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Grand New Party

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

Grand New Party

(Associated Press/Photo by Al Grillo)

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.

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

Minnesota

U.S. House, 3rd District: Erik Paulsen (R) v. Ashwin Madia (D)

Unlike with Shadegg, the best efforts of Republican lawmakers fell short of convincing incumbent Rep. Jim Ramstad to reconsider his retirement. Instead, a seat the GOP has occupied for 48 years is left open for one of the tightest congressional races in the country, pairing state House Majority Leader Erik Paulsen against Iraq War veteran Ashwin Madia. Madia, who served in a non-combat role to help develop Iraq's criminal justice system, was once an ardent supporter of Republican presidential contenders Bob Dole in 1996 and John McCain in 2000. He switched parties in 2002 over disagreements on Iraq and gay marriage. Madia has since earned the support of partisan Democrats like Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, who helped funnel $50,000 into the campaign-money Paulsen says Madia should give back due to Rangel's recent admission of ethics violations. Advantage: Paulsen

Indiana

U.S. House, 7th District: André Carson (D) v. Gabrielle Campo (R)

The second Muslim ever to serve in the U.S. Congress, Rep. André Carson of Indianapolis will face little to no challenge this fall for a seat he first secured in a special election last March. Carson ran for the office to replace his grandmother Julia Carson, who died of lung cancer late last year. Though he has since expressed solidarity with fellow Muslim congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota, Carson is free of the controversial associations that have plagued Ellison throughout his brief tenure in public office. For example, Carson has never defended Louis Farrakhan or worked with the Nation of Islam. In fact, he describes himself as a "secular Muslim," having grown up attending a Catholic school and two evangelical churches, Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church and Calvary Temple. Carson has also taken positions outside of conservative Islam, announcing in June that he was joining the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Equality Caucus of Congress. Advantage: Carson

New Jersey

U.S. Senate: Frank Lautenberg (D) v. Dick Zimmer (R)

Former Sen. Dick Zimmer wants his old job back a dozen years after losing to Democrat Bob Torricelli. The New Jersey lawyer has faced an uphill climb since assuming the role of challenger after Republican favorite Anne Estabrook suffered a minor stroke in March. It appeared in June as though the 84-year-old incumbent Sen. Frank Lautenberg might be fading when a Rasmussen report showed Zimmer within a single point of the lead. But the latest polls put the margin back near 10 points, as the talk of age surrounding GOP presidential nominee John McCain has somehow missed blowing back to New Jersey. What's more, Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama maintains a slight edge on McCain in the battleground state, lending further support to Lautenberg, who, like Obama, possesses one of the most liberal voting records in the Senate. Advantage: Lautenberg

Louisiana

U.S. Senate: Mary Landrieu (D) v. John Kennedy (R)

Many Republicans are hanging the party's best chance to unseat an incumbent Senate Democrat on the back of a man who ran as a Democrat four years ago. Louisiana state treasurer John Kennedy finished third in the race for Louisiana's other Senate seat in 2004. He has since defected to the GOP for a runoff with two-term moderate Sen. Mary Landrieu. The departure of thousands of Democratic voters from the state following Hurricane Katrina greatly improves Kennedy's odds, but the former attorney has not polled well of late, showing a double-digit deficit despite popular support for Republican governor Bobby Jindal and GOP presidential candidate John McCain. To Kennedy's detriment are past reports from his own party that conflict with the new more conservative image he now seeks to construct. The Landrieu campaign has seized on that inconsistency, running an ad based on a 2004 National Republican Senatorial Committee reports that accuses Kennedy of squandering taxpayer dollars. Advantage: Landrieu

North Carolina

U.S. Senate: Elizabeth Dole (R) v. Kay Hagan (D)

In a state that has voted Republican for the past seven elections, any candidate named Dole holds a sizable advantage. But in her first bid for reelection, Sen. Elizabeth Dole has a tight race on her hands due largely to the fundraising ability of Democratic state Sen. Kay Hagan, who has managed to generate enough in-state funding to compete with Dole's national financial backing. Hagan has also drawn support from national groups such as MoveOn.org and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, both of which have produced attack ads on Dole as Democrats around the country smell an opportunity for an upset victory-one necessary if the party is to reach the 60-seat threshold. Recognizing her precarious position, Dole skipped the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis to stay at home and campaign, perhaps signaling to voters that her role in national politics will no longer distract from the needs of North Carolina. Advantage: Dole

Colorado

U.S. Senate: Mark Udall (D) v. Bob Schaffer (R)

Democrats throughout the country are touting Colorado as a model for grassroots political campaigning after a cadre of new organizations in the state helped grab Democratic control of the governorship and both legislative chambers for the first time in 40 years. Leaders of that grassroots movement say this year's race between Democratic Rep. Mark Udall and former Republican Rep. Bob Schaffer will serve to gauge the Colorado model's effectiveness more so even than the presidential election. Wealthy political operatives in the state have dedicated millions of dollars to securing victory for Udall, yet the Boulder Democrat has never pushed his lead in the polls to double digits and remains vulnerable to a late surge. Recent attack ads from the Udall team paint Schaffer as in the pocket of "big oil" due to his past employment with oil and natural gas developer Aspect Energy. Advantage: Udall

New Mexico

U.S. Senate: Tom Udall (D) v. Steve Pearce (R)

One year ago, Sen. Pete Domenici announced that health issues would prevent him from seeking reelection for a seventh term. New Mexico's trio of House members promptly rushed to fill the void. Republicans narrowly chose conservative Rep. Steve Pearce over moderate Rep. Heather Wilson to carry the mantle of retaining the long-held GOP Senate seat. Democrats put their money on Rep. Tom Udall (Mark's cousin), who opened the general race with leads in the polls as high as 28 points in June. That gap has since narrowed considerably, shrinking to just 7 points in a Rasmussen survey of likely voters from early September. The reason: energy. In an aggressive advertising campaign, Pearce has portrayed Udall as an extreme environmentalist opposed to measures that could reduce gas prices. That strategy has proved so effective as to press the Santa Fe Democrat to modify his green message. Udall now contends that he has long supported the expansion of domestic oil drilling and nuclear power development, a difficult case to make given the candidates numerous votes against such expansion. Advantage: Udall

Mark Bergin

Mark Bergin