Kuhl Fills a Void

Now that the Kuhl campaign has finally finished populating its issues page, Randy's position on the War on Terror no longer links to a void.  It also shows that someone in his campaign has learned from the drubbing that it received from General (ret.) Batiste.

Unfortunately for the Kuhl campaign, they've got miles to go before they arrive at a position statement that acknowledges the basic reality of the situation in Iraq.

First, the good news for Randy.  His new page does not repeat this breathtaking inanity, which Kuhl uttered shortly after his return from Iraq earlier this month:

Once you get through the apprehension, it really isn't bad.  You can almost forget you're in a war zone.

Instead, Randy's official take on his trip is more measured:

I am cautiously optimistic about where we are headed. I was able to meet and speak to some brave men and women from our area that are serving our nation in Iraq and speak with the military commanders about the current outlook for a peaceful end to this long, hard struggle for freedom.

At least this second quote leaves one with the impression that Randy actually traveled to Iraq.

Now, the bad news.  His overall position on Iraq is still out of touch with what 29th voters are seeing every day on television, not to mention the recent assessment of respected leaders in his own party.  Here's Randy's view:

The new government of Iraq is continuing to make progress, with the Iraqi Security Force due to take over security in all 18 Iraqi provinces by the end of the year, alleviating the burden of the United States and Multinational Forces. The Iraqi Army and police forces’ increased participation has contributed to security and stability, which has, in turn, sustained Iraq's political progress.

Well, that's one man's opinion.  Here's another Republican's take on the Iraqi army and police:

...[The Army is] doing a lot better job than they had in the past. The question is, is can they do the job completely, and the answer is no. When American troops are with them, they perform far better than by themselves. There are Iraqi battalions which are excellent, there are some that are poor.

But we—but the real problem is not so much the army as the police. The police have been taken over by militias in many areas of the country, whether it be Basra or others. That, combined with, with an Iranian influence, particularly in the southern region, leads to a very, very difficult situation. And when we move troops from one place to another, it’s not clear and hold, it’s clear and leave. And that never worked...

That was John McCain's speaking yesterday on Meet the Press.  A member of McCain's "kitchen cabinet", General (ret.) Barry McCaffrey, who also appeared on that program, was a bit more blunt in his assessment of the Iraqi Army:

Well, first of all, it’s miserably underresourced, which—a shortcoming I’ve articulated over on the Hill now and to the administration.  These Iraqi security battalions have 20, 30 light trucks, light automatic weapons. There’s no plan to build a force which would be capable of, of replacing us. So I think our strategy is flawed.

McCain is one of the strongest supporters of the war in Iraq, and McCaffrey has years of experience in command.  These are hardly the voices of inexperienced or biased observers, and I'm sure that any 29th voter who heard them yesterday would find Randy's blithe confidence in the Iraqi army and police more than a little hard to swallow.

As for the notion that the increased partcipation of the Iraqi army and police has "contributed to security and stability", let's take a closer look at July's statistics.  The month that was just ending during Randy's visit saw the highest civilian death toll since the U.S. invasion.  July's roughly 3,500 deaths was a 9% increase over June, double the rate of January, and more than three times the total deaths on both sides of the Israel/Lebanon war.

Randy's prediction of "continued progress" towards "security and stability" in Iraq is an insult to the intelligence of anyone in the 29th who has opened a newspaper or turned on a television in the last month.  His Iraq strategy needs a complete overhaul if he's going to have a shred of credibility on this issue.

Debate Shadowboxing Update

Eric Massa's latest campaign diary contains an update on debates in the 29th.  In a nutshell, nothing's happening.

Since last month's Kuhl press release challenging Massa to a debate at WLEA, a Hornell station with miniscule coverage in the far South of the 29th, even that non-event hasn't been finalized. And a tentative agreement [google cache] between the campaigns for a debate on the more powerful Rochester WHAM has apparently fallen apart.

Judging from Eric's report, Randy is still following the traditional incumbent strategy of avoiding debates with challengers.  The WLEA event, if it ever happens, will be a low-risk tactic for Kuhl to avoid the charge that he's afraid to engage.

Money Update

Today's Washington Post has a front-page story about the effectiveness of Democratic fundraising in contested congressional elections.  Challengers in general are doing much better this year than in '04.  This pattern is true in the 29th, where Eric Massa has so far raised almost 80% of what Kuhl's last challenger, Sam Barend, collected during her entire campaign.

The Post story is based on second-quarter fundraising reports.  Kuhl and Massa have both held major fundraising events this quarter, but we won't know how they're doing until the FEC third-quarter pre-primary reports are released, sometime after the October 15 deadline August 31 filing date (fixed - thanks to Massaman).

The Massa-Murtha Connection

Eric Massa was quoted in a syndicated story about John Murtha's surge of popularity.  According to Massa, Murtha received a racous standing "O" at a funraiser for Massa in New York City on August 9.

Murtha has been appearing at fundraisers and will go on the road after Labor Day for "four dozen" Democratic candidates.  There's no news yet on a visit to the 29th.

Massa has been actively supporting Murtha, most recently by traveling to Pennsylvania to speak out against an attempted "swiftboating" campaign.  Judging from Murtha's willingness to travel widely outside of his district before election day, that campaign hasn't gotten any traction.

Massa on the Hot Buttons

Unlike John R "Randy" Kuhl Jr, Eric Massa hasn't had to vote on any of the hot button issues.  None of them are listed on issues web page, which has in-depth discussions of his positions on national security, the economy, health care and immigration.  Other than stem cells, which the Massa campaign is clearly going to make a centerpiece issue of the election, the hot buttons also aren't much in evidence on the Massa campaign's blog pages.

Even though, like Kuhl, Massa's positions on the hot buttons aren't plastered all over his web page, he does have clear positions on all of these issues.  All I had to do was ask.

Let's start with what might be his most interesting position:  gun control.  Massa's position, as relayed by spokesman Mike Williams, is:

Eric is not in favor of any additional federal gun control legislation at this time.  [emphasis in original] On the other hand, Eric recognizes that there are times when interpretation is necessary.  He is philosophically unconvinced that average citizens have a right to bear assault weapons.  He is a major proponent of gun safety, responsible gun ownership, and enforcement of existing regulations.

This position is essentially consistent with Kuhl's and probably also with the majority of voters in the 29th.  It also shows that Massa is smart about running in this district.  Gun control just isn't on the radar.  The schools and towns in the 29th aren't full of gun violence, but the countryside is full of hunters during hunting season.

On abortion, according to Mike, Massa's stance is:

Eric believes that abortion is a private medical matter, and that a woman's right to choose is primary.  He also believes that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare, and he is in favor of social and political measures targeted towards reducing abortion.

Eric is pro-choice and in favor of funding stem cell research.

I'd characterize this position as a carefully phrased, middle-of-the-road Democratic take on abortion. Hillary's "safe, legal and rare" formulation is good shorthand for the more prolix agnonizing over moral conflicts that used to characterize candidate statements about this volatile issue.  There's nothing radical here, and much left unsaid.  For example, public funding of abortion is not mentioned.

Will single-issue right-to-life voters vote against Massa?  Yes.  Will voters who are right-to-life but not single-issue voters reject Massa solely because of his abortion stand?  I dunno, but I don't see how Massa could phrase his position any better to get their vote.  That's about the best a pro-choice politician can hope for with this highly polarized issue.

Finally, on gay rights, since Massa has recenty retired from a long military career, I asked about gays in the military and the gay marriage amendment:

Eric says: I know from personal experience in the military that the current policy, "don't ask, don't tell," doesn't work.  I fully support civil unions and equal legal rights for all Americans.  Although civil unions do not provide all of the answers for the issues facing same sex couples, I believe they are a good start, and I support them.

I do not support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning gay marriage; that is a wedge issue and a political ploy designed to distract voters from the massive failures of the Bush administration and Congress; it would also be the first amendment in our country's history to explicitly restrict rights.

This position is interesting for two reasons.  First, Massa's experience in the military puts him in a good position to judge a policy that I'm guessing Randy Kuhl supports.  The "don't ask, don't tell" policy has arguably hurt rather than helped national security, so this is a civil rights and a national security issue.  Second, the civil union compromise position is another middle-of-the-road position.  "Marriage" is a touchy word, and Massa's smart to keep it out of the positive part of his position.  Kuhl's vote for the amendment to ban gay marriage is probably one step too far even for some of those who oppose gay marriage, and Massa's position allows him to decry the anti-libertarian nature Kuhl's stance without explictly supporting gay marriage. 

Of course, Massa will be opposed by those who have an anti-homosexual agenda, but my guess is that voters who are single-issue on gay rights are going to be turned off by a number of other Massa positions.

Overall, Massa's approach to the hot buttons is measured and center-right (gun control) or center-left (abortion and gay marriage).  They are the positions of someone trying to capture the center-right,  middle and left of a district where almost one quarter of the voters are registered Independent or have no party affiliation.

(Thanks to Mike Williams for promptly answering my questions on Massa's positions. I'm sure he had better things to do.)

Rochester's a Tough TV Town

Eric Massa's stem cell press conference was an interesting example of the difficulty of penetrating the Rochester media market.  Massa's press conference was held at 10:30 a.m., which early enough to make the 6 o'clock news.  However, it didn't make any of the three major network newscasts that evening.  (I watched one and recorded two.)  It might have made the one-hour pre-news newscasts, but it wasn't a "top story" for the day.

Since Rochester sits at the confluence of four congressional districts, a Member of Congress has to do something special to make the evening news.  During the 6 o'clock newscasts, ads for the well-financed fight in the 26th district were the only time congressional candidates from any district were mentioned.  The other political ads were utilized by Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Spitzer to help cement their 60+% leads, proving yet again that you can never be too rich, too thin, or win too big.

Since at least half of the registered voters in the 29th live in the Rochester media market, getting on the tube is important to both candidates.  Judging from this media event, it will take more than a press release and a news conference.

Massa Pushes the Stem Cell Button

Eric Massa held a press conference today at the University of Rochester Medical Center to publicize his position on embryonic stem cell research. He's strongly in favor of government support using these cells.  His campaign's press release linked Bush and Kuhl's positions on stem cells and noted that they favor "frozen, microscopic cells over living human beings."

The WXXI coverage of the press conference quoted Kuhl as saying he supports research on adult and umbilical cord stem cells.  That's true as far as it goes. However, it's unclear whether adult cells have the same potential as embryonic cells.  And, though umbilical cord blood has proven uses which merit further research, they aren't the same as embryonic cells. 

Kuhl's position is the radical one in this debate.  He has to convince voters of two dubious propositions to gain their support:

  1. It is better to throw away thousands of embryos than use them for research into life saving therapy.
  2. We should all take the risk that research into less promising lines of stem cells will be sufficient to find cures for terrible diseases that we all fear.

That's a tall order, indeed, and Massa is smart to choose this issue to distinguish himself from Kuhl.

Kuhl on the Hot Buttons

Hot buttons are issues of deep interest to a small, well-funded and vocal set of advocacy groups. They are the prickly pear cactus hidden in the lush green field of election-year politics. For politicians on the "right" side of a given hot button, they're a source of delicious, sugary treats. For anyone else, they're a hard-to-remove pain in the ass.

If you're an incumbent, the hot button advocates plow through your record with a fine-toothed comb and "grade" you. Those grades are usually "A" or "F" -- hot-button advocates require purity and slavish devotion to their cause. Challengers are also graded, often via the use of questionnaires.

Everybody's got a slightly different list of hot buttons. Abortion (including stem cell research), gay marriage and gun control are three* on my radar for the 29th. The addition of stem cells to the right-to-life/pro-choice debate adds some more fuel to this blazing pyre. The recent New York Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage has kept this issue front-and-center among state residents. And the 29th is New York's most rural district, so gun control is probably of more general interest here than downstate.

So let's see if there are any thorns in the garden for John R "Randy" Kuhl Jr.

On the three hot buttons mentioned above, Kuhl sits clearly on one side of the fence. He's got a 100% right-to-life rating, voted for the constitutional amendment to define marriage as the union of man and woman, and there's no reason to think he won't get another "A" rating from the NRA.

When it comes to gun control, Randy's in tune with his rural / suburban district.  A gun in the 29th means hunting, not urban assault, so his long-time stand on this issue should continue to cause him few if any problems come election time.

Gay marriage is politically interesting because it is so new that interest groups and voter opinion hasn't really gelled to the same degree as abortion and gun control. Though Rochester has a large GLBT community, that's primarily an urban phenomenon that doesn't reach into Randy's district. In addition, I don't see the GLBT community spending a lot of money on this issue. That's because the gay special interest groups seem to be suffering from Radiohead syndrome: they're so fucking special. The main gay PAC raised and spent twice what right-to-lifers raised in the recent cycle, but they used it all to fund gay and lesbian candidates. That may be a good long-term strategy (if you're measuring political progress in geologic time), but it sure doesn't put any money into defeating foes of gay rights in 2006.   

Having dodged the gay rights cactus, I'm afraid that Randy perhaps has impaled himself on an unexpected right-to-life prickle: stem cells. Abortion used to be so easy for a player: if you are right-to-life, you pick up the "hard right" and lose the "hard left". If you are pro-choice, expect the opposite. But stem cells have changed the landscape. This will be the first election where a solid vote (and veto) are part of the election debate. In the Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll [pdf] of the 50 most contested districts, stem cell research was the top issue that made respondents more likely to support a Democrat. The stem cell issue might well be a crossover issue among older voters or voters who have personal experience with some of the diseases that could benefit from this new research.

Eric Massa is holding a press conference on the topic of stem cell research this morning in Rochester.  So he clearly thinks that this issue has legs.  We'll examine his position on the hot buttons in more depth soon.


* I intentionally left flag-burning off this list - just because I hate writing about such a non-issue.

Running Against Wal-Mart

This morning's New York Times has a front-page story about Democrats who are running against Wal-Mart.  Their beef is with the sub-standard wages and health benefits paid by the retail giant.

There's another concern at work in the 29th: the displacement of local businesses.   This sign is in a yard near the western edge of the 29th in Mendon.  It's part of a local protest against Wal-Mart in towns and villages near Lima (which is just outside the 29th).  Wal-Mart has proposed building a supercenter in that town, which would probably mean the end for many local hardware and grocery stores.

In that part of the 29th, sad face signs are all over the place, in front of houses large and small.  Residents with whom I spoke weren't concerned about the benefits and wages at Wal-Mart.  They simply didn't want to drive 10 miles to buy a carton of milk or a new screwdriver.

From what I've heard, Eric Massa's position on Wal-Mart reflects this concern.  In his July 20 appearance on the Bob Lonsberry show, Massa noted that he doesn't shop at Wal-Mart and instead prefers locally-owned businesses.  I don't remember a lot of doctrinare rhetoric about the evils of Wal-Mart, just a practical concern over the area's economy.  Judging from the signs, this position will go down well in the part of the 29th that borders Lima.

Polling Tidbits

The Daily Kos story about Massa's AFL-CIO endorsement contains an interesting fact and some titillating polling gossip.   

The fact is that the 29th leans 5.2% Republican according to the Cook Partisan Voting Index.  That's still near the middle of the distribution of all congressional districts (full discussion of that graph in the middle of this page).  In other words, though the 29th is considered conservative, it is closer to the center than to the edge.

The gossip concerns the Massa poll I wrote about earlier.  In the comments, gossipers claim they have talked to Massa or Massa staffers say the following:

It showed Massa and Kuhl as roughly tied even though Massa's name recognition was about 20% and Kuhl's was in the 80s.

In that internal poll, Massa was two points behind Kuhl with a 4% margin of error. [...] And there's more: when a neutral statement was read about each candidate, Massa went up 30 points.

Again, consider the source, but this will have to do until one of the area media outlets ponies up for a poll.

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