Although he seems to be a safe bet for re-election, the Republicans are coming after Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-Pa.) — planning an early assault that will attempt to turn questions surrounding earmarks into a legitimate political vulnerability.
Republicans tried, and failed miserably, to oust Kanjorski in 2002, an otherwise very good year for the GOP nationally. But Congress’ current low approval ratings, and the increased public scrutiny on earmarks Kanjorski championed that appear to have benefited his family, are leading Republicans to believe they can pick off the Democratic-leaning 11th district in 2008.
“There is a growing discontent in the district when it comes to Paul Kanjorski’s seemingly unethical actions,” said Ken Spain, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “We are confident that there is an opportunity to capitalize on this.”
Spain offered no polling data to back up his claim.
In 12 victories, Kanjorski’s lowest victory margin came in 2002, when he defeated Hazleton Mayor Louis Barletta (R) by 14 points on his way to garnering 56 percent of the vote. The Congressman outspent Barletta in that contest $1.2 million to $566,400.
Last year, Kanjorski won with 72 percent of the vote — slightly down from his 2004 victory, when he cruised with nearly 95 percent of the vote.
Democrats aren’t worried that Republicans will break the mold in 2008. Significantly, the GOP currently lacks a challenger for Kanjorski, and the NRCC last week was unable to offer up any names, formidable or otherwise, of potential contenders.
But fueling the GOP’s optimism is the fact that a company controlled by Kanjorski’s relatives that previously had received nearly $10 million in earmarks collapsed recently, reviving public attention on the matter and generating stories in local newspapers such as the Times-Tribune of Scranton.
But the issue of the earmarks themselves failed to cause Kanjorski major political problems when knowledge of them first surfaced earlier this decade, and Democrats say Republicans’ plans to make hay out of the matter this time around will again fall flat.
“Congressman Kanjorski has brought thousands of jobs to northeastern Pennsylvania, and he’s going to continue to fight for the families in his district,” said Carrie James, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “He won re-election just six months ago with 72 percent of the vote. It’s clear where support within the district lies.”
Republicans believe the strategy of using the earmark issue to weaken Kanjorski can work in 2008, in large part because of the anti-Washington, D.C., anti-incumbent atmosphere that has colored the political atmosphere nationally since January.
If the GOP makes good on its threat to hit Kanjorski, residents of the east-central Pennsylvania 11th district can expect to be flooded with radio spots, robocalls, or direct-mail ads — or some combination of the three. The attacks would likely focus on the Congressman’s alleged ethical misdeeds.
This has been the NRCC’s approach thus far in districts it is heavily targeting, although the subject of the attacks vary.
“We plan to take action in a variety of ways,” said one Republican operative. “This is the type of district that we believe can fold with the right candidate in an anti-incumbent environment.”
But you can’t beat somebody with nobody — and right now the GOP has nobody.
Since his loss to Kanjorski in 2002, Barletta has become something of a folk hero in Pennsylvania because of his actions to stem the tide of illegal immigration in Hazleton. Some Republicans believe his chances of defeating Kanjorski would be considerably improved if he challenged the Congressman again in 2008.
Barletta is running for a third mayoral term this year, and he apparently is so popular that he not only won the Republican primary in May but also ensured a smooth ride to victory in November by simultaneously waging a successful write-in campaign for the Democratic nomination, despite the fact that a majority of enrolled voters in Hazleton are Democrats.
Barletta said in an interview last week that he is considering running for the 11th district next year and feels he would have to make a decision no later than January. But Barletta said he remains focused on his re-election as mayor and attending to his current duties. He added that he also is receiving encouragement to run for higher state office.
“It’s intriguing in the sense that, if I feel that there’s something more I can do at a higher level, then it’s worth consideration,” Barletta said. “However, I am not committing to anything.”
With illegal immigration such a burning issue, one Republican operative familiar with the 11th district argued that Barletta could raise a ton of money nationally, enabling him to give Kanjorski a serious challenge.
But this operative said Republicans don’t have a bench of candidates to choose from in the 11th district, and he said it was “wishful thinking” for the GOP to think it can oust Kanjorski without Barletta.