Tammy Duckworth Wins, More or Less Democrats are taking on Republicans on defense and national security issues by recruiting veterans to run for Congress. One of their most high-profile recruits is Tammy Duckworth, who lost both legs in Iraq. Despite plenty of money and a ton of endorsements, Duckworth barely eked out a victory in Illinois' Democratic primary.

Tammy Duckworth Wins, More or Less

Iraq war vet wins primary in Illinois by closer-than-expected margin. hide caption

toggle caption

Heimlich maneuver could decide Maryland campaign. hide caption

toggle caption

Thirty years ago today, Ronald Reagan, with help from Sen. Jesse Helms, defeats President Ford in the North Carolina GOP primary. But Ford will go on to win the nomination. hide caption

toggle caption

REMINDER: "Political Junkie" is featured every Wednesday on NPR's Talk of the Nation at 2:40 p.m. ET. This week's special guest: retiring Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY). I hope you liked that great tie I wore yesterday!

Q: I just listened to your comments on NPR's Talk of the Nation, but I couldn't get my question on the air. I am a bit concerned by the media constantly saying that the Democrats do not have their act together. Maybe they do need to present their views in a better way, but do you think they are truly as in as much trouble as the press seems to be repeating? I fear that the more these descriptions of "waffling" and "disarray" are being spread, the more they will take hold. -- Mel Goldstein, Rock Hill, S.C.

A: The line that has become popular in Washington is that if the Republicans are the party of bad ideas, the Democrats are the party of no ideas. (We'll deal with the GOP at another time.) I'm not convinced that line is fair.

It's hard to make any generalized statement about the Democrats and their alleged "lack of message" because as the party out of power -- no president, no majority leader in the House or Senate -- there is no one person who speaks for it. Certainly not Howard Dean, the DNC chairman, and certainly not the minority leaders in Congress, Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi. They all have different constituencies. And that's why you have a Joe Lieberman who supports the war, a Bob Casey in Pennsylvania who opposes abortion, a Russell Feingold who wants to censure the president. They may not represent majority sentiment in the party, but who's to know? What they have in common -- all that they have in common -- is the "D" after their names. When the party nominates a presidential candidate, then the Democrats will have a leader to rally behind and, most likely, a position to fight for. And if they pick up a congressional chamber in November, then they will have someone who can put forth an agenda that lawmakers would act upon. But not until then.

If the Democrats are going to get the six seats they need to win back the Senate, or the 15 needed to take over the House, they are going to have to do it piece by piece, in individual states and districts, and not with a universal view on anything. What works in Maxine Waters' South Central Los Angeles congressional district may not work in Gene Taylor's district in Mississippi's Gulf Coast, and vice versa. Until then, I'm not sure how the Democrats can have a "position" on Iraq, or immigration, or censure or anything else.

So I understand the difficulties of a "national" Democratic position. But having said that, such difficulties shouldn't preclude individual candidates from standing up for what they believe in. And that leads me to Tuesday's Democratic primary in Illinois' Sixth Congressional District.

It's the district being vacated by Republican Henry Hyde after 16 terms. It encompasses the suburbs to the west and northwest of Chicago. Two years ago, Christine Cegelis held Hyde to just 55 percent of the vote -- the closest margin for Hyde since he was first elected in 1974. Understandably, Cegelis wanted another shot.

But national Democrats had other ideas. They decided that one way to compete with the Republicans on defense and national security issues is to recruit veterans to run for Congress as Democrats. One of their most high-profile recruits is Tammy Duckworth, a helicopter pilot who lost both legs in Iraq following a grenade attack. She has attracted plenty of money and a ton of endorsement: Both of Illinois' U.S. senators (Barack Obama and Dick Durbin) support her, as does DCCC chairman/Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-IL). National fundraising appeals on her behalf were sent out by John Kerry and Hillary Clinton.

Here's the rub, at least according to quite a few Democratic activists I've spoken to: Duckworth refused to run as an anti-war candidate. Her views on Iraq were either more tempered, designed to appeal to the Republican majority of the district, or squishy, depending on your perspective. Cegelis, on the other hand, ran as an out-and-out peace candidate, winning the backing of Democracy for America (once run by Howard Dean and now run by his brother Jim) and other assorted liberal groups. And when the votes were counted, Duckworth, as expected, won. But she won by only three percentage points -- a stunningly close race, given her financial advantage, endorsements and compelling personal story. The moral out of the 6th CD primary: Celebrity is nice, but message counts as well. It's nice to run as an Iraq war vet and be charismatic, but having something to say might not be a bad idea, either.

This is not to say that Duckworth is a bad candidate; perhaps her even-handedness on the war is a smart tactic, given the makeup of the district (carried twice by George W. Bush) . Nor should she be counted out for the fall; national Democratic leaders have invested a lot in her candidacy and will do what they can to make her better in the next seven months. And who knows what the national mood will be by then? Still, she goes into the general election against state Sen. Pete Roskam (R), who had no primary challenge, as an underdog.


Governor: State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, a pro-choice moderate, won the Republican nomination against a split field of conservatives. Topinka got 38 percent compared to 32 percent for dairy owner Jim Oberweis, 19 percent for state Sen. Bill Brady and 11 percent for businessman Ron Gidwitz. Topinka will face Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who easily topped a primary challenger with 70 percent of the vote. Topinka will try to challenge Blagojevich on issues such as ethics, but she comes from a party whose previous governor is under indictment. And she may have a tough time getting some conservatives to embrace her candidacy.

House: In addition to the Duckworth/Cegelis primary, these contests were closely watched:

-- 3rd CD (southwest Chicago): There was considerable resentment over how freshman Rep. Dan Lipinski (D) won his seat two years ago. His father, veteran Rep. Bill Lipinski (D), decided to retire after the 2004 primary, a ploy that allowed the Chicago Democratic machine (such as it is) to pick son Dan as the nominee. Tuesday's primary was the first chance voters had to weigh in on that process, but Lipinski won renomination against two challengers with 56 percent of the vote. Republicans are not competitive in the district.

-- 8th CD (northwest Cook County): Investment banker David McSweeney won the Republican primary and will face freshman Rep. Melissa Bean (D) in November. Bean, who upset veteran GOP Rep. Phil Crane in '04, is a top Republican target this year.

Next primary: Texas Democratic Senate runoff between Barbara Ann Radnofsky and Gene Kelly (April 11). The winner is a clear underdog to incumbent Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison in November.

Also on the 11th: special election in California's 50th CD (north San Diego) to replace former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R), who resigned following his conviction on bribery charges. The leading GOP candidates are former Rep. Brian Bilbray, state Sen. Bill Morrow, ex-state Rep. Howard Kaloogian, and businessman Eric Roach. The top candidates of each party advance to a June 6 general election. The likely Democratic nominee is Francine Busby, who lost to Cunningham in 2004.

Q: I saw on CNN a story about a Maryland candidate for a local office who saved the life of a person who was choking and who turned out to be his opponent in the upcoming election. Has that ever happened before? -- Randi Collins, Jacksonville, Fla.

A: There is real dispute here about what actually happened, and where hype overtook facts. I'll do the best I can to sort it out. State Sen. John Giannetti (D) of Prince George's County -- a suburb of Washington -- was at an Annapolis restaurant when, according to a report in The Washington Post, a man came in from the dining room, in some state of distress, with food apparently stuck in his throat. Giannetti rushed over to the man, performed the Heimlich maneuver, and out came, according to the Post, a "hunk of fish the size of a golf ball." All was fine after that. End of story, right? Wrong.

Before I go any further, some background. Until that moment, Giannetti was an incumbent with election problems: He did himself no favors when he invited students to a tailgate party where alcohol was being served, and he enraged liberals in his solidly Democratic district with his opposition to the assault weapons ban. Giannetti had also been ridiculed for distributing a press release after his honeymoon in Greece two years ago which declared that the residents of the Greek island "reportedly enjoyed Erin's [his wife's] bikinis much more than John's black Speedo." He was clearly a vulnerable candidate.

Now here's where the restaurant story took on a life of its own. As it turned out, the person choking was Jim Rosapepe, a former state delegate who is preparing to challenge Giannetti in the September Democratic primary. (Full disclosure: Rosapepe's wife is Sheilah Kast, with whom I worked very closely when we both worked on Capitol Hill for ABC News years ago; she remains a friend. I know Rosapepe, who after his service in the Maryland legislature was President Clinton's ambassador to Romania, and I've been invited to social parties at their house.)

Days of local media saturation coverage and attention from national news programs followed, focusing on the oddity of a candidate "saving the life" of his opponent. (Interestingly, both Rosapepe and Giannetti deny that the situation was so serious to be described as the saving of a life. But why get in the way of a juicy story?) So the question the press wanted to know is, how could Rosapepe run against a guy who saved him? Wouldn't that appear unseemly? Or ungrateful? Rosapepe insists that the matter is totally overblown, that his life was never in jeopardy. And besides, it has nothing to do with what's facing voters in the district. "I think it's a great human interest story," he's quoted as saying in the Post, "but elections are about who can do the best job for the voters… Those are the issues in the campaign -- not a dead fish."

As for your question -- if you remember, you did ask a question -- I know of no other instance where a candidate saved a rival's life (or, in the case of Giannetti-Rosapepe, came to his aid) in the midst of a campaign.

Q: In your March 1 chart of this year's primaries, you write that Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R) is term limited. I recall that the Idaho legislature repealed term limits, overriding Kempthorne's veto. Is that correct? -- Nicholas Ohh, London, England

A: You are right. Kempthorne could have sought a third term if he desired. (President Bush has since nominated him to be the next secretary of the interior, succeeding Gale Norton.)

By the way, the Hotline had a wonderful piece of trivia in its 3/22 edition that political junkies will appreciate. Once Kempthorne leaves Boise to become interior secretary, Lt. Gov. Jim Risch (R) will become governor -- even though he is running again for lieutenant governor. According to the Hotline, "as far as we can tell, the last time this occurred was when Louisiana Gov. Earl Long (D), prohibited from running for re-election in 1959 and having spent part of the year in a mental institution, ran for lieutenant governor on a ticket headed by James Noe (who had once briefly served as Louisiana governor himself)." The Noe-Long ticket came in fourth. Long was elected to the House in 1960 but died before he could take office.

Q: Is there a way of letting me know what campaign pieces recently aired on National Public Radio so that I can hear them on the Web? I'm mostly interested in the battle for control of Congress. -- Mrs. Philip Rogers, Santa Ana, Calif.

A: That's a wonderful idea, and I will incorporate it into future columns. But you should know that you can always find all of NPR's political-related pieces archived on our Web site on our Politics page.

As for upcoming campaign stories, we'll have a piece early next week from David Welna on the anti-war challenge by Ned Lamont against Sen. Joe Lieberman (D) in Connecticut, and a piece from Brian Naylor on what's confronting the Democrats in their bid to capture control of the House, focusing on the once-Democratic held 2nd Congressional District in Indiana. Some campaign stories from the past couple of weeks you might want to listen to:

-- Cheryl Corley: Illinois congressional primary/Tammy Duckworth (Hear the March 18 story)

-- Andrea Seabrook: Texas congressional primary/Tom DeLay (Hear the Feb. 27 story)

-- Mara Liasson: Pennsylvania Senate race/Rick Santorum v. Bob Casey (Hear the Feb. 22 story)

MAIL APROPISM: Some disheartening news to report. Over 300 e-mail questions sent to this column via the link at the bottom of the page have suddenly turned up, after residing in an incorrect account for the past seven weeks. Some of them are great questions (a lot about the Dick Cheney shooting incident), some telling me how much they love this column (thanks Mom!), some pointing out mistakes I've made. The point is, there are hundreds of e-mails that have gone unacknowledged. I will spend the next day or so making up for that. And next week's column will address those e-mails.

This Day in Campaign History: Ronald Reagan keeps his presidential hopes alive with an upset victory over President Gerald Ford in the North Carolina Republican primary. It is the first time in a presidential primary that a challenger defeats an incumbent still in the race since Sen. Estes Kefauver's (D-TN) win over President Harry Truman in the 1952 New Hampshire primary (March 23, 1976).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org