For Democrats, Politics is Local Again

By Wall Street Journal, Wall Street Journal - July 9, 2010

The Democratic-run Congress passed a health-care overhaul and is close to securing new rules for Wall Street. But in his re-election campaign back in southern New Mexico, Rep. Harry Teague is talking about new sidewalks and widening a freeway.

Across the country, Democrats defending House and Senate seats amid the stiffest anti-incumbent mood in two decades are trying to focus attention away from Washington—and toward local factors that might persuade voters to return their lawmaker to office.

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Barbara Boxer, who is defending her Senate seat this fall, tours a terminal under construction at Sacramento International Airport.

The effort is designed to prevent Republicans from turning the fall elections into a national referendum on President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress, whose popularity among swing voters has been in sharp decline over the last year. Instead, Democrats are trying to turn each race into a unique, one-on-one match-up between local candidates.

"This is going to be about local issues and local things," said Mr. Teague, a first-term lawmaker considered vulnerable in his conservative district.

The plan, as laid out by Democratic strategists, includes two big elements: renewed attention by candidates on hometown construction projects—often without mentioning the unpopular economic stimulus bill that provided the funding—and a ramped-up effort at national Democratic headquarters to find negative information about GOP candidates.

The strategy has been evident this week from coast to coast.

Flanked by construction workers in hard hats, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) launched her re-election campaign near San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, where she took credit for securing federal funding to rebuild an overpass vulnerable to seismic activity. It was the first in a string of stops at stimulus-backed projects, as Ms. Boxer declared that "California jobs are my number one focus."

A survey by the nonpartisan California Field Poll published Thursday found that Sen. Boxer's lead over Republican Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, has narrowed, with Ms. Boxer now leading by 47% to 44%.

A new TV ad by Rep. Tom Perriello (D., Va.) portrays the congressman walking newly constructed park trails and installing broadband cable lines as he touts stimulus spending in his district. Mr. Perriello doesn't mention the 2009 $787 billion economic-recovery bill by name.

National GOP strategists said they intended to challenge the Democrats' effort to localize each race. They said GOP candidates would remind voters of two big points of Democratic vulnerability: rising federal deficits and the 9.5% unemployment rate.

"We'll tell voters: If you like deficits, like higher taxes and like the expansion of government, then vote to re-elect the Democrats," said Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the Republicans' Senate campaign committee.

"The Democrats can try to localize the races, but the voters will see through it," said Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.), a top strategist on GOP House campaigns.

The Democrats' approach this year is a shift from recent strategy. The party gained seats in the last two elections by trumpeting a unified, national theme of opposing then-President George W. Bush's agenda. It also attacked the congressional voting records of incumbent Republicans.

But now Democrats are trying to fend off Republican challengers who in many cases don't have voting records to go after. Many are political rookies. So the party has stepped up its efforts to pore through local court filings, property records and other documents in hopes of finding embarrassing tidbits.

"We have to dig deeper into their records in business or whatever they've done on the local level," said Jon Vogel, executive director of the Democrats' House campaign committee.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has more than doubled its research operation since the 2006 election, assembling more than 20 staffers working to compile books on at least 70 Republican nominees in swing races.

Democratic Party researchers found records that they used to accuse New Jersey GOP House candidate Jon Runyan of obtaining a special agricultural tax break for property he owns. They highlighted the compensation paid to Delaware House candidate Michele Rollins for serving on a local bank board, saying that it rose after the bank received federal bailout funds.

Kevin McNulty, Ms. Rollins's deputy campaign manager, said bailout funds to the bank, Wilmington Trust, had nothing to do with its operating budget that funded her compensation. Mr. Runyan's campaign said the agricultural tax break was legal and proper for property where he raises four donkeys and grows timber, and that he pays about $60,000 in property taxes on his home.

Both campaigns described the attacks as unfair, and possibly more harmful to the Democrats.

Republican officials said they, too, have a robust opposition research operation, but that the most effective line of attack against Democratic incumbents would be linking them to Democratic policies such as the stimulus, which polls show is unpopular with voters.

The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, in June, showed the risks for Democrats. Fifty-seven percent of voters—including three-quarters of crucial independent voters—would rather give a new congressional candidate a chance than re-elect their hometown incumbent.

In New Mexico, Mr. Teague is trying to use the stimulus to draw contrasts with his GOP opponent, former Rep. Steve Pearce. He appeared recently at a ceremony in Silver City to celebrate a $600,000 federal grant for new sidewalks near local schools. Last month, he visited a stimulus-funded pedestrian walkway over railroad tracks in Belen, N.M.

"People in our district will see the contrast between me and Steve," Mr. Teague said in an interview. "They're going to say, 'For six years we've seldom seen Steve, but for two years we've seen Harry a lot.'"

Mr. Pearce, who left the seat to run unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2008, said Mr. Teague was trying to distract voters from his ties to national Democrats. He said the costs of the stimulus were more important to voters than any isolated benefits

"At the end of the day, what people are going to talk about is jobs and the economy, and the inability of our opponent, the current administration or the Pelosi team to do anything about it," said Mr. Pearce.

Write to Peter Wallsten at and Jim Carlton at

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