When a Candidate’s Health Is an Issue

Posted October 4, 2004 at 6:22pm

Far behind in a once-promising Senate race, Kentucky Democrats are attempting to make the health of Sen. Jim Bunning (R) an issue in the campaign’s final month, a tactic that has largely failed in past Congressional contests.

In the past two weeks, a former Democratic governor of the Bluegrass State and the state Democratic Party chairman have called on Bunning to release his full medical records to address persistent rumors that he is not well enough to serve a full six-year term if elected in November.

Democrats cite Bunning’s decision to increase his security detail this summer and his refusal to frequently debate Kentucky state Sen. Daniel Mongiardo (D) as indicators that he is hiding an illness from the state’s voters.

Mongiardo has not directly addressed the issue, although his campaign manager said voters frequently bring it up at events.

“We are not talking about it,” said Kim Geveden. “People ask him about it at every campaign stop. He tells them that it is not something he is interested in talking about.”

Bunning’s campaign chose not to comment about his health as an issue, referring to a recent interview the 72-year-old Senator gave to the Louisville Courier-Journal.

In that story Bunning said that his health was “excellent” and that he would release his medical records at an Oct. 11 debate with Mongiardo.

Even though Bunning, who turns 73 in three weeks, has had medical problems in the past, strategists of both partisan stripes said any attempt to make his health an issue in this campaign is likely to backfire.

“To insinuate there is something wrong with someone mentally is like juggling razor blades,” said GOP consultant Chris LaCivita, the former political director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “When you juggle razor blades, you are going to get cut.”

Anita Dunn, a Democratic media consultant, echoed that sentiment.

“Directly attacking someone’s health, absent some tangible reason for concern from voters, is extremely risky and generally backfires,” she said.

Dunn would know, having been involved in the 2000 campaign between Sen. Bill Roth (R) and then-Gov. Tom Carper (D), a race that became a mandate on the former’s ability to serve effectively.

At 79, Roth asserted that he was still a capable and powerful legislator as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Carper, who was 26 years younger, never directly addressed Roth’s age but his campaign slogan — “A Senator for Our Future” — made the point just as effectively.

“A huge thematic underpinning of the Carper advertising was old versus new, future versus past,” said Dunn.

Roth doomed his own chances when he fainted twice on the campaign trail, the second time in front of television cameras.

Despite being outspent 2-1, Carper won a 56 percent to 44 percent victory, a margin largely credited to voters’ uncertainty about Roth’s health.

Roth died, at age 82, in December 2003.

The Delaware race appears to be the exception to the rule, however, when it comes to the effectiveness of age as an issue in toppling an incumbent Senator or House Member.

Jim Jordan, former executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said that one look at the current makeup of the Senate shows that “voters don’t have an inherent bias against older candidates.”

“It looks like a condo complex in South Florida,” Jordan added.

More than one-fifth of all current Senators are older than 70, with six — Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) and Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) — 80 or older.

Of that 70-plus group, only three are retiring at the end of the 108th Congress.

In the 2006 cycle, six Democratic Senators up for re-election will be at least 70, as will Independent Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords, who caucuses with Democrats.

If the late South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond’s (R) final re-election race is any guide, Democratic strategists should breathe easy, however.

Thurmond, who was 93 when he stood for an eighth term in 1996, faced a primary challenge from a state legislator who charged he was “simply too old” to serve in the Senate.

After taking 61 percent in the primary, Thurmond moved into the general election against textile magnate Elliot Close, a man 50 years his junior.

Close ran ads questioning whether Thurmond was up to the job and touting himself as a voice for the future.

In one commercial, a group of senior citizens gathered on the porch of a nursing home praising Thurmond’s service for the state but arguing it was “time to come home,” according to Whit Ayres, who handled Thurmond’s polling in that race.

Ayres said the Senator was somewhat insulated from this implicit criticism by the fact that he was viewed with near-reverence by the state’s voters due to the length of his service.

“A majority of South Carolinians were clearly ready to return him to office if they thought he was able to do the job,” Ayres said.

As a result, the campaign spent most of its time “reminding voters of all those things they liked about Strom and convincing voters that he would be able to do all the things they liked about him,” according to Ayres.

Thurmond won 53 percent to 44 percent, outspending close by $700,000.

He went on to serve out his term before retiring in 2002. He died in 2003.

The House has its fair share of recent examples of why making an incumbent’s age an issue rarely pays dividends.

In 2000, New Mexico Rep. Joe Skeen (R) sought re-election despite outward signs that the Parkinson’s disease that he had acknowledged three years before was worsening.

Skeen refused to debate his opponent, state Treasurer Michael Montoya (D), which led the Democrat to charge the Congressman was trying to hide his level of impairment from the voters.

“Any failure [of] the Congressman to reveal his true health conditions is tantamount to dereliction of duty to the voters who put him into office,” Montoya said at the time.

Voters seemed unconcerned, giving Skeen 58 percent of the vote.

Two years later Skeen retired from Congress after 11 terms, making no mention of his illness. He died in December 2003.

Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.), who also has Parkinson’s, spent much of his 2000 campaign educating voters about his condition. He even ran an ad that showed him jogging.

Evans said his attempts to inform voters about Parkinson’s came in response to so-called “push polling” by his opponent that insinuated he was not fit for office.

He handily won that race by 10 points and was re-elected in 2002 with 62 percent. He faces only nominal Republican opposition this November.