Gizzi on Politics October 13, 2008

Fallout in Michigan 

When John McCain’s campaign stunned pundits and pols with the word it was giving up on Michigan — and did so on the eve of Sarah Palin’s debate with vice presidential rival Joe Biden — the move sent shock waves throughout the Water Wonderland. Not only did the apparent surrender of the state’s 17 electoral votes to Barack Obama upset Republican leaders from State Party Chairman Saul Anuzis on down, but there were added concerns about the two Republican U.S. representatives considered top Democratic targets in Michigan.

Increasing the attention on their political situations, both Representatives Tim Walberg and Joe Knollenberg had to cast votes on the controversial $700 billion financial bailout package that was then consuming Congress. Walberg voted “no” twice, while Knollenberg voted “no” on the first version of the package and “yes” on its successor that finally passed the House. So, after these dramatic developments, how are the two most endangered Republican House members from Michigan now doing?

Walberg Stands Firm

Rep. Walberg has always been well-liked by conservatives in and outside Michigan, but he earned a special place in the hearts of most of them when the freshman lawmaker voted twice against the $700 billion financial bailout package passed by the House and signed by President. Although 25 Republicans and 33 Democrats who had initially voted to kill the package switched to “aye,” Walberg remained a “no.”

Walberg’s re-election situation in the 7th District (Battle Creek) is tough. Two years after unseating a moderate Republican in the primary, Walberg faces the fight of his life from State Senate Democratic leader Mark Schauer. As Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson put it, “McCain threw the Republican Party here under the bus.” So what does endangered Republican Walberg think? “Some 90 percent of my mail and e-mails was against what they perceived as a bailout of Wall Street,” Walberg told me between campaign stops last Tuesday. “They saw it as increasing the deficit by $700 billion. So did I, especially with the earmarks that were added. And I felt that giving [Secretary of the Treasury] Hank Paulson control of that much money and that power without direction on how to use them was the wrong way to go.”

Walberg faulted the Bush Administration for not listening to Bill Isaac, the head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. under Ronald Reagan. Isaac had spoken to lawmakers of both parties and urged a solution to the financial crisis that rolled more capital into the institutions but did not hand all the authority to the Treasury Department the way the eventual bailout package did. Walberg also said that he might have been more sympathetic to the package “if it included a capital gains tax cut or a moratorium on capital gains taxes. And it could well have included a repeal of the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, which in effect forced banks to lend to people who could not pay mortgages.”

“But instead, we approached this in a socialistic way.”

As to voter response, the congressman said he had come from an address to a senior citizens center where “folks kept saying thank you for saying no to Congress’s spending more of our money.” He added that his Democratic opponent Schauer has said he would have voted the same way as Walberg on the bailout and “I wish he had taken that attitude about some of his votes in the state senate.”

One week before casting his most-watched vote since coming to Congress, Walberg got a jolt when former GOP Rep. Joe Schwarz, whom he unseated in ’06, announced he was crossing party lines to endorse Democrat Schauer. After losing renomination in ’06 after a race that focused on his pro-abortion stands and other non-conservative positions, Schwarz (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 59 percent) refused to endorse either Walberg or his Democratic opponent. This year, however, the physician and onetime Battle Creek mayor went much further.

“I didn’t expect his endorsement because of the last race,” Walberg told the Battle Creek Enquirer, “but I’m really surprised.”

Knollenberg Under Fire

In the race of his life against Democratic former State Sen. Gary Peters, Republican Rep. Joe Knollenberg at first voted “no” on the bailout package, but on the second vote, Knollenberg (lifetime ACU rating: 88 percent) like 24 other Republicans switched his vote.

“Our mail was initially against the bailout but it turned around,” explained Knollenberg press secretary Nate Bailey last week. Moreover, Bailey said, the eight-term congressman from the Oakland County area got phone calls from the CEOs of the “Big Three” automobile manufacturing companies: Bob Nardelli of Chrysler, Rick Wagner of General Motors, and Alan Mulally of Ford Motor.

Bailey told me that the auto company bosses explained “that their layoffs were directly related to the current crisis on Wall Street and that employees were having trouble getting credit from banks.” With so many auto company employees living in Knollenberg’s 8th District, the moribund Michigan economy and its 8.9 percent unemployment rate are felt particularly hard there. According to Bailey, more than 900 sheriff’s sales of homes took place in the district last month alone.

Democrat Peters, who lost a race for state attorney general by a wafer-thin margin in ’02, is actually outspending Knollenberg in the district. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, as well as several left-wing unions, have made Knollenberg a top target. The race is also drawing national attention because of the independent candidate in the race: Dr. Jack Kevorkian, internationally known suicide promoter.

The Last Primaries

Postponed for two weeks out of fear of Hurricane Gustav, the Louisiana primaries were held last week. In the last selection of nominees for Congress this election year, most national attention was on 18-year Democratic Rep. Bill Jefferson in the 1st District (New Orleans) because of his indictment on bribery charges.

The first African-American to represent Louisiana in Congress topped a seven-candidate Democratic field with 25 percent of the vote. Since he did not receive a majority of the votes, Jefferson will face runner-up (20 percent) Helena Moreno, a TV anchorwoman, in a November 4 run-off.

Two years ago, while under investigation but not yet indicted, Jefferson won renomination and re-election in this district that is 64 percent black, 30 percent white, and 4 percent Hispanic (Moreno was born in Veracruz, Mexico). Whether the circumstances have changed enough since Jefferson’s indictment, and whether the third-place finisher (17 percent) State Rep. Cedric Richmond endorses Moreno or Jefferson will be key to the fate of the embattled congressman.

In the 4th District (Shreveport), District Attorney Paul Carmouche had been courted by national Democrats as their best chance to pick up the seat of retiring Republican Rep. Jim McCrery. The primary was thought a cinch for Carmouche, but the prosecutor came up just shy of the needed majority and must now meet the runner-up, retired Army Col. Willie Banks, in the November run-off.

On the Republican side, physician Barry Fleming and trucking executive Chris Gorman placed one-two (35 percent to 34 percent ) and will take their battle into the run-off. Their contest is expected to focus on the issue of illegal immigration. Fleming has proposed a transportation system to bus immigrants who have first been screened into the country as laborers, while Gorman has taken a hard-line, border security-first position.

Running third (31 percent) in the GOP primary was trial attorney Jeff Thompson, who had the endorsement of McCrery. Neither Thompson nor the outgoing congressman is expected to get involved in the Fleming-Gorman run-off.