Gizzi on Politics: May 19-23

“Iron Man” of B-Team In LA-4

An increasing problem for Republicans this year that is that, for whatever reason, their “A-Team” candidates are saying “thanks-but-no-thanks” to races in House districts where GOP incumbents are retiring. While most national polls show John McCain either running ahead of or barely trailing Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, the same surveys show that voters nationwide prefer generic Democratic candidates for Congress over Republicans. Coupled with the seven-to-one spending advantage that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee now enjoys over the National Republican Congressional Committee and the recent three straight GOP defeats in special elections for the U.S. House, it is not difficult to understand why first-tier Republican candidates are passing on running for Congress.

For the seats relinquished by New York Republican Representatives. Tom Reynolds and James Walsh, the candidates regarded as certain winners of the GOP nomination opted against running. In Ohio’s 15th District (Columbus), where Republican Rep. Deborah Pryce is stepping down, former State Atty. Gen. Jim Petro passed on almost-certain nomination by fellow GOPers. Several Pennsylvania districts formerly in Republican hands that were won by Democrats in ’06 are going to be contested by “ B-Team” Republicans in ’08.

In Louisiana’s 4th District (Shreveport), where Republican Rep. Jim McCrery is retiring after 20 years, the smart money had it that either Jerry Jones or Steve Prator would be his GOP successor. After all, attorney Jones was well known from a strong race for mayor of Shreveport last year and Prator had almost folk-hero status as sheriff of Cato Parish (county).

But the smart money didn’t take into account that neither was willing to run in ’06, so the race for the all-important Republican nomination this September is among three candidates who have not held or sought elective office before. All signs now point to Chris Gorman, business executive and one-time high-school football star, as the front-runner.

During a recent visit to my office, the 39-year-old Gorman freely admitted that his involvement in politics did not extend much beyond making occasional donations to candidates. However, through contacts made as executive vice-president of a family-owned trucking company that is now one of Louisiana’s largest employers and his hard-line anti-tax stand, Gorman has so far raised $400,000 for his primary campaign. Indeed, the hard-driving Gorman sometimes seems to be “Tony Stark”—the industrialist who becomes the superhero Iron Man in the new hit film—come to life.

An Anti-Tax Agenda

A graduate of Christian Academy (where he won All-State honors in football and was active in 4-H), Gorman earned a degree in computer information systems from the University of North Texas and later studied in the Executive MBA Program at Harvard Business School. In 2003, he joined his father and brother in Tango Transport, the trucking company that is now one of the state’s leading businesses.

Gorman is running on a distinct free-market platform: The businessman-candidate favors making the Bush tax cuts permanent, abolishing the death tax, capital gains taxes, and the Alternative Minimum Tax. On the last measure, he is most passionate because “the AMT almost killed my family business a few years back. Only through accelerated depreciation did we survive.”

To promote these beliefs, the Louisianan is anxious to join the congressional caucus led by conservative Republican Representatives Phil English (Pa.) and Pete Sessions (Tex.) dedicated to abolishing the AMT. In response to the usual question of how to handle losing the huge revenue generated by the 37-year-old tax, Gorman shot back: “I guess then we’d have to then abolish a few programs and agencies, wouldn’t we?”

Gorman’s two opponents are trial attorney Jeff Thompson and physician John Fleming, neither of whom has come close to him in terms of money raised or spelling out specific issue stands. In contrast to other seemingly secure Republican districts—notably the Pelican State’s 6th District that Democrats picked up in a special election two weeks ago—there is no heavyweight Democrat running in the 4th District and winning the Republican primary appears to be tantamount to succeeding McCrery.

No Keyes to Victory

Last month, the small, but staunchly conservative Constitution Party held its national convention in Kansas City, Mo. Formerly the U.S. Taxpayers Party and founded by Conservative Caucus National Chairman Howard Phillips, the Constitution Party has been participating in presidential elections since 1992 and has ballot access in all but a handful of states (or its candidate is carried on the ballot by affiliated state parties, such as the 40-year-old American Party in California).

The answer to why such a small party that has barely achieved 1% of the vote nationally should be noticed in national reports, is easy: “Ask Ralph Nader.” Running as an independent in the photo-finish election of 2000, Nader, many Democrats believe, may have taken enough votes that would have gone to Al Gore in key states to tip their electoral votes to George W. Bush.

To the surprise of national observers, the nomination of the Constitution Party went not to Alan Keyes—renegade frequent Republican presidential candidate, and GOP U.S. Senate nominee in both Maryland and Illinois—but to the relatively unknown Chuck Baldwin. In fact, the balloting was not even close: Pensacola minister and radio talk show host Baldwin defeated Keyes by 383.8 votes to 125.7. Keyes, in fact, did not even stay for the vote, leaving the convention early.

Party chieftain Phillips later explained to me that, Keyes’ name recognition notwithstanding, “it just was not a good fit.” He noted that the party’s platform is based on solid constitutional principles, that it opposes entangling alliances overseas and favors getting out of the United Nations.

“Alan is a good man but he is also a critic of [Texas Republican Rep.] Ron Paul, supports a permanent U.S. presence in the Middle East, the fair tax and the UN, and he favors revival of the draft,” Phillips told me. “That’s certainly not where we are coming from in the Constitution Party and if Alan were to be nominated, a lot of people would say ‘he’s just another neo-con.’” Phillips added that he tried to explain this to the former Republican candidate “in several phone calls and sit-downs.” Of Keyes’ abrupt exit from the convention, Phillips said, “He doesn’t take defeat well.”

It’s Ozinga

To no one’s surprise, Republican Party leaders in Illinois’s 11th District picked contractor Martin Ozinga to fill the U.S. House nomination vacated by New Lenox Mayor Tim Balderman. Under state election law, the party chairmen of the seven district counties voted to fill the vacancy and, according to Will County Chairman Dick Kavanagh, “the vote was unanimous.”

Kavanagh admitted to me that the late-starting Ozinga would have a hard time keeping the seat from which seven-term Republican Rep. Jerry Weller is retiring. Democratic State Sen. Debbie Halvorsen has raised more than $500,000, he noted, and is a strong favorite of organized labor and the pro-abortion EMILY’s List.

“But don’t write off Marty Ozinga—not by a long shot,” Kavanagh insisted. “He can call his Christmas card list and raise the money to go toe-to-toe with Halvorsen.” As to charges from GOP critics that Ozinga was somehow less than conservative because he has a history of contributing to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and other Democrats, the Will County GOP leader insisted that meant nothing, that “Marty is a stalwart conservative on social and economic issues and will proudly carry the conservative banner.”