Republican candidates try to co-opt message of change

On Saturday, Minnesota Senate candidate Rep. Mark Kennedy announced his “Plan to Bring the Right Kind of Change to Washington,” a 14-page manifesto of the differences he hopes to effect in the Senate.

On Saturday, Minnesota Senate candidate Rep. Mark Kennedy announced his “Plan to Bring the Right Kind of Change to Washington,” a 14-page manifesto of the differences he hopes to effect in the Senate.  

Last week, Iowa House candidate Jeff Lamberti called for “real change in Congress” and blamed Republicans for what’s wrong with Washington.

And in his campaign ads, Nebraska Senate candidate Pete Ricketts decries Washington politicians’ “erosion of our values,” pleading, “If you’re tired of what’s going on in Washington, I hope you’ll listen.”

Such remarks have become typical Democratic boilerplate with President Bush’s and the Republican-controlled Congress’s approval ratings mired in the 30s and 20s, respectively. But Kennedy, Lamberti, and Ricketts are Republicans, and their party controls both houses of Congress and the executive branch.

Still, they are part of a group of GOP candidates around the country attempting to co-opt the message of change that Democrats have made a centerpiece of their election efforts and slogans. That group includes an incumbent senator – Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) – and a congressman – Kennedy – but is mostly composed of open-seat candidates or challengers who can truly harness their outsider status.

While Democrats have called for an end to the “culture of corruption” and have used a handful of change-related slogans, including “A New Direction for America” and “Together, America Can Do Better,” Republicans are calling for a different kind of change that has more to do with running against Washington than against their party or the leadership.

Some, like Lamberti and Colorado House candidate Rick O’Donnell, acknowledge their party’s role in what they say is wrong with Washington. But others are less apt to directly criticize their fellow party members and instead speak more generally about changing the culture of politics in the nation’s capital.

Their message of change could be a tough sell considering that their party is in charge and largely responsible for the status quo. Kennedy, who as a three-term congressman would seem to have an even tougher time embodying change, mostly talks about change in terms of getting rid of partisanship and obstruction in the Senate. But he shies away from directly criticizing his own party for the polarized environment.

“The kind of change we need is people that are more focused on solutions than focused on obstruction, more focused on achieving positive than just complaining,” said Kennedy, referring directly to retiring Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.) and his Democratic opponent Amy Klobuchar.

When asked if he holds Republicans responsible for anything that’s wrong with Washington, Kennedy said, “I challenge Republicans just as much when they’re wrong as I challenge Democrats” and named several issues on which he disagrees with his party.

Lamberti and O’Donnell criticize fellow Republicans more directly.

At a debate with Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa) last week, Lamberti sparred with his opponent over spending and said he holds even those in his own party responsible for what he calls a “broken” budget process.

In an interview with The Hill, Lamberti said the problem started before Republicans were in power, but that it has only grown worse since.

“That’s really a cop-out to say it’s somebody else’s fault,” Lamberti said. “It’s all of their faults, in large part, for allowing this process to simply become so out of hand and so broken. What they need are people who are going to advocate for change. Yes, that may mean that I do hold some blame toward Republicans who helped cause the problem.”

O’Donnell closely echoes Lamberti, saying, “Washington is broken, and Republicans share in that brokenness.” But he, like Kennedy, focuses on the partisanship, and he says Democrats are only offering Democratic partisanship as opposed to Republican partisanship.

“It is all about scoring petty partisan political points and not about solving the problems, but the Democrats share it too,” said O’Donnell, who faces the winner of last week’s Democratic primary, Ed Perlmutter, in one of the closest House races in the country. The winner will replace Rep. Bob Beauprez (R-Colo.), who is running for governor.

Ricketts, who is trying to unseat Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), is one of several Republican Senate candidates with “change” or “changing” in their campaign slogans. He is running on “Conservative Change, Nebraska Values,” and he drives that message home in numerous ads.

In one, he states that “Washington politicians have abandoned our conservative values of low taxes and limited government” and warns that a “Democrat Senate, controlled by [Sens.] Hillary Clinton [D-N.Y.] and Ted Kennedy [D-Mass.]” would promise higher taxes and even more excessive spending.

Asked whom he holds responsible for abandoning those values in the first place, the former Ameritrade COO demurred.

“At Ameritrade, we learned we never solved problems when we point fingers,” Ricketts said. “It doesn’t matter how we got here. What we need to do is acknowledge that we need to change the way things are done and start moving forward with what we need to do to fix the process.”

Talent, who is facing a tough challenge from Democrat Claire McCaskill, also uses the concept of change in his slogan – “Changing Washington for Missouri.” He uses a variation of that phrase on each of the pages describing his stances on the issues.

After winning his party’s nomination earlier this month, Tennessee Senate candidate Bob Corker called for change in his victory speech, saying Washington needs “fresh ideas, new strategies” and “a new willingness to find solutions rather than politicize the problems,” according to The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn. Corker is running against Rep. Harold Ford (D) for the seat of retiring Majority Leader Bill Frist (R).

Mike Bouchard, who also won a Republican Senate primary last week and will face Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), uses the slogan “The Change We Need,” and also called for change in his victory speech. After the primary, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairwoman Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) declared that Michigan voters “are looking for a change in direction.”