Don’t Count on DeLay

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You can see it in their eyes… in their tone of voice. Democrats see an opening to win back the House just as the door is closing on Tom DeLay.

Upstate Democrats who want to defeat local incumbent Republicans – especially in the Rochester region – are buoyed by the GOP’s ethical missteps (here’s a link from the Democratic-leaning Daily Kos)

"This is a whole new year… a whole new time," said Rep. Louise Slaughter, a Democrat in Congress from Fairport – one of the few from upstate. "None of the conventional wisdom applies."

Slaughter made the GOP’s DeLay-Duke-Abramoff problems the centerpiece of her national radio response to President George Bush’s radio address last weekend.

And she represents a shining example within the Democratic Party of someone who can take on and defeat an incumbent. She’s done it three times through her long political career – from county legislature to Congress – taking down Fred Eckert in 1986 to win her House seat.

So Louise ought to know about whether the climate is right for incumbents to be knocked off. What advice does she give to people like Dan Maffei (who wants to take down Republican Rep.Jim Walsh); Jack Davis (who wants to defeat GOP Rep.Tom Reynolds) and Eric Massa (a challenger to Republican Rep. Randy Kuhl)?

"These people aren’t going to need any advice," she said.

Really? Well, Slaughter believes that individual candidates have their own strengths (for example, Davis has his own financial resources and Maffei has Washington contacts by virtue of being a staffer on the Hill). She also believes the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will have ample cash on hand to help challengers. And, in New York, Eliot Spitzer may be a strong head of the Democratic ticket in 2006.

But here is the thing that’s hard to shake. Democrats can’t bank on the ethical charges alone. This isn’t the age of Watergate, when a scandal took us by surprise. Sadly, we are far more cynical about politicians. The names of those who have been in ethical trouble over the years – Jim Wright, Dan Rostenkowski, Newt Gingrich – are many. And those problems didn’t really spurred on change in voting patterns.

The 1994 Republican revolution may have been built partly on claiming that Democrats long in power have become corrupt. But the real reason for the conservative gain was that the electorate embraced the conservative ideals spoken then.

Have the Democrats staked out an ideological position that will grab voters, that will pull them in? That’s the chore left not only to the DCCC, but to the challengers like Maffei, Massa, Davis or Ken Howard and Paloma Capanna.

The Republican ethical problem opens a door. But the salesmen better have a good pitch or the door will quickly shut again.