Races of the WeekKennedy vs. Wetterling

One thing has to be said for two-term GOP Rep. Mark Kennedy of Minnesota: He has always had a competitive race. In 2000, CPA and Pillsbury executive Kennedy was one of two Republicans anywhere to unseat a Democratic House member. By only 155 votes out of more than 177,000 cast, first time candidate Kennedy unseated four-term Rep. David Minge. Two years later, redistricting moved the bulk of Republican voters in his 2nd District to the neighboring district, where Democratic Rep. Bill Luther had barely survived a challenge in ’00. With his home about 800 yards outside the adjacent and far more Republican district, Kennedy could easily have moved and finished off Luther. But he remained in his home in the much more competitive district (“where my kids were going to school”) and left the GOP nomination against Luther to fellow conservative GOPer John Kline, who went on to triumph over the incumbent. Kennedy also won that fall, defeating a Democrat who spent an estimated $2 million of her own money on the race.

Now 47 and seeking his third term, Kennedy (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 90%) faces a different kind of Democratic challenger: Patty Wetterling, who became a nationwide symbol for parents of missing children when son Jacob was abducted and never seen again. Like Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D.-N.Y.), who lost her husband to a gunman on the Long Island Railroad, Wetterling attracts support and favorable publicity less for her issue stands than for her sad, very personal loss. But publicity she gets. The Gopher State hopeful was a featured speaker at the Democratic National Convention in Boston and so far has raised more than $400,000.

But, even in an era when candidates often are introduced by their spouses and children and when personal experience seems to take precedence over professional expertise, issues still have a lot to do with campaigns. It is in the realm of issues that voters can clearly see the differences between Mark Kennedy and Patty Wetterling. The incumbent is strongly pro-life, while the challenger says without hesitation, “I am pro-choice. ” Kennedy has voted for constitutionally defining marriage, but Wetterling says she would “have a very difficult time voting” for it. Kennedy is a stalwart booster of the Bush tax cuts, but Wetterling says of lower taxes: “Taxes are part of the privilege of living with the freedoms that we all share.”

Is it no surprise, then, that the AFL-CIO’s COPE, the National Education Association, and the American Federation of Teachers are all firmly in Wetterling’s camp.

A member of the House Financial Services and Transportation Committees, Mark Kennedy hasn’t changed much from the accountant who knew how to read balance sheets and the executive who knew how to hire and fire when he came to Washington four years ago. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has dubbed the Minnesotan one of three members of Congress who are “enemies of New York” for his insistence on eliminating Amtrak funding. Kennedy is also a relentless champion of the base-closing commission (“It’s the Department of Defense, not the Department of Economic Development!”) and repeatedly encourages the President to veto any excessive spending bill, promising to personally “round up the votes you need to sustain any veto.”

Mark Kennedy cannot, to be sure, match the kind of rare and tragic personal saga that Patty Wetterling has lived. As Kennedy says, “You are what you are.” What he is about is applying a no-nonsense, capitalist approach to government and saving the taxpayers money. And that’s why conservatives should rally to Mark Kennedy in what is surely his moment of need.