It’s not often that Democratic congressmen turn to the Wall Street Journal to defend their stance on taxes. But as one of the first, and certainly the most outspoken, members of his party to come out in favor of extending the Bush tax cuts, even for the wealthiest Americans, freshman Rep. Gerry E. Connolly (D., Va.) is not a typical Democrat.
Connolly began to voice his concern as early as January 2010, when White House officials were preparing the ten-year budget plan. Now, with a number of Democratic candidates in tough races coming out in favor of extending the Bush tax cuts, Connolly appears something of a trendsetter. Senate candidates Jack Conway in Kentucky and Robin Carnahan in Missouri, as well as Rep. Bobby Bright (D., Ala.), are among the Democrats echoing Connolly’s line on taxes.
Isaac Wood, House-race editor for Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball newsletter, says the Bush tax cuts will continue to be an issue heading into November, especially for Democrats looking to paint themselves as moderate candidates. “Democrats who support extending [the tax cuts] will tout that as a concrete example of independence from the national party line,” Wood says.
Connolly was a reliable vote for Democrats in his first term, supporting all of the Obama administration’s key policy initiatives, such as the federal stimulus package, health-care reform, cap-and-trade legislation, and financial reform.
However, this is not the first time he has bucked the party establishment on economic issues. In December 2009, Connolly and 13 other first-term Democrats sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that called for using a “substantial portion” of unspent TARP funds to reduce the federal deficit.
The growing unease among Democrats about the economy could undermine President Obama’s ability to push for any kind of tax increase after the midterms, even if the results aren’t as bad as many Democrats fear.
Connolly’s Republican opponent, Keith Fimian, a business owner who ran against Connolly is 2008, isn’t buying Connolly’s line on taxes. Fimian’s campaign manager, Tim Edson, says it is little more than an election-year ploy.
“This is a clear case of Gerry Connolly looking at the polls, knowing he’s in trouble with voters in this district, and knowing that if he votes for tax increases it’s going to seriously jeopardize his chances of reelection,” Edson says. “Anyone who think he’s not going to flip after the election and suddenly be against extending [the tax cuts], does so at their own peril,” he added.
Fimian’s campaign released the results of a poll by McLaughin & Associates in March 2010 that showed Fimian leading Connolly 40–35 percent with 25 percent undecided. Among independent voters, Fimian led 43–28 percent, according to the poll. Connolly beat Fimian by 12 points in 2008, a year when Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry Virginia since 1964.
Wood says that without Obama on the ticket, or even a Senate or governor’s race to drive turnout in the state, Connolly’s seat is definitely up for grabs in 2010.
Connolly represents the wealthiest congressional district in the country; VA-11 has a median household income of more than $100,000. So his position on taxes may not seem all that surprising.
“[Connolly] is not shooting for Democratic votes, he knows he has to win over independents and even some Republicans who might be turned off by Fimian, and that’s what this policy stance could do for him,” Wood says.
However, Connolly has indicated that his position on tax cuts goes beyond simply looking out for his wealthy constituents.
Connolly told the Richmond Times-Dispatch he’s making “purely an economic argument” that raising taxes, especially on high-income earners, would be harmful in a weak economy.
“The top 5 percent income-earners in this country generate 30 percent of consumer spending. If you let the top bracket expire right now, you could shave as much as half a point off GDP growth. We can’t afford to do that right now,” Connolly said.
It is certainly a message the Obama administration can’t afford to ignore.
– Andrew Stiles writes for National Review Online’s Battle ’10 blog.