Some Senate Candidates Stay Home

Posted July 26, 2004 at 5:11pm

Two-thirds of Senate Democrats’ “Dream Team” will address the assembled delegates at the party’s national convention this week.

But the vast majority of the party’s top-tier Senate recruits chose to stay home campaigning for votes and, as importantly, avoid ready-made links to the national party.

Black Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama and Colorado State Attorney General Ken Salazar, who is Hispanic, (D) will both speak at the convention — Obama as the keynote speaker tonight. But Oklahoma Rep. Brad Carson (D), a member of the Cherokee Indian nation, chose to stay home and appear at another sort of convention — the Oklahoma Cattleman’s Trade Show and Convention.

“We are going into a summertime swing when he has to be on the ground meeting people,” said Carson communications director Brad Luna. “The race is about meeting voters.”

Luna added that with the Oklahoma primary set for today, Carson wanted to be in state to benefit from the increased media attention following his anticipated easy victory over two lesser-known candidates. Republicans are playing host to a three-way primary of their own with former Rep. Tom Coburn and former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys leading the pack.

The story is much the same for Democratic House candidates, with only a handful given time to address the convention this afternoon.

Children’s safety advocate Patty Wetterling (Minn.), Wilton Manors Mayor Jim Stork (Fla.), state Sen. Allyson Schwartz (Pa.) and attorney Lois Murphy (Pa.) will all make brief speeches at the convention today, according to Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee officials.

The absence of a number of top-tier Senate and House candidates reflects both the ever-increasing irrelevance of the convention and the fine line that many Democrats must walk if they hope to be elected in conservative areas that are trending away from their party.

Matt McKenna, a spokesman for former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles (D), put it succinctly.

“There’s more votes in Bethel [Alaska] than Boston,” he said, referring to a small-town in far western Alaska.

Knowles is taking on Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), the most vulnerable Republican Senator running for re-election this fall.

While Knowles has no set agenda for the week, other candidates are using the time to tour their states, highlighting the separation between themselves and the national party.

Perhaps the best example is in North Carolina, where former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles (D) is in the midst of a “North Carolina First” tour that spans 10 days and will take him to 40 cities. He faces Rep. Richard Burr (R) in the fall.

“He has been campaigning very hard and now that the primary is over we don’t have a day to waste,” said Bowles communications director Susan Lagana. “It’s very simple.”

Bowles’ no-show at the convention is notable because he might have benefited from the attention lavished on the man he is trying to replace, Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), the vice presidential candidate.

It also speaks to a concerted behind-the-scenes effort to ensure that he steers clear of the label of “national Democrat,” a tag that hurt his campaign against now-Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) in 2002. He lost that race 54 percent to 45 percent.

In neighboring South Carolina, state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum (D) made a brief appearance in Boston Sunday night and Monday morning to meet with the Palmetto State delegation, but quickly jetted home before the proceedings had actually begun.

“We wanted to thank the South Carolina delegates and get them energized for the Senate race in November,” said Tenenbaum spokesman Adam Kovacevich. But he added that Tenenbaum “has a lot of undecided voters to talk to in South Carolina and we are trying to take advantage of every minute between now and November to do that.”

Rep. Jim DeMint, Tenenbaum’s Republican opponent for the seat being vacated by Sen. Fritz Hollings (D), has already begun to paint the Democrat as a liberal with too-close ties to the national party.

Glen Bolger, the pollster for both DeMint and Burr, said whether or not their Democratic opponents attend the convention makes little difference since the ticket will be led by Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry this fall.

“We are still going to tie them to John Kerry and the liberal Massachusetts politics going on up there,” said Bolger. “They can run but they can’t hide.”

For some Democratic Senate candidates, the chance to speak to a national audience and meet a wide variety of potential donors is too alluring a chance to pass up, regardless of the potential aftereffects.

In addition to Obama and Salazar, Rep. Joe Hoeffel (Pa.) and state Treasurer Nancy Farmer (Mo.) will address the convention this week.

Both are considered second-tier challengers against entrenched Republican incumbents. Hoeffel is taking on four-term Sen. Arlen Specter (R) in the fall while Farmer is seeking to oust three-term Sen. Kit Bond (R).

And unlike for Tenenbaum, Bowles, Carson and Knowles, the Democratic ticket is not expected to be a drag in Missouri and Pennsylvania, two of the roughly 17 states being targeted by both presidential candidates.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee will host a meet-and-greet gathering this morning at the Boston Harbor Hotel for any of the candidates in Boston for the day or the week. The breakfast reception includes a number of DSCC donors including members of the Leadership Circle, the Majority Trust and the Board of Trustees.

The committee has also booked between a half hour and an hour and a half of satellite time for any of its candidates interested in beaming themselves back to their home state.

“We have a great class of candidates,” said DSCC Chairman Jon Corzine (N.J.). “They are going to serve us well as we go through the fall.”