The Democratic field is cleared for State Senator John Unger (campaign site) to challenge Foleygate/Page Board scandal star and incumbent Wall Street Journal Republican Shelley Capito for West Virginia’s Second Congressional District seat.
The Democratic House leadership seems to be lining up behind Unger’s bid to unseat the increasingly vulnerable Capito, hopefully giving Unger vital early support in a district the Democratic leadership dreadfully under-invested in the 2006 cycle. Unger has even been honored as one of Rahm Emanuel’s “Six Pack”, one of only six candidates to whom he has donated so far in this cycle.
It is a very encouraging sign that Monday evening six of the leading House Democrats (including Hoyer, Emanuel, and Van Hollen) will host a big old fundraiser (info) for Unger.
In 2006 Democrats picked most of the low-hanging fruit in regaining the House majority. Seats in which we have a legitimate takeover opportunity are few and far between (and we have several seats we won in 2006 we are going to be hard-pressed to hold and need to offset).
John Unger’s campaign in 60-some percent Democratic registration WV-02 offers us a chance to pick the GOP’s pockets of a seat which traditionally belongs to us. Read on for the who, how and why.
OK, with the formality of condensing my verbose but incredibly persuasive arguments into few enough characters to fit into the Main Text, let me now indulge in my customary Faulknerian self-indulgence.
First off, WV-02 is not a seat any Republican, even the daughter of beloved but convicted former Governor Arch Moore, should ever hold for long.
As noted, Democrats retain over 60 percent of voters by registration. This figure has dropped from the 2-to-1 edge held for generations. Two factors account for the GOP’s small gains over the years.
The Eastern Panhandle has grown remarkably quickly. And most of the new arrivals have been Republicans. The 2000 and, especially, the 2004 Bush campaigns did a fantastic job getting these newbies registered and out to vote. Capito has benefited enormously from this. In fact, without this influx of Republicans, she never would have won the seat in the first place. The Panhandle, particularly Berkeley County (the most populous and fastest growing of the Panhandle counties), provide Capito’s margin.
WHY UNGER WINS
John Unger’s State Senate District includes Berkeley County. And his electoral success there, despite his Democratic identity and generally progressive politics, is quite impressive.
In 2006, Unger simply pounded his GOP opponent in Republican-friendly Berkeley County, clearing 63 percent. In the rest of the district, Unger did even better: clearing 67 percent.
Unger can compete with Capito in her base region. Unless Capito can rack up big majorities in the Panhandle, the math just does not work for her in the rest of the district… especially as she continues to lose ground each election in the other major population center of WV02 (Kanawha County).
Capito’s vote percentage has fallen in each of the last three general elections (60% in 2002; 59% in 2004; 57 in 2006). Had anyone from outside the district itself invested in Mike Callaghan’s energetic but underfunded challenge in 2006 until the weekend before the election, Capito would have dropped well below the 55 percent figure which redflags vulnerable incumbents.
Unger is uniquely suited to chip away or (Lord willing and the DCCC actually writes some checks before election day) actually reverse Capito’s margin in the county she has to win big. He’s a proven vote-winner in the region key to unseating Capito.
The erosion of Democratic support among values voters has converted a lot of previously reliable Democratic voters into tacit Republicans when it comes to federal elections. We simply have lost a lot of our old pro-labor base on the abortion issue. They can’t in good conscience vote their economic self-interest at the expense of their moral code. In a district in which a plurality of Democratic primary voters self-describe as pro-life (let alone the general electorate), the identification of the national Democratic party’s rigidly pro-choice stance has created for the Republicans the wedge they have used to keep Capito in office.
WHY UNGER WINS
Remember I said GENERALLY progressive politics?
John Unger is pro-life. And I don’t mean the heartless, calculating kind of pro-life that seems to fill the ranks of GOP office-seekers. Unger spent a year working for Mother Teresa (I kid u not.check pix as a college kid.
Just as an aside, is there any better way to annoy Christopher Hitchens than to back a guy who worked for Mother Teresa?
His position on abortion is a matter of deeply held faith rather than political calculation. And, when you check out his websites and see all his charitable and relief work, you will realize this is a man of compassion in action. His concern for future generations does not end at the moment of birth.
Contrast Unger’s position on abortion with Capito’s twists and turns over the years on this vital issue.
Capito spent her early career as a pro-choice Republican. When she decided to run for Congress, she began to morph into a pro-lifer. By the time she filled out her NPAT form for Project Vote Smart for the 2004 cycle she was checking off on opposing abortion except in the cases of rape, incest and to protect the life of the woman, voted for the Global Gag Rule, and rated a 30 percent from NARAL.
Attempting to keep her feet in both camps, Capito spoke one way to choice groups and another to lifers… effectively blurring the public perception of her true position and allowing folks to see what they wanted to see.
However, Capito made a rather uncharacteristically overt and unambiguous move in the wake of the GOP losing control of the House: she joined the GOP House Pro-Choice PAC.
I can only spitball as to the logic behind her decision. Perhaps she decided in the wake of the loss of the House, the wind was blowing in the other direction (and in the word of Mayor Quimby, let it not be said that she did not also blow).
In any event, she has made an enormous strategic blunder. Abortion was the only thing holding her up among fundamentalist voters. At the very least this will suppress their turnout. More likely it will seriously erode her margin among values voters. Almost certainly it will hurt her at the polls in a district where pro-choice is not an edge in a Democratic primary… let alone a general election.
Now imagine the following scenario:
THE MANCHIN AND GIULIANI FACTORS
Governor Joe Manchin will be heading the ticket. And running as a pro-life candidate. With his favorability and job approval ratings in the 80s and facing only a sacrificial lamb GOP challenger, the only real question is if 70 percent is a ceiling or a floor for his vote. Manchin is going to have long coattails.
This is going to happen. It will boost Unger across the district. Republicans will be demoralized. Indies will trend heavily Democratic. And wayward Dems will come home even if just to jump on the winner’s bandwagon.
But imagine the scenario if Rudy Giuliani is on the GOP ticket. The voters of WV02 will have a choice between pro-life Democrats and a Republican federal ticket headed by a Planned Parenthood Contributor and seconded by someone who flipped to the other side on the pro-life majority.
The Republican edge on values issues evaporates and possibly reverses. Capito will be bleeding lifers all over the district while facing Unger popular in the region she has to rack up even bigger majorities than ever just to survive.
THE PANHANDLE DEPENDENCY:
The math does not add up to a majority for Capito without the Panhandle margin. Berkeley County alone accounted for 14.74 percent of her total 2004 vote (think that’s the best year to use as it was the last Presidential election year). Her dependence on huge winning margins in Berkeley has grown and continues to grow over the course of her terms in office.
In the 2002 off-year cycle, Berkeley County accounted for 11.05 percent of her vote total. In 2006 the figure swelled to 13.29 percent. Extrapolating from this and the 2000 to 2004 change, just to stay even from her a natural erosion elsewhere, she would need to boost her Berkeley County numbers to 17 percent of her vote total.
Now what that means in performance on the ground is Capito would have to boost her percentage of the Berkeley County vote from 68.5 percent in 2004 (which was rung up with the massive Bush exurban GOTV effort deploying enormous resources there virtually unopposed) to 79 percent in 2008. She would have to raise her vote total from 21772 to 25105 in a county which only saw 31768 votes in a record-turnout year for the GOP.
Does anyone think she can do that against a guy who pulls 63 percent of the vote AGAINST the tide?
CONCLUSION: UNGER BEATS CAPITO
John Unger is uniquely suited to win this race.
Why do you think the DCCC recruited him to run? Why do you think West Virginia’s Congressional delegation took the unprecedented step of endorsing a candidate before the filing deadline?
John Unger is the only dog we got who can win this fight. Capito has left her flank open on social issues. Unger can exploit this. Capito has become too reliant on unsustainable margins from the Panhandle to hold her seat.
With the GOP having lost control, Capito can’t raise money like she did when she was in a position to reward her corporate benefactors. Despite moving back to the Finance Committee (usually a gold mine as financial services firms line up to throw money at its members) after the 2006 thumping, Capito’s fundraising is lagging (309K cash on hand in her last quarterly versus 472K at the same point in the last cycle).
And her peril is greater than it appears. With the majority, she could raise vast amounts quickly. With Democrats holding the majority, there is very little incentive for business to up the ante for Capito. She simply can’t raise two millon in the last months before Election Day 2008 now because it is no longer a prudent investment for big business. She is no longer positioned to give them a good return on the money invested.
My guess is she will max out around a million and a half dollars in 2008.
This sounds like a lot, but one has to consider what she had to spend to survive Mike Callaghan’s energetic but underfunded 2006 challenge to Capito.
WHY HER 57 PERCENT IN 2006 WAS AN UNDERPERFORMANCE
As I whined earlier, the Callaghan campaign got almost no institutional support from the national party apparatus and campaign committees. While Callaghan did a fantastic job raising 600K from a less than wealthy district (in comparison, the 2004 nominee raised less than 100K), the total is somewhat inflated as most of the money did not arrive until it was too late to do anything with it.
After a bruising three-way primary against two essentially unelectable opponents, Mike Callaghan’s campaign was essentially broke. With the noticeable lack of outside-the-state financial support, Callaghan had to take valuable time away from the stump in a district which has historically rewarded retail campaigning to focus on personally raising from small donors enough money to keep the offices open and the phones on.
Callaghan had no choice. There simply aren’t enough max or even high amount donors in WV02 to raise enormous sums of money without a lot of time-intensive effort by the candidate.
Meanwhile, Capito was raising money in increments of hundreds of thousands as leading Republicans willingly trekked to the state on her behalf. It is truly shameful that Capito was able to raise $2.44 million to add to the million she had salted away from past campaigns with out breaking a sweat because her party gave her backing while Democrats left our nominee twisting alone in the wind.
And so we arrive at Labor Day 2006. Capito starts her media campaign. Fully aware that Callaghan does not have the funds to go on air, she unleashes a relentlessly upbeat series of ads in a massively heavy rotation. She doesn’t mention Bush. She doesn’t mention she’s a Republican. She’s just this nice lady you shouldn’t fire.
Then the Mark Foley scandal breaks, Capito is a member of the Page Board. She takes the tack that no one told her, conveniently ignoring her job was to provide oversight and her own responsibility to keep herself informed. She panics and goes negative. And I mean, she goes viciously, relentlessly, personally, and dishonestly negative against Mike Callaghan. She drops a million and a half dollars on negative ads (and at West Virginia rates, that is an enormous number of gross rating points). She keeps this up for weeks. Until the week before the election, West Virginia’s radio and TV is wall-to-wall Callaghan-bashing ads.
Meanwhile, Democratic nominee Mike Callaghan doesn’t have enough money to respond… unless he wants to miss a payroll for the campaign staff. It is to his credit that he chose to take the punches rather than short his people. He goes on the road and tries to fight back as best he can.
I said this district rewards retail ( and it does, as the last three flips have gone to the candidate who outworked on the ground the opponent who relied on an air war alone). West Virginians expect to know or at least meet the folks for whom they pull the lever. But no district rewards retail enough to overcome a $3,000,000 to none edge (especially when a radio spot costs twenty bucks a run).
And so it goes. Capito spends all the 2.44 million she raised for the 2006 cycle and the million or so she had stashed away for a future statewide run. Perhaps realizing her unceasing negativity is building to the point of backlash, in the last week and a half, Capito shifts to an (arguably…and weakly so) humorous TV spot where she’s saying she’s busy and scurries around in fast-motion silent movie style.
A late poll shows Callaghan closing. The national party throws in enough money for a small buy the weekend before the election. That is all Mike Callaghan had to fire back at three million bucks of mostly vicious, personal, and fallacious attacks over the course of three months.
Despite this utter lack of support for a promising young challenger, Callaghan actually knocked Capito’s percentage down a couple of points… nearly below the 55 percent vulnerability trigger.
With any backing at all, this would have been a much closer race. With substantial backing in the wake of the Foley scandal and Capito’s ridiculously incoherent rationalizations of her irresponsibility, Callaghan would have beaten Capito.
If this is an unreasonable conclusion, why did Capito spend it all? She’s been saving for a statewide for years. I see no other reason than she saw the possibility of a defeat which would derail her political future. Kudos to Mike Callaghan for making her spend it all (“make him spend it all, Arch” was the unofficial motto and slogan on the most popular bumper sticker of Capito’s father’s run against Jay Rockefeller, my fellow West Virginians of a certain age will recall).
WHY AM I RANTING THEN?
I am terrified we will let let another golden opportunity pass. In John Unger we have another viable candidate with a winnable race against a vulnerable incumbent in a Democratic leaning district in a swing state.
Face it, folks. The way Congressional districts are drawn these days, there are very few seats left where we have a reasonable chance of a Republican-to-Democrat flip. WV-02 is one of the best chances we have.
And we are going to need it.
We caught the Republicans napping in 2006. And Foleygate broke just at the right time to derail their counteroffensive. They were about to start waving the bloody shirt right when the Foley/Page Board scandal shifted the environment (remember we were falling fast in the generic preferences the three weeks before the Foley story broke).
The GOP is doing everything they can to force into retirement any of their folks who carries a whiff of scandal. They are cutting loose from President Bush.
Simply put, we can’t count on them making mistakes again they way they did in 2006.
And now we are playing defense. In politics, like a knife fight, it is always easier and more productive to attack than defend. We have to be smarter and tougher than we were in 2006 just to break even.
We simply can’t afford to pass up opportunities like the one John Unger (campaign site).
It is encouraging to see Members from the leadership showing early support for Unger and his race in WV-02. I truly hope this is one they shortlist for special attention.
And I beg anyone who reads this to contact the DCCC, their unions and professional associations, friends, neighbors, and anyone they bump into on the street to get involved.
Check out Unger’s bio and record. This is a good man with a great shot at winning a crucial seat.
The campaign e mail is firstname.lastname@example.org