Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Call it the year of the former Republican.

At a time of widely expected Republican losses in both chambers of Congress, a new breed of politician has emerged: former Republicans challenging Republican incumbents.

Most famous is James H. Webb Jr., who served as Navy secretary under President Reagan and is challenging Sen. George Allen in Virginia. Mr. Webb wears combat boots on the campaign trail, loves his guns and chews tobacco.

Then there’s Tim Mahoney, a Florida Republican-turned-Democrat running for the seat of disgraced former Rep. Mark Foley. Mr. Mahoney lists Ronald Reagan as a political hero, opposes the “death tax” and calls himself a “conservative Christian.”

In New York, former Republican Jack Davis is giving Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds one of the biggest challenges of his career. Mr. Davis, a multimillionaire businessman, says he wants to end illegal entry without granting amnesty, opposes higher taxes and wants to kill the death tax.

In Florida’s 13th Congressional District, former banker and former Republican Christine Jennings is running as a Democrat for the seat being vacated by Rep. Katherine Harris. She, too, is running on tax cuts and greater fiscal responsibility in Washington.

All are the kind of Democrats that Republicans have a difficult time hating. Hearing them explain why they left the Republican Party is like listening to voters today talk about why a growing number of them are tired of Republicans in Washington.

“Congress has run up the national debt to an astounding $8.4 trillion, mortgaging our future and saddling our children and grandchildren for endless years,” said Mrs. Jennings, who promises to balance the nation’s checkbook.

Mr. Mahoney, an investment banker and cattle rancher, said he got fed up with the Republicans’ out-of-control spending, scandals and poor handling of the war in Iraq. He calls himself a “common-sense businessman who reflects the values and morals of Florida’s families.”

Mr. Webb left the party in large part out of disgust over the Republican response to the September 11 terrorist attacks and over the war in Iraq.

“He’s a Vietnam veteran, and these guys were politicizing the war,” said campaign adviser Steve Jarding, who has long argued that Democrats must appeal to a broader audience to survive as a political force.

Just a few years ago, Mr. Jarding said, a conservative candidate such as Mr. Webb would not have been welcomed by party leaders unless he or she submitted to the party’s entire platform. This year, winning trumped ideology.

“They’re more accepting of people with different ideas, and that’s a difference,” Mr. Jarding said. “We’re not going to be having all these litmus tests because they were killing us.”

Mr. Jarding said that had Democratic primary voters sided in the primary with Harris Miller — a longtime politician who is ideologically more in tune with national Democrats — “we would be 40 points behind George Allen right now.”

“Democrats are finally wising up,” he said.

As a result, Senate Democrats will move rightward if candidates such as Mr. Webb, Bob Casey Jr. in Pennsylvania, Jon Tester in Montana and Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. in Tennessee win their general elections.

Republicans in the chamber, meanwhile, stand to lose some of their most conservative voices. Among the incumbents in the tightest races are Sens. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Conrad Burns of Montana and Jim Talent of Missouri.

Strategists from both parties expect Democrats to gain 10 seats or more in the House. But the strategists note that since pickup seats by definition come from districts held by the other party, the new Democratic lawmakers likely will be more conservative than the current Democrat caucus.

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