Parties Ready Competing Messages of Change

Posted January 17, 2008 at 3:40pm

A change would do you good, as songstress Sheryl Crow put it.

Both Democratic and Republican strategists concur that the 2008 elections are shaping up to be a battle over which party can “out-change” the other in their pitch to a frustrated electorate.

History shows that conditions are ripe for a “change election” when more voters believe the government is moving in the wrong direction than the right direction.

And with the United States fighting two unpopular wars, an economy that could be on the verge of recession and partisanship in Washington, D.C., worse than ever, current right-track numbers in many polls are approaching an all-time low.

Pundits, party leaders and presidential candidates alike are calling 2008 “a change election,” from Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) hope-filled message of “change we can believe in” to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s call to create a new kind of Republican Party.

“Every single candidate, even the ones who have been in the Senate for decades, are claiming to be a change candidate, so they clearly are seeing something out there,” House Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.) said in a recent interview.

Members of Congress are recognizing that the sentiment is not just limited to the presidential race.

“The polling certainly indicates that voters are fed up with Washington as usual,” Putnam said. “The pound of flesh that [voters] extracted in 2006 did not satisfy their appetite and so I think it puts people in both parties on alert.”

For Democrats, the challenge is implementing a message of change despite now being the party in power in Congress. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said Democratic candidates will have a different take on the change message this cycle.

First, Van Hollen said, candidates will be able to point to specific things a Democratic Congress has accomplished. Second, he said, the candidates will be able to demonstrate that President Bush stood in the way of passing popular measures that the Democrats proposed, such as the expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

“If people have looked at what’s happened in Congress, they’re clearly going to be able to distinguish from Democrats’ effort to implement a change agenda and Republican efforts to stand in the way,” Van Hollen said.

He added that Democratic leaders are “frustrated” things haven’t changed more quickly, but blamed the president’s seven vetoes in 2007, compared with his one veto when Congress was under Republican control.

“People wish Congress was moving faster,” Van Hollen said. “We do, too.”

But can two years of a so-called Democratic change agenda be enough to encourage voters that they want more?

“Change takes time,” said second-time Ohio Democratic Congressional candidate Mary Jo Kilroy. “It builds. Maybe it doesn’t happen as quickly as we would like all the time.”

Kilroy, a Franklin County commissioner running in Ohio’s 15th district, said the previous cycle was just the “beginning of change” for her party. She lost narrowly to Rep. Deborah Pryce (R) in 2006, but with Pryce retiring, Kilroy is now in an open-seat race against state Sen. Steve Stivers (R).

This year, the question for Kilroy is how to run on a message of change when no matter what, voters in her district will elect a new Member and a new president in 2008.

“I think it’s change versus status quo,” said Randy Borntrager, Kilroy’s campaign manager. “Our opponent supports the status quo. The policies are the ones that we are trying to change, that have been thrust upon the American people by President Bush and the Republican Congress. We have been struggling to turn that ship around.”

Democrats believe that turning the ship around will require not just a Democratic president, but also greater majorities in both chambers of Congress. That means electing challengers such as former state Lottery Commissioner Gary Peters (D) over longtime Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R) in Michigan’s 9th district.

Part of Peters’ pitch to voters is that Democrats need a veto-proof majority to get the current Congress out of its state of “gridlock.” Peters said he plans to use the unpopular Bush when he makes his case to voters, even though the president won’t be on the ballot in 2008.

“Bush will be a part of the strategy,” he said. “But I think it would be a real mistake to just focus on George W. Bush.”

And that at least is one place where Republicans would agree.

“When I do focus groups with Republican voters they are talking about change,” said GOP pollster Glen Bolger. However, “it’s not change as in anti-Bush, it’s just the sense that it’s time to move on. … The Democrats think this is a change election aimed at President Bush and that’s not the case at all.”

Bolger said that voters this year want a complete overhaul in Washington.

“Last I checked [Bush] is not going to be on the ballot and that puts pressure on the Democrats to come up with some accomplishment,” he said.

Both House campaign committees this cycle are casting their nets wide to find candidates in challenger and open-seat races. While plenty of their top prospects certainly can tout long political résumés, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made it hip again to put up candidates with strong military backgrounds, such as highly touted retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Rick Goddard, the GOP recruit to run against Rep. Jim Marshall (D) in Georgia’s battleground 8th district. Meanwhile, Democrats are touting Ohio state Sen. John Boccieri, an Air Force Reserve officer who is running to replace retiring Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio).

Whether they’re consciously tapping into the public desire for running the government like a business or simply a function of the National Republican Congressional Committee being short on cash, Republican leaders are especially high on several wealthy candidates this cycle.

But that doesn’t mean incumbent Members, even those who have been around for a decade or more, can’t incorporate some message of change into their re-election pitches.

“We’ve warned our Members from day one what the landscape looks like,” Putnam said. “Whether you’ve been here for one cycle or 10 cycles you better be spending plenty of time at home … making sure that you have a personal relationship with your constituents and that they know that you understand their needs and desires and that you still represent a fresh spirit of public service.”

With minimal exceptions, such as millionaire physicist Bill Foster in Illinois’ 14th district, Democratic change candidates are a combination of second-timers such as Kilroy, plus current and former elected officials such as Peters and five-term state Sen. John Adler, who is a top Democratic recruit in New Jersey’s 3rd district. Despite having more traditional political profiles in their 2008 crop of top recruits than the Republicans do, Democrats are pushing for change by pitching the electability of their candidates.

For Peters, that means running on a message that could appeal to his entire swing district — that opting for change is not about the party, but rather about the person the district sends to Congress.

“When people say they want change, I think what they’re sick of is the partisan finger pointing,” he said. “Change is not really about a change in partisanship, it’s about a change in who we send to Washington … (Members) who are more concerned about solving problems than being partisan bomb-throwers.”

That argument is similar to the one freshman Rep. Jason Altmire (D) is making to Western Pennsylvania voters in his likely rematch with former Rep. Melissa Hart (R). He said that when a country thinks about change, voters think about two things: partisanship and the president.

“I don’t think I’ve been part of that [partisanship] since I’ve been a part of Congress,” Altmire said. “So I think I can still talk about change in both of those cases.”

Altmire said he’s also going to be particularly effective at making the case for change a second time because he will likely be running against a former Member.

“Certainly the voting record that Melissa Hart had rolled up with President Bush in the last six years is going to be a part of that. I can’t imagine that she’s going to be able to make that case effectively,” he said.

“If you look at what our candidates are going to be able to say versus what the Republicans are going to say, our candidates are going to be able to capture the mantle of change,” added Van Hollen. “If you’re a Republican, what are you going to say? ‘We blocked the Democrats from passing a children’s health care bill?’”

Republicans agree that the mantle of change is up for grabs in 2008 and argue that the problem Democrats will run up against is that they are claiming that change can only occur by electing the party that currently is in power.

“That is a very difficult argument to make,” said NRCC spokesman Ken Spain. “Voters are well aware of what Democrats have done or in this case have not done since they’ve been in charge of Congress. The Democratic strategy is to ignore the current environment and pretend that they are not in charge while rerunning the 2006 election.”

Spain said recent Congressional special elections give clear indications that Republicans are hitting on the right message this cycle and pointed to the closer-than-expected October special election in Massachusetts where frontrunner Niki Tsongas (D) beat Republican Jim Ogonowski by just 6 points in an overwhelmingly Democratic district. Ogonowski painted Tsongas, the wife of the late Sen. Paul Tsongas (D), as another Washington insider while touting his military background. After the Massachusetts election, Ogonowski was invited to speak before the House Republican Conference, where he delivered a message about his unexpected success.

“Democrats talked a lot about change in 2006, but since then they have gone from being perceived as the answer to the Washington problem to actually becoming the problem,” Spain said. “Public opinion polls have proven that voters are enraged. Our job will be to remind voters of their dissatisfaction.”