Races of the Week September 25

Florida’s 16th District

Rooney vs. Mahoney

“When I got out of law school at Miami University, I was talking to my younger brother Brian," recalled Republican U.S. House hopeful Tom Rooney. “He told me I should follow him and join the Marines. When I told him I was 27 and possibly too old for the Marines, I decided to join the Army. And then I told my girlfriend Tara. She said it was fine, but only if she enlisted as well. So we both joined and entered the Judge Advocate Corps. Aside from the fact she made captain before I did and I had to salute and call her ‘Ma’am,’ it was a great experience.”

Tom Rooney’s reminiscences about his early sense of duty says it all about why he decided to run for Congress from Florida’s 16th District. At age 37, he is married to the woman he once saluted and called “Ma’am” and is the father of three sons. After a stint as a prosecutor under Florida Atty. Gen. (and now Gov.) Charlie Crist, Rooney had a thriving law practice in Stuart, Fla.

“But I took a look at my congressman,” said Rooney of Democrat Tim Mahoney (who won the district two years ago after scandal had brought down Republican Rep. Mark Foley), “and I saw him voting with Speaker Nancy Pelosi 90% of the time. Now I grew up listening to President Reagan tell the country that government was not the answer to all our problems. And I taught constitutional law at West Point. Article I of the Constitution makes it clear government is not the answer to everything. If you vote with Pelosi that often, you sure don’t have that philosophy.”

So the grandson of Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney ran for Congress and won the Republican primary over two opponents. In facing one-termer Mahoney, his message is succinct and straightforward: Lower taxes, expanded drilling for oil, seek private-sector solutions to problems whenever possible, and stand with the U.S. troops in Iraq. “It’s never a mistake when someone dies for your country.”

Numerous pundits have dubbed this race one of the best opportunities anywhere for a Republican pickup in the U.S. House. Since Mahoney won a historically Republican district under flukish circumstances, the natural conclusion is that it will revert to the GOP. But Tom Rooney, with his military background, takes nothing for granted. As he put it, “It will revert to the Republicans if conservatives do everything they can here between now and November.”

Wisconsin’s 6th District

Gard vs. Kagen

Since World War II, Wisconsin’s 8th District (Green Bay-Appleton) has sent Democrats to Congress a grand total of three times: in the so-called “Watergate Year” of 1974 and in the very Democratic mid-term election years of 1998 and 2006. The shelf-life of Democrats in this district is not long. Robert Cornell, one of two Roman Catholic priests to serve in Congress in the last century, was congressman for two terms until his defeat in 1978. Jay Johnson, a popular TV newscaster, was the Democratic congressman for one term until his defeat in 2000.

And now there’s Dr. Steve Kagen, the physician who in ’06 deployed his own resources ($2.6 million of the $3.2 million he spent came out of his own pocket) and won the open district by about 6,000 votes — 51% to 49%. That year, conservatives warned that if Dr. Kagen overcame State Assembly Speaker John Gard and made it to Congress, he would quickly be known as “Howard Dean Lite.” He did, and he has.

It’s not so much that, like the fellow M.D. who is Democratic national chairman, Kagen is an over-the-top-leftist. He is that, all right: opposing drilling for oil in Alaska, supporting using tax dollars for abortion, and backing the killing all of the Bush tax cuts. Rather, it is his public behavior toward political opponents, which can sometimes come off like Dean’s notorious scream in ’04. Shortly after his election, Kagen bragged to fellow anti-war activists that he had confronted Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove in the men’s room during a reception at the mansion. The newly minted congressman went on to boast how he had offended First Lady Laura Bush by calling her by the name of her mother-in-law, Barbara Bush.

The problems with this were twofold: First, the editor of an alternative publication known as The Scene was present and reported Kagen’s claims and second, they were apparently not true. The White House issued a statement denying that the confrontations Kagen described had taken place and, after a few days of evasive explanations, Kagen apologized in a letter to constituents.

Now John Gard is back for a rematch and, as he put it, “there are so many differences between us that voters are going to have a very clear choice again. The difference from ’06 is that it’s not going to be a terrible year for Republicans and this time, we’ll be ready for Kagen, no matter what he spends.” Gard noted that in three of the four reporting periods in this election cycle, he had out-raised the millionaire-physician-congressman.

So the former state legislator blitzes the district, vividly contrasting Kagen’s undiluted leftism with his conservative positions — opposing abortion in all circumstances except the life of the mother, for cutting taxes “wherever we can,” and exploring fresh sources of energy “wherever we can.”

Asked how he can bounce back after a flood of personal wealth narrowly brought him down to years ago, the 45-year-old Gard says, “It’s because I have a passion for politics, which I first acquired as a college kid campaigning for Ronald Reagan. And I want to bring that passion to Washington.” 

New Hampshire’s U.S. Senate Race

Sununu vs. Shaheen

The betting in New Hampshire for much of this year has been that in the “rematch of champions” — the Senate battle between conservative Republican John Sununu and liberal Democrat Jeanne Shaheen — the result will be the reverse of their first contest in ’02. That year, in one of the clearest ideological clashes in any Senate race that year, three-term Rep. Sununu narrowly beat three-term Gov. Shaheen, 50% to 48%. Then came the ’06 elections, in which Granite State Democrats won the governorship, both U.S. House districts, and majorities in both houses of the state legislature.

Clearly, the pundits said, the stage was set for Hillary Clinton Democrat Shaheen to turn the tables and defeat Sununu. And early polls showed her doing just that.

But it isn’t working out that way.

“That’s because voters are looking more carefully at the issues,” said Sununu, adding his belief that Democrats performed so well in his state and nationwide two years ago “because voters felt we Republicans could have done a better job at controlling spending and, when we didn’t, they were disappointed.”

Few voters can be disappointed with John Sununu on the issues of spending or taxes, for he has consistently voted against expanding government and has never voted for a tax increase.
On those issues, Shaheen, who, as governor, effectively doubled state spending from $1 billion to $2 billion and tried unsuccessfully to bring a sales tax to New Hampshire, is Sununu’s opposite number.

In terms of solving the energy crisis, Sununu favors everything to try to bring oil prices down: lifting the ban on offshore drilling, exploring in the Arctic Natural Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), and pursuing new avenues of energy supplies. On the first two, Shaheen is his polar opposite and, as the senator points out, “She wants a windfall profits tax on oil — taking us back to the Carter era of the 1970s, with those long lines at the pump.”

Completing the differences between the protagonists is national security. Like John McCain, John Sununu suffered politically for supporting the U.S. action in Iraq when things looked bleak. Now signs are strong that the U.S. is winning. And Shaheen? In Sununu’s words, “In ’02, she said she supported President Bush on national security issues. This year, after she backed Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary and is now running on a ticket with Barack Obama, I would say her stand has changed.”

What has also changed are the political dynamics of the Senate race in New Hampshire. John Sununu was written off as political toast in ’06 and has rebounded through his New England never-give-up tenacity and through his positions on what is most important of all: the issues.