Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Surviving a Hart Attack

Posted By on Wed, May 14, 2008 at 7:48 AM

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. 



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