TIOGA, N.Y. - In a “wave” election the minority sweeps to power by winning dozens of House seats; the attributes of its candidates matter less than an irresistible national mood that demands change.
But what if this November’s election isn’t a wave?
Then the Democrats must rely on their candidates’ skills to pick up seats, one by one. Democrats need a net gain of 15 to win control of the House — and seats where Republicans are retiring, such as here in southwest New York State, are the best places make those inroads.
Here’s the cram course in logic for New York’s 24th congressional district, from which Republican Sherwood “Sherry” Boehlert is retiring after 23 years:
- Only a centrist such as Boehlert could hold this seat.
- Republican Ray Meier stands to the right of Boehlert on issues such as abortion and embryonic stem cell research.
- Therefore one should give the edge to Democratic candidate Michael Arcuri, who as Oneida County district attorney, doesn’t have a record of roll call votes on contentious issues, therefore can’t be pegged as a doctrinaire liberal.
Evenly matched in skills
Plausible logic, perhaps, but it doesn’t reckon with the personal strengths of the two opponents: Meier and Arcuri are credible candidates, about evenly matched in skills, with Meier a little more polished, perhaps because he has run for legislative office several times before, while Arcuri has been elected district attorney four times.
Meier served as Oneida County Executive from 1991 to 1996, before launching his career as a state senator.
In an ordinary year, Meier would seem a reasonable fit for this seat: he’s smooth, well-versed in the issues -- and President Bush carried the district with 53 percent in the 2004 election.
This race is one of Nov. 7’s true bellwethers – if Arcuri wins, then it will almost certainly be a very good night for Democrats from here in upstate New York all the way to Seattle.
While harshly criticizing Bush on Iraq, Arcuri seems to want to assure voters he isn’t too Democratic for a place that has elected a Republican for nearly a quarter of a century.
“I’m a moderate,” Arcuri says. “I’m not here to run against George Bush,” adding, “I happen to disagree with a very large number of his polices.”
But he adds, “I’m going to be with the president when I believe that the president in the right place on the issues.”
Asked to identify one Bush stance that he does agree with, Arcuri supplies an answer that will sound odd to House Minority Leader Pelosi, Connecticut Democratic Senate candidate Ned Lamont, and other Bush critics: “I think the president’s policy with respect to North Korea, the way he has handed North Korea is well handled.”
Just like Boehlert?
The parrying between Arcuri and Meier sometimes seems to come down to: Who is more like Boehlert, or “WWBD” – What Would Boehlert Do?
“My positions are much closer to the district than Meier’s positions are. And Boehlert’s positions on many of the social issues are exactly the same as mine,” argues Arcuri. He has called himself a “Boehlert Democrat.”
“Temperamentally, we are very similar in the sense that neither of our careers has been marked by harsh partisanship,” Meier says of Boehlert. “We are both known as people who know how to reach across to the other party, fashion a solution to a problem, and meet in the middle to get something achieved.”
He adds, “I’m probably on some issues a little more conservative than Congressman Boehlert.” He supports more oil drilling in the United States, including within Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an idea Boehlert opposes.
But it would be wrong to assume that in Boehlert, voters for the past 23 years have been electing a liberal along the lines of Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee.
Boehlert has voted to ban partial birth abortion. In roll call votes in 2005, he backed Bush 61 percent of the time.
When asked on the partial birth abortion ban, whether he supports providing an exception for the pregnant woman’s mental health as well as her physical health, Arcuri hesitated, then said, “I’m going to leave it at ‘the health and safety of the mother.’”
GOP candidate runs against Bush
Given the polling data showing disaffection with Bush and the House GOP, Meier is running against them as well as against Arcuri.
He makes a self-serving but undeniable point: “When voters walk into the voting booth, it is not going to say ‘Republican Congress’ or ‘Democrat Congress. It is going to say ‘Ray Meier’ and my opponent.”
House Republicans haven’t been fiscally prudent, Meier says, haven’t addressed the relentless growth of entitlement spending.
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“That’s an area where I think both the president and the Republican House have departed from a traditional, mainstream Republican point of view,” he said.
And he held a press conference this week to criticize Bush over proposed changes in veteran benefits. “We need to reject an ill-advised proposal made by the administration to impose a $250 enrollment fee for veterans entering the Veterans Administration health care system and to raise co-pays” on prescription drugs, he told reporters.
The next day, as Meier took a break from campaigning in heavily Republican Tioga County, he discussed Iraq, telling me, “Where I would fault the president is: he needs to explain to the American people what the goal is, and to talk about the commitment needed to do it. That has been one of the problems. If the American people get the feeling there’s no plan to end this,” then their frustration will grow, he said. “I have not heard that (plan) clearly articulated” by Bush. People “are sort of flummoxed as to how we’re going to get there.”
For his part Arcuri said, “I think we’re there for all the wrong reasons and it’s time to bring our troops home.”
But Iraq also illustrates that Arcuri is still not as sure-footed as a veteran campaigner would be.
Asked what he thought of a resolution sponsored by 17 House Democrats to cut off funding for the Iraq deployment, only allowing funds needed for “the safe and orderly withdrawal” of U.S. troops, Arcuri at first cautioned that troops must be given the supplies they need, but then added, “I would seriously consider a resolution of that nature.”
But after the text of the resolution, H.Res. 4232, was e-mailed to him, Arcuri said, in an e-mailed response, “Any bill that limits funding for our troops, I would oppose. We need a realistic plan for phased withdrawal that continues funding for our troops as we begin to bring them home.”
Meier pounced on the idea that Arcuri would even have considered — if only for a moment — the 17 House Democrats’ funding cut-off proposal. “I don’t see how he could consider this seriously,” Meier said.
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