GOP mantra this fall: Keep politics local

Vulnerable incumbents are focusing on their longstanding connections to their districts.

Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R) of Pennsylvania once looked like a top-tier target for Democrats in their drive to take over the House. He's a freshman, which in a typical election year would make him more vulnerable to defeat than longer-serving members. And his district, north of Philadelphia, has an increasingly Democratic tilt to it.

But Mr. Fitzpatrick has worked hard to distance himself from President Bush, particularly on Iraq. As a popular, longtime Bucks County commissioner before his election to Congress, he maintains a strong local identity.

"Fitzpatrick's best asset is that he's not a congressional insider," says Amy Walter, House race analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. It also helps, she adds, that opponent Patrick Murphy is a young political novice.

Fitzpatrick's name remains on handicappers' lists of endangered incumbents, and he could still go down in the event of a strong Democratic wave.

The latest nationwide Pew Research Center poll shows record-high levels of Democratic enthusiasm about the Nov. 7 elections, as the Iraq war, economic uncertainty, and congressional scandals fuel voter discontent with the Republican-run capital. But with less than a month before the vote, Fitzpatrick has managed to insulate himself somewhat from national head winds by hewing to the late Speaker Tip O'Neill's most famous saying: All politics is local.

"We all know that old adage, I'm against the Congress, but my guy is okay," says David Patti, president of Pennsylvanians for Effective Government, a pro-business political action committee.

Entrenched-but-endangered incumbents can also play that game.

For Republican Rep. Curt Weldon, in his 10th term, his strength in Pennsylvania's Seventh District has been in spreading federal largesse not just to his district but his entire region.

On the other hand, "Weldon's been running around talking about weapons of mass destruction and the war, and so he has made the war his issue," says Mr. Patti. "That cuts both ways." Weldon also faces a strong, nationally funded opponent in retired Vice Adm. Joe Sestak (D), in a district that went Democratic in the past two presidential races.

One incumbent Republican who may have maneuvered her way off the most-endangered list is Rep. Anne Northup of Kentucky. Ever since she won the metropolitan Louisville seat in 1998 – one of the most heavily Democratic districts held by a Republican – Democrats have put her in the bull's-eye, and this year is no exception.

"She's a great campaigner," says Ms. Walter. "The Democrats put up a flawed candidate, and she's driving the train on this thing," she adds, referring to opponent John Yarmuth, publisher of an alternative newspaper.

Representative Northup has run attacks ads using Mr. Yarmuth's own words from past columns – such as one calling for the decriminalization of marijuana.

Still, any Republican representing a district that has voted Democratic for president in recent memory can't get too comfortable. One fear driving vulnerable Republicans is that GOP voters will stay home over discouragement about Iraq and now the scandal swirling around the House GOP leadership and its handling of the electronic-messages that led Rep. Mark Foley (R) of Florida to resign.

A Pew Research Center poll released Wednesday finds that 59 percent of Democratic voters have given a lot of thought to this year's election, up from 46 percent at this point in the 2002 cycle. Republicans report the same level of engagement as four years ago – 48 percent now, 47 percent in 2002.

Pew also found that voter engagement in the Nov. 7 election barely changed because of the Foley scandal. The nonpartisan research organization had already partly completed its survey when Foley resigned, and found that "the Democratic advantages [on engagement and enthusiasm] were about the same" before and after his departure.

Republican members who are counting on a strong social conservative vote in November still have cause for concern. The Foley scandal, in which the gay congressman sent lewd electronic messages to male former pages, has brought to the fore some religious conservatives' discomfort with homosexuality.

But Foley has only exacerbated long-simmering tensions between the party's Christian conservative wing and the party as a whole, over what the religious activists see as a less-than-full GOP commitment to their issues.

"Mobilization was going to be harder this year anyway, because of general discouragement with the Republican Party," says John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "The sense that Christian conservatives will be discouraged en masse is unlikely, because Mark Foley isn't on the ballot. Though it's possible in some really close races ... it could be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back."

Conservative activists argue that their constituents know that a failure to turn out is, in effect, a vote for the Democrats.

"The conservatives are going to turn out regardless of what Mark Foley did," says David Bossie, president of Citizens United, a conservative advocacy group based in Washington. "They definitely are concerned about the direction of the party and about the leadership, but they understand the big picture – which is, it's tantamount to throwing up our hands on a series of key issues if we don't turn out to vote."

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