2006 Looms as a Test Of National vs. Local Issues

By Chris Cillizza
Sunday, December 11, 2005

"All politics is local," the late House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) liked to say. He should have added, "except when it isn't."

As both major parties gear up for the 2006 midterm elections, a crucial strategic divide is emerging in the battle for the House. Democrats -- led by Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee -- are insisting that national issues such as the war in Iraq, corruption in Congress and President Bush's approval ratings will be dominant in voters' minds next year. Republicans insist recent history shows that local issues, not national waves, determine who wins.

Who's right? That won't be known until next November, but both sides are busy marshaling their arguments for a campaign likely to be watched closely as political scientists and operatives study the effectiveness of "nationalizing" midterm elections.

The Democratic view is summed up by a memo that Emanuel distributed to colleagues earlier this month, offering his marching orders for the midterms.

He thinks two words will doom GOP incumbents: "rubber stamp." He wants Democratic candidates to make their opponents pay for being consistent backers of President Bush's agenda over his first 4 1/2 years. Bush's low national approval ratings, by these lights, leave anyone identified with him in a precarious position.

"The DCCC 'rubber stamp' message is also a strategic lynch pin in our goal to nationalize the elections," writes Emanuel. "A nationalized election labeling Republicans as rubber stamps and Democrats as agents of change is absolutely key to our success in 2006."

Democrats recently released a study showing that congressional Republicans have voted with the president at a higher rate than any majority party in the past 25 years. The DCCC also funded radio ads last month seeking to paint three Ohio Republicans -- Reps. Deborah Pryce, Steven C. LaTourette and Steve Chabot -- as lockstep supporters of Bush.

To hear Emanuel tell it, Republicans have two choices: adopt a national message of their own to blunt what Democrats are doing, or say, "We don't know George Bush, never met him."

Count the National Republican Congressional Committee's communications director, Carl Forti, as unconvinced by Emanuel's reasoning.

"Mr. Emanuel is spinning more than when he was a ballerina," Forti cracked, a reference to the Illinois congressman's training as a dancer.

To Forti, nationalized elections are so last decade; he noted that the last time a party tried to push a national theme was in 1998 when House Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich (Ga.) as speaker, cast the election as a referendum on the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. That strategy "failed miserably," said Forti; Democrats picked up five House seats.

Forti cited what is for GOP operatives becoming a familiar refrain: House members do not lose races because of something that another politician may or may not have done. "People don't go into a voting booth to pull a lever for Bush or anti-Bush or Republican versus Democrat," he said. "They go into the voting booth to vote for a person."

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