Politics & Policy

Service-Oriented

Nathan Bech is an upbeat underdog in a largely Democratic district.

Nathan Bech has spent most of his adult life serving his country. The 34-year-old Massachusetts native joined the Army Reserves shortly after high school and has served in Afghanistan and Iraq. This November, he’s running as a Republican in the Bay State’s first congressional district.

“The Republicans in the district are excited to see someone running,” says Bech. “I like to shake things up. That’s why I’m here.”

It won’t be easy. Four years ago, John Kerry won the district with 63 percent of the vote. In 2000, Al Gore carried it with 56 percent.

Still, some Republicans are keeping their fingers crossed.

“While this race is nothing short of an uphill battle in a deep blue state, Nathan Bech is running a scrappy campaign and he has a compelling biography to go with it,” says Ken Spain of the National Republican Campaign Committee.

The incumbent is John Olver, a liberal Democrat who has represented the district since 1991. Olver has not faced a Republican challenger in six years; in fact, he faced a Socialist challenger more recently than he did a Republican.

“Any Republican running against a Democratic incumbent in Massachusetts is like a person with a feather in his hand fighting against someone with a machine gun,” says Peter Giftos, executive director of the Berkshire County Republican Association. “We’re excited about Nathan, but it’s a tough race.”

The district stretches across the rural western Massachusetts, covering one third of the state’s total area. Among the Appalachian landscape and classic New England villages, it boasts several major college towns: Amherst, Williamstown, and Holyoke — left-leaning strongholds of Olver’s support.

Olver’s seat on the House Appropriations committee further entrenches his position. Beyond the normal advantages of incumbency, he has special access to pork-barrel funding: according to Citizens Against Government Waste, a spending-watchdog group, Olver directed $2,752,000 for special projects in his district between 2005 and 2006 alone, making him the worst member of the Massachusetts delegation in terms of earmarks. Some of his appropriations have been used to replace antennas at a local airport, and to dredge local ponds.

“Instead of using tax-dollars to boost the economy, Olver is earmarking it for wasteful local projects,” says Bech. “He is out of touch with the district.”

“Jobs in the district are in trouble,” echoes state committeeman and Bech campaign manager Isaac Mass. “This is our opportunity to introduce new solutions.”

Some local G.O.P. activists think John McCain’s popularity could improve Bech’s prospects. “People want the government to leave us alone to do what we want with religion, with marriage, with our tax dollars,” says Shari Worthington of Worcester County, a member of the Massachusetts Republican State Committee. “Voters in western Massachusetts may not like to get involved in big causes, but when they go to the polls, they vote conservative-right.”

A Survey USA poll released June 30 shows Barack Obama leading by 15 points in western and central Massachusetts. The area is even more favorable to Obama than the state overall, where he leads by 13 points.

It’s no surprise that Republican congressional candidates have fared poorly in the first district. Most successful was former Massachusetts acting governor and McCain education adviser Jane M. Swift, who lost to Olver by four points in 1996. Her achievement did not aid other Republicans, however: in 2002, Matt Kinnaman got 32 percent of the vote to Olver’s 67.

Kinnaman thinks this race will be even tougher: he launched his bid less than a year after 9/11, and after Olver had voted against the Patriot Act and several defense authorization bills.

“They were bad votes in light of the district’s mood following 9/11,” says Kinnaman. “But the mood has shifted since then to stances that are anti-Bush and anti-war. It’s a tall order for Nathan.”

A self-declared moderate Republican, Bech says he hopes to emulate Silvio Conte, a liberal Republican who represented the district from 1959 until his death in 1991. While pro-life and in favor of tax cuts for the middle class, Bech also devotes time on the campaign trail to less conventionally conservative issues like climate change and environmental conservation. He even claims that his campaign is 100-percent carbon-neutral.

Clean-cut, with small, circular glasses and an excitable demeanor, Bech brings to mind a child prodigy. He graduated from high school in three years, then spent a year studying in India through a program with Rotary International. He has a degree in political science from Colgate University, and has spent additional time in the Middle East studying international affairs. He is fluent in Russian and Spanish, which he says helps him in the district’s immigrant communities. More recently, he has managed his family’s property business in his hometown of Springfield.

His perspective as a veteran is an indelible part of his character, he says.

“I probably understand the Middle East better than the 435 members of the House do,” says Bech. “Olver hasn’t spent one day in Iraq or Afghanistan while in Congress. In that sense I bring much more credibility.”

Olver’s lack of military service is part of a larger trend: according to a 2007 survey by the Military Officers Association of America, only 23 percent of House members had military experience. In 1991, veterans made up 48 percent of the House.

Bech knows that this decline extends to the country more broadly; he says he hopes his candidacy will reemphasize the importance of military service. “The army has new privates coming in with no sense of right and wrong — no values from family, faith, Boy Scouts, and or any of the traditional ways military servicemen have been called to duty. We need to find a way to instill those values again.”

Elise Viebeck, a Collegiate Network intern at National Review, is editor emerita of the Claremont Independent at Claremont McKenna College.

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