting her or opposing Wynn to the tune of more than $1.6 million, including more than $868,000 this year from the Service Employees International Union Committee on Political Education. She also received a lot of grass-roots help from some liberal groups such as Democracy for America, which said in a post-primary statement to supporters, “You did it. We just beat a Bush Democrat.”

Wynn and his supporters argued that his critics had grossly exaggerated his record, arguing that the congressman’s relationships with business interests were largely oriented toward promoting economic development in the 4th, a black-majority district in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., that is largely middle-class and has some residents who are quite well off, but also has a number of lower-income communities.

Wynn played heavily on his House experience, citing his ability to bring money back to the 4th District. He received the backing of most of the unions with significant memberships in the district as well as from many of the local elected leaders. He claimed to have “the ear” of Michigan Democrat John D. Dingell , the powerful chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. And following his close call against Edwards in 2006, he spent more time doing town hall meetings and interacting with constituents.

Nonetheless, Wynn varied from the Democratic party line in the House less frequently in the run-up to his 2008 rematch with Edwards than he had previously. His score in Congressional Quarterly’s “party unity” study — which measures how often members vote with most members of their own party against most members of the other party — was a career-high 99 percent in 2007, up from 91 percent in 2006 and 87 percent in 2005. In the 4th District contest between two African-American candidates, Wynn, like Edwards, endorsed Obama in his bid to become the nation’s first black president.

Republican Gilchrest, on the other hand, made no adjustment in his voting behavior to accommodate the growing restiveness among 1st District conservative Republicans over his straying from party orthodoxy on issues such as environmental regulation and abortion rights. In fact, Gilchrest took his contrarian tendencies to an even greater level. He openly broke with the Bush administration on the Iraq war, and was one of only two House Republicans who last year supported a Democratic-crafted measure that would have required the setting of a timetable to being withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq; the other was Texas Rep. Ron Paul , who this year is running for president to promote his libertarian philosophy (and who endorsed Gilchrest in his House primary).

Gilchrest’s 2007 party unity score of 58 percent was by far the lowest among House Republicans, and was down from 75 percent in 2006 and from 88 percent as recently as 2003. Gilchrest nonetheless portrayed himself as a loyal Republican who, despite policy disagreements with the president, received Bush’s endorsement for his campaign this year. He also was backed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, long a leading voice in the conservative movement.

But many conservatives rallied around Harris, who raised roughly $1.2 million. That was an unusually strong fundraising performance by the challenger, who nearly doubled the roughly $663,000 that Gilchrest raised for the election.

With 85 percent of the 1st District precincts reporting, Harris was leading Gilchrest by 42 percent to 33 percent, with state Sen. E.J. Pipkin at 21 percent.

Harris was endorsed by Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., the state’s former Republican governor. But the biggest outside help he received was in the form of independent expenditures from the conservative organization, The Club for Growth, which for years had pilloried Gilchrest, slapping him with the label the group regularly applies to GOP moderates: RINO, or Republican in Name Only. In one of its most publicized efforts, the Club backed the 2004 primary challenge to moderate Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter waged by then-Rep. Patrick J. Toomey, who lost by less than 2 percentage points and now is president of the Club for Growth.

In a statement following confirmation of Gilchrest’s defeat Tuesday, Toomey said, “It is clear from tonight’s victory that voters want their representatives to stand up and fight for limited government and economic freedom. In Andy Harris, Maryland Republicans have found such a person.”

The two primary giant-killers will both be favored to keep the seats in their respective parties’ hands, though Edwards is more of a shoo-in. Her district is an overwhelmingly Democratic stronghold where 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry took 78 percent of the vote. Edwards will face Republican Peter James, a supporter of Ron Paul ’s presidential campaign whose campaign biography identifies him as a high-tech consultant.

Harris faces a relatively tougher chore in the 1st District, which encompasses the largely rural Eastern Shore region along with two disparate and largely suburban blocks of voters on the western side of the Chesapeake Bay, one north and the other south of Baltimore. Harris faces a Democratic nominee with political experience: Frank M. Kratovil, Jr., the state’s attorney (equivalent to chief prosecutor) for Queen Anne’s County on the Eastern Shore.

Some of Gilchrest supporters suggested during the primary campaign that Harris’ staunchly conservative agenda could put the 1st District seat at risk of a serious Democratic takeover attempt, since the district’s general electorate is more used to Gilchrest’s centrist demeanor. But Harris refuted this claim, pointing to the fact that Bush took 62 percent of the district’s vote in 2004.

(cqpolitics.com)

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