DNC no-show list grows, and GOP crows. But are Democrats being smart?

According to Republicans, who are keeping track, 12 major Democratic politicians are planning to skip the DNC. While the convention's timing is hard on Democrats in tight races, a long list of no-shows could embarrass Obama.

By , Staff writer

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    In this 2011 photo, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. listens on Capitol Hill in Washington. Claire McCaskill, one of the most vulnerable Democrats up for re-election in 2012, plans to skip the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.
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What if you throw a party and nobody shows up?

That’s what the Democratic National Convention in early September is starting to feel like. The list of major Democratic politicians sending in their regrets is now at 12, at least according to the Republicans, who are gleefully publicizing each no-show.

“Debacle: Dozen Dem Defectors Ditch DNC,” blasts an email from the Romney campaign.

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We’re talking Democratic senators and House members, not dog-catchers. People like Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jon Tester of Montana, and just about all the top Democrats in West Virginia, a state that is now solidly Republican in its presidential vote. Sen. Jay Rockefeller looks to be the only major West Virginia Democrat still planning to show up in Charlotte, N.C., Sept. 3-6 for the convention, as Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Sen. Joe Manchin, and Rep. Nick Rahall have all said no thanks.

Here’s the kicker: At least one top Democratic campaign official thinks they're right.

“If they want to win an election, they need to be in their districts,” Rep. Steve Israel of New York, chairman of the party’s House campaign committee, said Tuesday at the Reuters Washington Summit.

Congressman Israel says it has nothing to do with President Obama’s job approval ratings. It’s all about maximizing campaign time at home before the election.

This trend toward skipping the national convention “is something that’s been sort of happening slowly over the years,” says Jennifer Duffy, a longtime campaign-watcher at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. She says she started noticing this trend in 2004, with both parties. Some candidates stay for a day or two, but not the whole convention.

On the Republican side, there are fewer announced no-shows so far. Rep. Denny Rehberg, the Republican challenger to Senator Tester in Montana, told The Hill newspaper on Monday that he’s not going to the Republican convention in Tampa in late August.

Part of the problem, says Ms. Duffy, is that the conventions are now being held so close to Election Day, Nov. 6, that they put candidates who are in competitive races in a bind.

“Politically, it’s smart to skip,” she says. “I don’t know that it does Claire McCaskill a whole lot of good when she has a huge fight on her hands.”

Mr. Obama is not particularly popular in Missouri, so for McCaskill, a photo op with the president likely doesn’t do her much good. McCaskill endorsed Obama in January 2008, making her one of the first senators to back him.  

The growing list of “no thank yous” also reflects the decline of national political conventions, which have been relegated to cable TV and have essentially become infomercials. Not since 1976 has either party had a convention with any suspense over who will be the presidential nominee. And increasingly, the vice presidential choice is also unveiled in advance. The parties work out their platforms at the conventions, but most politicians are concerned with their own electoral fates, not the details of a party document that goes largely unread.

Still, conventions are a good time to make connections with ideological allies and to build enthusiasm  among  delegates and other party die-hards.

But for Obama, if the list of no-shows gets much bigger, it will still be embarrassing. And it’s not just Democrats in red states who are staying home. Rep. Mark Critz of Pennsylvania, and Reps. Kathy Hochul and Bill Owens of New York, are also not coming. Among red-state Democrats, Reps. Jim Matheson of Utah and John Barrow of Georgia are not coming to Charlotte.

Among Senate candidates, North Dakota’s former attorney general, Heidi Heitkamp, is not attending the convention. She is locked in a tight race with Republican Rep. Rick Berg, a rare red state where a Democrat has a shot at winning a Senate seat.

Another Democratic no-show is Richard Carmona, the former US surgeon general, who is running for the open Senate seat in Arizona.

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