Paul Kanjorski's Dilemma

Congressman Paul Kanjorski (D-Penn.) has been a fairly undistinguished member of the House of Representatives for nearly a quarter of a century. He is a career member of the Financial Services Committee who has made little or no name for himself since his first electoral victory, and has maintained incumbency through the funneling of pork back to his district. Even his Wikipedia entry says that Kanjorski "usually plays behind-the-scenes roles in the advocacy or defeat of legislation and steers appropriations money toward improving the infrastructure and economic needs of his district."

In late May, though, 11 Congressional District Representative Paul Kanjorski (D) inadvertently made national headlines when a video was posted at popular video-sharing web site of him telling a group of constituents that, out of an overwhelming desire to win back control of the U.S. Congress in 2006, he and his fellow Democrats had purposely misled supporters about their ability to end the war in Iraq.

"We really in this last election…I think pushed it as far as we can," he said in the video. We "didn’t say it, but we implied it — that if we won the Congressional elections, we could stop the war.”

"Now anybody was a good student of Government would know that wasn’t true," he continued. "But you know, the temptation to want to win back the Congress, we sort of stretched the facts — and people ate it up."

Less than a week later, another video of Kanjorski was posted online. This one featured his 2007 floor speech opposing the ‘surge’ in troops that President Bush and General David Petraeus were advocating in Iraq, and a May 2008 interview in which Kanjorski attempted to take credit for "forcing" President Bush into implementing the ‘surge’ and the counterinsurgency strategy that the increase in deployed combat troops was established to carry out.

“Ms. Speaker,” said Kanjorski in the first portion of the video, “I rise today to join the overwhelming majority of the American people, the Congress, and many top U.S. military commanders to voice my opposition to President Bush’s ill-conceived plan to send more American troops into the middle of an ongoing Civil War in Iraq.”

From that segment of his floor speech, the video then cut to a recent shot of Kanjorski telling an interviewer, “We’ve taken public positions which have now forced the president to go into the ‘surge’ mentality, which is somewhat working.”

Kanjorski simply made matters worse with his attempts to control the damage caused by those two episodes by angrily refusing to answer any questions when confronted about those recorded statements.

I broke these three stories on my web site and on over the course of the last four weeks. Now, Capitol Hill insiders are beginning to speculate out loud that those episodes may result in the 12-term Representative’s talking his way from being in a safe seat this fall to being in electoral hot water.

Roll Call had the following to say in a recent article titled “Kanjorski Vs. Kanjorski? GOP Thinks Incumbent May Be His Own Worst Enemy”:

Even with the tide turning blue on a national scale for House Democrats, Kanjorski keeps getting himself into the news with his recorded comments about the Iraq War…In a polling memo released [June 16] by [Kanjorski’s opponent, Hazleton, PA Mayor Lou] Barletta’s campaign, Barletta led Kanjorski in a ballot test, 47 percent to 42 percent. The Susquehanna Polling and Research survey took the opinion of 400 likely general election voters March 27-29. The poll had a margin of error of 4.9 points.

Ed Mitchell, a spokesperson for Rep. Kanjorski, refused to comment on the poll, citing campaign "policy." However, Mitchell did tell Roll Call that the campaign “would be glad to discuss Mr. Barletta’s strong support for Bush’s war in Iraq, against the minimum wage being raised and for privatization of Social Security.”

Unfortunately for Mitchell and for Kanjorski, it is very likely that the Barletta campaign would be equally "glad to discuss" Mr. Kanjorski’s admission that Democrats "stretching the facts" regarding their ability to end the Iraq war due "to the temptation to want to win back the Congress" in 2006; likewise, the Barletta campaign would almost certainly be "glad to discuss" Kanjorski’s assertion that he and his fellow Democrats, through their staunch opposition to the overwhelmingly successful 2007 change in strategy in Iraq, actually "forced the President…into the surge" — both major gaffes that took place, and earned media prominence due to their going viral online, after the Barletta campaign poll that showed the challenger up five points on the incumbent.

It has taken some serious effort on Paul Kanjorski’s part to get into this situation in the first place. A 12-term incumbent who won his last three races with an average of 74.2% of the vote (83.5% in the last two), Kanjorski has no business suddenly being in a close race with a Pennsylvania mayor he beat by 14 points six years ago. He represents a safely Democratic district (John Kerry won PA-11 in 2004 with 53% of the vote), and has over ten times the amount of cash on hand that his opponent does ($1.83 million for Kanjorski to $154,500 for Barletta).

However, an inability to simply keep quiet, continue bringing home pork to his constituents (Kanjorski requested $12,102,000 in earmarks for his district in Fiscal Year 2008, according to the nonpartisan watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, and has reportedly used the pork barrel process to funnel over $10 million into his family’s business since taking office in the 1980s), and sit on his substantial monetary lead appears to have gotten the Pennsylvania Congressman into trouble. That, combined with the fact that the person now heading the Democratic ticket this fall, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) lost by 42 points to Hillary Clinton in the April 22 primary election, appears to be transforming Kanjorski from a safe Democrat incumbent to a prime target for an upset — a rare occurrence in a year when the electoral map looks as bad for Republicans as it has in a long time.

With a well-known GOP challenger (the March internal released in June showed Barletta with a whopping 89% name ID within the district) who has spent the last few years establishing his conservative bona fides as a Mayor — especially on illegal immigration, an area in which Barletta has been as staunch an advocate of an “enforcement first” policy as any in the nation — one suddenly vulnerable Democrat incumbent could be on his way out of the House of Representatives. If this is the case, his exit would be almost entirely of his own making.