It was almost the perfect television ad for a conservative candidate, hitting cultural issues certain to drive a wedge between Middle American voters and liberal Democrats.
“A lifetime of Hoosier values, a southwest Indiana native, Brad Ellsworth knows faith and family comes first,” said the narrator.
A series of photos flashed on the screen showing Ellsworth as a little boy, with his wife and daughter, chatting with seniors, carrying a shotgun in his hunting gear, working with teenage students, and wearing the uniform of a law enforcement officer.
“Opposes abortion, and supports traditional marriage,” the narrator continued, “a hunter who supports the 2nd Amendment, who will fight to protect our kids from violence and filth on TV and the Internet—because for a local sheriff like Brad it’s always about listening and putting families like yours first.”
The ad never revealed the party to which Ellsworth belonged, but its culturally conservative message would surely burn the ears of any good San Francisco Democrat.
On Tuesday, Ellsworth defeated Rep. John Hostettler, the Indiana Republican. His victory helped Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats take a majority in the House of Representatives.
Ellsworth was not the only Democratic challenger who defeated a Republican incumbent by running right on cultural issues. Democrat Joe Donnelly defeated Rep. Chris Chocola, another Indiana Republican, the same way.
“I believe that being pro-life means promoting life at every stage, from conception until natural death,” Donnelly said on his campaign website. “I will always vote according to my faith and my conscience on life issues.”
“I believe in and support the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees us the right to possess guns,” said Donnelly.
In North Carolina, former NFL quarterback Heath Shuler ran a similar campaign to defeat Republican Rep. Charles Taylor. Shuler shouted out his support for the Second Amendment and his opposition to the Supreme Court’s infamous Kelo v. New London decision.
“I strongly disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision in the Kelo case and I will never support using eminent domain to take away any individual’s private property for the benefit of another individual or corporation,” Shuler said.
Like Ellsworth and Donnelly, Shuler is an outspoken pro-lifer. The New York Times even reported that Shuler did not hesitate when asked if he could envision the Democratic Party adopting a pro-life platform. “I’m pro-life and I’m part of the Democratic Party, so I hope it’s part of the platform,” he said. “Someone needs to lead.”
Each of these winning Democratic candidates took a hard-line on illegal immigration, tacking right of President Bush on this issue.
“Illegal immigration costs American taxpayers approximately $70 billion a year in financial assistance for welfare benefits, health care, education, and domestic crime-fighting,” Shuler said. “I do not support granting amnesty to people who have broken the law.”
“I do not support amnesty,” said Donnelly. “I support more border agents, increased funding for surveillance and fencing that will prevent immigrants from illegally entering our country.”
“We need to tighten our borders, enforce the laws we have, and punish employers who break them,” said Ellsworth.
Despite the Democratic victory, Red State America is alive and well. The deep cultural divide that caused the Electoral College map to be painted in almost equal blocks of red and blue in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections has not disappeared.
Several factors allowed Democrats to make gains in Red States. One was the Democrats’ willingness to run conservatives such as Ellsworth, Donnelly and Shuler in conservative districts. Another was the scandals that plagued the GOP, costing them seats they otherwise would have easily held, including those of convicted Rep. Rob Ney of Ohio and former Representatives Mark Foley of Florida and Tom DeLay of Texas.
But the biggest factor was discontent with the war in Iraq. Had a stable government already been established in Iraq, and were U.S. troops no longer suffering casualties there, the Democrats would have had little chance of winning a majority Tuesday.
But in voting for Democrats like Ellsworth, Donnelly and Shuler, Red State swing voters were not signaling support for a radical pendulum swing to an unrealistic “cut and run” policy.
“We cannot leave a political vacuum in Iraq and threaten to further destabilize the entire region,” said Shuler.
America needs a tough, realistic, sustainable, bi-artisan foreign policy to protect our interests in the post-9/11 world. This election shows we haven’t found that policy yet. It may also show that a policy based on promoting democracy abroad, especially if it requires the use of military force, cannot be sustained for long precisely because we have a democracy here at home.