RUSH HOLT’S CUTTING-EDGE CAMPAIGN

by David P. Rebovich For veteran congressmen representing anything resembling a safe district, campaigning in a midterm election is normally a fairly simple matter. You remind constituents what you have done for them and use your fund-raising advantage to flood the airwaves with flattering ads about yourself and perhaps with a negative one about your opponent. You don’t take any risks, like adopting a controversial position on an issue or ignoring tried and true tactics. And, you focus most of your attention on turning out your base. In New Jersey this fall a Republican or two may have a challenge getting some of their base voters to show up on Election Day. Polls show that there is discontent in the party’s ranks over the performance of the Bush White House and the GOP-controlled Congress on the war in Iraq and the budget – think big deficits – and their lack of action on issues like gay marriage, pornography, and stem cell research. On the Democratic side, the six incumbents and the winner of the party’s primary in the 13th district, will have an easier time. With the President’s approval rating at only 30 percent and Americans having an even lower opinion of Congress, these Democrats can opt to simply run against the party in power and probably coast to victory. But not all incumbent Democratic congressmen plan to put their campaigns on cruise control. In fact, most will be trying to maximize turnout in their districts to help U.S. Senator Bob Menendez in what is shaping up to be a tough battle against Tom Kean, Jr. for a full term in the Senate. And some, including the 12th district’s Rush Holt, will be doing much more to help build the Democratic Party by reaching out to more people, engaging them in dialogue, and demonstrating that they are working hard on issues important to their constituents and to citizens generally. The four-term incumbent has had a few close races himself. But due to redistricting and Holt’s well-deserved reputation as an intelligent, principled lawmaker, his seat looks to be safe for the foreseeable future. This year he will, like every Democrat running for federal office, criticize President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress. But Holt recognizes that negative campaigns have made many citizens cynical about politics generally, turned them off to both parties, and suppressed participation. None of this is good for someone who wants to see his party gain a majority in the House. As such, Holt is concentrating on developing and communicating a positive message for himself and the Democratic party. His reasons are principled and practical. Holt wants to expand the electorate in his 12th district this fall with the hope of reconnecting people to the democratic political process and to broaden his party’s base. He plans to accomplish all this by combining traditional campaign techniques with some relatively new ones. All of this was made evident at Holt’s campaign kickoff at the Bristol-Myers Squibb Center for Science Teaching and Learning at Rider University last Monday. The event was a multi-media affair. While the Congressman and some supporters spoke to a gathering of 50 students and staff on the Rider campus, their remarks were broadcast over the Internet at Holt’s web site. And, “meet-ups” were held in three locations in the 12th district where folks could talk about the candidate, issues and the campaign. Following his speech, Holt blogged on www.BlueJersey.net, responding to several questions from folks throughout the district and enjoying testimonials from some party notables and activists. As Holt explained, this multimedia approach is consistent with his commitment to pulling more people in the political process and with his governing style. The event began with remarks from three speakers who praised various aspects of Holt’s record that served to contrast the Congressman with the Republicans in Washington, D.C. Sona Polakowski, a science educator in Lawrence Township, called Holt the Congress’s leading advocate for math and science education and teacher training. David Burd, the director of emergency management for Lambertville, thanked the Congressman for helping to procure a FEMA grant following the 1999 flooding of an elementary school and for being on the scene quickly last year when the Delaware River overran its banks. Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes characterized Holt as an “outspoken advocate” for central New Jersey who has stood up to President Bush on issues like the war in Iraq and domestic spying, formulated a high-tech economic development plan – Einstein’s Alley – that focuses on research and development, and has fought for open space preservation, stricter environmental regulations, and election reform. To these speakers, Holt’s record is the antithesis of the President’s under-funded “No Child Left Behind” Act, slow reaction to Hurricane Katrina, cuts in federal funding for research and development programs, and backsliding on environmental policy. When Holt spoke, he noted that this multi-media event was different from traditional campaign kick-offs but consistent with the way he has conducted himself as a congressman. He devotes considerable time speaking to all kinds of groups in his five-county district. He prides himself on listening carefully to citizens’ concerns and entering into dialogues with them in an effort to draw out the best ideas and build communities. In using web blogs, pod casts, and an interactive web site to go along with traditional stumping at colleges and universities groups, diners, and community centers, Holt hopes to “…confound the expectations of my constituents and startle them out of their cynicism.” To the Congressman, “the present cynicism about politics is the possible undoing of our nation.” To combat this cynicism, during the campaign Holt plans to emphasize his governing style, which includes weighing the evidence on issues before adopting a position, speaking out on issues now matter how controversial the issue or his position are, and trying to address problems before they become crises. He will also discuss his specific views, like his objections to entering the war in Iraq and the Administration’s telephone call surveillance program, as well as his support for economic development policies, energy independence, and more education funding K through college, and stem cell research. Holt cited his long-time concerns about such matters as global warming, weaning the nation off of fossil fuels, the need to maintain our competitive edge in science and technology, and the importance of sustainable development. In making a pitch for not only himself but for other candidates in his party, Holt emphasized how more elected officials need to make decisions based on evidence, not on ideology. And they certainly should not rubber stamp the proposals of the President simply because he is a member of one’s party. To help Congress deal with complex science and technology issues – Holt himself is a physicist – , he recommends reinstating the Office of Technology Assessment. In his mind a Congress that pays more attention to facts and causation will be better able to perform its constitutional role of checking the executive branch and, these days, a President who himself is starting to admit his mistakes. But for Holt to be a more effective check on the President, he will need to be part of a Democratic majority in the House. For that to occur, his party must pick up fifteen seats this fall. As such, expect Holt to help some Democratic challengers for House seats in New Jersey and in neighboring states. Those challengers may find that they can advantage by adopting Holt’s message, his governing style, and his multi-media campaign tactics that focus on maximizing contact and discussion with as many constituents as possible. Oh, being able to answer questions about complex policy issues won’t hurt, either. David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics (www.rider.edu/institute). He also writes a regular column, “On Politics,” for NEW JERSEY LAWYER and monthly reports on New Jersey for CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS Magazine and is member of CQPOlitics.com’s Board of Advisors that offers weekly commentary on national political development.

RUSH HOLT’S CUTTING-EDGE CAMPAIGN