Chad Lee is running a far abler and more energetic challenge to Tammy Baldwin than any of her recent challengers. The Republican candidate for the 2nd Congressional District seat is a sincere, good-natured and genuinely concerned American who really does disagree with the Democratic incumbent and would like to go to Washington as part of a conservative Republican majority.
But in this year when Republicans are likely to do quite well in many parts of the country -- and perhaps many parts of Wisconsin — Lee is unlikely to garner many more votes than Baldwin’s hapless challengers of recent years. He’ll surely do well in conservative corners of the district, but it is hard to imagine him making a dent in the vote-rich precincts of the isthmus -- or even, for that matter, traditionally liberal rural regions such as the town of Vermont.
The reason is that, while Lee takes different stands from Baldwin on the issues, he does not take particularly different stands from those of the Washington Republicans whose politics have proven to be so unappealing to voters in Madison, Beloit and other 2nd District communities. As such, he fails to offer an alternative that will attract crossover votes in a congressional district that voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in 2008 and that will vote overwhelmingly this year for Russ Feingold for Senate and Tom Barrett for governor.
Redistricting, which is done every 10 years after the census has been completed, groups like-minded voters together, creating congressional districts that are likely to re-elect incumbents. And Baldwin’s district was drawn for her, just as Republican Paul Ryan’s district was drawn for him. It makes the challenger’s job virtually impossible.
But could Republicans do better against Baldwin? Could they pose a more serious challenge than the one Lee has put together?
I think so.
Instead of aping the line of right-wing Republicans in Alabama and Mississippi, a Republican running in the 2nd District -- to present a real alternative to Baldwin -- has to respect the district’s history and values.
To do that, I would argue, a credible 2nd District Republican would have to borrow more from Republicans like Texas Congressman Ron Paul than from Republicans like House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Is there a model for such a candidate?
Consider John Dennis, the San Francisco entrepreneur who is mounting a Republican challenge to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Dennis made some news with a Wizard of Oz-themed Internet video in which he casts Pelosi as the Wicked Witch of the West. “I will save you from those evil Republicans,” the Pelosi character cackles in the ad, which mocks the fears so many liberals have of D.C. Republicans.
Dennis is the sort of Republican whom liberals might fear on economic and fiscal issues.
But he presents a credible alternative to Pelosi when it comes to issues of war and peace. In the tradition of old-right Republicans like Ohio Sen. Robert Taft and Nebraska Congressman Howard Buffett -- and their heirs, Paul and a handful of others, such as Tennessee Rep. John Duncan Jr. and North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones Jr. -- Dennis calls for “ending both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and withdrawing our troops as safely and quickly as possible.” And he says: “I do not believe that our troops should be forced to be policemen of the world. Our troops, first and foremost, should protect Americans where they live -- in America.”
Dennis quotes Ronald Reagan’s line: “People do not make wars; governments do,” and argues: “The Constitution is clear on who bears the responsibility of the power to declare war, i.e., the Congress. I am strongly opposed to Congress passing resolutions granting the president the authority to use force. Unless there is an imminent attack, the Congress should never disregard its constitutional obligation over the war power. A decision to declare war requires debate, a process that clarifies the country’s situation and leaves a clear conscience whatever is decided.”
In an anti-war town like San Francisco, that’s a more attractive position than Pelosi has articulated in this campaign.
It positions the Republican as a genuine alternative to the Democrat in a liberal district.
The same goes for civil liberties.
Dennis says: “The Constitution was written to restrict the actions of the government, not individuals. That is why we call ours a limited government. Unfortunately, American political vocabulary is filled with a lexicon of different types of liberty: civil liberty, economic liberty, sexual liberty, financial liberty, etc. Yet, in the end, there is only liberty. And if we support some types of liberty but not others, ultimately we will be left without liberty at all.”
Specifically, he says that he opposes “warrantless wiretaps,” “the creation of extra-judicial systems to deal with enemy combatants” and “waterboarding and other forms of torture,” and he says: “I believe our government must respect the 800-year foundation of the law embodied in the principle of habeas corpus.”
Again, on these issues, Dennis’ stances are closer to those of the district than Pelosi’s. As such, he offers a real alternative -- even in a liberal district.
Indeed, the alternative is genuine enough that, when Ron Paul came to San Francisco to campaign for Dennis -- at what was dubbed an “Anti-War, Anti-Washington, Free Speech Rally” -- the two Republicans were joined on the stage by former San Francisco Supervisor Matt Gonzalez, who ran for vice president in 2008 on Ralph Nader’s ticket.
Dennis is, as well, genuinely libertarian on a host of social issues. As such, he can’t be painted into the right-wing corner, as so many Republicans are.
The bottom line is that Dennis poses a credible alternative to Pelosi -- just as conservative Democrats running in states such as Alabama and Mississippi pose credible alternatives to Republicans in the South.
The Democratic and Republican parties have never been monolithic. There’s a reason for that. Different parts of the country have different values and ideological touchstones.
Just as it would be absurd to run a cookie-cutter, MoveOn.org Democrat in rural Mississippi, it does not make sense to present a standard-issue Republican in a liberal district -- be it based in San Francisco or Minneapolis or Madison.
John Nichols is the associate editor of The Capital Times. email@example.com