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Democrats Shouldn’t Count on Seeing an Anti-DeLay Vote

National Democratic strategists are trying to take a page out of one of their old playbooks in trying to “nationalize” the 2004 elections. If they could find the right national theme and get voters to buy into it, they would improve their (currently small) chances of achieving the double-digit gains they need to retake the House. [IMGCAP(1)]

The theme many candidates are using this cycle is “independence,” and they are employing Texas Rep. Tom DeLay (R) as their foil, arguing that the records of Republican incumbents aren’t very different from DeLay’s.

While the party was at least partially effective in 1996 in running against then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Democratic strategists face a much tougher time this year in their effort to turn the Majority Leader into a comparable boogeyman.

Yes, DeLay has received his share of bad publicity for controversial fundraising and spending decisions. But unlike Gingrich — and former Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill (Mass.), whom Republicans caricatured in TV ads in 1980 — DeLay is still only the No. 2 Republican in the House.

While Democrats see DeLay as the mastermind of House Republicans’ strategy, and inside-the-Beltway observers are obsessed with the Texas conservative and his efforts to solidify the GOP majority in the House, most voters around the country think DeLay is a verb, not a proper name.

Yet Democratic Congressional candidates have been dropping DeLay’s name regularly in candidate interviews that I’ve conducted recently. They criticize their GOP opponents for voting “in lockstep” with DeLay, and note the percentage of votes on which DeLay and their opponent agreed.

Those Democratic challengers then try to close the loop by portraying themselves as “independent” and beholden to no one but their constituents.

Among the Democratic hopefuls to rely on this line have been New Hampshire 2nd district candidate Paul Hodes, an attorney and neophyte candidate who is challenging Rep. Charles Bass (R), and attorney and abortion rights activist Lois Murphy (D), who is challenging Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.).

Former state Rep. Jim Sullivan, who is running against Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.), and Westport Selectwoman Diane Farrell, who is taking aim at Rep. Christopher Shays (R) in Connecticut, have also stressed their opponents’ alleged lack of independence.

Murphy and Pennsylvania 15th district Democrat Joe Driscoll have also called on their GOP opponents to return contributions from DeLay’s political action committee, and I assume other Democratic candidates will be doing the same thing.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee deserves some credit for trying to come up with a unifying message, which is probably the only way to create a national political wave this year. And voters surely prefer “independent” thinkers and representatives to mindless robots.

But, count me as skeptical about whether this national message will have much of an impact.

First, if you can’t come up with your own campaign message (or indeed, if your theme is being centrally generated by party wordsmiths and operatives), why should anyone believe that you would be truly “independent” of your party?

And second, these candidates, and others who offered the same criticism of their opponents, all had problems identifying issues on which they were “independent” of their own national party. This obviously undercuts their message, which, I believe, really isn’t about independence as much as it is about disagreeing with their opponents on issues.

In 2000 and 2002, Democratic challengers tried running against GOP incumbents on a litany of issues ranging from prescription drugs to corporate responsibility, education, the environment and taxes. Democratic candidates are still talking about those issues (and others, of course, including fiscal responsibility and jobs), but they seem to be trying to do so in a broader context this cycle. That’s where the “independence” and DeLay messages come in.

The problem for Farrell, Sullivan and Hodes is that Shays, Simmons and Bass are generally regarded as three relatively moderate Republicans, and Bass has even drawn a primary challenge from a state legislator who complains that he is too liberal.

Democrats challenging the three New Englanders complain that the Republicans are more conservative than voters realize, and they point to data showing the three Representatives often vote with their party and with DeLay. But will voters really pay a lot of attention to DeLay with President Bush and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) at the top of the ticket? It’s hard to imagine voters seeing their House race as a referendum on DeLay, given the dynamics of the cycle.

Both parties have used the “independence” argument in the past when it suits them, and they will continue to do so in the future. It’s an appealing message, particularly when voters are concerned about one party having too much power in Washington.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Think about how few mavericks there really are in Congress. Most Representatives toe the party line when they arrive on Capitol Hill, even if they truly believe that they will be independent. And for most candidates, their message of “independence” is all form — a mere campaign tactic — and no substance.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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