The Aaron Harber Show

Is the "Close" 7TH C.D. Election Over?
October 23, 2006
By Aaron Harber

Part 1: A Quick Overview Of The District.

In a campaign which started out dead even, it now appears Democrat Ed Perlmutter has pulled away from his Republican opponent, Rick O’Donnell, in the 7th Congressional District. This year, the 7th C.D. often has been described at the nation’s top congressional contest due to the fact it is an open seat (i.e., there is no incumbent) whose voter registration is evenly divided among the 363,065 registered Democrat (122,855), Republican (113,591), and unaffiliated (125,460) voters. This means each major party can claim the allegiance of roughly a third of the electorate.

The District encompasses a wide range of people as well - with a substantial but not dominant minority population (69% White, 20% Hispanic, 6% Black) and average incomes which parallel the rest of the nation ($46,000). Almost 700,000 people live in the District, as is the case for each of Colorado’s other six congressional districts.

Although the District, when brand new, elected a Republican, Bob Beauprez, as its first Congressperson in 2002, it did so by only 121 votes. Beauprez easily won reelection in 2004 by almost 30,000 votes (55% to 43% over his Democratic opponent, Dave Thomas) but a majority of the District’s voters sided with Al Gore in the 2000 presidential contest and John Kerry in 2004.

These factors make it a perfect test case for the themes and forces of the 2006 General Election. They form the reasons why national media organizations such as The New York Times and others selected the 7th C.D. as the bellwether district for the nation.

Republican candidate Rick O’Donnell was able to maneuver past potential intra-party opponents and won the nomination without a fight. That theoretically allowed O’Donnell - who lost the 2002 Republican Primary Election to eventual winner Bob Beauprez - to start his campaign as a moderate in a moderate district. Former State Senator Ed Perlmutter eventually won his party’s nomination after a tough Primary Election with fellow Democrat Peggy Lamm.

Coming out of the August 8th Primary Election, Perlmutter won with a much greater margin than anyone originally predicted and O’Donnell seemed to be coasting as he set new fundraising records. Many pundits believed O’Donnell had a substantial edge but because of his fundraising prowess, the “fresh face” he offered, and the fact he came out of the Primary Election unscathed, thanks to the absence of an opponent. Perlmutter, on the other hand, had expended most of his funds in the Primary and needed to regroup. Was the election Perlmutter’s to win and O’Donnell’s to lose? Even with the anticipated major role of independent 527 committees in what was seen by both parties as a major national race, O’Donnell seemed to have a distinct advantage. Could he hold it and win the seat he was trying to secure for a second time?

Part 2: Campaign Give-And-Take In The 7th C.D.

With the President’s popularity being relatively low, Perlmutter has focused on the need for change in Washington and how closely-tied O’Donnell is to the Bush Administration. O’Donnell, in turn, has focused on his creativity, freshness, and new ideas - with the concept he is independent of the Administration. He has criticized Perlmutter for his close ties to the energy industry and for a number of votes cast while serving as a State Senator.

Perlmutter has criticized O’Donnell for an 11 year-old essay suggesting Social Security needs to be abolished and for a more recent proposal to have boys in high school spend their last semester of senior year working in a public service capacity. One of the examples O’Donnell used was to have these seniors serve to assist on the U.S.-Mexico border and Perlmutter has pounded O’Donnell for what Perlmutter describes as a radical idea.

While the idea, as a general concept, is neither radical nor outrageous, the example highlighted by Perlmutter made it seem to be both - as well as just plain silly. What was unfortunate is that O’Donnell was being punished for trying to engender discussion of how the nation might creatively address various problems. His examples, with that one exception, were good but he should have known better, especially given the date of the publication in The Denver Post of the proposal - January 3, 2004.

O’Donnell raised the potential conflict of interest he perceived if Perlmutter is elected with the fact the latter’s wife, Deana, is a high-profile national lobbyist who supposedly bills her clients as much as a million dollars annually. O’Donnell’s argument was that Perlmutter would be advancing his own financial interest because he couldn’t help but be involved in decisions which would affect his wife’s clients and, at the minimum, his position as a congressman would, on a de facto basis, make her a more effective lobbyist in terms of getting clients and meeting their needs.

Perlmutter responded by saying the connection was a stretch and argued it was a personal attack on his wife. The reality is that there is a mix of spouses in Congress and the concept of someone who is in a private sector position who deals with elected and appointed officials and who is married to a congressperson or senator is nothing new. With no support from Common Cause or any other “Good Government” organization, O’Donnell, who actually seemed to have an appealing case, backed off from his accusation. The small furor it caused soon died down.

The surprise of the campaign came when it was revealed that O’Donnell, while the Executive Director of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, accepted a free trip to Panama on behalf of himself and his girlfriend. The trip was provided by CBS as a “Thank You” to a group of clients, nationally, which had participated in an advertising purchase in which CBS had donated a significant amount of time. Would this be simply another bump in the road for O’Donnell or could it be the final turning point in the campaign?

Part 3: How Much Do Ethics Issues Hurt?

Democratic 7th Congressional District nominee Ed Perlmutter has continued to clobber his Republican counterpart, Rick O’Donnell, for accepting a trip to Panama while head of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education as well as for an essay proposing boys spend their last semester in high school performing national service. The latter isn’t necessarily a bad idea but one of O’Donnell’s suggestions for the work these seniors could do - assisting at the nation’s borders - made the proposal seem a bit far out. The fact he excluded senior girls from the same requirement also made him look sexist.

With only two weeks to go before the election and with tens of thousands of voters in the District having already cast their ballots, the timing of these two issues could not have been worse for O’Donnell. Combined with the Bush Administration’s general unpopularity in the District and his opponent’s ability to tie him to unpopular Administration policies, O’Donnell has struggled in recent weeks to keep pace with Perlmutter. O’Donnell’s “fresh face” approach was attractive but he looked like the kind of people voters want to get rid of when his Panama trip was disclosed. While he may not have done anything wrong, it made him look bad and undercut his image as the right person to tackle the lack of ethics in Washington.

Surprisingly, previous challenges O’Donnell made about Perlmutter’s ethics seem to have fallen in deaf ears. His concern about Perlmutter’s wife and he work as a national lobbyist seemed genuine but did not take hold in the District. The difference O’Donnell is finding out is that voters make a clear distinction between actions of an elected or appointed official or a candidate compared to those of his or her spouse or other relatives. People are loathe to tar and feather an official or candidate - even if justified for what his or her spouse does for a living.

Today, spouses of candidates usually have lives of their own and the public not only respects this, it sees this as desirable. Voters believe they have enough information - positive and negative - about candidates to make informed decisions. They really don’t care what his or her spouse, girlfriend or boyfriend does unless a specific connection to inappropriate behavior can be made. That is why the link to Deana Perlmutter didn’t get any traction with voters for O’Donnell.

For the same reason, that is why no one cared that O’Donnell took his girlfriend on the Panama trip; rather, they only cared he it appeared he was rewarded for an expenditure of State funds. The trip O’Donnell accepted was not part of the arrangement he made with CBS and there wasn’t any quid pro quo. He simply was invited as part of a group which had participated in a public service endeavor. Nevertheless, it looks bad to voters and undermines the high standards O’Donnell himself articulated. Certainly, if O’Donnell could make that decision again, he would decline the trip.

Could Panama be the final turning point in the campaign? While not the major reason for Perlmutter’s lead and likely victory (the key factors in the race are likely to be voters’ sentiments about Iraq and the Bush Administration), it makes the road to victory much tougher for O’Donnell.

Unless something dramatic happens in the next few days, it is likely O’Donnell will not be able to recover from the one-two punch he has taken with the Panama and high school seniors’ public service revelations because they undermined the foundation of his campaign. O’Donnell will have gone from the frontrunner with no Primary Election opponent and a huge cash advantage to a candidate trying to make a comeback. Only a phenomenal Get-Out-The-Vote effort by the Republican Party will give him a chance to win. Otherwise the candidates have switched positions and it’s now Perlmutter’s race to lose.

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