Foes Warn of Dean Debacle
With the insurgent presidential campaign of Howard Dean showing no signs of slowing, Democratic strategists have begun to express concern about what they say is the potentially negative effect the former Vermont governor could have on Senate and House races if he becomes the party’s nominee.
This line of criticism underscores an approach to the campaign Dean has employed to great effect thus far, pitching himself as a straight-
talking outsider who will challenge the political orthodoxy of the inside-the-Beltway Democratic establishment.
At the center of many D.C.-based Democrats’ worries is Dean’s outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq and his call for a complete rollback of President Bush’s tax cuts, positions that some strategists argue makes him unattractive — even potentially alienating — to swing voters needed to win competitive House and Senate seats.
“If Dean is the nominee it will make 1972 look competitive,” said one Democratic strategist not aligned with any of the presidential campaigns, referring to the resounding defeat of Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D) by President Richard Nixon. “Members and candidates in marginal seats will be running for the hills.”
Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), a former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, refused to even accept the possibility that Dean could be the nominee.
“The party wants to win,” explained Frost. “We need to be strong on national defense.”
Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi calls the concerns “absolutely what’s wrong with the way people are thinking today.”
“This is the time when the party needs to make its differences with Republicans clear,” Trippi said. “The conventional wisdom is the exact opposite.”
Trippi added that Dean is bringing large numbers of people into the political process who have never participated before, which in the end will be a net positive for the party up and down the 2004 ballot.
Dean’s critics in Washington, Trippi said, suffer from a “circular firing squad” mentality.
“Always expect this when you are the guy who is coming out of nowhere and everybody has already signed up” with other candidates, Trippi said.
The debate over the Dean effect in many ways signals how far the former Vermont governor has come since announcing his candidacy in late 2002.
At that time, Dean was viewed by the political establishment as little more than a gimmick with scant financial resources and even less name ID among Democratic primary voters.
But, Dean’s aggressive style and willingness to attack President Bush—as well as his primary opponents—has struck a chord among many in the party’s activist wing.
He has also made news in recent days with a strong victory in the Wisconsin straw poll (an event not sanctioned by the national party), and his surprising decision to launch television ads in Iowa more than seven months before that state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses.
Dean is competing against a slew of current and former federally elected officials including Sens. John Kerry (Mass.), John Edwards (N.C.), Bob Graham (Fla.) and Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and Reps. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) and Dennis Kucinich (Ohio).
Former Ambassador and Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (Ill.) and the Rev. Al Sharpton are the only other well-known candidates not currently serving in Congress.
The growing momentum of the Dean campaign, coupled with the geography of the anticipated House and Senate playing field in 2004, have set off alarm bells among many strategists and consultants who closely monitor these races.
In the Senate, Democrats need to pick up only three seats in order to retake control of the chamber, but many of their potential vulnerabilities come in the South and other traditionally conservative states where Dean’s generally liberal approach — especially on Iraq — to the campaign thus far may not sell.
Sens. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and Edwards all supported the war resolution that passed the Senate in early October and are all being targeted by Republicans. Both Hollings and Edwards are considered potential retirements.
Outside of the South, both Sens. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) voted in favor of the Iraq resolution and could face serious challenges in 2004. Former Rep. John Thune (R) is considering a challenge to Daschle, and Republicans leaders are trying to convince former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer (R) to take on Dorgan.
Strategists worry that Senate Democrats will have to back away from Dean if he becomes the nominee.
“Candidates all over the country would be forced to confront his position on issues and disassociate themselves from him on key issues,” said one prominent Democratic consultant.
Others painted a significantly less dire picture.
“In most Senate races, candidates don’t spend a lot of time campaigning with the presidential candidate unless they’re in states that are heavily Democratic,” said another Democratic consultant. “Democratic candidates in Republican-leaning states don’t tie themselves to the Democratic message no matter who the nominee is.”
One notable exception to this rule, though, came in 2002 when President Bush barnstormed the country in the election’s final days and was credited with helping to deliver the Senate majority to his party.
On the House side, there is little debate among party insiders that the presence of Dean atop the ticket would mean a struggle to stay within striking distance of Republicans in 2004.
“Howard Dean makes it more difficult to pick up House seats,” said a House Democratic leadership aide. “He is running as a northeastern, New England liberal, and that doesn’t sell so well in rural districts.”
Again, the problem is concentrated in the South, where House Democrats must make inroads among increasingly conservative voters if they hope to eventually reclaim control.
Members likely to be targeted in 2004 and vulnerable to a trickle-down effect if Dean becomes the nominee are Reps. Jim Marshall (Ga.), Ken Lucas (Ky.), Rodney Alexander (La.) and Chet Edwards (Texas), to name just a few.
In addition, Democratic targets, such as Reps. Mike Rogers (Ala.), Phil Gingrey (Ga.), Max Burns (Ga.) and Ginny Brown-Waite (Fla.) could see their prospects boosted by Dean at the top of the ticket.
But, some note that Dean is both pro-gun and pro-death penalty, two stances that are likely to play well in the South and other rural areas.
“Dean has a whole other side to him on guns and the death penalty,” said one consultant, who argued that typecasting Dean as a liberal Democrat because of his position on the war and taxes is a mistake.
Another consultant argued that “should [Dean] become the nominee he might have done it in such a way that he transcends political labels.”
A look back at past lopsided presidential elections show that House races tend to track much more closely with the results of the top of the ticket than do Senate contests.
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson (D) took 61 percent of the popular vote to just 39 percent for Barry Goldwater (R).
Despite that landslide, Senate Democrats picked up just two House seats; House Democrats, however, gained 37 seats.
In 1972, Nixon won a similar 61 percent to 38 percent victory over McGovern, but in spite of that landslide Democrats lost only two Senate seats and a relatively respectable seven House seats.
Then-President Ronald Reagan’s 59 percent to 41 percent defeat of Walter Mondale in 1984 actually produced a gain of two Senate seats by Democrats, although they lost 14 House seats.