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The Battle for Congress: John Nichols on How Anti-War and Pro-Labor Candidates Could Help the Democrats Win Control of Both Houses

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Election Day is just two weeks away. It’s being described as the most pivotal battle for Congress in over a decade. Today, we spend the hour looking at some of the key contests and issues that are shaping this year’s mid-term elections. Democrats have significantly improved their chances of taking control of both the Senate and the House. [includes rush transcript]

Polls now indicate four Republican incumbents in the Senate — Conrad Burns of Montana, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Mike DeWine of Ohio and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania — are likely to lose their seats. If the polls are accurate, the control of the Senate will be decided based on the outcome of tight races in Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia. The Democrats need to gain six seats to win control of the Senate.

Meanwhile the number of Republican House seats at risk has nearly tripled since January. According to the Cook Political Report, 48 Republican seats are now considered up for grabs. That’s up from 18 at the start of the year. To take back the House, Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats.

Overall, public support for the Republican-controlled Congress is at its lowest level in fourteen years. According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, just 16 percent of Americans give Congress a favorable rating. And for the first time ever, more than fifty percent of Americans now support Democratic control of Congress.

We begin our coverage today with John Nichols. He’s a political writer for The Nation Magazine, and associate editor of the Capital Times, the daily newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin, where he joins us on the telephone. Welcome to Democracy Now!

  • John Nichols, Political writer for The Nation Magazine. He is also the associate editor of the Capital Times, the daily newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin. His new book is called “The Genius of Impeachment.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin our coverage today with John Nichols. He’s a political writer for The Nation magazine and associate editor of the Capital Times, the daily newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin. He joins us on the telephone. Welcome to Democracy Now!

JOHN NICHOLS: Good morning, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us, John. Well, why don’t you start off by just laying out the election landscape and the races that you see pivotal in this country?

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, it’s a pretty remarkable landscape at this point for folks who have been watching politics over the years, because we really have not seen this many seats in play and open to go to either party in a very long time, perhaps since 1994. You know, our national politics is so corrupted by not just big money, but also redistricting processes that take most seats out of competition. It’s very rare at this point in an electoral cycle to see more than 15 or 20 seats in the House that are seriously competitive. As you just said, we’ve got around 50 or more at this point, most of them Republican-held seats. And then, in the Senate it’s very rare again to see the Senate shift hands, but there is certainly that possibility.

Where the action is, in the House races, is basically in an arc. It starts around Dubuque, Iowa, and it then comes across Illinois through Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, up into Upstate New York and over to Connecticut. Across those states you’re going to see roughly 20-25 seats that could go to either party, but where you see a real trend toward the Democrats.

The big issue, the big thing that seems to have shifted so many of seats into play, I think, is essentially a discomfort with the Bush administration. The President’s very low approval ratings is a big factor. But then you layer onto it things that you’ve covered well: the Foley scandal and things of that nature.

And finally, I think an issue that is a sleeper issue in this campaign, but a very, very significant one, plays in both the House and Senate races, and that is the U.S. trade policy, in particular, in economics, in general. Most of these places where we see competitive seats, both at the House level and the Senate level, are places where the trade policies of the 1990s and more recent years, particularly NAFTA and free trade with China, have taken a real piece out of the regions, have been a real blow. And so, I see in a place like Dubuque, Iowa, a seat that’s been held by the Republicans for a decade — more than a decade — Bruce Braley, who’s the Democratic candidate out there, seems to be running very well, apparently pulling ahead with a very strong fair trade message, combined actually with a very strong antiwar message. I see a similar thing in the Ohio Senate race, where Sherrod Brown, the congressman from northern Ohio, appears to be running comfortably ahead of incumbent U.S. Senator Mike DeWine, again with a combination of an antiwar message, as well as a very, very strong message on domestic economics, particularly focusing on manufacturing.

AMY GOODMAN: And where does Karl Rove fit into this picture right now, John Nichols?

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, he fits in in a very big way. Karl Rove has had a busy and complicated year. Of course, as listeners to this show know, he was the subject of a very serious federal investigation that is apparently done, although his hands still are being watched closely by a lot of folks. So, many people believe he was off his game for much of the year. At this point, he is very much back in the game. He is the political czar of the Republican Party.

And what we’ve seen in recent weeks is a fascinating sort of endgame strategy. The Republicans know they’re in trouble. They recognize that an awful lot of their seats are vulnerable. There’s only one person in the party with enough authority to use basically both his own prestige, as well as the imperator, the President, to begin making the really tough decisions. And they are making them.

They are telling incumbent U.S. senators that the party is just not going to be there for them, that money is going to be shifted out of their races. And we hear a lot of reports that money is being shifted out of the Ohio race between Sherrod Brown and Mike DeWine, because it doesn’t look like DeWine can pull it off and because Ohio has a lot of media markets. If the Republican Party stays active there, they eat up a lot of money. Money being shifted out of Pennsylvania in the race between Bob Casey and Rick Santorum, again because it looks like the Democrat is ahead.

Usually a senior senator or a senior House member can say to the national party, to the Congressional Campaign Committee, “I need your money, and you have to give it to me.” At this point, Karl Rove is saying to some of his senior members of Congress, “You’re not going to get our money, because we’re in a desperate situation.” What the Republicans want to do at this point is shift their money to small states and competitive congressional districts, where they can get the most bang for their buck, if you will, in an effort to maintain a one- or two-seat majority in the Senate and a three- or four-seat majority in the House.

They are doing that very specifically, without any question, because they do not want House committees, in particular, to fall to Democratic control. They don’t really fear Nancy Pelosi all that much, for all of their screaming and yelling about her. What they really fear is having Henry Waxman in charge of the House Government Reform Committee. Waxman is a very passionate reformer, but he’s also a very passionate investigator, and they’re troubled by the idea of the investigations he might launch. They are also very specifically frightened by the notion that Dave Obey will to take charge of Appropriations and restore the fraud investigation units there. And finally, there’s no question at the House level, they’re very afraid that John Conyers will take over Judiciary, for all the reasons that listeners to this show are well aware of.

AMY GOODMAN: Hasn’t John Conyers, in fact, though he’s gone back and forth on this, discussed talking about the impeachment of President Bush?

JOHN NICHOLS: There is no question of that. And one thing to be very conscious of — and I’ve watched these races, district by district, around the country — candidates who have come from behind and scored unexpected wins in primaries and are, in fact, doing very, very well now in the general are often the ones who say bluntly, “We have to hold this president to account.” And they don’t just say, “I’m against the war,” “I’m concerned about the economy,” “I’m concerned about stem cell research,” all the standard lists, they say that Congress has been laying down on the job.

In fact, fascinatingly enough, some of the people who are really breaking through, like Keith Ellison, who is the Democratic candidate up in the Minneapolis area and who is going to win that seat — it’s an open seat — has been saying he’s running for Congress because he wants to hold this president accountable for what he did with the war in Iraq. Similarly, you see several of the candidates who are doing very well in Pennsylvania — Admiral Sestak, who probably will win the Curt Weldon seat, again taking away a traditional Republican seat — saying that the issue in this race is presidential accountability.

And so, yes, you’re right that John Conyers has been a little cautious in recent weeks about talking of impeachment. The Democratic establishment in Congress has basically brought the hammer down on him and said, “Don’t you dare discuss the issue.” But the fact of the matter is, out at the district level and in some of the Senate races, as well, those candidates who are talking about accountability are getting a lot of traction with it, but not necessarily saying impeachment, per se, but they are clearly saying that they’re not afraid of holding hearings, of investigating, you know, trying to figure out what exactly went wrong with Iraq and also what’s happened with war profiteering and a host of other issues.

As we lay these things out, you can understand why the White House political czar, Karl Rove, is so very concerned about playing a really strategic game, fighting really hard, to maintain control of these two houses of Congress. It isn’t just about Republican hegemony. It isn’t about advancing an agenda. There’s very little the Bush administration will be able to accomplish in these next two years. The fundamental issue here is whether there is a congress that will investigate, will inquire, will hold hearings. And the Bush White House really does not want that.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to John Nichols. He writes for The Nation magazine. He’s also associate editor of the Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin. We’re going to come back to him and also focus more on this antiwar message, candidates who are focusing on Iraq, how they’re doing. And we’re going to look at African Americans in races. And finally, we’re going to Connecticut and looking at that Lamont-Lieberman race and how war fits into that. We’ll be speaking with a commentator in Connecticut. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to John Nichols. He’s associate editor of the Capital Times, also political writer for The Nation magazine. I’m Amy Goodman. John, on this issue of antiwar candidates and just how clear this message is at a time when the announcement has come down from the White House, from the spokesperson, Tony Snow, that the words “stay the course” will be officially eradicated from the President’s lexicon. What about candidates around the country?

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, the fascinating thing that’s occurred is that the message, “stay the course,” which they thought was a great slogan, especially for this electoral cycle, has come to haunt the Bush White House. Many Democratic candidates around the country have crafted campaigns that turn “stay the course” into a threat, rather than a promise. And for the first time really since the war began, in fact even before the war began, you’re seeing a lot of Democratic candidates cutting ads, putting him on TV, talking about the war in Iraq and what a disaster it is, and turning the issue around on the White House.

This has shocked the White House. They never expected this to happen, same with the Republican Senate and Congressional Campaign Committees. They never thought the war would actually be an on-TV, out-front, in-the-debates issue. But it clearly is.

The classic example is out in Ohio, where Sherrod Brown, during the last four years, has been easily one of the most outspoken critics of the war. He voted against going to war. He voted against the PATRIOT Act, as well. He was remembered by some folks for going to the floor of the House in the early days of the war, with Lynn Woolsey, one of the other very antiwar members, a representative from California, and reading letters from families that were worried about their kids going off to Iraq into the congressional record, as a way of saying, you know, not everybody’s excited about this war. That was at the same time that, you know, there was all the theater about pulling down Saddam’s statue over in Baghdad. So this is a guy who’s really antiwar. He’s got a long record. The Republicans thought they were going to defeat him on this issue, that they would put up ads about his defense record and just destroy him. Instead, Brown is the one who has been very aggressive, bringing the issue into play. The same with Bruce Braley, who I mentioned earlier, the candidate out in eastern Iowa. He won his primary by distinguishing himself as the more antiwar candidate. He’s held to that position.

Around the country right now, I see a couple dozen House candidates, new players, who are clearly running on an antiwar message, and it’s not a soft antiwar message. It’s not “I’m concerned.” It’s “If you elect me, I will work to establish a timeline to bring the troops home.” And if my read is right, I would say probably — you know, the 20-25 I’m talking about are in close races — the majority of them will win.

And what’s important about that, it’s not merely the message that comes through for, you know, the White House seeing that perhaps they lose control of the House of Representatives, it’s also a message for the Democratic Party, because throughout this campaign, the National Democratic Party has tried very hard to avoid tough issues. They don’t want to talk about the war. They certainly don’t want to talk about impeachment. But at the ground level, we’re seeing a lot of candidates who’ve gone way beyond the party playbook, way beyond the official strategy, if you will, and had a lot of success with it.

I am excited not about particularly the Democratic majority or Republican majority, something like that, I am excited about a change in the character of the opposition party. And if that happens, we’re going to have a very different congress, a much more interesting congress. There are some folks who have a very good chance of getting elected and who have promised their constituents that they are going to Washington to do something about this war. If that happens, I think it’s going to be a much noisier congress and a congress that in many senses will return to what the founders of the republic intended, and that is an institution that checks and balances the executive branch in a way that this congress has not done.

I’ll tell you one final thing that’s important, as well. There’s a lot of rumbling among Republicans, people like Jim Leach, the congressman from eastern Iowa, who are basically indicating that if Democrats take control of the House, it won’t just be a Democratic majority that is demanding a shift in White House policy as regards Iraq, that there are a number of Republicans who have been chomping at the bit, if you will, and are ready to start talking about this issue. So this election has the potential, on the issue of Iraq, to be a very significant turning point in the debate, by giving the Democratic Party some members who will give it more backbone than it’s shown and also by freeing some Republicans up.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the most closely watched races this election is in Tennessee. Congressmember Harold Ford is running against Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker for the Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Majority Leader, Dr. Bill Frist. The race has gotten increasingly close in recent weeks, with Democrats hoping this seat will be one of the six seats needed to regain their majority.

Harold Ford is a five-term Democratic congress member who comes from a political family. His father, Harold Ford, Sr., served as a congress member in the district currently represented by his son. Seven other Fords have also held political office in the state. If Ford is elected, he’ll be the first black senator from a Southern state since Reconstruction.

Mike Wenger also joins us now from Washington, D.C., in addition to John Nichols. Mike Wenger is the Acting Vice President for Communications at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. We welcome you, as well, to Democracy Now!, Mike.

MIKE WENGER: Thank you. Glad to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about this race, the Corker-Ford race for Senate?

MIKE WENGER: Sure. Harold Ford has run a remarkably excellent campaign. He wasn’t given much of a chance in the beginning, being African American, running statewide in Tennessee, a Southern state, but he has run a terrific campaign. Bob Corker has made some mistakes along the way. And Ford now appears in the polls to be a couple of points ahead.

However, I would caution there that in the past polling has been notoriously inaccurate when it comes to statewide African American candidates. Because of political correctness, what you see is white people telling pollsters that they will vote for the African American candidate, but when they go into the voting booth they often don’t do that. We saw that in California several years ago when Tom Bradley was favored to be elected governor of California, and he lost. Harvey Gantt, who was favored to be elected to the Senate from North Carolina, he lost. Doug Wilder was elected governor of Virginia, but in the polling up to Election Day and in the exit polling, he was ten points ahead, but he won by about one point, while his running mates won by about ten points. So there has to be some caution here regarding the polls in Tennessee.

Having said that, Harold Ford has run a terrific campaign. Things are changing. And Harold Ford has also run a fairly conservative campaign. He seems to be in sync with Tennessee voters on the issues. So that’s going to be a very interesting race to watch right down to the end.

AMY GOODMAN: The Corker campaign is trying to distance itself from an advertisement created by the Republican National Committee attacking Harold Ford. The ad has drawn heavy criticism for being racially divisive. The 30-second spot features fictional characters satirizing Ford in mock in-the-street interviews. We’re going to play a clip.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Harold Ford looks nice. Isn’t that enough?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Terrorists need their privacy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: When I die, Harold Ford will let me pay taxes again.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ford’s right: I do have too many guns.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I met Harold at the Playboy party.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I’d love to pay higher marriage taxes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Canada can take care of North Korea. They’re not busy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So we took money from porn movie producers. I mean, who hasn’t?

RNC: The Republican National Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Harold, call me.

AMY GOODMAN: That “Harold, call me,” is a white blonde woman winking into the camera. Hilary Shelton, head of the Washington office of the NAACP told the Los Angeles Times the ad, quote, “is a powerful innuendo that plays to pre-existing prejudices about African American men and white women.” Corker’s campaign is now trying to distance itself from the ad. In a letter to station managers, the chair of the campaign, Tom Ingram, called the ad “over the top, tacky, and […] not reflective of the kind of campaign we are running.” Ingram went on to write, “We’re disappointed that the advertisement continues to run and request station managers across the state strongly consider pulling this advertisement immediately.” Mike Wenger, your response?

MIKE WENGER: Well, this is not the first time this kind of thing has happened, when in the past we’ve seen very divisive ads with regard to African American candidates, where they play on racial fears of white people. We saw that during the first President Bush campaign in 1988, the Willie Horton ad, which clearly played on white fears of African Americans, and it was very effective. So as long as those kinds of ads are effective, they’ll be used. But there is no question that this ad plays to white fears and is racist in its nature.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the issue of black voter turnout overall?

MIKE WENGER: Well, that’s important, and that’s particularly important in close races across the country. In the three Senate races that your previous guest talked about that will probably determine the control of the Senate — Tennessee, Missouri, and Virginia — black turnout is going to be critical. Harold Ford obviously needs huge turnout of black voters. In Missouri, Claire McCaskill, the Democratic candidate, needs a huge turnout of black voters. And in Virginia, Jim Webb needs a huge turnout of black voters, as well. That’s an interesting race, of course, because if George Allen stumbles over the word “Macaca” and his use of the N-word, and that may drive up African American turnout in that race, which would be to Jim Webb’s benefit.

AMY GOODMAN: On the issue of Ford back in Tennessee, if he is elected, it will be the first time in a long time that two black senators are in office at the same time. Of course, Senator Barack Obama from Illinois, he is not running now, though you might say he is running, possibly for president, has just made this big announcement and, in a number of the articles I’ve read about him, is really looking at this race, Harold Ford’s race, for how an African American will do in the South.

MIKE WENGER: Well, and he’d do well to look at that race, because Harold Ford has run as a fairly conservative candidate. He has played up his faith, his religious faith, so I think that Barack Obama would do well to look at the Ford campaign as an indication of how an African American can run in the South.

I would point out furthermore the significance that you raised of having two African Americans in the Senate at the same time. As you know, the first African American U.S. senator since Reconstruction was Ed Brooke, who was elected in Massachusetts, a Republican, by the way. Then Carol Moseley Braun from Illinois, and then Barack Obama. But we’ve never, since Reconstruction, had two African Americans in the Senate at the same time. That would make a significant difference. It’s one thing to be a lone voice. It’s another to have some company, when you raise your voices on issues of particular concern to your community.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about other African Americans who are running? For example, Michael Steele in Maryland, Ken Blackwell in Ohio, Lynn Swann in Pennsylvania, running for governor, the former football player.

MIKE WENGER: Well, Ken Blackwell and Lynn Swann are Republicans. They’re almost surely not going to win. Ken Blackwell has been a victim not only of the problems that President Bush has, but he’s been a victim of a number of scandals that have beset the Republican Party in Ohio. Lynn Swann is running against a fairly popular Democratic governor in Pennsylvania, incumbent Ed Rendell. He is unlikely to win.

Michael Steele has run a very effective campaign in Maryland. But Maryland is a very Democratic state, and in a year that looks to be good for Democrats, Michael Steele is going to have a hard time. If this were a different year and the Republicans were not in such deep trouble, Michael Steele would have a very good chance to be elected to the Senate from Maryland. As it is, he is probably not going to win.

AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols of The Nation and the Capital Times, you’ve looked at Ken Blackwell in Ohio.

JOHN NICHOLS: Sure. Ken Blackwell is in terrible trouble. He’s not going anywhere. He’s down, depending on which poll you look at, twelve-fifteen points. Some polls show it a little closer, but the Republicans have pretty much given up on that race. And the significant thing about Blackwell is that, unlike Michael Steele, who our other guest references, who has worked hard and developed at least a reasonably good reputation in the African American community in Maryland, Ken Blackwell is really on the outs with the African American community in Ohio, because he is seen as having been so heavily involved in efforts to depress the black vote in the 2004 presidential race. And frankly, many Republicans I’ve talked to in Ohio say that Blackwell is a drag on the ticket. He is more harmful than helpful. And the weakness of Ken Blackwell may actually be one of the many factors that help to defeat U.S. Senator Mike DeWine out there.

AMY GOODMAN: Overall, Mike Wenger, on the issue of African Americans across the board, not only in federal races, but in state races — and John Nichols, I know you’ve been looking at state houses, as well — is minority representation up in this country, in terms of elected office?

MIKE WENGER: Well, sure. There are about — in all offices at all levels, there are about 9,500 black elected officials now across the country. That compares to under a thousand, when the Joint Center was founded in 1970. We’re going to, in all likelihood, see another African American governor this year: Deval Patrick, Democrat in Massachusetts. We’re likely to see at least two African American lieutenant governors elected: David Paterson in New York and Anthony Brown in Maryland. And according to the most recent polls that I have seen, the race in Florida is getting closer, and the Democratic candidate for governor and lieutenant governor were down pretty far, but now that race is tightening up, and Daryl Jones, an African American man, is Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor in that state. So we will see, in all likelihood, more African Americans in statewide offices, and not just governor and lieutenant governor. In many other offices in Georgia, Illinois, Connecticut, Ohio, other states, there are African Americans holding statewide elected office now.

AMY GOODMAN: There’s a piece in the_Los Angeles Times_ today, “Latino and Black Voters Reassessing Ties to GOP,” and it says, “A major effort to draw Latinos and blacks into the Republican Party, a central element of the GOP plan to build a long-lasting majority, is in danger of collapse amid anger over the immigration debate and claims that Republican leaders have not delivered on promises to direct more money to church-based social services.” The L.A. Times goes on to say, “President Bush, strategist Karl Rove and other top Republicans have wooed Latino and black leaders, many of them evangelical clergy who lead large congregations, in hopes of peeling away the traditional Democratic base. But now some of the leaders who helped Bush win in 2004 are revisiting their loyalty to the Republican Party and, in some cases, abandoning it.” Mike Wenger?

MIKE WENGER: Yeah. Well, I don’t think they’ve actually been very successful in breaking any significant number of African Americans away from the Democratic Party. All you have to do is look at the positions that Republicans at the national level have taken over the past years, and African American voters are smart. They look at positions that people take, and so I think Republicans have not been very successful, in any event, in peeling away very many African American voters.

With regard to Latino voters, I think the immigration issue is huge. We saw that a number of years ago in California, which was a competitive state for Republicans until Prop 187, and Pete Wilson, the then-Republican governor of California, supporting Prop 187, which was an anti-immigrant referendum, and Latinos have voted heavily for Democrats in California since then and made California a pretty solid Democratic state. I think that Republican position on immigration has the danger for them of driving Latinos to the Democratic Party and negating any hope that the Republicans might have had of getting a significant percentage of Latino votes down the rode.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike Wenger, I want to thank you for being with us, Acting Vice President for Communications at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. And also John Nichols of The Nation magazine, associate editor also of Capital Times, the daily newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin. John Nichols’s new book is called The Genius of Impeachment.

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The Battle for Congress: Tennessee’s Harold Ford Aims to Become First Black Senator From the South Since Reconstruction

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