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CAFTA Could Shape ’06 Races

As the fight over the Central America Free Trade Agreement in the House ended last week with a narrow vote for passage, campaign strategists from both parties were already beginning to gauge how the issue might play out in key races next November.

Seeking to capitalize on the CAFTA fight in their quest to regain the majority, Democrats immediately began arguing that several Republicans exposed themselves to campaign peril with their votes.

“We think CAFTA has the ability to be one of those watershed issues of the 2006 election cycle” in key districts, said Sarah Feinberg, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

But Republicans assigned far less campaign importance to the vote, arguing that the vast majority of Members in both parties went the way their districts dictated.

“I don’t really expect it to be a big issue in any race next year,” said Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

One issue that continued to spark interest in both parties was the potential impact of a strongly-worded letter sent by 20 unions to House Democratic leaders last Monday.

The letter expressed disappointment that the leaders were not formally whipping against CAFTA and pointedly said, “Our work to help elect at-risk members, at your urging, will not extend to those who vote against us on this issue.”

The letter specifically mentioned Democratic Reps. Melissa Bean (Ill.), Jim Matheson (Utah) and Dennis Moore (Kan.), all of whom hold swing districts and all of whom voted in favor of CAFTA.

After the vote, both Republican and Democratic leadership aides and campaign strategists privately agreed that the union letter had put Matheson, Moore and Bean in an impossible position: If they voted for CAFTA, they would lose union support. But if they voted against it, they could be charged with caving to union pressure, an accusation that could be harmful in their marginal districts.

Recognizing this potential vulnerability, the NRCC put out releases in Matheson’s and Moore’s districts, questioning whether they would bow to the unions’ demands.

But Jodi Sakol, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, strongly disputed the notion that the letter was a strategic error.

“We wanted to put them on notice that this is a top-priority issue for working people and if they want to get union support then they’re going to have to vote for workers,” Sakol said.

Asked what would happen to those three Democrats now that they have indeed voted for CAFTA, Sakol said, “I think that we will think very carefully before supporting them given that when asked to support the interests of working families they turned their backs.”

And Chuck Harple, the political director for the Teamsters Union, said that the fact that 20 union leaders signed onto the letter was an important showing of unity for the labor movement on the issue. He also suggested that the letter, while not drawing the support of the three named Members, may have helped them get other Democrats to vote against CAFTA who might not have done so otherwise.

“I know our union and others feel comfortable with the letter,” Harple said. “We’re not going to second-guess it.”

One Republican strategist argued that “Bean and Moore relied heavily on union support” in being elected before and would be hurt by withdrawal of that backing.

Democrats, meanwhile, immediately went to work following the vote to try to get some political mileage out of the issue in several districts.

The DCCC reached out to local media outlets and editorial boards to try to get traction in some 30 House districts, including that of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

The DCCC is working with media most closely in the districts of North Carolina GOP Reps. Charles Taylor and Robin Hayes and Pennsylvania Republican Reps. Michael Fitzpatrick, Tim Murphy and Don Sherwood.

Hayes originally voted against the measure but was persuaded by his leadership to switch his vote, eventually paving the way for CAFTA to pass, 217-215 — a virtual replay of what happened on the House vote for presidential trade promotion authority in 2001.

The Republican leadership has pledged to do whatever is necessary to help Hayes win re-election after he fell on his sword for them on the CAFTA vote. In addition to financial help and visits from GOP leaders, Republican sources said the leadership would ask President Bush to visit Hayes’ district if it would help him.

While Democrats plan to call Hayes’ yes vote a betrayal of his textile producing district, Republicans argue that Democrats are unlikely to beat the incumbent given that they don’t even have a candidate yet and are considering re-nominating attorney Chris Kouri, who lost to Hayes by 9 points in 2002.

“Unless they’ve got a credible candidate against him, this isn’t going to be a major issue,” Forti said.

Hayes’ North Carolina colleague Taylor was officially recorded as not voting on CAFTA. He later explained that he attempted to vote no but his choice was not recorded, apparently because he used his voting card from the 108th Congress instead of his current one. Democrats will attempt to cast doubt on that story.

Democrats also plan to focus on Fitzpatrick, who held out until the last minute but then voted yes after Hayes did.

“We’re working with local media outlets, editorial boards,” Feinberg added. “We have talked to reporters in every one of these districts.

“We are making sure that the message gets out to the voters in these districts that in every single case the Members didn’t side with them.”

But as he did in other cases, Forti scoffed at the notion that the CAFTA vote could turn the tide against Fitzgerald.

“Barring some major event like some major plant closing in his district, what are the Democrats going to say?” Forti said. “They can’t provide an example of how it affected his district in a negative way.”

Forti also pointed out that other Republicans in tight races voted the way they should have to keep themselves safe. Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), for example, voted against CAFTA despite the fact that he is a committee chairman and was expected to toe the party line. Similarly, West Virginia Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) resisted heavy leadership pressure and also voted no, as did Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.).

Democratic leadership sources said the DCCC may later turn to radio or other media outlets as well, but will wait to see how their initial efforts play out in the coming days and weeks.

One Democratic leadership aide said while on the surface CAFTA may appear to be a victory for Republicans nationally, “there are many, many small victories for us” in the votes of marginal incumbents.

“This will be the gift that keeps on giving for months to come,” said the aide.