Fall elections leave Sept. 11 behind

Votes in 2002 races hinge on domestic concerns, giving Democrats a boost.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As congressional candidates head into the summer campaign season, the most striking feature of Campaign 2002 so far may be how little Sept. 11 and the war on terror are affecting it.

President Bush's renewed focus on domestic issues – he promoted his welfare plan and education reform on last week's jaunt through the midwest – mirrors what has been going on in most congressional campaigns for months. Issues such as the economy, education, Social Security, and the cost of prescription drugs are dominating the political landscape, much as they did in the 2000 election, while terrorism and Sept. 11 hardly come up.

Incumbents often state their support for the president, but most challengers do so as well, making the point essentially neutral. And while conventional wisdom has held that incumbents may benefit from the war environment, that hasn't proved true so far: Three House incumbents were already ousted in primaries.

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Analysts say wars or crises often have a surprisingly negligible impact on subsequent elections – the most recent example being the Gulf War, which did little to help then-President Bush or his party. Widespread support for the war on terror makes it even less of an issue. And while Sept. 11 may have diverted attention from domestic concerns, analysts say these issues were always likely to return to the fore, as the crisis subsided.

"It's as if you're sitting at the kitchen table, paying your mortgage and Visa bill, and all of a sudden, your house is on fire," says Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. "You put those bills aside, and you put out the fire. But at some point, you have to return to paying the mortgage and paying the Visa bill."

According to a recent survey conducted for congressional Republicans by Public Opinion Strategies, 79 percent of voters rated domestic issues as more important than foreign ones in determining how they would vote. This corresponds with a recent strategy memo put out by the Democratic group Democracy Corp., which points out "reason to believe that people are turning to the domestic issues where Democrats score strongly."

Domestic politics as usual

But even last November – just two months after the attacks – the crisis had no discernable impact on gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia. In both races, the focus was largely on domestic issues – and Democrats took both seats away from the GOP. Democrats are expecting to pick up a number of other governors' seats this fall.

"Gubernatorial elections are the definition of 'all politics is local,' " says B.J. Thornberry, executive director of the Democratic Governors' Association. "Jobs, economic development, education, access to healthcare ... are the core thematics of these races."

Of course, these issues also give candidates the chance to offer solutions and clear points of disagreement – whereas the war on terror has been virtually impossible to campaign on.

Democrats have been unwilling to criticize Mr. Bush on the war. And while many Republicans have been hoping to benefit from his wartime popularity – and a number are running ads featuring Bush – they, too, have had to tread carefully so as not to appear to use the war for partisan gain. Indeed, recent polls indicate there may not be much of a coattails effect for Republicans, as Democrats are slightly ahead in generic congressional ballot tests.

The 9/11 strategy backfires

Some candidates who have tried to use Sept. 11 as a campaign tactic have actually seen their efforts backfire.

Former HUD secretary Andrew Cuomo, who is running for governor of New York, recently charged that Gov. George Pataki (R) had not shown leadership in the wake of the attacks, and instead relied on Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. In the days following the remark, Mr. Giuliani and a number of other officials spoke out on behalf of Governor Pataki's leadership – and Mr. Cuomo's poll numbers plummeted.

"Unfortunately, it didn't have the effect Cuomo was intending," says Joseph Mercurio, a GOP consultant in New York. "It reinforced the governor's favorability ratings."

The remark could continue to haunt Cuomo, he adds, particularly as the Democratic primary in New York will be held on Sept. 10 – the day before the anniversary of the attacks.

In fact, if there's one way the war on terror might affect this year's elections, say analysts, it's through the anniversary. September is usually the month when most voters start paying attention to politics, and when most campaigns hit their stride. But with all the media coverage that will likely surround the anniversary, it may be difficult for candidates to get their messages out.

In New York, "the governor and the mayor are going to be right up front, acknowledging the anniversary – and here's poor Andrew Cuomo and Carl McCall trying to finish a primary," says Mr. Mercurio. "It's going to be a very difficult environment for them."

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