Candidates Often Avoid Party Labels

by Stuart Rothenberg July 24, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

With former colleagues being dragged off to jail, an unpopular president, the Iraq War and huge losses in the 2006 elections, it’s no wonder that Republican candidates are shying away from the GOP brand. But why are some Democratic candidates still apprehensive about placing the “D” behind their own name?

A July 6-8 USA Today/Gallup survey showed the Republican Party with 36 percent favorable/56 percent unfavorable ratings and President Bush with an even worse job rating of 29 percent approve/66 percent disapprove.

Even with their recent electoral success, and the demise of the GOP, some Democrats lack faith in the party’s appeal across the aisle. In the Gallup Poll, respondents gave the Democratic Party a 51 percent favorable/41 percent unfavorable rating, but that’s apparently not popular enough for some jittery strategists and candidates.

In Missouri’s 6th district, former Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes is one of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s prize recruits. But you wouldn’t know it at first (or second, or third) glance. She didn’t mention the words “Democrat” or “Democratic Party” in her May 14 announcement. And the only way you would know she is a Democrat from her Web site is if you click on the newspaper clips. The candidate does have “Barnes Enjoys Bi- Partisan Support” on her main page along with various mentions of her work with Republicans.

Barnes’ reluctance can’t be just a function of the district, with a Democratic performance of almost 48 percent, according to the National Committee for an Effective Congress, which specializes in Democratic targeting.

In New Mexico’s Democratic-leaning 1st district, the word “Dems” appears as part of a headline on Albuquerque City Councilor Martin Heinrich’s Web site, but he avoids a direct link to his party, aside from the innocuous ActBlue donation button. Rep. Heather Wilson’s (R) 2006 opponent, state Attorney General Patricia Madrid (D), used a similar tactic of not using her party in paid advertising.

According to one Democratic consultant, even in last year’s anti-Republican environment, there were two different paths to victory for Democratic candidates. For some challengers, in urban or suburban areas, they were able to run a partisan message against Republican incumbents. But for Democrats in more rural and Republican areas, candidates were forced to run against Congress and Washington, D.C., in general, avoiding all partisan labels.

“[Party affiliation] is only motivational to hard-core people in the party,” explained one Republican consultant. But in some cases where candidates need to turn out their base, they seem to be avoiding partisan labels unnecessarily.

Three main candidates are competing for the Democratic nomination to replace Rep. Mark Udall (D) in Colorado’s 2nd district, where Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) took 58 percent in 2004. But you wouldn’t know state Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald or Will Shafroth were Democrats from an initial look at their Web sites, while their opponent, former state Board of Education Chairman Jared Polis, is clearly a “Democratic candidate for Congress.”

On the other side, the word “Republican” doesn’t appear anywhere on former Rep. Jim Ryun’s Web site in Kansas’ 2nd district, where Bush received 59 percent in 2004. And his GOP primary opponent, state Treasurer Lynn Jenkins, offers only a couple of small pachyderms on her site, giving away her party affiliation.

In New York’s 20th district, where Bush won by 8 points in 2004, Sandy Treadwell leaves no indication of his party on his neutral green introductory Web site, even though he is the former chairman of the state Republican Party.

“It’s not worth the risk,” according to one Republican consultant.“Too many people are tired of politics.”

“It’s never helpful to run as part of the establishment,” added one Democratic strategist.

Of course, not everyone is running from their party brand, and some candidates are either naive or embracing the risk in a strategic decision.

Ironically, Eric Eidsness, a candidate in Colorado’s 4th district, has his party affiliation listed at least six times on the main page of his Web site, and he only switched to the Democratic Party earlier this year. Unfortunately for him, he’s running in a very Republican district. That hasn’t stopped Larry Grant, who lost a competitive race in the previous cycle in Idaho’s 1st district, where Bush won by 38 points in 2004. Grant has “Democrat” emblazoned on the masthead of his Web site.

Democratic candidates Dan Maffei (New York’s 25th district) and state Sen. John Boccieri (Ohio’s 16th) aren’t shying away from their party affiliation either, even though they are running in competitive districts. And in Washington’s 8th, Darcy Burner has “Democrat for Congress” in her banner, when in the previous cycle she was criticized by some liberal bloggers for neglecting to mention her party in her initial television ads.

In Connecticut’s 4th district, Jim Himes proudly declares himself a Democrat in a district Kerry won with 52 percent, while incumbent Rep. Christopher Shays waits until his bio to admit he is a “moderate Republican.”

Republican challengers Dean Andal (California’s 11th) and Rick Goddard (Georgia’s 8th) are boldly embracing their party label in their bids against Democratic incumbents in traditional GOP strongholds.

For many campaigns, it’s a strategic decision, but not necessarily intentional.

“We don’t even think about it,” said one GOP consultant, explaining that much more time is spent on issue stances and how a candidate can connect with voters. “If one of your five best qualities is party affiliation, you’re in trouble.”

Each cycle, challengers often talk about the election being a “clear choice,” but apparently that doesn’t mean party affiliation. And when one party tries to blur the line, that can drive the other party crazy, such as when Democrats cried foul in the previous cycle when Maryland GOP Senate nominee Michael Steele’s campaign made up blue signs and stickers that read “Steele Democrat.”

Candidates are always looking to put their best foot forward and define themselves in the best light possible. But in the end, it’s somewhat silly to ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Voters will know the candidates’ party from the ballot itself, opponents’ television advertising or both.

Even though there is significant enthusiasm among Democrats, the country apparently hasn’t shifted too far, fundamentally, with Democratic candidates being cautious in certain regions. The winning formula is slightly different in each district, but there aren’t many areas anymore in which a candidate doesn’t need independent voters, and even voters from the opposite party, to win.

While some party faithful, including bloggers, may complain if candidates avoid party labels, it’s hard to believe more than a few votes would be lost. Candidates are more likely to have significant problems in their base if they directly oppose the party on a specific issue (see Sens. Joe Lieberman and Chuck Hagel).

Right now, party affiliation has negative consequences for both parties.

“Polling says it’s a pox on all your houses,” according to one Republican consultant. “People hate them all.”