- The Washington Times - Friday, May 21, 2010

Some Democrats on the campaign trail have hit upon a winning campaign tactic: Run against President Obama and his agenda — especially the health care overhaul.

Democrat Mark Critz railed against the Obama administration’s health care reforms while campaigning in his western Pennsylvania district — and was easily elected to the House.

In West Virginia, Democratic stalwart Rep. Alan B. Mollohan, who voted against an administration-backed energy bill last year, was defeated in his primary after his challenger accused him of not having enough disdain for the measure that was wildly unpopular in his home district. He also was hammered for supporting health care reform.

Rep. Joe Sestak, in Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senate primary, challenged the White-House-endorsed five-term incumbent, Sen. Arlen Specter, and was rewarded with a cushy eight percentage-point win.

While other factors and issues played key roles in Democratic primaries and special elections this year, shunning — or even rebuking — the White House so far has helped Democrats.

Presidents “really don’t have a lot of coattails when they go out and campaign for people, so I think it’s a little hard to say you can pin these losses directly on the administration’s doorstep,” said Michael D. Tanner, a political analyst with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

“On the other hand, I think it’s fair to say that one of the reasons there’s so much unhappiness out there [among voters] is that the administration’s policies have upset people.”

Democratic leaders say that voters’ opinions of the president have taken a back seat to the economy and job issues during congressional elections this year.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — the recruiting and fundraising arm for House Democrats — on Thursday said that Republican attempts to portray Mr. Critz as lockstep Democrat tethered to the White House failed miserably.

“Republicans tried to make [Mr. Obama] an issue. We know that from the campaign ads that they ran, and I think the message of the vote was that people were focused on the economic agenda, and the president’s economic agenda has helped get the economy out of the ditch,” Mr. Van Hollen said.

But Mr. Critz hammered Mr. Obama’s signature legislative victory since taking office, health care reform, tapping into some Democratic voters’ distaste for the measure and blunting Republican nominee Tim Burns’ ability to capitalize on an issue still roiling voters. Despite the Republican Party’s early calls of stealing the long-held Democratic seat, Mr. Critz craftfully moderated his message and rode a party-affiliation advantage to victory.

Mr. Van Hollen dismissed Mr. Critz’s criticism of the president’s health care reform package by saying that individual candidates are free to campaign on the “values and priorities of their district.” He added that Mr. Critz’s pro-life, pro-gun agenda was the same as that of the district’s longtime Democratic congressman, John P. Murtha, who died in office in February.

Mr. Critz “was running as an independent-minded Democrat,” Mr. Van Hollen said. Independent pollster Scott Rasmussen said that the public frustration over the unpopular Wall Street bailout “spun off” into anger for the administration’s health care overhaul.

“It’s a mistake to say that the health care bill is separate from the economy — it’s part of the same issue,” said Mr. Rasmussen, president of Rasmussen Reports. “Where that leaves us for November, we don’t really know — other than the fact that there will be less Democrats in the House.”

When White House spokesman Robert Gibbs was asked Thursday whether the president or his political team is concerned that four recent Democratic candidates supported by Mr. Obama lost, his response was one word: “No.”

The other three losing Democratic candidates were gubernatorial hopefuls R. Creigh Deeds of Virginia and Jon Corzine of New Jersey, and Senate candidate Martha Coakley of Massachusetts. Ms. Coakley had hoped to succeed the late Edward M. Kennedy — a longtime advocate of health care reform — but was swamped at the height of the health care debate in the bluest of Democratic states by Republican state Sen. Scott Brown.

Another Obama endorsee, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, failed to secure 50 percent of the vote in Arkansas’ Democratic primary Tuesday and will face Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in a runoff next month. She angered conservatives by supporting the Democrat-led health care overhaul, but frustrated liberals by opposing a government-run insurance option as part of the reform package.

In West Virginia, Mr. Mollohan, a 14-term incumbent, took heavy flak for his vote in support of health care reform.

The anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List said it spent $78,000 on TV and radio ads and telephone “robocalls” in West Virginia criticizing Mr. Mollohan for his support of the measure, which included federal funding for abortions.

“We promised Rep. Mollohan and the other ‘pro-life’ Democrats that we would make their re-election incredibly painful if they voted ‘yes’ on the health care bill,” said the group’s president, Marjorie Dannenfelser. “The Susan B. Anthony List followed through on that promise.”

Mr. Mollohan also was attacked by his opponent, state Sen. Mike Oliverio, for not coming out more forcefully against a White House-backed climate-change bill that included a “cap and trade” emissions program that many West Virginians say would cripple the state’s economically vital coal mining interests.

But it’s too soon to say how health care reform will play out in November’s general elections, political analysts warn.

With many of the more controversial aspects of the law — such as mandates requiring most Americans to carry insurance — not kicking in for several years, voters may be fixated on other issues by November, particularly if the economy and unemployment rate don’t improve.

“The one absolute certainty is that we over-interpret primary days like [Tuesday] because there was relatively low turnouts, and it was only a handful of states,” Mr. Rasmussen said. “I think we need to be a little cautious in reading too much into this.”

In Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senate primary, the liberal Mr. Sestak campaigned on a platform that mirrored most of Mr. Obama’s agenda, including the administration’s health care reforms (though he preferred a government-run “public option” insurance plan, abortion rights and stem-cell research.

Yet while Mr. Sestak was much more closely aligned to the president ideologically and politically, the White House instead backed Mr. Specter — a move seen by many as payback after the senator bolted the GOP for the Democratic Party last year and supported health care reform.

Democratic leaders since Tuesday’s primary have been quick to back Mr. Sestak. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, in a Wednesday morning news release, announced that he would “wholeheartedly support Congressman Sestak as the Democratic nominee.”

This article was based in part on wire service dispatches.

• Sean Lengell can be reached at slengell@washingtontimes.com.

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