PHOENIX — Three candidates. Forty-eight hours. Ten events. Four Western cities.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) spent three days last week on a whirlwind tour of Colorado and Arizona, where Democratic leaders have their sights on three potential pickups in November. His Western campaign is part of a concerted effort by the minority leadership to take back the chamber this cycle, and the second visit in as many weeks by the top two House leaders.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) focused her attention on this area of the country less than two weeks ago when she visited these same (largely conservative) states. On her tour, Pelosi sped through the West on an even quicker pace than Hoyer, hitting four states for six candidates in just three days.
While the candidates and many of their backers may not fully understand Pelosi or Hoyer’s role in Washington, they do appear to appreciate their presence in their districts.
Wednesday morning, for instance, during the hourlong drive from Casa Grande to Phoenix, Democratic candidate Paul Babbitt received a phone call from his wife, Mary. Babbitt hung up the cellphone and turned to Hoyer, sitting next to him in the Lincoln Navigator in which they are traveling between back-to-back events.
“She called to say thank you for all that you are doing,” Babbitt, who is challenging Rep. Rick Renzi (R), told Hoyer.
Hoyer was quick to retort: “Tell her, ‘Thank you, she’s got a much tougher job.’”
Democratic leaders know that if they want to win in November, they have to devote as much of their time as possible over the next two months to stumping and raising money for their top candidates. And they know the Republicans will be putting as much time, energy and resources into their top candidates in the coming weeks.
Hoyer’s visit just happened to coincide with last week’s Republican National Convention in New York, where the majority party worked to solidify its core of support and convince America it should remain in charge. The GOP spent the week touting President Bush’s record on national security and attempting to undermine Democratic challenger John Kerry’s ability to serve as commander in chief.
Even so, House Democratic leaders forged ahead in their campaign to win back the House with Hoyer spending a day each on behalf of Dave Thomas and John Salazar, both of Colorado, as well as Babbitt. The three Democratic hopefuls fall into the party’s “top tier” candidate list, or those Hoyer, Pelosi and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.) believe have the best shot at victory this cycle.
Most importantly, wins by these candidates would threaten Republicans’ decade-long hold on the House majority.
Leaders hope their presence in the West, along with other similar campaign stops in conservative-leaning states last month, will help boost the legitimacy of these candidates and show voters that the national party is taking these races seriously. They also recognize that a majority victory this fall means leadership advancement for them — with Pelosi expected to become Speaker and Hoyer Majority Leader.
“The importance of a leadership visit — whether it’s myself, Nancy or [Democratic Caucus Chairman] Bob [Menendez of New Jersey] — is to make it known how important these races are nationally,” Hoyer said during a stop in Denver. “We can’t go to all the districts — there are too many of them — but we can and we must go to places where the chances are the best.”
“The West is a critical region in our efforts to win the House,” Pelosi said later. “These are all key races in battleground states .... We will do whatever we can to help them win.”
Babbitt, the brother of former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, is the third of the three candidates Hoyer stumped for during this three-day tour. The two hit a pair of separate events Wednesday morning, meeting with prospective voters and raising money for the county supervisor who is trying to knock off freshman Renzi in the state’s 1st district.
Like he made plain all along this trip, Hoyer tried to impress on Arizona voters how key Babbitt’s race is to Democratic efforts to win the 12 seats needed to regain control of the House.
“You have an opportunity to make 1/12th of the difference,” Hoyer told a modest crowd of about two dozen labor union members at the local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Phoenix — his last stop before flying back to Washington. “The reason to do it is not to replace [Majority Leader] Tom DeLay [R-Texas] with Steny Hoyer. The reason to do it is because you can make 1/12th of the difference in Arizona.”
At the same event, he pressed the unions to give more money to Babbitt, encouraging them to reach out to their individual members to donate $10 apiece before Election Day.
“There are a lot of people in the back pews here,” he said, motioning to a majority of the group sitting toward the back of the union hall. “They must think they are going to get out of writing another check.
“Better move forward.”
Hoyer laid out similar, but perhaps higher, stakes in Colorado. In two separate days of campaigning in this Rocky Mountain state, the Maryland lawmaker urged Democratic donors and supporters alike to help elect not just one, but two Democrats to the House on Nov. 2.
Thomas, Jefferson County district attorney, is seeking to push out first-term Rep. Bob Beauprez (R) in the 7th district, while state Rep. Salazar (brother of Colorado Senate hopeful Ken Salazar) is hoping to beat out Greg Walcher (R) for the open seat in the rural 3rd district.
“This state can make one-sixth of the difference,” Hoyer tells a crowd of largely union members at a meeting for Thomas. “I ask you to do that, I almost demand you to do that.”
This was Hoyer’s first of two labor events on the trip, and his message for the constituency is largely same: “None of us are doing enough this election. For organized labor, this is about survival. This election is about labor’s survival. We need to change the policies in Washington, that’s why we are here.”
But whether speaking to labor groups, seniors or key Democratic donors, Hoyer hits on some similar themes. He never faces an unfriendly crowd, but even so tries to let those Democrats know that national party leaders come in several stripes and that in his case, they comprise moderates to conservatives, too. On the war in Iraq in particular — a topic he knows is popular in this Western region — Hoyer tells crowds he voted for and still supports the removal of Saddam Hussein.
Democrats, however, believe “Bush botched the job” and hasn’t followed a plan to conclude the conflict and all the while hurt the United States’ reputation with its allies, Hoyer says.
He also touches on familiar Democratic domestic topics: The Bush administration has squandered a multibillion-dollar surplus on unnecessary tax cuts, sent the country into record deficits making domestic spending increases impossible, failed to enact an adequate prescription drug benefit and sold education funding short.
On his first day campaigning for Thomas, Hoyer tailored his message slightly to talk about how Thomas is a better fit for the 7th district of Colorado than GOP incumbent Beauprez, who won by a narrow 121 votes in 2002. He also talks about Thomas’ contributions to the community, fighting against domestic abuse and for better health care and how he shares the same concerns as the residents of the district.
“One hundred twenty-one votes isn’t even worth talking about,” Hoyer told an informal group of Thomas backers atop the roof deck of a small downtown Denver law firm last Monday. “That’s a few hanging chads. I cannot believe this group doesn’t have enough influence to change 121 votes.”
Later, at a Thomas fundraiser at a private home outside downtown Denver that just happens to coincide with Beauprez’s speech at the New York convention, Hoyer hit it home again. He said he believes both Thomas and fellow Colorado Democrat Salazar can win this cycle, telling the Thomas supporters that the election is about two sets of priorities and electing Democratic candidates who will put America back on the right track.
“In all sorts of ways, this administration is an abysmal failure,” Hoyer tells the gathering, noting that Beauprez votes in lockstep with the Bush White House and the GOP majority.
“Do not go to bed at night in the next 66 or 67 days without thinking you are doing everything you can to elect Dave Thomas,” Hoyer added. “We need votes to change policy.”
Throughout the day, on three separate campaign appearances, Thomas referred to Hoyer as his “mentor” in Congress and, at one point, his “hero.” Thomas said Hoyer “was the first person in Congress who took me under his wing and began talking to me about this race. He adds a focus to the races and tells everyone how important this race is, not just to Colorado but nationally.”
Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), a close Thomas friend who encouraged him to run early on, echoed those sentiments, adding that by coming to Colorado, Democratic leaders show voters how seriously the party is taking this election, and what role the state can play in the ultimate outcome.
“Local activists don’t understand the national importance of these races,” she said. “To have Steny Hoyer or Nancy Pelosi come confirm that demonstrates how important it is, not just to me, but to the national party.”
Pelosi and Hoyer also took a turn at campaigning in southern, rural Colorado for Salazar, the older brother of state Attorney General Ken Salazar, who is battling Republican Pete Coors for the open Senate seat. The elder Salazar, a potato seed farmer who looks the part with a Western suit and less-than-polished manner of speech, said he appreciates the leadership’s help, especially from a Member like Hoyer, with whom he says he shares moderate viewpoints.
“I’m very proud that when I went to Washington several months ago and asked for a Congressional audience, he came out with open arms,” Salazar told a crowd at a luncheon in Pueblo. “He gave me an audience.”
Former Democratic Rep. Ray Kogovsek (Colo.), who once served with Hoyer, said that by visiting districts like Salazar’s that are often overlooked by the national party, Democratic leaders with “stature give a lot of stature to the 3rd Congressional district.”
At this Pueblo fundraiser with seniors and labor union members, Hoyer called Salazar a “common-sense, pragmatic guy” who wants to get elected based not on his party affiliation, but because of his long ties to the district and concern for its residents. Hitting on more moderate messages of the rising deficit, failed Bush tax policies and the “unfunded mandate” of the No Child Left Behind education package, Hoyer said Salazar will help change the direction of policies in the country.
“I’m asking you to do everything you can to put America on the right track,” Hoyer told the group of about 60 people, reaching over to hand Salazar a check for $7,500. “John Salazar will help make this country greater.”
All of these races will be painfully close, and Hoyer acknowledged throughout his three-day tour here that Democrats can’t afford to lose any of them.
“People ask me why I’m here,” Hoyer said. “I’m here representing my constituents because I can be the best Representative ever, but if there aren’t 217 other people with me, you cannot do it.
“We need 12 more Democrats in the House to change the direction of America.”