Anyone looking for a signal from the September 12 Senate and House primaries that Democrats will go into the November campaign as a clearly defined antiwar party didn’t get it. There was no high-profile win for an antiwar challenger to a prowar incumbent, like that of Ned Lamont over Joe Lieberman in the August 8 Connecticut primary. In fact, New York Senator Hillary Clinton, who (although never as slavishly supportive of the war as Lieberman) remains essentially on board with the mission, won a convincing 4-to-1 victory over labor activist Jonathan Tasini’s sincere but underfunded campaign. In Maryland, where former NAACP president Kweisi Mfume staked an uphill run for an open Senate seat at least in part on his blunter opposition to the war than frontrunner Ben Cardin, Cardin won.
Both Clinton and Cardin ran smarter than Lieberman, sharpening their criticism of the Administration’s conduct of the war as primary day approached. Clinton finished the season denouncing Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, while Cardin, who had once resisted timelines, ended up talking about the wisdom of removing US ground forces from Iraq by the end of 2007.
So it will be that, in Senate races this fall, Democratic nominees will run the gamut from the Bring the Troops Home position articulated by Lamont to the murky criticisms of Cardin and Clinton to the “stay the course” line of Nebraska maverick Ben Nelson. For the most part, Democrats will be more antiwar than their Republican foes, with the possible exception of Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee, a war critic who beat back a conservative GOP primary challenge with, ironically, the support of a White House that did not believe anyone to the right of Chafee could hold the seat. Chafee might still lose in a fall electoral season where polls suggest that voters, frustrated in general by Administration missteps and in particular by the refusal of the President to recognize degeneration of conditions in Iraq, are ready for change.
On the war, the change message will come through a lot louder and clearer in a number of House races, thanks in part to victories of candidates such as Marylander John Sarbanes, New Yorkers Yvette Clarke and John Hall, and Minnesotan Keith Ellison. Running in crowded primary fields, all four won by mounting antiwar campaigns that promised to jump-start the Democratic Party as an opposition force in Congress. Sarbanes, the son of retiring Senator Paul Sarbanes, sought an open seat, campaigning on the theme that Congressional Democrats must use all the political and procedural leverage they can muster to force the Administration to present an exit strategy. It was a message similar to that of veteran activist Donna Edwards, who at press time narrowly trailed centrist incumbent Al Wynn in another House district in Maryland–where a busy primary day also saw law professor and Nation contributor Jamie Raskin, with an unabashedly progressive campaign, upset an entrenched state senator.
In New York, Clarke broke out of a multicandidate contest for a Brooklyn seat once held by Representative Shirley Chisholm by making a high-profile pre-primary appearance with Representative Jack Murtha of Pennsylvania, one of the most identifiable Congressional critics of the war. In a GOP-held district north of New York City, Hall, a founding member of the rock band Orleans, parlayed endorsements from antiwar Representative Maurice Hinchey and antinuclear allies like Bonnie Raitt and Pete Seeger into a big win.
Ellison, whose campaign distributed Bring Our Troops Home Now literature throughout the Minneapolis-based district, is an African-American who converted to Islam. His campaign was compared by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune to those of the late Senator Paul Wellstone, who died in a plane crash shortly after casting a critical 2002 vote against authorizing Bush to invade Iraq. Like Wellstone, Ellison targeted so-called unlikely voters–among them peace activists who have grown frustrated with both major parties and members of a burgeoning Somali community and other groups with concerns about foreign policy.
Sarbanes, Clarke and Ellison are all well positioned to win in November. Hall’s got a tough race ahead of him, as do other primary winners who are war critics, like New Hampshire’s Carol Shea-Porter and Arizona’s Gabrielle Giffords. And it’s important to remember that the war is not the only issue; in Arizona, for instance, Giffords will be running against a Republican who is so extreme on immigration issues that the White House tried to prevent his nomination.
As attention turns to November, Democrats are in the running to take back the House. But they have to recognize that George Bush and Karl Rove will do everything they can to scare Americans into voting their fears rather than their hopes, and to excite the hard-core base. Instead of taking comfort in positive polls, Democrats would be wise to sharpen their message on the war, and other issues, and to study Keith Ellison’s smart strategies for expanding their base by getting war foes and foreign-policy critics to the polls.