Democrats gain ground, but not without losses of their own

Jon Ward Contributor
Font Size:

The political ground shifted dramatically and chaotically over the last week. And while Democrats clearly had the upper hand and gained momentum, Republicans began to claw back through the weekend.

The week’s biggest development, with the most ramifications going forward, is that Kentucky is no longer a sure thing for Republicans hoping to hold the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Jim Bunning. Top party operatives said privately that Rand Paul has given himself a tough race with his clumsy forays into the national spotlight.

At the same time, Democrats lost their huge advantage in the Connecticut Senate, which is now a tossup after Richard Blumenthal’s misstatements about his military service were exposed by the New York Times.

And the national climate remains strongly against incumbents at a time when Democrats hold a majority of seats in the House and Senate.

Nonetheless, Democrats won a key special election in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, and made the case loudly that it means they will retain control of the House. But then a Republican won a special election Saturday in the congressional district in Hawaii where President Obama was born and raised, (largely because Democrats split their ticket).

Obama and congressional Democrats also added another arrow to their election year quiver by passing a financial regulation bill through the Senate. Whether the bill is a good one or not, Democrats this fall will say they took on Wall Street and won.

But by the end of the week, Republicans had begun to push harder on the continuing allegations from Rep. Joe Sestak, who defeated veteran lawmaker Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senate primary, that top Obama advisers had offered the former Navy two-star admiral a high-ranking job to stay out of the race.

Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican from California, made clear that he was not going to let the issue drop, and the Republican National Committee jumped on the bandwagon. By Sunday, it was a focus of the morning talk shows.

Sestak said yet again on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he was “offered a job,” and even appeared to be making his refusal of the job part of his campaign pitch.

“I would like President Obama’s support, and he said in his phone call to me, yes. But at the end of the day, I ran because I didn’t agree with a deal that was made that I didn’t think would help Pennsylvania over the next six years,” Sestak said.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine said on ABC’s “This Week” that the Obama administration “should deal with” questions on the matter.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, who on Thursday refused 12 times to answer questions about what happened with Sestak, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that “nothing inappropriate happened.”

“Republicans are continuing to dredge this up,” Gibbs said. “I’m not going to get further into what the conversations were. People that have looked into them assure me that they weren’t inappropriate.”

Issa maintains that if what Sestak says is true, it is a felony, and threatened this week to file a complaint with the House Ethics Committee if Sestak does not say who offered him a job.

Republicans, meanwhile, were fighting among themselves over comments by Paul, the libertarian who endured a political week from hell that began the day after his primary win on Tuesday.

RNC Chairman Michael Steele expressed disapproval on “This Week” of Paul’s comments Wednesday that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 might include some government overreach, and that private businesses should be free to discriminate (Paul walked his comments back later in the week).

Though Steele said he would not “condemn” Paul’s comments, he said he “wasn’t comfortable” with them. He added, later on “Fox News Sunday,” that “Rand Paul’s philosophy got in the way of reality.”

Pete Wehner, a former Bush administration official, called on Republican leaders this past week to condemn Paul’s comments.

Rand’s sentiments, Wehner wrote, “might potentially stain conservatism both as a philosophy and a political movement.”

But other Republicans shot back.

“There are a handful of people who are more interested in their personal situation than the Republican party. And anybody who throws a rock at Rand Paul puts themselves in that category. But that’s a small number of people,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, in an interview.

Energized by Paul’s woes and by their win in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District on Tuesday, Democratic party operatives went into hyper drive over the course of the week. The DNC alone sent 47 e-mail missives to this reporter on Thursday alone, compared to only 11 by the RNC and the National Republican Senatorial Committee combined that day.

Democrats acknowledged that while not every one of their e-mail blasts might get read, the overall effect was to create an impression in reporter’s minds that their issues were gaining steam, and to distract from storylines that were detrimental to them or helpful to the GOP.

Republican operatives said it was overkill and that it would have a negative impact, citing reporters they had talked to who said the e-mails amounted to spam.

“If spamming reporters and sending tweets to 500 of your closest supporters was an effective messaging strategy then clearly the Democrats would be winning,” said Brian Walsh, the NRSC’s communications director.

“As it is, Republicans are on offense in at least 10 Democratic held Senate seats, the President’s approval rating in key battleground states is in the tank and public opinion is decidedly against the Democrats’ biggest issue which is their health care bill. So I’m content to let the facts speak for themselves,” Walsh said. “All the emails and tweets in the world can’t disguise a bad message and an unpopular big government agenda.”

One veteran GOP operative, however, said that the party’s rapid response and communications efforts were similar to warring Scottish tribes in the movie “Braveheart,” whose infighting made it impossible for them to unite and fight together.

E-mail Jon Ward and follow him on Twitter