Politics & Policy

A Menace to Dennis?

What Kucinich and "B-1 Bob" may have in common come Novemeber.

Although the race for the Democratic presidential nomination has been effectively over since March, Congressman Dennis Kucinich has just now managed to accept his party’s verdict. In Detroit last week, he finally ended his longest of long-shot bids for the Oval Office and endorsed John Kerry for president.

This touching display of party unity on the eve of the Democratic National Convention comes after months of campaigning by Kucinich, in which he won only 68 delegates out of 4,353. But Dennis isn’t done campaigning yet–he is up for reelection to his House seat representing Ohio’s 10th congressional district this fall.

On paper, he should be a shoo-in. Kucinich won reelection in 2002 with 74 percent of the vote. The former Cleveland “boy mayor’” hails from the Democratic stronghold of Cuyahoga County. The district contains a few suburban Republican enclaves like Rocky River, but an even larger number of traditional blue-collar Democratic precincts ranging from Parma to west Cleveland.

The GOP, however, is hopeful that Kucinich’s disastrous presidential bid will help make the race competitive. Voters have a tendency to punish local politicians who run embarrassing national campaigns. This phenomenon has been described as the “Dornan effect,” after the notorious nine-term California Republican whose congressional career ended after a humiliating effort to win his party’s presidential nod in 1996. In the primaries, “B-1 Bob” Dornan trailed such political unknowns as businessman Morry Taylor; by the time he dropped out, his run for the White House had become an issue in his unsuccessful House race.

A more recent example of the Dornan effect at work was Bob Smith’s 2002 Senate primary loss to John Sununu. The two-term Granite State Republican briefly left the party. He had mounted a quixotic presidential bid, first for the GOP nomination and then as an independent. He eventually returned to the fold, but by then the damage had been done.

Like Dornan and Smith, Kucinich took a number of positions during the course of his ineffectual presidential campaign that could potentially alienate erstwhile backers. Some of his constituents are already shaking their heads. Seventy-nine-year-old Mary Ridill told the New York Times earlier this year, “He has done some good locally, but I think he has gone bananas.” Even many local Democrats take a dim view of their congressman’s stands in favor of same-sex marriage and partial-birth abortion.

Republicans feel they have a strong candidate to capitalize on this sentiment in Ed Herman. The first-time candidate is emphasizing his support for tax cuts, the cultural conservatism that predominates in the district, and his hands-on experience in the war on terror. Herman speaks fluent Arabic and served in the Army in Afghanistan post-9/11, where he interrogated captured al Qaeda operatives.

Some contrasts the campaign is likely to highlight: Herman is pro-life, while Kucinich abandoned that position to cultivate left-wing support for his presidential campaign. Herman is a veteran in a district with a high proportion of veterans; Kucinich has called for creating a Cabinet-level Department of Peace.

But most of all, Republicans will present Kucinich’s presidential run as a distraction that separated him from his constituents. “Dennis Kucinich had a reputation for being a man of the people in Cleveland,” says Herman. “He has decided that it’s more important to impress his new friends in Hollywood.”

Herman argues that Kucinich is less interested in the affairs of his district than in becoming a national hero to progressives in the mold of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone. This distraction has manifested itself more concretely: The incumbent, often praised for being attentive to constituent services, missed over 70 percent of scheduled congressional votes during the first three months of the year.

Ohio House Majority Whip Jim Trakas, who also chairs the Cuyahoga Republican-party central committee, says that Kucinich’s shift from local concerns to national “left-wing extremists” will be an issue in the race (full disclosure: Trakas is a personal friend and former boss). “A lot of local Republican officials who have in the past remained neutral or even supported Dennis will not do so this time around…. You also have a lot of Democrats who are veterans or immigrants from countries that suffered under fascist and Communist dictators who understand the value of strong American defense and Ed Herman is well positioned to make that case.”

Of course, there are also potential pitfalls in being too closely identified with the Bush administration’s war policies in this Democratic-leaning area. Kucinich has a strong base among the district’s union workers, many of whom work in manufacturing sectors that have been particularly hard hit by job losses in recent years. The issues that make Ohio such a hotly contested state in the presidential election will also affect this race.

But Herman’s backers are optimistic that if they can get their message out–and highlight the abyss between the tiny national progressive network that backed Kucinich’s presidential bid and the hometown supporters who have sent him to Congress four times–they can pull off an upset.

And in the tradition of the Dornan effect, another politician might be reminded that there is a price to be paid for putting your national aspirations too far ahead of your constituents’ sensibilities.

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor at The American Conservative. He worked at Cuyahoga County Republican headquarters in 1998.

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