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Was it a Howard Dean election?

Did the voters in 2006 pay heed to the Howard Dean of 2003?'s Tom Curry takes a look at the strategy of Dean's Democratic National Committee.
Canadian Liberal Party Meets To Select New Leader
Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean is enjoying more success than he did as a presidential hopeful in 2004.Simon Hayter / Getty Images file
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2004 wasn’t Howard Dean’s year: he failed to become president of the United States. But 2006 looks more like a Dean year.

Dean, now chairman of the Democratic National Committee, met in Washington over the weekend with members of the party’s executive committee, to celebrate the Democrats’ success in last month’s elections.

During that meeting, something Dean said three years ago as a presidential contender came to mind.

“We have got to stop having the campaigns run in this country based on abortion, guns, God, and gays….”

Dean spoke for Democrats frustrated by the Republicans’ skill at motivating voters on issues such as same-sex marriage.

Did the voters in 2006 pay heed to the Dean of 2003?

Abortion, guns, God, and gays weren’t dominant issues in 2006. They did not play a decisive role in Republican losses in Senate races.

The Republicans’ positions on abortion, guns, God, and gays were not why they lost House seats in previously secure Republican districts in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Kansas, and Arizona. The Iraq war, retirements of veteran GOP incumbents, and personal scandal had more to do with the Democrats’ luck in gaining House seats.

Gay marriage recedes as campaign issue
Proof that gay marriage had lost some of its punch as a voter motivator came in Pennsylvania where Sen. Rick Santorum, who’d spoken passionately in 2005 about the need for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages, hardly mentioned the issue in the final months of his re-election bid. Santorum was routed by Democrat Bob Casey Jr.

Yet on Election Day there was evidence that Americans still are not liberals when it comes to issues such as same-sex marriages.

In eight states, voters used referenda to enact laws restricting marriage to unions between a man and a woman.

Seven of those eight were Republican states, places such as Tennessee, which Dean as head of the DNC has made a special effort to target in his “fifty-state strategy.”

When he took the helm of the DNC Dean argued that Democrats had to compete in such Republican-dominated states. And Democrats, he said, had to woo groups such as evangelical Christians, whom the Democrats had often previously written off.

Dean said his strategy proved successful.

At the DNC meeting he showcased two winning House candidates, Tim Walz from Minnesota and Nancy Boyda from Kansas, who had triumphed in Republican districts. The DNC had deployed field workers in both those districts early in 2006 who, according to Walz and Boyda, did invaluable work in organizing Democratic voters.

Democrats' success in Minnesota
In Minnesota Democrats did especially well, gaining a House seat (Walz’s), and gaining 25 state legislative seats, which gives them control of both chambers of the state legislature.

“We have beaten them (the Republicans) back to their pre-1994 numbers,” said Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party Executive Director Andrew O' Leary. “A lot of that has to do with the early work that our DNC employees did... In the summer of 2005, the DNC gave us four employees to do with as we wished.”

One of them was deployed to the First Congressional District where Walz was trying to unseat Republican Rep. Gil Gutknecht.

Yes, Bush and Iraq were an advantage for Democrats, O’Leary said, but “we were able to organize early, we had the infrastructure and the campaign presence in place to take advantage of the environment that we were provided.”

Kansas victor Boyda indicated she accepted the DNC’s help, but didn’t want to be closely tied to Dean and the East Coast Democratic elite.

Kansas Democrats, not national Democrats
Kansas voters, said Boyda, “made a differentiation between national Democrats and Kansas Democrats.”

Boyda said her campaign was able “to get the message across that I represent their values and that I’m going to be doing what they want done– not the national Democratic Party.”

Boyda defeated incumbent Jim Ryun in part by running radio ads saying that “if you’re in the top one percent, your taxes have gone down, but most of us have seen our overall taxes go up, right when the cost of health care, gas and college has gone up. Middle America hasn’t fared well these past ten years….”

“I’m not going to raise taxes,” Boyda pledged in another radio ad. She also claimed that the tax cuts passed by Congress in recent years “aren’t for us” and are only for “wealthy people in New York City.”

Dean and the evangelicals
Savoring victory, Dean said Saturday, “What I’m proudest of is that we were able to have a significant increase in the participation of faith voters who voted for Democrats,” — a category in which he included evangelical Christians, Jews, and Muslims.

“To be able to get members of the evangelical community to vote for us in increased numbers is very important to us,” he said.

But the evidence from exit poll interviews with voters was muddled.

According to the 2004 Election Day exit polls, 22 percent of voters nationwide identified themselves as white evangelical Christians. Bush got 77 percent of such voters.

In the Missouri Senate race, white evangelicals made up 31 percent of the electorate but Republican Sen. Jim Talent got a slightly smaller fraction of them, 74 percent, than Bush had gotten in 2004.

Talent lost to Democrat Claire McCaskill by two percentage points.

In Virginia, where white evangelicals made up 26 percent of the electorate, Republican Sen. George Allen did better than Bush among such voters.

Allen got four out of five white evangelicals, according to exit poll interviews.

Allen lost to Demcorat Jim Webb anyway, by a minuscule four-tenths of one percent of the vote.

Bush carried by Virginia and Missouri in 2004, by fairly comfortable margins.

Of course a big reason Dean and Democrats were able to make sure this election was not about abortion, guns, God, and gays was Iraq, the issue that propelled Dean to front-runner status in the summer of 2003.

Victory impossible in Iraq?
“The idea that we’re going to win this war is an ideal that unfortunately is just plain wrong,” Dean said in December of 2005, a statement that Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman called “outrageous.”

But by Election Day this year nearly half the voters in states such as Missouri, which Bush carried in 2004, seemed to be coming around to Dean’s view that the victory in Iraq was not feasible. Missouri voters were evenly split on the war; in Virginia, a slight majority, 53 percent, said they disapproved of the war.

On Iraq, maybe voters in 2006 caught up with the Howard Dean of 2004 and 2005.