Local vs. National

March 21, 2006 · 12:05 AM EST

House Republicans are embracing former House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s famous line, “All politics is local,” but history suggests they may be taking it to their electoral grave. Midterm elections in 1966, 1974, 1982, and 1994 certainly weren’t local – they were national.

Back-to-back briefings by National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (NY) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (IL) displayed two very different views of this election cycle.

For Emanuel, this is a national election and a referendum on the Bush Administration and the “rubber stamp” Congress. For Reynolds, this isn’t one national election, but 435 local elections across the country, each with a unique set of issues that voters care about and will vote on in November. These are two very different outlooks coupled with two very different strategies. And one of the chairmen will prove to be very wrong come November.

On the GOP side, Reynolds is like a broken record, talking about “building races from the ground up.” To Reynolds, that means focusing on local issues, local candidates, and local dynamics, specific to each congressional district. And the chairman is comfortable with his committee’s fundraising advantage and infrastructure over the DCCC.

It’s really the only strategy Republicans have, and it’s often extremely effective. Republicans have successfully been able to execute the local strategy the last three cycles, but that was in either neutral or favorable political climates. This environment could be downright hostile and by virtually ignoring the environment, Republicans are risking their majority.

When asked about the war in Iraq and people’s growing skepticism of the federal government in general, Reynolds responded, “It doesn’t matter what the [national] issues are, only what matters in those local districts.” It’s almost as if, to the congressman, House districts exist in a vacuum void of any national or world news. Reynolds even brushed off the notion that President Bush’s standing would be an issue in House races this year and refused to compare this election cycle to 1994.

Emanuel paints a much broader picture. “The country is thirsty, hungry for a new direction,” the chairman said. National polling, including President Bush’s job ratings and congressional job ratings, back up Emanuel’s assertion. For Republicans to believe that local and national issues don’t and won’t overlap in voters minds is quite a leap to make.

Between the dueling outlooks, the Democratic roadmap is the better bet this cycle. It’s the only option they have, and it looks good to this point. In recent cycles, Republicans have often held a tactical advantage, but that simply may not matter this cycle when voter attitudes trump strategy.

After November, the line may be, “All politics is local…except when it isn’t.”

This piece first appeared on Town Hall on March 17, 2006.