Three thoughts on local House races

We’re exactly two weeks away from Election Day, and while the Obama-Romney main event has drawn all the attention, the undercard features a fight for control of Congress. The races are local, but the implications are national: control of the House will give the majority a significant lever in the sweeping debate over taxes and government spending; it’s a long-brewing fight expected to consume Washington for months after Nov. 6.

With just 14 days to go, here are three big picture thoughts on how the local races are shaping up:

-- Democrats have an uphill climb.
While most incumbents in our area have been safe from the very beginning, Democrats started out the races here thinking they had shots at up to four suburban seats held by Republicans. (Mike Fitzpatrick in Bucks, Pat Meehan in Delaware County, Jim Gerlach in Chester and Jon Runyan in Burlington County in South Jersey).

The Democratic challengers, though, have struggled and the national campaign arms of both parties spoke with their checkbooks when they yanked all of their television advertising from the Philadelphia market. Democrats wouldn’t do that if they thought they had a good chance of ousting an incumbent and Republicans wouldn’t do that if they thought they were in real danger of losing a seat here.

It seems that a big third quarter push by the Democratic challengers wasn’t enough. Kathy Boockvar (running against Fitzpatrick) and Manan Trivedi (facing Gerlach) raised large sums and put lots of that money into their campaigns between July 1 and the end of September (of course, they were still outspent). Shelley Adler (Runyan’s opponent) actually outspent the incumbent in the last quarter. But when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee pulled their money out in early October, they essentially told us that the spending didn’t do enough to move the dial in these races.

Now, with their campaign accounts depleted after a few months of big spending, the local Democrats have far less cash on hand than their opponents, and no national help for the stretch run. It’s looking more and more like none of our House seats will change hands this time around.

-- No coattails
When independent analysts said GOP-led redistricting had put these races out of reach, Democrats countered by pointing out that even with the new boundaries, President Obama and Sen. Bob Casey had performed well in the House battlegrounds.

Their point was twofold: that the areas were still winnable for Democrats and that with both Obama and Casey at the top of the ticket, there was a chance to ride their Pennsylvania popularity to down-ballot wins.

Except that now Obama and Casey are facing much tougher fights for Pennsylvania than expected. The Washington Post jumped into the Casey-Tom Smith race today, giving an indication of how the once sleepy contest has heated up. Most pundits expect that Obama and Casey will still win PA, and for them it might not matter much exactly how big their margin is. But Democratic challengers looking for help from the big guns are probably going to be disappointed.

-- Carbon Copy Campaigns
I’m betting you’re sick of reading the same talking points about Medicare and taxes, because the repetitive back-and-forth is enough to make anyone want to put a pen through his eye socket. But if you talk to the candidates, that’s about all they have to say.

Democrats saw the Paul Ryan VP pick as their big chance. DCCC chairman Steve Israel, talked about how Ryan would be a “down-ballot disaster” and that the GOP had given Democratic challengers “a megaphone” for their message on Medicare – which Ryan proposed to overhaul, with the backing of his GOP House compatriots. So Democrats locally have talked non-stop about Medicare, about raising taxes on the very top of the income ladder and about women’s issues.

Republicans have universally responded that they were actually protecting Medicare, that it’s Democrats who abused the program and that keeping everyone’s taxes down is essential to economic recovery.

There are some marginal differences – Trivedi, a doctor, talks a bit more about health care while Boockvar cites her daughter when she stresses women’s issues – but on the whole, I could take all the quotes from the candidates on both sides, shuffle them up, throw them in the air and let them land at random on my campaign stories, and none of the articles would reach much differently.

I’m sure these talking points are all poll-tested and approved, and are exactly what each side believes can help them win. But part of me would like to think that if some candidates were willing to show a little more originality, maybe our races wouldn’t be quite so stagnant.