Campaign '08 Begins for U.S. House

Less than a month after the ’06 elections that saw Democrats take the U.S. House for the first time in 12 years, Republicans are already eyeing districts they can possibly recapture in ’08.

In New York, for example, three Republican-held House districts went from Republican to Democrat: the 24th District of retiring Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, which Democrat Michael Arcuri won; the 20th District, where lawyer and Hudson-area Democratic activist Kirsten Gillibrand unseated Republican Rep. John Sweeney; and the 19th District, where 12-year Rep. Sue Kelly fell to Democrat John Hall, singer and entertainer. No sooner was the ink dry on the certificate of election of all three Democrats than talk of who would carry the Republican banner in the districts next time began.

In the 24th, where liberal GOPer Boehlert had served for 24 years after succeeding two other Republican House members, Oneida County District Attorney Arcuri made history by defeating State Sen. Ray Meier and putting the upstate district in Democratic hands. With Republicans still reeling from the loss, discussion about an ’08 nominee has already quietly begun. One possibility is Patrick Brennan, who is just finishing a stint as commissioner of agriculture under outgoing Gov. George Pataki. Paris, N.Y., farmer Brennan, generally described as more conservative than Pataki, is a past regional head of the Rural Development office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The 39-year-old Gillibrand’s upset of Sweeney was unexpected and dramatic. At one point, the Democratic hopeful aired a black-and-white TV spot featuring an actor who looked and sounded hauntingly like the late Edward R. Murrow, denouncing Sweeney for his attacks on Gillibrand and her family and reminding voters that someone stood up to the “biggest bully of our time” and said, “Have you no sense of decency?” (a reference to attorney Joseph Welch’s famed televised encounter with Sen. Joseph McCarthy).

Although the Almanac of American Politics once described four-termer Sweeney as “the member of the [New York] delegation closest to Pataki” and said he “ is on friendly terms with the Bush White House,” that did not count for much in ’06. In addition, Sweeney was plagued by reports of weekend ski trips with lobbyists—nothing illegal, but incendiary-appearing in the year of Jack Abramoff.

Sweeney’s loss came as John Faso was carrying the Republican and Conservative ballot lines for governor and managed only 29% of the vote against Democrat Gov.-elect Eliot Spitzer. Eight years ago, when the late Rep. (1978-98) Jerry Solomon (R.-N.Y.) announced his retirement, then-state Assemblyman Faso was considered his heir. But Faso—who had discussed with me the possibility of running for Congress numerous times—stunned pundits and pols by announcing he would not run because, only two months before Solomon’s announced exit, he had taken the position of assembly minority leader. As Faso told me at the time, “I don’t start jobs I don’t finish.”

In ’02, Faso lost a heart-breakingly close race for controller, joined a Manhattan law firm and then ran for governor this year—forcing Massachusetts import and past Bay State Gov. William Weld and others out of the race, but eventually losing a hopeless contest to Spitzer. Rather than dub him a loser or has-been, however, most conservatives I talked to are eager for Faso to make the race they felt he should have made eight years ago and take on Rep. Gillibrand in ’08.

“He can probably have the Republican and Conservative lines for Congress in ’08, if that’s what John wants to do,” New York Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long told me.

Will Ari Run?

The Westchester-county-based 24th District could be a focus of national attention if one Republican in particular makes the race: Ari Fleischer, one-time press secretary to George W. Bush, left the White House in 2003 and returned to his home county to do communications consulting (at one point, he advised major league baseball teams on public relations matters), write his memoir of the Bush White House and take on speaking engagements and TV commentary.

Friends of Fleischer note that the Westchester native has done just about everything congressional—managed campaigns, worked as a press secretary in both houses of Congress and served as a field operative for the National Republican Congressional Committee—except run for Congress himself. Kelly’s defeat at the hands of Hall now opens up that opportunity for him.

Fleischer isn’t saying anything about any political plans, but fellow New Yorkers who know him well bet that he will make the House race in ’08. As Larry Casey, onetime top aide to former New York Republican Rep. George Wortley and a canny political operative, told me: “Ari is the natural and best candidate for Congress from Westchester and, if he chooses to run, the obvious Republican candidate.”

Did Greens Save Michigan Senate for GOP?

To put it in political shorthand, if you want to know how Democrats lost the Michigan senate, color it Green.

The senate’s line-up of 21 Republicans and 17 Democrats could easily have turned into a 19-seats-each tie between the two parties, and that would have meant Democratic rule, since Democrat Lt. Gov. Jim Cherry would have cast the tie-breaking vote. Democrats may well have achieved this goal had it not been for the Green Party. In the two tightest senate races, candidates of the small, rabidly pro-environment and anti-war Green Party drew vote totals larger than the difference between the winning Republicans and losing Democrats.

In the Saginaw-area senate district, Republican Roger Kahn emerged victorious by 520 votes, or a half-a-percentage point. Green Party candidate Lloyd Clarke drew 2.5% of the vote following a vigorous campaign in which he visited more than 6,000 homes.

In Oakland County, former state Rep. and conservative Republican John Pappageorge won by 776 votes, two-thirds of 1% of the vote out of more than 100,000 votes cast. Again, the Green Party candidate appeared to make the difference: Kyle McBee, a vigorous opponent of the Iraq War, drew 2.7% of the vote.

The Oakland County contest had implications far beyond the senate district. Pappageorge had waged three strong-but-losing races against longtime Democratic U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, drawing 46% in 1992, 47% in ’94, and 41% in ’96. In this year’s state senate race, Pappageorge edged out none other than Andrew Levin, son of Sander and nephew of U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D.-Mich.). Had young Levin won, speculation would have been rampant that his father—who was the Democratic nominee for governor in 1970 and ’74, has been in the House for 24 years and is now 75—would have retired in ’08 and paved the way for Andrew to succeed him.

The Last Races

The year’s political contests ended last week when former Democratic Rep. Ciro Rodriguez unseated Republican Rep. Henry Bonilla in the run-off for Texas’s 23rd District (San Antonio). Seven-termer Bonilla (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 91%) had led in the initial balloting in November with 49% of the vote, but since he did not win a majority, he had to face a run-off with Rodriguez, who represented the neighboring Laredo-based district from 1996 until he lost renomination to fellow Democrat Henry Cuellar in ’04. Earlier this year, Rodriguez lost a rematch to Cuellar. But when the Supreme Court ruled that redistricting had diluted minority strength in Bonilla’s 23rd District and ordered a fresh election, Rodriguez (lifetime ACU rating: 11%) relocated there and took on Bonilla.

Rodriguez’s win came three days after scandal-racked Democratic Rep. William Jefferson won a run-off in Louisiana’s 2nd District (New Orleans). Jefferson, whose home and office were raided as part of an FBI corruption probe, rolled up 62% of the vote over state legislator and fellow Democrat Karen Carter.