By Ben Goddard - 09/14/06 12:00 AM EDT
There is some good news for just about any Republican in Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chaffee’s primary victory over challenger Stephen Laffey on Tuesday. The White House can take comfort from the fact that an incumbent won despite a well-funded and spirited challenge. (Rhode Island voters must have had their heads spinning with the president on television saying anyone who opposed the war in Iraq was giving comfort to the enemy while they were flooding the state with endorsers for Chaffee.) Moderates should be pleased that the conservative Club for Growth’s money and Laffey’s right of center message just wasn’t enough to upset one of their own viewed as vulnerable. The Republican Senate leadership should be relieved that the odds of preserving their Rhode Island seat and their Senate majority now looks much better.
But the real message out of Rhode Island may well be that this campaign season is still mostly local. When Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Representative Joe Schwarz (R-Mich.) lost their primaries it suggested the 2006 elections might well become nationalized. Certainly there are ample polling results to suggest that is the case. Over 60 percent still see the country is going in the wrong direction. Both generic and candidate named polls suggest Democrats will win control of the Congress. A recent survey finds 56 percent of voters agreeing “the failed policies of the Bush administration and Republicans have made us less safe. Iraq continues to slip into civil war … Osama bin Laden is still on the loose, the Taliban is gaining ground in Afghanistan and al Qaeda has set up shop in Pakistan.”
Still, House and Senate races remain tight and are often driven by local issues. One such race I’ve been following because of our involvement in a ballot issue there is the Missouri Senate campaign.
First term incumbent Jim Talent (R–Mo.) is locked in a fierce battle with Democrat state auditor Claire McCaskill. The challenger is now leading by a margin of four to six points, depending on which poll you trust.
Talent has, to date, built his message around his low profile but hard working record in the Senate. He cites his work for tax cuts, secure borders, prescription drugs and his battle against methamphetamine use – a local issue that creeps into his litany of work on the national stage.
McCaskill counters that Republicans have mismanaged the war in Iraq, that she’ll support the troops but try to bring them home and attacks Talent for enriching big business and big oil instead of providing body armor for our troops. She promises to take on the drug companies and protect Social Security, to fight for affordable healthcare and better education.
But most of her message is down home. Her Missouri roots. Her record of fighting crime as a prosecutor, of running a tight ship as state auditor, fighting meth abuse in her home state and her commitment to border security.
Strangely, even though Missouri does not have an international border, immigration and illegal aliens is a major issue in the state. Likewise, meth is an important local drug abuse issue with both candidates trying to stake out tough positions on enforcement.
Local issues loom large over this race. A ballot issue legalizing all federally approved stem-cell procedures in Missouri is the most visible and well-financed measure in the state. Polls show it leading with a 2:1 margin and former Sen. John Danforth is a major spokesperson for the issue. Talent opposes the ballot measure, McCaskill favors it. Although most Republican leaders in the state support the measure, Talent finally came out against it to hold the conservative Republican base and the religious right, a large and important segment of that GOP constituency. This is an active group with a widespread and dedicated grass roots membership. They are active in churches, on the Web, at public events and publish a “baby ballot” each election season, which will endorse Talent. McCaskill’s support is helping her with moderates, women and suburban voters. The issue could have a major impact on the November election.
Also on the ballot is a minimum wage issue with McCaskill’s support and Talent’s opposition. Labor is mounting a strong campaign for the issue, which seems likely to pass.
If Democrats are able to “nationalize” this race they stand a good chance of gaining control of Congress. So far, that hasn’t happened. While Democrat control is still possible the party must rely on localized messages to achieve that goal.
Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.