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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Cookie-Jar Republicans Give Dems Edge

Christopher Hayes’s article “Corruption — A Proven Winner” in the May 2nd issue of The Nation (though not yet available through their website) makes a strong case that corruption and ethics are powerful issues for Democratic candidates. Hayes, a contributing editor to In These Times, shows how the corruption issue was skillfully addressed by Democratic candidates to turn Illinois into a solid blue state in a relatively short time. As Hayes explains:

For much of the twentieth century, Illinois was the quintessential swing state, the Ohio of its day. Its state government tilted toward moderate Republicans. It voted for the winner in the presidential election twenty-one of twenty-four times in the twentieth century through 1996, going for Reagan in 1980 and 1984, George Bush I in 1988 and Clinton in 1992 and 1996. The rock-ribbed Republican suburban “collar” counties around Chicago canceled out the heavily Democratic city, leaving the fate of statewide elections to the fiercely independent voters downstate. Now the state looks like a Democratic lock–Gore and Kerry both won it by double-digit margins–and in these dark days you’ve got to wonder, How did this happen? And are there any lessons to be gleaned for Democrats elsewhere?

Hayes acknowledges the important role of demographic change in producing the Dems Illinois miracle:

Local observers use the term “perfect storm” to describe the confluence of disparate factors that has produced such a true-blue state, but it’s clear that demographic changes account for much of the transformation. Over the past decade, both Chicago and its surrounding suburbs have been getting progressively more Democratic as a result of the widespread migration of black and Latino families into the collar counties, an influx of immigrants and the rightward tilt of the national GOP on social issues, which has alienated many suburban moderates. Also, as John Judis and Ruy Teixeira argue in their book The Emerging Democratic Majority, the transition of the regional economy from manufacturing to service and technology has brought with it a substantial number of professionals with graduate degrees, a group that increasingly forms a bedrock Democratic constituency.

Illinois was clearly ready for a strong Democratic candidate to lead the charge. They found him in Rod Blagojevich, a candidate for Governor who took advantage of an exploding “license for bribes” scandal in the GOP statehouse and turned it into Democratic gold:

In 2002, as the scandal was reaching a fever pitch, Blagojevich won the gubernatorial race by successfully exploiting the taint of scandal against his opponent, Attorney General Jim Ryan, who, while neither related to nor implicated in the scandal, had the misfortune of sharing the same political party and last name as George Ryan. Blagojevich ran a barrage of ads showing side-by-side pictures of Jim Ryan and George Ryan, and promised to clean up state government and pass ethics reform.
But the damage done by licenses-for-bribes has reverberated well past that election, tarnishing the entire Republican brand in the state. When in last year’s US Senate race Republican nominee Jack Ryan went down in flames after sealed divorce records revealed he had pressured his wife into attending sex clubs, there was a general “here we go again” feeling to the coverage, despite the fact that Jack Ryan’s sins were venial and George Ryan’s mortal…[Democratic congressional candidate} Melissa Bean attributes at least some of her support to scandal fatigue among Republicans in her district. “I think it helped a lot,” she told me. “It’s one thing to be the right candidate for the district and another to be the right candidate at the right time. There’s no question that this was a district that was ready for change.”

Not every state is as ripe as Illinois, but the Dems do have opportunities elsewhere, including Washington, where the DeLay scandal is percolating nicely. But Hayes argues that they have to work the right levers:

Democrats do have to make the case forcefully. In Illinois the US Attorney’s office played a key role in doggedly pursuing GOP corruption, and if Democrats learned anything from the Clinton years, it’s the power of an officially sanctioned investigation to turn smoke into fire. But with the GOP currently controlling both houses and barring any ethics investigations that don’t have majority support, Democrats will have to rely on the press and public outrage. Of late, it seems Congressional Democrats have been catching on to this, taking steps to move the ball forward on the scandals that the blogosphere has worked feverishly to call attention to, pushing for a floor vote to reinstate revoked ethics rules, and issuing a 147-page report about the “death of deliberative democracy” under the GOP’s reign.

The Dems have a great start in making corruption a pivotal issue that will pervade the ’06 election. But the outcome will ride on the Dems follow-through, says Hayes:

Congressional Democrats should take a page out of Gingrich’s and Blagojevich’s books and propose comprehensive ethics reform. They should talk about the “corrupt Republicans” and “restoring transparency and integrity” at every turn. They should use DeLay’s mounting ignominy to tar fellow Republicans who benefit from his fundraising and clout. In short, they should make Republican scandal and Democratic reform one of the central narratives of their opposition over the next two years. “Newt Gingrich came to power because of an ethics scandal,” says Obama’s state political director, Dan Shomon. “Rod Blagojevich got elected partly because of scandal. You can defeat an incumbent if you can catch his or her hand in the cookie jar.”

Corruption will be a powerful issue for Democrats for as long as there is a GOP, which is driven by greed as much as any other value. Hayes’s article should be included in the playbook for all Democratic candidates in upcoming elections.