Posts containing my opinion of the race.

Kuhl Speaks on MoveOn

In a press conference yesterday, Randy Kuhl came to his own defense against the MoveOn ad campaign.  In addition to repeating that the ads have been pulled (a claim denied by MoveOn and one area station), Kuhl added a new defense.  He said that MoveOn's claim that he voted four times to let defense contractors "off the hook" is "based on procedural issues that had nothing to do with the substance of the legislation."

That quote is a summary of Kuhl's position by the Star-Gazette's reporter at the press conference.  Assuming that's a fair summary, it deserves a closer look, because it will probably be part of Kuhl's defense against similar attacks later in the campaign.

According to MoveOn's backup document [pdf], Kuhl voted four times to spare defense contractors, twice on motions to recommit, and twice on amendments.

A couple of MoveOn's examples support Kuhl's position. HR 1751 is a bill to "protect judges, prosecutors, witnesses, victims and their family members".  It passed on a bipartisan vote.  During the debate over the bill Rep Higgins (D-NY) moved that the bill be sent back to committee (a "motion to recommit") to add an amendment prohibiting profiteering and fraud in military actions and disaster relief. This motion failed on a strict party-line vote. (The Congressional Record pages are here [pdf] and here [pdf].)

Kuhl can reasonably argue that this vote was right.  The amendment proposed wasn't relevant to the bill, and sending the bill back to committee would have slowed down its passage.  Kuhl can make a similar case for another of the votes MoveOn cited.  In this case, Kuhl voted against a similar motion to recommit on HR 1279, a bill "to reduce violent gang crime and protect law-abiding citizens and communities from violent criminals".   Again, this motion had nothing to do with the bill in question.

But Kuhl can't make this same claim for two other votes MoveOn cited.  The first was an amendment to HR 4939, an emergency supplemental appropriation bill. It sought to prohibit appropriations to contractors that have had audit exceptions totaling more than $100 million.  The second sought to amend another emergency supplemental to establish a committee to investigate the reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Both amendments were germane, and both votes were on the amendments, not on procedure.

Some would argue that the use of these latter votes to attack Kuhl is also unfair.  After all, they're merely part of the partisan Kabuki of the 109th Congress.  The Democrats want to make oversight of the spending in Iraq a major campaign issue.  To show that Republicans have resisted adding additional oversight, they've used these amendments and motions, which have no hope of passage, solely to get votes on the record.

But if you accept that argument, it's hard to see how he Kuhl has any responsibility for any of his votes.  Moreover, there's the broader issue of accountability for his party's positions, regardless of the specifics of individual votes.  Kuhl has voted with his party on almost every issue, including continued (and sometimes wasteful) funding of the war in Iraq.  He sits on no committees relevant to the war.  Other than his public pronoucements on the war, these votes are all his constituents have to judge him by.   And, in real votes on germane amendments, he's voted against increased oversight of defense contractors twice.

Massa's Stump Sayings

Every politician has them: stock phrases and anecdotes they weave into their answers at every appearance.  They're interesting because they reflect the points that the candidate hopes will stick in voters' minds.  Here are a few of Eric Massa's.

Congress isn't simply "Congress", it's the "rubber-stamp Congress".

Randy Kuhl is "super-glued to George Bush".

Kuhl's trip to Iraq and the "not so bad" comment that came from that trip are frequently mentioned.

Massa also seemed pleased to report that Kuhl was named "most improved golfer" by Golf Digest Magazine

Though I couldn't confim this last claim, Randy's observation that "Republicans hit it farther and straighter" was quoted in a recent article. He's also listed in that magazine's Washington Top 100.  He's tied for 66th with Tom Delay and Rick Santorum.

If that's not ominous enough, consider the top-ranked Republican, Rep Chris Chocola.  Though he's out front on the golf course, political analyst Charlie Cook says "Chocola looks more like an underdog than the frontrunner" in his latest report on Chocola's toss-up race.

Kuhl's MoveOn Dilemma

A story posted yesterday by Rochester NBC affiliate WHEC is a good illustration of the dilemma that the Kuhl campaign faces in responding to the MoveOn ad campaign. On one hand, the Kuhl campaign would like those ads portrayed as a liberal smear by outsiders. On the other, they take the risk of drawing attention to the ads and increasing their impact.

In this case, I think the Kuhl campaign got hung on the second horn of the dilemma -- their complaining hurt their case more than it helped.

The WHEC story is about the second MoveOn ad, which is more accurate and more damaging than the first. During the story, all of the main MoveOn claims are restated: we hear that Kuhl accepted money from defense contractors and opposed penalties for them, and we also see the attempt to tie Kuhl to Cheney and Delay.

These claims are stronger than the first ad. Though the leap to Cheney is questionable, it is clear that Kuhl took some money from defense PACs, took money from Delay's PAC, and voted against a number of amendments that would have mandated closer scrutiny of defense contractors. (MoveOn's factual summary[pdf] is pretty accurate on all but the Cheney link.)

James Kuhl, Randy's son and campaign manager (who, as rochesterturning points out, turns in yet another ham-fisted performance) fires back with a single defense, which is Webster's definition of red-handed. He also makes the weak claim that voters in the district "are smart enough to know what's going on".

As I posted earlier, I agree that "red handed" was overly harsh in the first MoveOn ad, which mainly concerned Randy's votes for spending in Iraq. But James' response doesn't address the contributions. Reasonable people might at least wonder if there's something wrong with a congressman taking money from defense contractors and then not trying harder to reign in waste.

But here's where James is stuck. To defend against specific charges gives them more credence. So he sticks with the "red handed" defense and leaves the rest of the ad to stand unanswered.

In this case, MoveOn got what they wanted. Not only did they air their attack ads, but they also got some priceless prime-time news coverage which repeated the content of those ads.

Massa on the War

Eric Massa's recent press conference was lost in the hubbub over the MoveOn ads, but it's worth a look, as is his National Security page.  Massa's plan has two major components:  withdrawal in 24 months or sooner, and a tripartite partition.

On withdrawal, Massa believes that even a withdrawal started immediately would take 6-18 months, and he would defer to commanders on the ground as to the best way to redeploy forces in a way that's "well thought out and designed to maximize the potential for stability as quickly as possible." 

The tripartite division is a strategy borrowed from Massa's experience in Bosnia.  He thinks that the first step to peace in Iraq is separating the warring parties.  After that, a "loose federation of semi-autonomous states" should be created, one for each of the three distinct ethnic/religious groups living in the country.

Massa's tripartite strategy seems reasonable.  The Kurds have already effectively established their own semi-autonomous region in the North of Iraq.  The predominately Shi'ite population of the South seems like another logical candidate for regional government.  The question is how we get there from where we are now.  Do US troops enforce the partition as they withdraw?   And how does setting a 24-month deadline fit in with partitioning?

Massa has provided a thoughtful strategy born from his experience in another war-torn country.  We'll see if that strategy becomes part of an intelligent debate over Iraq, or if the 29th is treated to 10 weeks of name calling.  I hope for the former, but fear that the latter is far more likely.

WHAM Calls in the Fact Checkers

Rochester's ABC affiliate has fact-checked the first MoveOn ad.  Their take is that the ad contains a number of distortions. I think they're not far from the truth.

The first WHAM claim concerns the statement "What happened to the $300 billion we sent to Iraq.  Halliburton got $18 billion.  $9 billion is just plain missing."

WHAM calls this "faction" -- all the claims are factually true, but it gives the false impression that the $9 billion came from Halliburton.  I think WHAM has a point, but the way the ad is read makes it clear (to me at least) that the 18 and the 9 are separate parts of the 300.

More importantly, WHAM thinks the claim that Kuhl was caught "red-handed" voting for everything is wrong on three counts.  First, they point out that the last Halliburton contract was authorized before Kuhl was a member of Congress.  Second, they argue that no member votes for individual contracts.  Finally, they think the phrase "caught red-handed" implies wrongdoing.

Again, this is a matter of nuance.  Though the Halliburton contracts were authorized before Kuhl took office, he voted on continuing appropriations for the war, and voted against stricter contract enforcement.  Halliburton is a big part of those continuing appropriations.

It's also true that no member votes for individual contracts, and that cherry-picking tiny pieces of gigantic omnibus appropriations is a tried-and-true method of distorting records.  But picking Halliburton as the example of spending in the bill certainly isn't the worst example of cherry picking I've seen.  Kuhl is on record strongly supporting the Bush administration's position on Iraq, and that administration picked Halliburton as a key contractor.

I have to agree completely with the WHAM criticism of the "red-handed" portion of the ad.  Kuhl hasn't tried to hide his support of the war, and the notion that he's been caught out voting for appropriation bills doesn't hold water.

When I watched the first MoveOn ad, my general reaction was: "So what?  Kuhl votes for Iraq appropriations.  So do a number of Democrats.  End of story. "  The issue is that Kuhl's position on Iraq is completely dictated by the Bush administration rather than by his and his constituents' own independent take on the war.

Unfortunately, the practical constraints of a 30-second TV ad dictate much of the MoveOn strategy.  They must capture attention and implant an image.  A truck dumping money in the desert captures attention.  Randy Kuhl with red hands implants the image.

This is the state of politics on television, and we are all the worse for it.

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.

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.)

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.


Barring a last-minute special election for Elmira dogcatcher, the Kuhl/Massa showdown is probably the tightest race in the 29th.  Hillary's opponent will be laughably weak, and it looks like Spitzer will win in a walk, so turnout for this off-year election will be driven solely by interest in the Congressional race.

The conventional wisdom is that high turnout favors Democrats, so this is probably bad news for Massa.  If Hillary or Spitzer were in a tight race, they'd pour some of their massive warchests into a get-out-the-vote effort.  As it stands, they can save their money for future campaigns.

The 29th has existed in its current form for two elections.  In 2002, turnout was 174,631.  In 2004, it was 270,215, a 55% increase.  2002 was probably the most "off" of off-years:  the only major statewide race was a blowout for Pataki.   So '02 is probably a low-water mark for turnout, representing the "solid core" of those who always vote.  Amo Houghton took home a staggering 73.1% of the vote that year.

As the race progresses, I'll talk more about the turnout plans for 29th candidates.  But it's never too soon to speculate about the  national strategies of both parties.

Kuhl will probably use the same "72 Hour" strategy used by the Republicans to deliver Ohio in 2004.  This Republican plan combines polling data, automated calls or emails, and personal visits to turn out the base.  Assuming he's in close touch with the national campaign apparatus (I'm guessing he's joined at the hip), Randy's job will be to provide  enough volunteers or paid workers to call and visit voters on election day. 

Unfortunately for Massa, the Democratic turnout effort is looking like a casualty of disillusioned deep pockets and an internecine squabble between the Deaniacs and the Clintonites.   For a party that can't reliably turnout the faithful, this seems like a bad time for the head of the Congressional Campaign Committee (Rahm Emmanuel) to stop speaking with the Party Chairman (Howard Dean).

Today, E.J. Dionne's column mentions a 40-most-contested district turnout program that Emmanual is financing.  Even if the 29th is on that list, Massa probably won't be able to rely on as much help from the national party as Kuhl.  He better start praying now for a sunny and warm November 7.

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