Avoiding the October Surprise

Eric Massa and Max Cleland will hold a press conference in front of the Canandaigua VA hospital today.  As I posted earlier, saving that endangered facility is a great candidate for an October surprise by Randy Kuhl. 

Judging from the press release emailed by the Massa campaign this morning, Massa and Cleland -- who once ran the VA -- will try to raise the ante on Kuhl.  Money quote from Massa:

I’d be more inclined to expect an October Surprise, with my opponent riding in on a white horse to save the day. That’s not good enough. Keeping it open for a few months or a year to buy some votes is inadequate. Given the enormous need and this facility’s expertise, we need stable, long-term funding and a significant expansion of services.

Cleland's visit has yielded some press coverage in the Hornell and Olean papers, so perhaps today's gathering will be more effective than Massa's previous press events.

Weekly Round-Up

Congress is back in session, and the only (slightly) close vote of the week was the Horse Protection Act. Kuhl voted for the act. It passed without the support of the majority of Republicans, even though the sponsor was Republican John Sweeney of neighboring NY-20.

In other non-news, political analysts Charlie Cook and Larry Sabato both updated their House race rankings this week. The 29th race showed no movement in either analysis.

Finally, disabled vet and former Senator Max Cleland appears today at Massa fundraisers in Buffalo and Cattaragus County.

The 29th: A Little Red State

To understand how Eric Massa can win in the 29th, we need to treat it like a mini red state.  Though the 29th is situated in one of the bluest states in the nation, it is rural and mainly Republican. 

The good news is that quite a few Democrats who have been re-elected in rural red states with demographics similar to the 29th.  Most of them got elected by using a political strategy pioneered half a century ago by a politician who's now the butt of everyone's jokes.

George McGovern -- yes, that McGovern -- is remembered for so many bad things that we tend to forget that he was a superb practical politician.  McGovern is dishwater dull on the stump and liberal as they come, yet he was regularly elected and re-elected in one of the reddest and most rural states in the union.

McGovern's experience is relevant to the Massa/Kuhl campaign because, in many practical and historical aspects, Massa's candidacy closely resembles McGovern's in South Dakota. McGovern's first race, for Congress in 1956, was in a state that had no real Democratic party and no statewide Democratic office holders. Massa is in much better shape, since he actually has a party that supports him.  But the rest of the parallels are striking:

Both candidates have compelling personal stories during a time of national insecurity.

It's easy to forget in the aftermath of Vietnam that McGovern was a highly decorated war hero.  McGovern's personal story gave him credibility on issues of "loyalty", which was critically important during the height of the cold war in a state where one of the senators was a big player in the McCarthy committee.

Unfortunately, the current political climate has a number of parallels to 1956.  Dissent or even discussion of the war in Iraq is branded as borderline-traitorous.  Like McGovern, Massa's history as a Navy vet make it hard to attack his loyalty or concern for the military. 

Both races feature undistinguished Republican incumbents, lawyer-turned-legislators who have done nothing remarkable (good or bad) during their terms.

John R "Randy" Kuhl Jr is as undistinguished in person and in legislative record as McGovern's opponent, Harold Lovre , a small-town lawyer turned legislator and congressman who sank without a trace after losing in '56.

Each of them started their races early and began by crossing their districts building up a base of personal support.

McGovern spent his time before the '56 election criss-crossing the state, sometimes sleeping in his car.  During his travels, he collected small donations and wrote up index cards about anyone he met who seemed at all sympathetic to his candidacy.  Those cards formed the basis of a database that he used for the rest of his political career.  His goal was to collect a set of McGovern supporters. This group, many of whom were registered Republicans, continued to split their tickets to vote for him as he was re-elected to the House and later elected and re-elected to the Senate.

Similarly, Massa prides himself on being the first candidate of either party to announce for the '06 race.  He's spent two years visiting the residents of the 29th.   The bulk of his financial backing comes from individual contributors.  Instead of index cards, he's using new technology like blogs and his website to communicate with and help build a cadre of Massa contributors and volunteers.

Both men ran as centrists on touchy issues, and experts on district issues.

Though McGovern is the most "notorious" living liberal, he carefully tailored his positions to avoid hot buttons. Like Massa, he opposed gun control because guns meant hunting, not urban assault, for his rural constituents.

He was also intimately acquainted with agricultural issues and championed the cause of beleaguered family farmers. Likewise, Massa hits hard on issues of free trade and its effects on manufacturing in his district. 

Unfortunately for Massa, there's one distinct difference between this year's race and the '56 McGovern victory: the role of the TeeVee.  It was nil 50 years ago.   Today, 30-second ads lower the quality of discussion and raises the price of admission for congressional campaigns.   In the last few weeks of the race, Massa will be hard-pressed to compete with a better-funded opponent.   

Other than this important difference, Massa's grassroots campaign has run every play from a venerable and effective 50 year-old playbook.   The results might be just as surprising in NY-29 as they were in SD-1 long ago.

Bush Hands Kuhl a Golden Opportunity

President Bush's proposal for Gitmo tribunals brings back the memory of one of Randy Kuhl's most interesting votes.  Last year, Kuhl  sided with Sen. John McCain in a vote for a torture ban.  Though Bush eventually endorsed this bill, he initially opposed it, and only relented after McCain put together a veto-proof majority in the House.  121 Republicans still voted against the bill.

Today, we have a politically similar situation.  Bush's proposal is probably unconstitutional.  Republican Senators McCain, Lindsay Graham and John Warner have already expressed skepticism.  Whatever bill comes out of Bush's speech may well be opposed by the same bi-partisan coalition that supported McCain last year.

If Kuhl joins that group, he has an opportunity to show he's not "Rubber-Stamp Randy", while still allying himself with respected members of his party. After all, it's only disloyalty if nobody else is doing it.

Hillary to the Rescue

Today's Wall Street Journal has some good news for Eric Massa. To prove that she can win in red states in 2008, Hillary Clinton is planning a big get-out-the-vote effort in the more Republican areas of the state, including the 29th. This article also acknowledges that the big leads that Spitzer and Clinton hold over their opponents might lead to some voter complacency.

The 29th is named as the "next best shot" for a Democratic pick-up after the open seat in NY-24.  Republicans are quoted as saying their polls show Kuhl and other incumbents running ahead of challengers.  Since that's a self-report of an internal poll, it can be viewed with the usual extreme skepticism.

Looking for a Place to Happen

In the next couple of days, I'm going to write about how each candidate can win this election.  The title of today's post, taken from a Tragically Hip song, describes the incumbent, "lying in wait" strategy that Kuhl should follow to increase his chances of re-election.

There's relatively little action in the 29th right now, and that's the way Randy Kuhl wants to keep it. Kuhl seems to be waiting for events to drive his candidacy.   Since his Iraq adventure, he's been out of the limelight.  The last press release on his campaign website is a month old.   Other than a response to MoveOn.org, which he was almost compelled to offer, Kuhl has not yet engaged in this election.

Randy's made a couple of blunders -- inviting Bush this Spring and going to Iraq this Summer are two -- but overall he's played a smart incumbent game.  Kuhl realizes that the local and national facts are against him this year.  As a freshman, he doesn't have a long record of service to the district, so he can't launch a set of positive service-oriented ads like his colleague Tom Reynolds.  As a Bush loyalist, there aren't many positions that he's taken that are broadly popular, so running ads touting his relationship with the President, or his position on national issues, would be a waste of money.

Though it runs against a politician's natural grain, keeping one's mouth shut is often a good strategy.  Kuhl should stick to it.   Unless he's far behind in the polls, he should continue to duck debates.   He should be present for every last vote in Congress, make no speeches whatsoever, and avoid comment on any topic. 

His $500K warchest should stand ready for the next misstep of Massa or Massa's allies.  Any attack should be treated as lies about Randy.  He wants to appear as a hard-working victim of outside, radical forces.  He wants the conversation to be about the picky details of the charges against him, not the broad outlines of his responsiblity for agreeing with Bush administration positions. 

Kuhl's strongest advantages are the voter registration split in his district, the inertia of voters in an off-year election, the relative obscurity of his opponent, and the lack of competitive statewide races.  None of these can be made stronger by positive action on his part.   That's why his silence is golden, at least until he finds a place where his candidacy has to happen.

Labor: It's Them, Not Us

Eric Massa was the Grand Marshal of yesterday's Rochester Labor Day parade, and he's been endorsed by a long list of unions.  That's a change from two years ago, when labor supported Randy Kuhl.

Labor's justification for switching is an interesting study in revisionist history.  In the WHAM story on the parade, these revisions included charges of "betrayal".  Union leaders want their rank and file to believe that Kuhl and other Republicans recently changed their minds on three key issues: "higher minimum wage, limits on CEOs' pay and pensions, and new 'fair trade' laws".

Who do they think they're kidding?  Republican positions on these three issues haven't changed in years.  The union leaders' post hoc justifications strain credulity and insult the intelligence of their members.

Short-term opportunism is part of the reason that union influence is so weak.  When Kuhl looked unbeatable in '04, unions endorsed him and gave him money.  Now that he's vulnerable, they switched their allegiance to his opponent. Why should any politician or party court an interest group as fickle as this one?   

New York Off the GOP Radar

According to a story in this morning's New York Times, the Republican party has targeted six states where control of Congress will be decided.  New York is not one of them.  The GOP plans to spend a record $60 million on off-year elections.  Half of that will go to get-out-the-vote efforts. 

Massa's Response to the Kuhl Ads

The Massa campaign has posted a detailed response to the Kuhl ads.  They make the obvious point that they have no control over MoveOn, and that they want to stick to an issues-based campaign, without personal attacks.   

The response also lists the debate invitations that have been made so far, and says that the Kuhl campaign has backed away from all of them, including the challenge that Kuhl made in July.  Debates are looking very unlikely at this point in the campaign.

Kuhl's New Ad

Randy Kuhl has a new ad [YouTube] running in the Rochester media market.  I first saw it at 11 p.m. tonight on the NBC affiliate, WHEC.  Rochesterturning saw it earlier this evening.

The ad is a response to the mistaken impression left by the first MoveOn ad that Kuhl voted for the initial Halliburton contract.  It uses that mistake to call the ads a pack of lies, and it accuses Massa of buying into the ads.

Overall, this ad is a pretty good response.  It uses the one weak point of the MoveOn ads to great effect.  Then, it goes on the offense by making an accusation that Massa supports the ads.  That's not true, since Massa's made no comment on the ads prior to Kuhl's response.  But he also hasn't repudiated them, and Kuhl is baiting him to do so.

MoveOn's first ad was sloppy.  Though some kind of Kuhl response was inevitable, MoveOn made his job easier, and Eric Massa's harder.   

Here's full description of the ad:

On screen:  A television running the beginning of the "dumping billions" ad.

Announcer:  "Lies, Lies, Lies.  The ads being run by the left-wing lobbying group moveon.org are simply that:  Lies"

Screen text (white on black): "The votes took place in 2004"

Announcer:  "The votes they talk about took place long before Randy Kuhl was elected to congress."

Screen text changes to: "Randy Kuhl took office in 2005".

Announcer:  "They know that, but they'll say anything."

Picture of Eric Massa.

Announcer:  "And their candidate, Eric Massa?  Buys into every word, every lie."

Picture of Massa fades to Red.

Announcer:  "Eric Massa and Moveon.org.  They should be ashamed of themselves."

Kuhl appears and says:  "I'm Randy Kuhl.  You deserve the whole truth.  That's why I approved this message."

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