Republicans on the Web coy about party affiliation

“Richard Pombo. Rancher. Congressman,” reads the campaign website of the powerful House Resources Committee chairman.

But one label is missing: Republican.

Like almost half of his fellow party members in tough House races, Pombo assumes a noticeably nonpartisan presence online.

A recent survey by The Hill found that in 75 of the most competitive House races, 35 of the Republican candidates made no mention of their party affiliation on the front page or in the biographical background of their campaign websites. Only 19 of the 75 Republican candidates declared themselves as such on the front of their sites.

Meanwhile, half of their Democratic opponents presented party affiliation on their front page and more than two-thirds of them listed their party label either on their home page or in their biographies.

The candidates without party affiliation on their sites include senior Republicans such as House Conference Chair Deborah Pryce (Ohio), senior Ways and Means member Clay Shaw Jr. (Fla.), and veteran Appropriator James Walsh (N.Y.), who won his ninth term with 91 percent of the vote in 2004.

Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, plays down his affiliation on the front of his website, only presenting himself as Republican on a background page. Reynolds is in a challenging race to retain his seat this fall.

Some say the survey findings are not surprising, noting polls that have indicated widespread dissatisfaction with the Republican-led Congress.

“Both parties recognize that national trends favor the Democrats,” said Jonathan Ladd, professor of government and public policy at Georgetown University. “So this certainly fits the Republican party strategy to avoid dominating local races with national issues.”

Republican National Committee spokesman Josh Holmes dismissed any such significance: “The fact is many Republicans are better served by using their website to provide information about issues like taxes and security than they are at reiterating what’s already provided on the ballot.”

Democrats may be the anomaly, according to Darrell West, a Brown University professor of political science.

“The Republican trend, with few candidates emphasizing party, is actually typical,” West said. “What’s unusual this year is that Democrats are seeing an advantage in their party label and seizing upon it.”

Where campaign websites do mention party membership, the survey found Republican candidates far more likely to qualify their affiliations as “independent” or “moderate.” According to the first sentences of their biographies, for instance, Connecticut Republican Reps. Nancy Johnson and Rob Simmons are both “widely recognized as one of the most independent Republicans in the entire U.S. House.”

Emphasizing her centrist status, Johnson features a photograph of herself with former President Clinton on her congressional website.

A number of Democratic candidates are similarly shy about party on their websites, particularly in conservative districts with competitive races this year. Several such predominantly Southern Democrats leave their Democratic status off their sites entirely, like Heath Shuler of North Carolina, Nick Lampson of Texas and Ken Lucas of Kentucky, who, referring to his previous House experience, calls himself “consistently one of the most conservative members of Congress.”

But other Democrats in conservative-leaning districts announce their affiliation online, like Reps. John Spratt (S.C.) and Jim Matheson (Utah), whose districts Bush carried in 2004 with 57 percent and 66 percent, respectively.

Some Republican candidates have even appropriated the national appetite for change in their own messages. In running for the open Maryland Senate seat, for instance, Michael Steele not only leaves his Republican affiliation off his website and out of commercials, but his TV spots ask, “Ready for change?” and tout the candidate’s intent to “shake things up.”

NRCC spokesman Carl Forti said that reticence about party labels has no part in the GOP strategy, noting the many campaign appearances administration officials have made with Republican House candidates.

“We’re not hiding from anybody,” Forti said.

When it came to senators in the survey, results showed fewer differences between parties. And, while senators were less likely to leave their party off their websites, they were far more likely to exclude it from their front pages.

In the 15 most competitive Senate races, 10 Democrats and 12 Republicans included party affiliation somewhere on their campaign sites, but only five Democrats and three Republicans declared their affiliation on the websites’ front pages.

Political science professor Larry Butler of Rowan University attributed the downplayed partisanship to the history of moderation and independence in the Senate.

Senior senators Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), for instance, do not mention their respective parties on their websites. And first-time Senate candidates like Bob Casey Jr. (D), Rep. Mark Kennedy (R-Minn.), and Mike Bouchard (R) also follow the nonpartisan trend.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), the favorite to retain his seat in a very red state, omits party affiliation on his site. His challenger, Pete Ricketts, prominently displays his Republican status.

“You can tell it’s the end of October, not because kids are wearing masks, but because Republicans are trying to disguise themselves just in time for the election,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee  Chairman Rahm Emanuel.