Congressional Candidates Avoid Presidential Contenders

Conservative Democratic Utah Rep. Jim Matheson (search) appears to have little in common with presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry (search), and the likelihood that the liberal senator from Massachusetts can and will help the Westerner through a tough re-election bid is pretty slim.

Waving President Bush’s name is also unlikely to boost some of the more moderate Republicans in states like Connecticut, New Jersey and California, election observers told

The potential for the top of the ticket to be a drag on certain congressional candidates is not unusual, and often leads to candidates focusing more on local issues than stumping on the national party line, said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report (search).

“There is definitely the potential for a disconnect between the member or candidate for Congress and the presidential nominee,” Gonzales added. “Their past votes, their record and past actions often don’t line up with individuals further down on the ballot.”

While Kerry lists endorsements from over 80 members of Congress on his Web site, only 12 are from the deep South and they are the most liberal districts offered in states like Texas, Georgia, South Carolina and Arkansas. Analysts say some Democrats, particularly in Southern states, are finding it difficult to get excited about Kerry, whose record includes a consistent defense of abortion rights and opposition to tax cuts and the death penalty (search).

“Think of every time the Democrats have nominated a liberal for president — Walter Mondale in 1984, Michael Dukakis in 1988, and arguably [Al] Gore in 2000 — you better believe the Southern candidates ran in the other direction,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

“It’s a weight and an albatross that [Democrats] don’t need,” Sabato said, referring to Kerry's voting record. “Despite his Vietnam War record, he is a classic Massachusetts liberal with 19 years of liberal votes in the U.S. Senate.”

Political observers say Democratic candidates aren't the only ones who may distance themselves from the party nominee, nor is the attempt to do so anything new. Republicans have stayed away from nominees who hailed from the far right, for instance, Sen. Barry Goldwater in 1964. And not all Republican incumbents or GOP challengers — especially from more liberal districts in places like New England, Illinois and California — going to draw strong associations with this president.

“We would immediately have to look towards New England and some of those tougher states,” said Gonzales. “That’s probably one place where buddying up to the president may not be beneficial.”

But while it is widely acknowledged on Capitol Hill that not all Democrats from conservative states will be actively endorsing and fund-raising for Kerry, Democratic sources said congressional members would stand in Kerry's corner. Furthermore, Democratic activists said voters see a much higher goal uniting ideologically-divided party members: getting rid of Bush.

“There is no doubt that [Kerry] is more liberal than the average Southern Democrat, but there are many Democrats who want that White House back,” said Tony Center, a Democrat from Savannah, Ga., who is competing in the primary to challenge Republican Rep. Max Burns in the state's 12th Congressional District.

“George Bush has divided this country,” Center said. “I know in Georgia, the grassroots Democrats are running around like a kicked-over ant bed.”

Georgia's 12th District voters chose Gore over Bush 54 percent to 45 percent in 2000, and has more registered Democrats than Republicans. In other Southern districts, however, Democratic incumbents and challengers are running in conservative, pro-Bush territory, making it nearly impossible to associate with liberals from New England.

Matheson spokesman Mike Reberg said the 2nd District in Utah that his boss represents is conservative, giving Bush 67 percent of the vote in 2000.  Matheson beat his Republican challenger by less than 1 percent of the vote in 2002.

Reberg said Matheson endorsed Gen. Wesley Clark before he dropped out of the presidential primary and endorsed Kerry. But Kerry shouldn't expect much more.

“[Rep. Matheson] campaigns in a manner that makes sense for his district,” Reberg said. “He is going to support his party’s nominee. And that’s the line he has taken.”

Rep. Dennis Moore, D-Kan., also facing a tough re-election bid in a district that gave Bush 53 percent of the vote, will support the party nominee, said spokeswoman Christie Appelhanz. But he has not yet decided whether to make an endorsement.

“He doesn’t get very involved in the presidential race,” Appelhanz said.

Election experts said Republicans who may step back from Bush could include Rep. Christopher Shays (search), who represents a moderate district of Connecticut that voted for Gore 53 to 43 percent in 2000, or Rep. Jack Quinn of New York, whose district is majority Democrat.

But Quinn spokesman Charlie Keller denied any effort by the lawmaker to distance himself from Bush. Despite "substantive differences" with the Bush administration, Quinn plans to "support [Bush's] steady leadership" during the campaign and does not expect voters at home to have a problem with that, Keller said.

Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, director of the Republican Main Street Partnership (search), a coalition of moderate members of Congress, said even the most liberal Republicans are intensely loyal to Bush these days.

“They line up on key issues like education and health care, but I think what it comes down to is party loyalty,” she said. “They are very eager to support (Bush) and work for him.”

Rick Semiatin, professor of government at American University, warned against disregarding similar Democratic Party loyalties, and said Kerry might even tap a running mate who will attract some of the fence-sitters.

“It’s too early to write Kerry off in the South,” he said.

Sabato pointed out that many Democratic strategists believe that Kerry can win the election without the strong endorsements from Democrats there.

“Kerry and the Democrats believe that Bush has polarized the country to the extent that Kerry can be himself, which is liberal, and carry his Democratic states, pick off one or two of Bush’s states and he’s won the election,” Sabato said. “They may be right, they may be wrong.”