In a season where Senate candidates are working hard to court their party bases, Majority Leader Harry Reid's gamble on health care this week stood out.
Bracing for another tough re-election bid in a swing state, the Nevada Democrat faced a key choice: Should he appeal to liberals by including a public option in the Senate health care bill? Or should he try to please independents and moderates by advancing one without it? On Monday, he sided with the left, hoping a toned-down version that lets states "opt out" of the option will energize his base while winning him 60 Senate votes -- and home-state plaudits for delivering a health care bill to President Obama's desk.
But here's what made Reid's leftward lurch a political oddity: He doesn't face a Democratic primary rival in Nevada who's challenging his liberal credentials. Reid's biggest focus should be the moderates and independents whose votes he'll need next year -- most of whom are more likely to oppose a public option in any form.
Repackaging efforts abound -- most of them undertaken by Republicans.
Indeed, as Senate primaries start to heat up these days, candidates from both parties are tacking hard and fast away from the political center. Some are doing so quietly, some not so much. In every case, their base-centric appeals help them win their nominations. But could they come back to haunt them next fall?
The two most aggressive face-lifts have been undertaken by Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R), who face increasingly competitive Senate primary challenges from their parties' bases.
Just this week, Specter re-jiggered another key position, calling for the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act that he supported in 1996. "Just as we were finally able to pass hate crimes legislation, it's time to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act," he tweeted Monday.
In September 1996, Specter joined then-Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., in voting to ban same-sex marriages. As recently as March 2004, as he faced a strong GOP primary threat from conservative Pat Toomey, he proudly touted that vote. "I voted for the Defense of Marriage Act because I believe marriage is between a man and a woman," Specter told the Wilkes Barre Times-Leader at the time. "If the states cannot preserve the traditions of marriage between a man and a woman, I would be prepared to consider a U.S. constitutional amendment."
Four months later, however, after he narrowly defeated Toomey, Specter reversed course. "I would not support a constitutional amendment at this time," he told reporters in July 2004. "I think the issue is being handled by the states. Right now, the sanctity of marriage is being preserved."
This isn't Specter's only change of heart. Following Rep. Joe Sestak's decision to challenge him for the Democratic nomination, Specter courted organized labor by unabashedly reversing his opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act.
But Specter's repositioning pales in comparison to Crist, whose support for Obama's stimulus plan in February famously featured a Fort Myers pep rally and a widely photographed man-hug.
Last week, however, facing an increasingly tough primary against conservative Marco Rubio (R), Crist wasn't feeling the love. With a new poll showing Rubio cutting his 29-point lead in half, Crist's campaign ran a radio ad slamming Obama's "same tired answer for every problem: To spend more of your money."
And last week, the governor shrugged off another presidential visit to the Sunshine State. "I don't even know what day he's coming," he told a Miami Herald reporter. "Do you?"
Other repackaging efforts abound -- most of them undertaken by Republicans.
In Connecticut, former Republican Rep. Rob Simmons, who faces an increasingly tough battle for the GOP nomination to face Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., recently said he was "wrong" to support the Employee Free Choice Act and cap-and-trade in the House. Rep. Mark Kirk (R) pulled a similar switcheroo on cap-and-trade in Illinois, where he's running for Senate.
When not recanting their previous positions, Republican candidates are showing themselves willing to endanger their general election prospects later to appeal to the base now.
In Nevada, former state GOP chair Sue Lowden has trod carefully around controversies involving Sen. John Ensign and Gov. Jim Gibbons, continuing to support her state's scandal-plagued Republicans. In New Hampshire, former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte (R), who may face a challenge from the right, declines to say whether her Republicanism hews more closely to conservative Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina or moderate Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine.
All base courtships, of course, are not created equal. Specter faces a relatively early (May 18) primary against Sestak in a blue state. Meanwhile, Toomey, his would-be GOP rival, is working to win over moderate voters who may feel overlooked by both Democrats. Crist faces an Aug. 24 primary against Rubio in a swing state, but he's widely favored (for now) over Democrat Kendrick Meek. The biggest challenge could be for Ayotte, a political newcomer, who faces a mid-September primary in New Hampshire. If she wins, she'll have to compete in a blue state against a strong Democratic nominee, Rep. Paul Hodes.
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