- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 11, 2006

In North Carolina, former Washington Redskins quarterback Heath Shuler is running for a House seat, declaring himself a pro-life member of the pro-gun National Rifle Association, and accusing his opponent, Rep. Charles H. Taylor, of supporting amnesty for illegal aliens.

What’s wrong with this picture? Mr. Taylor is a conservative Republican, and Mr. Shuler is the Democratic challenger trying to outflank him on the right — a not uncommon move this election year, even before the Mark Foley scandal increased the midterm vulnerability of House Republicans.

It’s happening across the South and Midwest, as Democratic congressional candidates from Illinois to Georgia are casting aside liberal loyalties to compete in conservative districts where they hope to gain the 15 seats needed for Democrats to take control of the House.

Democrats “have adopted a different kind of candidate, out of the traditional political sphere,” said Charlie Gerow, a Pennsylvania-based Republican strategist.

“There are especially strong cases of ‘blank slate’ candidates with no voting records, trying to hedge on every issue — in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Virginia, for example — and other Democrats running like they’re Republicans, in Georgia, Indiana and North Carolina,” says National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) spokesman Jonathan Collegio.

A few snapshots from the campaign trail:

• In Indiana, Vanderburgh County Sheriff Brad Ellsworth, running for a House seat, says flatly, “I’m pro-life. I believe in a traditional marriage and the Second Amendment.” And, yes, Mr. Ellsworth is the Democrat in this race, challenging Republican Rep. John Hostettler.

• In Georgia, Rep. John Barrow has publicly denounced a “cut-and-run strategy” in Iraq. He favors a federal constitutional amendment to ban same-sex “marriage,” and he opposes amnesty for illegal aliens. Mr. Barrow is also a Democrat — being challenged by former Rep. Max Burns, the Republican he defeated to win the seat in 2004.

• Another Georgia Democrat, Rep. Jim Marshall, voted to block House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s motion last year to investigate possible prisoner abuses in the Iraq war and says he is pro-gun and mostly pro-life. Mr. Marshall is defending his redistricted seat against former Republican Rep. Mac Collins.

• In Kentucky, former Rep. Ken Lucas is yet another Democrat running like an all-out conservative in his challenge to Republican Rep. Geoff Davis.

The reasons for the plethora of rightward-running Democratic candidates? Polls show Democrats will have a hard time winning in strong Republican and swing districts if they spout traditional Democratic positions.

Democrats occupy seats in 41 congressional districts that voted for Mr. Bush in 2004, while Republicans hold 18 seats in districts that voted for John Kerry. That means that there are more than twice as many Democrats running in Bush-Republican districts than Republicans running in Kerry-Democrat districts.

To make a successful play for House control, Democrats have to win in Republican districts. But voter surveys consistently show that the national Democratic Party’s liberal positions on taxes, abortion and other issues do not go down well in districts that supported Mr. Bush by 10 percentage points or more.

Therefore, the Democrats have recruited two types of candidates: those who often sound like their Republican opponents on abortion, guns, homeland security or taxes — and those who simply don’t talk much at all.

“It took 12 years in the minority for Democrats to realize that they couldn’t win elections by running like Democrats — so they’ve drafted candidates who either masquerade as conservatives or keep mum on the issues as long as politically possible,” Mr. Collegio said.

Democrats’ blank-slate candidates usually have not held public office, and thus have no voting record for their Republican opponents to use against them.

In Pennsylvania, for example, Republican Rep. Jim Gerlach faces challenger Lois Murphy. Though she is a former state director of NARAL Pro-Choice America, Mrs. Murphy has never been a legislator and thus has no voting record for Mr. Gerlach to challenge. The Democrat has hedged on issues ranging from taxes to Iraq to immigration.

In Virginia, Democratic challenger Phil Kellam is running in a district that went heavily for Mr. Bush two years ago. The tax commissioner in Virginia Beach, Mr. Kellam has avoided going on record on major issues and has turned down debates with the Republican incumbent, Rep. Thelma Drake.

Like many other Democrats, Mr. Kellam was quick to exploit the political opening afforded by the scandal surrounding Mr. Foley’s reported involvement with teenage congressional pages. In an Oct. 3 statement, Mr. Kellam denounced House Republican leaders for failing to “act decisively” to “protect” pages.

In Illinois, Democratic candidate Tammy Duckworth, a disabled veteran of the Iraq war in her first bid at public office, straddles the line on major issues such as taxes, human cloning, same-sex “marriage,” the USA Patriot Act and health care. To keep her policy slate blank, she has dodged debates four times with her Republican opponent.

There’s not much Republicans can do about Democrats avoiding debates or appropriating basic Republican campaign themes, although the NRCC spokesman says the trend validates conservative arguments.

“If Democrats make headway this cycle, it’s not because America has moved leftward, but because Democrat candidates have moved rightward,” Mr. Collegio said.

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