Senate Hopefuls Not Afraid to Stray

Some Wary of Kerry’s Stances

Posted April 21, 2004 at 6:44pm

Former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles this week became the first high-profile Democratic Senate candidate to publicly break with Sen. John Kerry on a key policy issue, but don’t expect him to be the last to do so.

Knowles said Wednesday that Kerry’s opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was “just wrong” and advocated “a change in Washington to put partisan interests aside.”

Matt McKenna, a spokesman for the governor, said Knowles has favored drilling in ANWR since being elected mayor of Anchorage in 1982. Fighting for that long-held belief has “included standing up to people of both parties,” according to McKenna. He added that Knowles has criticized the Bush administration for their opposition to building a natural gas pipeline in the Last Frontier.

Knowles’ willingness to criticize Kerry is as much about Alaska’s strong Republican leanings as it is about a genuine policy disagreement, however.

The race in Alaska is one of 10 contests considered highly competitive on the Senate level this cycle. President Bush carried nine of those states; some like Alaska (31 percent), Oklahoma (22 percent) and South Dakota (22 percent) he won by hefty margins.

“These Democrats are going to have a difficult time with someone like John Kerry on the top of the ticket, whereas Republicans are going to embrace the top of the ticket,” predicted National Republican Senatorial Committee Communications Director Dan Allen.

Tom Eisenhauer, a spokesman for Kerry, said the Massachusetts Senator “believes strongly in the positions he takes but he respects people who disagree.”

“Democrats are united in a historic fashion to change the direction of the country,” he added.

While none of the Democratic candidates aside from Knowles have publicly repudiated a Kerry issue position unpopular in their home state, several campaigns said privately they would not hesitate to do so if it was necessary.

“We certainly don’t rule out drawing distinctions with Kerry in a more dramatic way,” said a Democratic source working on a targeted Senate race. “It’s important for us to establish our own independence from the national ticket even though we support it.”

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Communications Director Brad Woodhouse said his organization has neither urged nor discouraged its candidates to highlight their differences with the party’s all-but-certain presidential nominee.

“We encourage these folks to do whatever they can in terms of issues and fundraising that will get them elected to the U.S. Senate,” Woodhouse said. “We don’t have any problems with them making their own decisions in that regard.”

Already a number of the Democrats running in so-called “red” states have taken positions counter to Kerry, but have not sought to bring a great deal of attention to them.

Oklahoma Rep. Brad Carson (D), Louisiana Rep. Chris John (D) and South Carolina Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum (D) have all come out in support of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, for example, while Kerry has said he opposes any such amendment.

Likewise, Carson and John are ardent advocates of 2nd Amendment gun ownership rights while Kerry’s record is more mixed on gun control.

Kerry casts himself as a supporter of the gun owners’ rights but Republicans have argued that the Massachusetts Senator has consistently voted to restrict those rights during his tenure in Washington.

Tenenbaum and 2002 North Carolina Senate nominee Erskine Bowles favor the death penalty, while Kerry is opposed.

In each case, the campaign in question maintains that their decision to stand on the opposite side of Kerry on an issue is a case of putting state concerns before party loyalty.

“We have made it clear that we are going to be a strong independent force for Louisiana,” said John campaign manager Scott Arceneaux.

“The people of North Carolina are going to be focused on who is the the right person to represent them,” according to Bowles’ communications director, Susan Lagana.

“We are going to run our race and let people vote up or down on the issues we have put forward,” said Brad Luna, Carson’s communications director.

The NRSC and the Republican Senate nominees are unlikely to let their Democratic opponents off so easily, however.

“They say one thing and do another,” charged the NRSC’s Allen.

As evidence, Allen noted that although Tenenbaum opposes partial-birth abortions, she takes money from the pro-abortion rights group EMILY’s List, and that Carson has included links to anti-Bush sites on his Web page.

One candidate not distancing himself from Kerry to this point has been Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who faces a serious challenge from former Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.).

“Tom Daschle and John Kerry are long time friends and have worked together on issues important to South Dakota including [fighting for] veterans,” said Daschle deputy campaign manager Dan Pfeiffer. “Tom Daschle is very comfortable with John Kerry as the party’s nominee.”

At the end of the day, Democrats maintain, voters in these 10 targeted Senate races will not be choosing someone to lead the free world when they choose their next Senator, but rather deciding which candidate will be best able to represent their states’ interests in Washington.

“John Kerry and George Bush will be on the ballot and voters will get to register their thoughts on that campaign on that part of the ballot,” asserted Carson’s Luna.