Vulnerable House Democrats Declare Independence From Their Party’s Agenda

September 27, 2010 - 5:36 AM
Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) and other vulnerable Democrats have raised eyebrows for supporting President Obama in vote after vote, only to pivot and say they are not beholden to their party.

Dina Titus

In this Aug. 12, 2008 photo, then-Nevada House candidate Dina Titus addresses supporters in Henderson, Nev. Her campaign signs for the Nov. 2, 2010 election proclaim her to be an "independent voice" for Nevadans. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

Las Vegas (AP) - Rep. Dina Titus has been a loyal soldier in pushing the Democrats' ambitious agenda, voting for health care legislation, extended unemployment benefits, new energy taxes and a repeal of the military's ban on gays serving openly.

Her campaign signs, however, proclaim Titus an "independent voice" for Nevadans.

Aware that their stock has taken the same tumble as home values, Congress' most vulnerable Democrats are declaring their independence from their party's agenda in Facebook profiles, television advertisements, news interviews and campaign websites leading up to the Nov. 2 election. That's when Republicans hope to retake control of the House they lost four years ago.

The re-branders include Democratic Reps. Betsy Markey and John Salazar in Colorado, Zack Space in Ohio, Jason Altmire in Pennsylvania, Glenn Nye in Virginia and Joe Donnelly in Indiana. In Texas, Rep. Chet Edwards, once promoted as a potential running mate for Barack Obama, has become a vocal critic of his party's policies.

The tactic could hurt Democratic turnout at a time when the party needs to protect its majority in Congress, some political strategists say.

"They want to get turnout as high as possible among those who vote for Democrats," said Joseph Bafumi, a government professor at Dartmouth College. "Running away from the president or the party might not be the way to do it."

Democrats such as Altmire, Edwards, Space and Nye stand out for defying party leaders on leading issues such as health care, but they are having to defend their independent bona fides because of the "D" after their name.

Titus and others have raised eyebrows for carrying water for Obama in vote after vote, only to pivot and say they are not beholden to a party.

Salazar, for example, opposed federal money for abortions and new clean-energy taxes. But he also voted for many Democratic priorities unpopular among conservatives, including the stimulus bill, health care reform and debt-financed extended unemployment benefits.

Sliding toward the middle is a tested tactic. It could appeal to moderate Republican and nonpartisan voters alarmed by the number of hard-right candidates under the GOP banner this year.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the House Democrats' campaign committee, said ideological diversity will prove an asset as tea party fever continues to push Republicans to the far right.

"The Democratic caucus is a big-tent caucus," Van Hollen said. "We don't have a purity or an ideological test the way the Republicans do."

Republicans argue Democrats are whitewashing their political records during the sluggish economic recovery that has focused voter anger on Washington.

"Democrats may try to run away from their party's unpopular agenda, but their voting record tells the real story," Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, who leads the committee charged with electing House Republicans, said in a statement. "Our responsibility over the coming weeks is to remind voters that House Democrats have been complicit in backing a big-government agenda that has done nothing to create jobs in this country."

The party infighting ranges from minor jabs -- Titus criticized Democrats for failing to sell the health care bill -- to body blows.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is a favorite punching bag.

In Indiana, Donnelly tell voters he fought against Pelosi's "energy tax on Hoosier families."

In Alabama, Rep. Bobby Bright begged off a question about whether he would vote for Pelosi as speaker by pointing out that "she may get sick and die."

In Texas, Edwards also won't say whether Pelosi can still count on his vote.

Nimble politicians have tried to shun their political baggage before when confronted by a wary public.

Republicans did it in 2006 and 2008, when George W. Bush held the White House. Democrats did it in 2000 in a failed attempt to retain the White House in the bruised final days of President Bill Clinton.

"It's an act of desperation more than anything else. 'What can I do to persuade the voters that I can be representative of them?'" said Tom Brunell, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. "They are staring at a tidal wave and they are looking for any life buoy they can find."

Re-election prospects seem particularly dim for the handful of Democrats who trumped Republican incumbents while riding Obama's coattails in 2008.

In Virginia, Nye rarely tells voters he is a Democrat. He calls himself a fiscal conservative and has circulated a petition to extend all income tax rates.

Still, he's in a toss-up race in a conservative district that seems eager to return to a Republican.

In Nevada, Titus' independent message has done little to nudge poll numbers in her favor in a district plagued by record high levels of foreclosures and unemployment and sinking property values.

The first-term congresswoman defended her claim in a recent interview with assurances that she would be willing to vote for extending Bush era tax cuts for everyone and would have voted against the bank bailout had she been in office at the time.

Her challenger, tea party favorite Joe Heck, paints her as a Pelosi henchman.

Titus' "independent voice" sign hangs in Heck's campaign office. His staff called it motivation.