Thursday, March 23, 2006

Not so fast for the Fightin' Dems

As I indicated here last weekend, in a print column, it's by no means a slam dunk that the so-called "Fighting Dems" -- Iraq war vets running for Congress as Democrats -- will become a great '06 success story. The party's hope is that they'll win some races, help the Democrats take over the House, and, by their presence, help erase the national security softy image that has dogged the party ever since the '70s.
But now we have a few news developments that will make the skeptics nod knowingly.
Two nights ago, in suburban Chicago, Iraq vet Tammy Duckworth did win a Democratic primary, thereby earning the right to face off against a GOP foe in November. But it's the way she won that gives pause.
Despite strong backing from House Democrat Rahm Emmanuel (a fellow Illini who leads the '06 House Democratic campaign effort), and backing from John Kerry, and TV commercials, and huge free publicity because of her dramatic and heroic personal story (she lost both legs in Iraq to a rocket-propelled grenade), and three newspaper endorsements, and a big money advantage over serious Democratic rival Christine Cegelis -- despite all that, Duckworth won by only three percentage points. Her share in the 3-person race: 43.8 percent.
It's noteworthy that Cegelis - not Duckworth - attracted major support from liberal grassroots activists. They didn't believe that Duckworth's hero profile was sufficient qualification for office (especially since she didn't even live in the district). Instead they believed that Cegelis, who had run and lost in that congressional district two years ago, was the more worthy candidate, in part because her experience as a software engineer/businesswoman might translate into finding good jobs for the region.
And there was another complicating factor: the Iraq war vets don't want to be viewed as antiwar candidates, yet the Democratic liberal base is generally antiwar. Duckworth, therefore, had a problem. Political analyst Ken Rudin lays it out in his new online column:
"(Duckworth's) views on Iraq were...designed to appeal to the Republican majority of the district, or squishy, depending on your perspective. Cegelis, on the other hand, ran as an out-and-out peace candidate, winning the backing of Democracy for America (once run by Howard Dean and now run by his brother Jim) and other assorted liberal groups...It's nice to run as an Iraq war vet and be charismatic, but having something to say might not be a bad idea, either."
The grassroots Democrats certainly aren't impressed with the notion that a war vet is an automatic winner. One angry Illinois blogger calls Duckworth "a gimmick candidate," believes that "getting your legs blown off by an RPG does not a legislator make," and sneers, "I'm sure the DC Dems think that 'Oooo, wounded in the Iraq war! Trump card! Let's see the GOP out-patriot that' is a winning strategy across the board," whereas, in reality, "a carpetbagger with no (local) name recognition is just as vulnerable in the general election (to Republican attack) even if she is a veteran."
And yesterday, Cegelis' finance director, Amy Tauchman, didn't seem willing to join Duckworth beneath the Fighting Dems banner, either: "I'm not going to vote in (November). No way. A lot of the Dems are going to stay home." Disaffected people often tend to come around by election time, but the mood in suburban Chicago suggests that grassroots bitterness might hurt the party more than the war vet banner will help -- all this, in an open House seat that Democrats badly need, in their bid to recapture the House itself.
Meanwhile, in North Carolina, Democrats had been banking on war vet Tim Dunn to defeat a Republican incumbent down there. Dunn was endorsed last week by the Iraq and Afghanisatan Veterans of America Political Action Committee, a new Washington group. Dunn had been garnering major publicity, at one point telling the Boston Glove that he and other Iraq vets "will have a very strong voice and instant credibility. We bring to the table the experience and knowledge gained through our service...People will listen to us."
Apparently not enough people have been listening to Dunn. He quit the race on Tuesday night. He said he was dropping out because the financial obligations had become too strenuous. That's code for not being able to raise enough money. The incumbent Republican Robin Hayes, had raised over $700,000 by the start of this year; Dunn, $80,000. And, in another reminder that being a war vet is not enough, Hayes alienated many Democrats in his district by taking a conservative stance on abortion.
Maybe the Discovery Channel, which is reportedly readying a documentary on the Fightin' Dems, should hang loose on the idea for awhile -- at least until there's some evidence that they can actually win.