The $700 billion Wall Street rescue package isn’t playing favorites on the campaign trail: Both Republican and Democratic incumbents are under fire for backing the bailout.
While presidential rivals Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama both supported the Bush administration’s rescue plan, the congressional vote on the bailout is figuring prominently in a large number of close House and Senate races this fall, with supporters of the bill in the hot seat in race after race.
In Kentucky, for example, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell faces a strong challenge from Democrat Bruce Lunsford, a millionaire businessman from Louisville, whose television ads have hammered the four-term incumbent for his leading role in helping pass the $700 billion rescue package.
“How did we get into this mess? Career politicians like Mitch McConnell,” says the narrator of one of Mr. Lunsford’s campaign ads.
But in the state’s 3rd Congressional District, it is freshman Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth on the defensive for his bailout vote in a tight rematch with Republican Anne M. Northup, whom he narrowly defeated in 2006.
In a letter to constituents, he called his vote for the package “one of my most difficult decisions since being elected.”
“I was faced with two awful choices: voting for a bill I hate or doing nothing to stop an economic meltdown that would lead to massive job losses in Louisville and throughout the country,” he said.
But Mrs. Northup has hammered away at her opponent’s bailout vote in three debates.
“I am completely against the bailout,” she said. “I think it is the worst thing we could have done.”
Although the vote was bipartisan, the fallout is particularly felt in more conservative districts.
“It’s not a top-of-the-list issue, but it very well could be an under-the-radar issue in this election,” said John C. Fortier, a political research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “It has crosscutting effects on both parties, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some incumbents — especially in more conservative districts — who don’t come back because of their vote.”
In Georgia, it is Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss facing an unexpectedly tough challenge from former state Rep. Jim Martin, with Mr. Chambliss’ vote in favor of the rescue plan a factor in Mr. Martin’s late surge. But three-term Democratic Rep. Jim Marshall in the state’s 8th Congressional District, who barely won re-election in a conservative district in 2006, is in another tight race against Republican challenger Rick Goddard after Mr. Marshall voted to support the bailout.
Mr. Yarmuth faces an added burden: He is among the 33 Democrats and 25 Republicans in the House who voted to defeat the bailout on the first vote Sept. 29, only to switch to “yes” four days later for a slightly modified package with the same $700 billion price tag.
The Treasury Department plan to buy up the “toxic assets” poisoning the balance sheets of the nation’s financial firms was introduced at the very end of the congressional session, forcing lawmakers to vote on an expensive, complicated bill that was vastly unpopular with constituents back home. The debate also kept Congress in session an extra week, cutting into precious campaigning time back home.
Mr. Fortier said the bill was seen as a “must-pass by elites and congressional leaders” but was “viewed with great skepticism by large parts of the public.”
Analyses done by Mr. Fortier and Congressional Quarterly found that the tighter the race, the more likely the lawmaker was to vote against the bill.
Of the 20 House Republicans running in “highly competitive” districts, according to Congressional Quarterly, 17 voted against the original bill of Sept. 29, which lost on a stunning 228-205 vote. Among House Democrats facing equally tough challenges, the vote was 15-6 against.
Louisiana Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, considered the only Senate Democrat facing a tough re-election fight, in her fight against state Treasurer John Kennedy, was one of only nine Senate Democrats who voted against the bailout.
But several challengers have been tripped up because they have criticized a “yes” vote while refusing to say how they would have voted.
Mr. Lunsford of Kentucky, when asked repeatedly how he would have voted at a Louisville Courier-Journal editorial board interview last month, declined to say, insisting, “I didn’t have any input on the bill.”
In North Carolina, Democratic challenger State Sen. Kay Hagan set up a media conference call the day of the Senate vote Oct. 1 to denounce Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole in failing to head off the banking crisis. But Mrs. Hagan came under fire herself when she declined to say how she would vote on the bill.
Asked by The Washington Times how she would vote, she replied, “I have grave concerns.”
Mrs. Dole was one of 25 senators to vote against the bill, and Mrs. Hagan later that night said she would have opposed it as well. But the Dole campaign quickly attacked the Democrat for vacillating ahead of the vote.
“After refusing to take a position on the most important issue facing America today, Kay Hagan finally announced her support for Senator Dole’s stand — 54 minutes AFTER the crucial Senate vote on the topic had taken place,” Mrs. Dole’s campaign said in a prepared statement.
In an otherwise bleak political environment for Republicans, the bailout vote could provide a rare bright spot for the Republican Party in Pennsylvania’s fiercely contested 11th Congressional District.
Twelve-term Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski is considered one of the few vulnerable Democratic incumbents in the country; he is facing a stiff challenge from Republican Lou Barletta, mayor of Hazleton. Mr. Kanjorski’s highly visible role in passing the bailout bill — he chairs the House Financial Services subcommittee with oversight of capital markets - isn’t helping.
Political handicappers say the votes in favor of the bailout could play a significant role in a number of hot races, including freshman Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Arizona Democrat, under fire from Republican state Sen. Tim Bee for switching from no to yes on the second House vote; and Sen. Gordon H. Smith, Oregon Republican, facing a strong challenge from Democrat Jeff Merkley, speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives and a bailout critic.
But opposing the Wall Street rescue bill hasn’t proven cost-free politically, either.
In Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District, Democratic challenger Elwyn Tinklenberg attacked the “no” vote of Republican incumbent Rep. Michele Bachmann, one of the most vocal critics of the bailout plan during the congressional debate.
“What the financial markets needed most of all was confidence,” Mr. Tinklenberg said. “Instead, they got uncertainty and chaos.”
Mrs. Bachmann appeared to be cruising to victory, but controversial remarks she made on a cable-television interview Oct. 17 about whether Mr. Obama and unnamed lawmakers were “anti-American” have given the Tinklenberg campaign a late surge of funds and momentum.
Rep. Steve Chabot, Ohio Republican, has been criticized by Democratic challenger Steve Driehaus for voting against the rescue package, as well as a foreclosure-aid measure last summer.
“Those are two issues that have hit the Cincinnati area like a ton of bricks,” said Driehaus spokesman Joe Wessels.
Mr. Wessels said Mr. Driehaus would’ve voted “very reluctantly” for the bailout.
In Virginia, Republican Senate candidate James S. Gilmore III’s condemnation of the $700 bailout plan cost him the endorsement of retiring Republican incumbent Sen. John W. Warner in his uphill race against Democrat Mark Warner. Sen. Warner voted for the bill. The two Warners are not related.
“I’m disappointed that he spoke against the rescue package that’s vital to Virginia and vital to the nation,” Sen. Warner told reporters in a telephone news conference last month.