EXIT MCINNIS, ENTER . . . ?
The latest and most surprising announcement by a Republican U.S. House member that he will not seek re-election next year came from Rep. Scott McInnis, who has represented Colorado’s 3rd District since 1992, (when then-Democratic Rep. Ben Nighthorse Campbell left the seat to successfully run for the Senate. Campbell is now a Republican.) “I’ve completed my mission,” McInnis (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 91%) told reporters after making his announcement last month, “My focus right now is coming home. I want to come home to Colorado. This is home.”
That sounds good, but most Centennial State GOPers are dubious. Few believe that 50-year-old former police officer and state house majority leader McInnis would ever leave Congress to “come home.” They point out that, in 2000, he abandoned his previous “four-terms-I’m-out” declaration and was re-elected with 66% of the vote. “I love campaigning,” he explained at the time, “I don’t feel good unless I wake up in the morning and know that I’m going to have a good fight.”
While McInnis may be leaving Congress, neither pundits nor pols believe for a moment that he will be out of politics for long.
With fellow conservative Republican Bill Owens a lame-duck governor until ’06, after eight years in office, McInnis is considered a cinch to seek the open governorship. However, he is expected to face a battle royal for the nomination with several other ambitious Republicans, notably Lt. Gov. Jane Norton.
Within weeks of McInnis’s announcing his exodus from Congress, three heavyweight contenders declared for the GOP nomination in his 3rd District (Western Slope). The early favorite appears to be State Natural Resources Director Greg Walcher. Prior to joining Gov. Owens’s Cabinet, Walcher achieved widespread publicity as president of “Club 20,” a consortium of businesses throughout the Western Slope. In addition, Walcher has received the endorsement of former Sen. (1978-90) Bill Armstrong (R.-Colo.), a much-revered figure on the right on whose Washington staff Walcher served for eight years.
Joining Walcher in the primary are State Sen. Ron Teck of Grand Junction and Pueblo County Sheriff Dan Corsentino. Like Walcher, both are considered strong conservatives but would have different assets in a contested primary. As chairman of the Joint Budget Committee in the legislature, Teck won high marks for working with Gov. Owens to slash government spending and get deficit-riddled Colorado through the last fiscal year without a tax increase. Corsentino has consistently been a popular vote-getter in the district’s most popular county.
Although not yet announced, State Rep. Matt Smith of Grand Junction, McInnis’s brother-in-law, is also considered a near-certain candidate. Their relationship aside, McInnis has signaled he will not endorse Smith and will remain neutral in the primary. However, wife Lori McInnis is very likely to endorse and campaign hard for her brother.
No fewer than six other Republicans are being boomed for the open 3rd, among them House Speaker Lola Spradley of Beulah (who would have to relinquish her gavel, since the legislative session next year lasts for five months that will be crucial to a campaign).
The chances of Democrats’ electing a congressman from the 3rd for the first time in more than a decade are hazy at this time. State Democrats are challenging the Republican-sculpted district map, which carved up heavily Democratic Pueblo and left part of it in the 3rd District. The state Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments last month on the constitutionality of the map.
This has not, however, discouraged talk of strong Democratic contenders vying for the open seat. Among the names mentioned on the Democratic side are those of businessman and former lieutenant governor candidate Bernie Buescher and state legislator John Salazar, brother of State Atty. Gen. (and likely ’06 Democratic gubernatorial nominee) Ken Salazar.
THE NEW JERSEY DILEMMA
State Sen. John Bennett has never been popular with conservatives in the Republican Party. When he sought the Republican nomination for Congress in the open 12th District (Middlesex-Monmouth Counties) in 1996, then-Majority Leader Bennett seemed a sure bet for the nomination. But conservative primary foe Mike Pappas slammed Bennett for being pro-abortion and for voting for many of the same taxes he was then supporting Christine Todd Whitman‘s efforts to repeal.
“If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks,” proclaimed a talking duck in Pappas’s unforgettable radio spots, “it’s a duck. If he votes to raise taxes, he’s a liberal. You’re a liberal, John Bennett, quack, quack! You’re a liberal!”
Pappas beat “congressman-apparent” Bennett by 38.2% to 34% in a four-candidate field.
Seven years later, Bennett-now senate president-is a key figure in the battle to decide which party rules this fall in the evenly divided, 40-member state senate. He faces a stiff challenge in his Monmouth County district from liberal Democrat Ellen Karcher, Marlboro Township Council President. In the June primary, conservative insurgent Richard Pezzullo rolled up a handsome 42% of the vote against the liberal Bennett. Now, whether those 2,700 Pezzullo voters swallow their animosity toward Bennett may well depend on whether he survives the challenge from Karcher and Republicans rule the senate. Further complicating the political picture is that Bennett is the subject of federal and state probes into whether he double-billed Marlboro Township while serving as its attorney.
For his part, Pezzullo told the Trenton Times he is actively working against Karcher, but “[there] are some numbers of my supporters who for deeply personal reasons will never vote for Bennett.”
CHANGING HOOSIER PICTURE
The funeral for late Indiana Democratic Gov. Frank O’Bannon had barely concluded when discussions began in both parties over how much the two-term Democratic chief executive’s death on September 14 had changed the political picture in the state.
With the popular O’Bannon barred from seeking a third consecutive term this year, former Democratic National Chairman Joe Andrew was considered his party’s most likely Democratic nominee for governor. Although well-known in party circles as top aide to the secretary of state and state party chairman, the 43-year-old Andrew has neither held nor sought elective office, so Republican hopes of recapturing the governorship from which they had been shut out for 16 straight years were running high.
Now, no one is quite sure, even though O’Bannon’s Democratic lieutenant governor, Joe Kernan, has assumed the state’s top office. Although the 57-year-old Kernan had initially ruled out a bid for the top job himself and been exploring management of a professional sports team in South Bend, the new governor is now sending out signals that he is not so committed to a return to the private sector and may just run for a full term of his own. A onetime Vietnam prisoner of war and winner of the Distinguished Flying Cross and Navy Commendation Medal, Kernan-like retired General and Democratic presidential hopeful Wesley Clark-is a Democrat whose liberal views are often overlooked because voters are focused on his life in uniform.
The unfortunate scenario of facing Kernan instead of Andrew comes at a time when Hoosier Republicans have just gotten their gubernatorial house in order. Fears of a divisive primary were put to rest recently when former Rep. (1994-2000) and 2000 Republican nominee for governor David McIntosh announced that he would not run again and strongly endorsed the only other GOP contender, former Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels. With the nomination his for the asking, Daniels also got a recent boost from George W. Bush who, during a swing through Indiana referred to the former budget chief as “my man Mitch.”