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Washington Drags at Lawmakers' Campaigns

Deficits, the Iraq war and the Foley scandal hurt House members seeking higher office.

October 15, 2006|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — For 10 years, Jim Gibbons has represented a big chunk of Nevada in Congress, enjoying the advantages of incumbency as he coasted to one easy reelection after another.

But as he tries to move up to statewide office this fall, Gibbons isn't promoting all those years spent in Washington. Instead, the Republican lawmaker has focused on attacking his Democratic opponent as a tax-raising liberal and talking up his knowledge of Nevada "corner to corner."

Asked about Congress, Gibbons replied brusquely: "I'm running for governor." A few moments later, however, he acknowledged, "You'd have to be kidding yourself [to] think that some of these media stories about what's happening back there aren't being viewed and watched here."

Gibbons, a square-jawed former airline pilot, is one of 16 House members -- nine of them Republican -- who have tried to move on to either a governorship or the Senate in this year's midterm election. Most have struggled in a political climate that nonpartisan pollster Andrew Kohut described as "anti-incumbent, anti-Washington, anti-Republican."

In Minnesota, where GOP Rep. Mark Kennedy trails badly in his Senate bid, being linked to Congress is like being strapped "to one of those 15th century torture devices" that squeeze tighter and tighter, said University of Minnesota political scientist Lawrence Jacobs.

In Colorado, where Republican Rep. Bob Beauprez is trying to become governor, "the Washington burden" has all but killed his chances, said Floyd Ciruli, an independent polltaker in Denver.

Even here in Nevada, where Gibbons is ahead in polls, Republicans fret that the Mark Foley sex scandal and other frustrations with the GOP-run Congress could depress party turnout and cost them an open governor's seat in Carson City.

"It's the 'X' factor of 2006," said Phil Musser, executive director of the Republican Governors Assn., which recently launched a TV ad assailing Gibbons' Democratic opponent, state Sen. Dina Titus, to help shore up his support. "It's no secret," Musser added, "that it's not the best year to be a member of Congress running."

Of the 16 House members who have sought higher office this year, two were eliminated in primaries, including Nebraska's legendary ex-football coach Tom Osborne, who lost to Republican Gov. Dave Heineman in a major upset. Most of the rest are locked in close contests, or else trail far behind their noncongressional opponents. (Two House Democrats running for Senate and governor in Ohio seem to be immune, thanks to the state's fiercely anti-Republican mood).

It is not just the controversies enveloping the GOP-run Congress that have burdened those seeking a political change of address, though they certainly haven't helped. Along with Foley, the Florida Republican who abruptly quit when his explicit messages to teenage House pages were made public, three other GOP members of Congress have been forced to resign during the current session, including former Rancho Santa Fe Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who is serving a federal prison term for bribery.

In Iowa, gubernatorial hopeful Jim Nussle, an eight-term Republican congressman, has had to explain the record deficits run up during his years as chairman of the House Budget Committee. Facing a tough challenge from Democratic Secretary of State Chet Culver, Nussle doesn't talk much about Washington. Instead, he stresses his years as a county prosecutor before being elected to Congress in 1990.

In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. James Doyle has called attention to the unpopular war in Iraq -- unduly politicizing it, critics say -- by flying state flags at half-staff for every Wisconsin soldier killed. He has lately pulled ahead of Republican Rep. Mark Green, who voted to support the invasion.

Democrats, too, are facing guilt by political association with Congress, which is suffering its worst approval ratings in more than a decade.

In Maryland, 10-term Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin has been blistered by his Republican rival, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, for the 20 years he has spent on Capitol Hill. "What you just watched was the problem of Washington," Steele said in a recent debate. "They run their mouths, but they do not listen."

But the larger weight of woes is being borne by Republicans. There are more of them aspiring to higher office, and -- as the party in power -- the GOP represents the status quo, which is not a helpful thing in this restive election season. "If you're unhappy, [elevating] a member of Congress is probably not the change you have in mind," said Jennifer Duffy, a nonpartisan analyst with the Cook Political Report.

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