The big election news today, I guess, is the fact that our cousins in West Virginia gave Hillary Clinton the huge victory she expected in that state's primary. But beneath the headlines -- or, more specifically, on page A-6 of my morning paper -- was a story that bodes well for Barack Obama. And for a politician closer to home: US Congressman Jason Altmire.
Yesterday, it happens, was also the date for a special election in a a Mississippi Congressional seat. In a startling upset, Democrat Travis Childers managed to beat Republican Greg Davis in a district that, as recently as 2004, voted for President Bush by margins of nearly two-to-one. This despite (or perhaps because of) Davis' very public support by VP Dick Cheney and other prominent Republicans.
What makes this significant for Obama -- and for Altmire -- is the fact that in the latter days of the race, the GOP tried to link Childers and Obama in a series of negative ads. It's the second time the GOP has tried the tactic in as many months: They made a similar effort in Louisiana back in April, and lost there as well.
And they've been trying to do the same thing in Pennsylvania's 4th district.
Altmire, a socially conservative Democrat in the mode of Senator Bob Casey, is facing a re-election challenge this year from Melissa Hart, the Republican he beat in 2006. And Hart, like Davis, has tried to damage Altmire by linking him to Obama.
So far, the effort has been strained, at best. Hart has tried to publicize the fact that Altmire did not publicly denounce Obama for saying that some blue-collar voters "cling" to religion and gun rights because they are "bitter" about economic prospects. It's a weak argument at best -- I note that Hart hasn't denounced officials in Burma, which by her logic means she favors leaving thousands of cyclone victims to starve. But her campaign keeps trying. Her campaign site gleefully quotes a GOP factotum asserting that "Altmire refused to condemn Barack Obama's elitist remarks after he insulted Pennsylvania voters."
Is this guilt-by-association tactic a bit of race-baiting, in a district in which post-industrial, Reagan Democrat (at best) towns dot an otherwise rural and conservative landscape? Perhaps. For Hart, though, the problem with the approach may not be that it's racist, but that it's ineffective -- which to the GOP is a far bigger sin. I mean, it's hard to imagine a racial appeal failing in Mississippi, but succeeding here.
Or at least you'd like to think so. Childers does have one advantage Altmire doesn't: In the Mississippi race, he was able to draw support from a sizable black community. By contrast, Altmire's district has a negligible number of African-American voters; it's roughly 3 percent African-American. In Mississippi, race-baiting has a consequence: It can help rally the blacks you are trying to demonize. That may not be the case here.
It's worth noting too, that Altmire has remained famously uncommitted in the presidential race, although there has been a bit of winking and nudging going on. When Obama came to Pittsburgh to receieve Casey's endorsement in late March, he made a point of noting Altmire's presence in the audience. Party insiders I spoke to suggest this is a means of telegraphing support that Altmire wasn't ready to broadcast openly. But that may change. The Presidential primary race is winding down, and it seems all but certain Obama will be the nominee. Casey's endorsement, coming as it does from a pro-life Democrat who is especially popular in rural areas, will also give Altmire some protection from attacks.
And make no mistake: Alarm bells are going off throughout the GOP today. When you take its losses in Mississippi and Louisiana, and combine them with the collapse of yet another anti-gay marraiage amendment in Harrisburg ... well, you start to get the feeling that 2008 may not be a great year for wedge issues.
If so, that would be bad news for Melissa Hart.
The Republican's bigoted gameplan in Harrisburg, I'm happy to say, is falling apart so quickly that it's hard to keep up with it.
In the issue of City Paper that hits the stands today, I take issue with the dishonesty of Senate Republicans who were backing a proposed Constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
That column will go online tomorrow, but while Republican dishonesty endureth forever, the piece is already out of date in one respect. Even as our print issue was winging its way to the presses, the amendment's original sponsor, Lancaster Republican Michael Brubaker, asked to have the measure tabled indefinitely. This despite the fact that on Monday, a Senate committee voted overwhelmingly to put the matter up for a floor vote
But as the Post-Gazette noted, while the measure was all but certain to clear the Senate, it would "be sent to the House State Government Committee, where it likely wouldn't be acted on anytime soon." The House is narrowly controlled by Democrats, and the chair of the Government Committee, Philadelphia's Babette Josephs, was a staunch opponent of the bill. The bill would almost certainly have died there.
If you're a Republican, though, the question is: So why not let it?
Most of us lefties suspect the GOP of using these homophobic measures as "wedge issues," designed to stir up a conservative base that has little else to be enthusiastic about these days. If that really was the goal, however, then it hardly matters whether the measure has a chance of passing or not. What matters is putting Democrats in the position of having to kill it.
Had Brubaker not tabled his bill, his colleagues in the Senate would have been able to vote against gay marriage and boast about doing so to their constituents. Democrats would kill the measure, but hey -- that's a campaign issue too. Even if Josephs had sat on the bill, so what? At worst, that just gives them a chance to play the "wedge issue" game down the road again, and plead with voters to get those liberals out of office.
To me, this is the latest piece of evidence in a trend I noted the last time a doomed same-sex amendment came up in Harrisburg: "'nontraditional"'relationships are becoming more acceped [and] Republicans, too, are splintering over these hateful wedge issues."
As same-sex relationships become more common, and less threatening, the wedge issues begin to lose their effectiveness. The problem is especially pressing in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where Republicans have long held sway, but voters are socially tolerant. The wedge is increasingly double-edged: If it helps some Republicans in bedrock conservative areas, it hurts them in "swing" counties. Is it any wonder that the GOP's support for this measure has become increasingly half-hearted?
As I said in this space just a few weeks ago:
I don't want to counsel complacence in the face of Republican homophobia, which seems to crop up periodically like an especially dangerous flu virus. But let's take heart that each time the virus appears, our resistance to it seems to increase. Each time the measure comes up, GOP support seems more desultory, as if it's a habit they can't quit but no longer take pleasure from.
That seems to be exactly what has happened. When the GOP brought this thing up a couple years ago, it managed to clear the Senate before getting bottled up by the House. This time, things didn't even get that far. Maybe next year the GOP will save us all a lot of trouble and just smother it in committee themselves, or lose it underneath some smoking-ban legislation or something.
All I'd ask is that NEXT time their hateful agenda collapses, it does with an eye toward my paper's production schedule.