Democrats had high hopes that voter disgust with corruption of Republican leaders in Congress would help them win a June 6 special election in San Diego, but the GOP wrote the checks, brought in the troops and deployed the wedge issue of immigration invasion to show they won't give up control of Congress without a fight.
The spin was fast and furious after the election in California's 50th Congessional District in San Diego to fill the seat vacated when Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R) left for federal prison after pleading guilty in a bribery scandal. Republicans managed to eke out a narrow victory for Brian Bilbray, a former congressman turned lobbyist who got 49% of the vote to beat Democrat Francine Busby's 45%.
Democrats were disappointed after blowing a favorable set of local circumstances, including Cunningham's guilty plea, a rift among Republicans over how to handle illegal immigration and a divided field, which included an independent candidate endorsed by the militant anti-immigrant Minutemen. Republicans failed to break 50% after spending $4.5 million in a district George W. Bush carried by 10 points in 2004. However, Busby led -- albeit narrowly -- in some polls before the election until she was quoted welcoming the support of undocumented immigrants, a remark that was distorted and widely broadcast by right-wingers.
Adam Nagourney reported in the June 8 New York Times that the GOP backed Bilbray not just with money for advertising but also with automated phone calls from President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Laura Bush and the highly sophisticated get-out-the-vote operation that has helped Republicans in the last two national elections. Republicans had 160 campaign workers making 164,000 phone calls in the run-up to Bilbray's victory. Democrats had no similar effort on the ground.
Matt Stoller noted at MyDD.com that Bilbray actually ran on a progressive platform and his record of environmental protection, economic development and immigration control while Busby ran a "D.C." campaign, downplaying ideology and party. Instead she made the campaign about GOP corruption and Democratic competence in delivery of government services.
National Journal's Hotline noted that Democrats will have to win races in even redder territory than California's 50th in order to win back the House. "In fact, almost half of the Dems' top pickup opportunities are in districts that Bush carried with over 55% in 2004," Hotline's Josh Kraushaar noted. Targeted Republicans and Bush vote in 2004 include Geoff Davis (R-KY 4): 63%; John Hostettler (R-IN 8): 62%; Don Sherwood (R-PA 10) 60%; Mike Sodrel (R-IN 9): 59%; Thelma Drake (R-VA 2) 58%; Bob Ney (R-OH 18) 57%; Charles Taylor (R-NC 11) 57%; and open seats MN 6 (57%) and TX 22 (64%). That's "nine top-tier Dem races in heavily GOP districts, districts that make CA 50 (55%) look less than 'ruby red,'" Kraushaar wrote.
Dems also will have to run the table of tossup Senate races to win back that chamber. Democratic control of the Senate is even more important than the House, to stop Bush's right-wing judicial and administrative appointments. Dems need to hold their own 18 seats up for election; they also need to win GOP seats in Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Tennessee to regain the majority. Dems are not going to win by advertising that they are better at government than the Republicans are -- particularly after Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., in whose freezer the FBI found $90,000, has offered ample display that Democrats are not immune from temptation.
One way to get working people's attention is to address one of their biggest concerns -- the threat that catastrophic health problems might drive their families into catastrophic debt or put them at the mercy of charity care. With more than 45 million uninsured Americans and another 50 million who are underinsured, it is long past time to reform our inefficient $2 trillion health-care system that costs more than other industrialized nations but offers fewer benefits to fewer people.
Democratic Reps. John Conyers, Dennis Kucinich, Jim McDermott and Donna Christensen have filed HR 676, the US National Health Insurance Act, which would expand the Medicare program to cover all residents of the US and its territories.
The bill would ensure that all Americans will have access to the highest quality and cost-effective health care services of their choice, regardless of employment, income or health-care status. Physicians for a National Health Program (pnhp.org) estimates that removing private insurance companies from health care would save over $286 billion a year.
Under our current system, annual family premiums have increased to an average of $9,068 this year. Under HR 676, a family of three making $40,000 per year would spend approximately $1,600 per year for health-care coverage.
In 2005, without reform, the average employer who offered coverage contributed $2,600 in insurance premiums per employee (for skimpier benefits). Under HR 676, the cost to employers for an employee making $35,000 per year would be reduced to $1,155 per year, or less than $100 per month. For details, see www.healthcare-now.org.
Unfortunately, the D.C. Democratic establishment doesn't want to touch single-payer health care. Insurance companies spent $36 million on federal candidates in 2004 and have favored Republicans by a 2 to 1 ratio since the Democrats lost Congress in 1994, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. If the Dems get anywhere near expanding Medicare, you'll find out how much cash the insurance companies and HMOs can shovel at the GOP. But if Democrats actually promised to improve the lives of working people, they'd draw those neglected voters back to the polls.
Texas is a case study where Dems have two apparently respectable and hopeless candidates for the US Senate and governor in Barbara Ann Radnofsky, a Houston lawyer, and Chris Bell, a former congressman from Houston who was redistricted out of office on Tom DeLay's order. A Zogby poll in January -- the most recent release -- found Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison leading Radnofsky by 57% to 32%. Bell might finish in fourth place this fall, behind Republican Gov. Rick Perry, state Comptroller Carole Strayhorn, Republican running for governor as an independent, and wise-cracking singer/novelist Kinky Friedman, also running as an independent.
Bell apparently is hoping that the two independents will draw enough votes away from Perry to allow Bell to sneak into the Governor's Mansion. But a bunch of people still have to turn out to vote for Bell and I'm not sure why he thinks that will happen. I pay attention to politics and I'm not sure what Bell stands for, except for public education -- I'm sure he expressed support for public education at some point. But what he would do as governor to help working families, I cannot say. A plan to provide health care for every Texan would give me a reason to vote for Bell and/or Radnofsky. It also might get the attention of the 5.6 million Texans who don't have any insurance, which the Republican Party has ignored. (That 5.6 million is one-fourth of the population and twice as many people as voted for Perry in 2002, by the way.)
If the feds won't do their duty on health care, the states should take over. Bell has nothing to lose by taking a radical position: Propose a statewide Medicare system to cover all 23 million Texans, financed with a payroll tax, paid by employers, of 3.3% on all employees. That is well under the current average of 8.5% of payroll paid by businesses that provide health coverage. Texas also could generate revenue by selling hunting stamps on insurance executives.
If Wal-Mart doesn't like paying their fair share to provide health care for their workers, they can take their stores across the state line. But most businesses should welcome the government taking over the headache of providing health insurance for their employees. -- JMC