The incredible, shrinking election

Robert Ariail of The State has caught the distressing reality of the upcoming November election in his editorial cartoon of a GOP elephant and Democratic donkey pointing at each other and trading insults: “Terrorist coddler,” the elephant says; “Teenage cuddler,” the donkey responds.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Democrats had hoped to nationalize the election, to make Nov. 7th a referendum on the presidency of George Bush and his conduct of foreign policy, especially his handling of the Iraq conflict. Mid-term elections are traditionally difficult for the party in power; and Democrats were convinced that a “vote of confidence” on Bush (and his proxies, Republican candidates) would let them regain control of the House, and possibly the Senate.

But if the Democrats win in November, it likely won’t be on grand policy issues—instead, this election may be decided, race-by-race, on more local terms and by the bizarre scandal involving Republican Mark Foley and his inappropriate conduct towards House pages.

The Foley scandal is the wild card in this election. The GOP may not only lose Foley’s seat in Florida, but also suffer from reduced support from fundamentalist Christians critical of the Republican leadership’s response to Foley. As Time‘s Michael Duffy points out, the damage may be significant, putting ” a handful of safe Republican seats suddenly at risk.”

Seven days ago, the congressional seats of Foley, Speaker Hastert, Rep. John Shimkus and Rep. Thomas Reynolds were all in the safe column. Now Foley has resigned; Hastert looks to be next; and it is inevitable that Shimkus and Reynolds will have to spend more time talking about how they handled the Foley affair than either imagined a week ago. Every Republican running for office who took Foley’s PAC money — and even some who did not — will have some explaining to do. Seven days ago, it took some clever accounting to see how the Democrats could pick up 15 seats. Now it’s not so hard.

The Foley factor looms in the race for one open House seat in Minnesota, (as outlined by the Associated Press):

Motherhood is hard to miss in Minnesota’s most competitive House race. Democrat Patty Wetterling, whose son disappeared 17 years ago, has grabbed the national spotlight in the fallout from the Mark Foley scandal. She immediately launched a hard-hitting television ad that argued Republicans “knowingly ignored the welfare of children to protect their own power.”

On Saturday, she will deliver the Democratic response to President Bush’s radio address, focusing on protecting children, including Internet safety.

It will be a strange turn of events if voters turn against Republican incumbents because of the mishandling of the Foley situation—and a sign that this election has shrunk in signficance, in some ways, no longer a debate over the future of the United States in a dangerous world, but rather one focused on more domestic concerns.

It may prove hard, then, to figure out what November 2006 means—there may be no mandate for change, no “up or down” vote on the Bush approach, no clear sense of what Americans want from their government. That would be in keeping with most Congressional elections when the presidency is not at stake (the “Contract with America” in 1994 one notable exception.) So it may be that the national debate over the direction of the country will be postponed—until 2008—and the presidential campaign.


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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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