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Associated Press/Photo by Al Grillo

Grand New Party

Congress | Earmarks are out, ethics reform is in-but can the GOP remake its image by November?

Issue: "Four horsemen of the apocalypse," Oct. 4, 2008

During John McCain's speech at the Republican National Convention, he promised to veto the kind of me-first, country-second pork-barrel spending that many legislators have used to help keep themselves in office over the years. He vowed to make the names of such earmark gluttons famous-or infamous, as the case may be.

Debbie Joslin, president of Eagle Forum Alaska and the state's Republican national committeewoman, stood among the throng at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., and watched in amazement as her fellow representatives from Alaska cheered and hollered their approval-seemingly unaware that their party's U.S. Senate nominee Ted Stevens could serve as poster boy for McCain's campaign of fury.

Such is the depth of Stevens' political roots in the country's northernmost state, which he has represented in the Senate since 1968. Never mind that the chamber's longest-serving member embodies the antithesis of the GOP presidential ticket's reform emphasis. Never mind that he faces indictment for seven counts of failing to report gifts on his financial disclosure forms, a violation of the Ethics in Government Act. Such realities seem to matter little in a state where the largest airport bears Stevens' name and every business owner and common citizen seems to have a story of how the career legislator personally served their interests.

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Even the National Republican Senatorial Committee is unapologetic in its endorsement of Stevens, extolling his commitment to "do what's best for Alaska." That motto has led the 84-year-old to pull billions of federal dollars into the state for projects many critics say would have been better left undone.

Polls show the GOP incumbent in a neck-and-neck race with Democratic challenger Mark Begich. "Many Republicans still love him," Joslin said. "When I tell people that Ted Stevens is pro-abortion, they're surprised, because they really don't pay attention to anything except how much money he brings home."

Of course, not all past supporters of Stevens remain loyal to the candidate. In his last two victories in 2002 and 1996, he secured more than 75 percent of the vote. Polls suggest that number has descended into the mid-40s.

No matter whether Stevens wins this fall, his political decline is indicative of a changing GOP. The one-time campaign asset of bringing home the bacon has become a liability. Ethics reform is in vogue, as evidenced by the rapid rise to national stardom of another Alaska politician, Gov. Sarah Palin.

In congressional races throughout the country, Republican incumbents are running against their former selves, reinventing a party of which the country seems to have wearied. In some quarters, the strategy is working: Polls show that the electorate's generic preference of congressional Democrats to congressional Republicans has narrowed to single digits from the 15 percent advantage seen earlier in the year.

Still, Democrats are likely to pick up seats in both the Senate and House of Representatives-though the possibility of grabbing a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate now appears remote. To reach the 60 seats necessary for a two-thirds Senate majority, Democrats need a net gain of nine seats-a development that would require a few steals.

One Democrat angling for such a surprise showing is comedian Al Franken, whose fundraising ability and considerable national press coverage have helped him pull into a dead heat with Minnesota GOP incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman. Coleman is a picture of a Republican candidate eager to squirm away from Republican connections, something he made clear in an interview with Minnesota Public Radio before the GOP convention: "If the convention wasn't in St. Paul, I wouldn't be at the convention."

That sentiment proved common throughout the Republican ranks, as many prominent candidates skipped the elaborate affair. No word on how many might have shown had they known the convention's agenda to demolish the old party image.

Some other races in the House and Senate:

Arizona

U.S. House, 3rd District: John Shadegg (R) v. Bob Lord (D)

When seven-term GOP congressman John Shadegg announced his retirement from public office last February, more than 130 Republican colleagues in the House sent him a letter urging him to reconsider. This is no year to open up incumbent seats, they pleaded. Shadegg's reversal of his decision days later met scorn from the campaign of Democratic challenger Bob Lord, which pounced on the situation to accuse Shadegg of waning commitment to Arizona and undue loyalty to "a bunch of Washington special interests and politicians." The Lord campaign used the incident to help raise $1.14 million, according to the most recent figures, enough to fund a spirited race against the Shadegg camp and its $1.92 million. In many ways, the race is indicative of a broader national trend: Democratic challengers raising surprising sums against even the strongest Republican incumbents in a year when no GOP seat is perceived as invincible. Advantage: Shadegg

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