Blue-Collar Seats May Vex DCCC

Posted June 9, 2008 at 6:45pm

Correction Appended

Just as Democrats fret that Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) will have to scramble to win over white working-class voters in November, some party strategists are also worried that he could prove a drag on the ticket in some low-income Congressional districts in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky.

Democrats do see Obama’s proven ability to attract new voters and his appeal to minorities and independents as proof that he’ll be good overall for the party.

But tell that to Democratic voters in Pennsylvania’s 10th district, who voted 68 percent for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and 32 percent for Obama in the April 22 primary.

The first Democrat to win the heavily Republican district in 30 years, Rep. Christopher Carney (D), prevailed in 2006 after a personal scandal brought down longtime Rep. Don Sherwood (R). Asked whether Carney would welcome Obama to campaign with him in his district, Carney’s campaign deflected the question.

“Rep. Carney has made focusing on the needs of his district the top priority of his campaign, and we will work with anyone up or down the ticket who is focused on meeting the needs of the families, veterans and seniors in northeast and central Pennsylvania,” campaign spokeswoman Rebecca Gale said.

But according to Carney’s opponent, businessman Chris Hackett (R), Obama might have to come to the district to win the state. The 10th district takes in the region around Scranton, the only urban area in northeastern Pennsylvania, though it does not include the city itself.

“If you’re going to win Pennsylvania as a Democrat, you have to do well in Lackawanna and Luzerne,” said Hackett spokesman Mark Harris. “So I think [Obama] has to come up to the district.”

In Ohio, another state that Clinton won handily, Obama might create trouble for Democrats in the 16th district open seat. In that battleground race, state Sen. John Boccieri (D) and state Sen. Kirk Schuring (R) are seeking to follow in the footsteps of retiring Rep. Ralph Regula (R).

Clinton defeated Obama, 59 percent to 39 percent, in the 16th district. That’s a welcome factoid for Schuring’s campaign.

“It’s a plus because if you look at the Democrats of this district and of the state, you’ll notice that it’s a working-class state and a very diverse state,” said Schuring campaign manager P.J. Wenzel.

But Boccieri refused to concede that Obama’s candidacy will be a problem for his race. In particular he pointed out that Obama agrees with most of the working-class district’s voters on trade issues and said that could make a difference, especially in the more Democratic-leaning eastern Stark County where makes up 65 percent of the district.

“There’s no question that he could win the district, but especially with a strong voting presence from Stark County,” Boccieri said.

In contrast to Carney’s campaign, Boccieri said he would “absolutely” campaign with Obama.

That’s the kind of difference in response that Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) might expect to see with candidates across the country this cycle.

“There are going to be both Republican candidates and Democratic candidates that clearly emphasize their independence from the national parties … the priorities and values of their constituencies in their districts come first,” Van Hollen said. “That having been said, I think Barack Obama will do well everywhere. Not every Democrat is going to agree with his position on every issue, and they’re going to say so.”

Democrats point to exit polls showing that independent voters went for Obama, even when there was a competitive primary on the Republican side, in such diverse states as New Hampshire and South Carolina.

“If you look at every one of our [potentially vulnerable] Members … they won in the midterms by winning a majority of the independent vote,” Van Hollen said.

According to exit poll data, Obama won over independent voters in more than a majority of the Democratic primaries across the country. In Ohio, Obama won over independent voters, 50 percent to Clinton’s 48 percent. And in Pennsylvania, Obama won 54 percent of Independent voters compared with Clinton’s 46 percent.

However, Obama did not do so well in Kentucky, where Clinton won over independents who voted in the Democratic primary, 47 percent to 40 percent. And the Illinois Senator did even worse in West Virginia, where he got 32 percent of independent voters compared with Clinton’s 54 percent, according to exit polls.

“Barack Obama’s inability to connect with key constituencies within the Democratic coalition could leave an opening for Republican candidates running downballot, said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain.

Clinton didn’t lose a single county in West Virginia during the May 14 primary, beating Obama by 41 points. She won on the backs of working-class voters, seven out of 10 of whom did not have college degrees.

West Virginia’s 2nd district (where Clinton’s margin of victory was 32 points) is less than 4 percent black, which takes away one traditional Obama voting block. And even though the district is the state’s wealthiest, relatively speaking (as far as median income numbers are measured), the district has precious few upper income whites who have been drawn to the Obama campaign. A full 30 percent of 2nd district voters are blue-collar and 15 percent live in poverty. More than half live in rural areas and about 15 percent are veterans.

As such, Clinton might have been a much stronger candidate for Democrats looking to knock off the lone GOP member of the West Virginia Congressional delegation, four-term Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R), this fall.

But fortunately for party leaders, Democrats in the Mountain State answer to a higher power when it comes to electoral politics: beloved longtime Sen. Robert Byrd (D).

As the embodiment of Democratic politics in West Virginia, Byrd’s influence alone could be enough to propel a Democrat to victory in a district that President Bush won by 15 points in 2004.

And Democrats put Byrd at the forefront of the 2nd district campaign this cycle by nominating his former state director, Anne Barth (D) worked for Byrd for two decades and despite his physical decline, Byrd has appeared at fundraisers on Barth’s behalf to ensure voters that she has his full support. So when voters there head to the polls this fall, Democratic leaders will hope that the names Byrd and Bush are on voters’ minds rather than Obama and McCain. But Barth, who remained neutral in the Democratic primary, said Monday that she’s certainly not running away from Obama.

“I think the vote here reflected more of West Virginia knowing Hillary,” Barth said. “And they’ll work to get to know Sen. Obama. I hope he comes back into the state and visits and gives people a chance to see him up close and get to know him and I’m convinced he’ll do very well here.”

Barth said Obama has a health care message that is resonating with many voters who live in the state and are struggling to pay their medical bills. And the fact that he comes from a coal producing state would be a big plus for his campaign, she said.

Traveling farther west along the Ohio River, the 2nd district of Kentucky is another that Clinton won handily and that doesn’t appear to be fertile ground for traditional Obama voting blocs.

The 91 percent white district is fully 35 percent blue-collar, has a median income of $35,000 a year, and Bush won there by a 31-point margin in 2004. Clinton’s 43-point margin of victory over Obama in the Democratic primary last month was even greater.

This fall, in the open-seat race to replace retiring Rep. Ron Lewis (R), Democrats have nominated state Sen. David Boswell to take on state Sen. Brett Guthrie (R).

Scott Jennings, a consultant for Guthrie, said Monday that though he doesn’t think the GOP will have to nationalize the 2nd district race, he’s certainly fine forcing Boswell to defend Obama’s record at the same time that Boswell will be defending his own.

“I think this mass vote against Obama had quite a bit to do with where he is on various policy matters,” Jenning said. “A lot of Democrats in Kentucky are conservative specifically when it comes to economic matters. … I think they looked at Barack Obama as someone who will flat raise their taxes.”

With the Guthrie campaign already going after Boswell for statements he made concerning his refusal to sign a no-tax pledge, Jennings said that Obama at the top of the ticket will only emphasize aspects of Boswell’s record that conservative 2nd district voters are already concerned about.

Boswell campaign adviser Mike Benassi said that economic issues will be a part of the 2nd district campaign and Republicans better be prepared. “Barack Obama didn’t bring us $4 a gallon gasoline or $4 a gallon milk,” Benassi said. “These are ornaments that have been put on the Republican Christmas tree and they are going to have to light them up themselves.”

Correction: June 10, 2008

The article incorrectly reported the number of years that West Virginia House candidate Anne Barth (D) worked for Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.). It was 20.