Democratic race loses friendly tone

Last modified: 7/29/2010 12:00:00 AM
Until last week, the congressional primary contest between Democrats Ann McLane Kuster and Katrina Swett was notable for its geniality. The candidates, both lawyers and activists from towns bordering Concord, were courteous and even warm at candidate forums, sometimes complimenting each other.

But the tenor of the race appears to have changed in the past week, as the staff of each campaign has initiated pointed criticisms of its opponent. Last week, Swett's campaign manager asked Kuster to answer for her years as an 'expensive lobbyist' for pharmaceutical companies. On Tuesday, a Kuster spokesman asked Swett to explain her support for the George W. Bush tax cuts, which have become a focal point in Washington, D.C., as their January expiration date approaches. When the Swett campaign said the support Swett indicated during her 2002 campaign for the same 2nd District seat did not mean she would have voted for the tax cuts, the Kuster camp accused her of 'double-speak.'

The campaigns say voters need to know the differences between the two Democratic candidates. Analysts say the campaigns will likely take pains to highlight those differences as the Sept. 14 primary nears.

'The reality is it was a very respectful, very amicable campaign up until about a week ago, and now the campaigning has begun,' said Wayne Lesperance, a professor of political science at New England College. 'It's taken a more aggressive tone, and it's probably going to get worse.'

As the candidates seek to distinguish themselves, each side will attempt to tie its opponent to negative associations, Lesperance said. Among the Democrats of the 2nd District, which stretches from the Canadian border to the Massachusetts border and includes both Concord and the Upper Valley, both pharmaceutical lobbying and the unpopular former president could resonate, he said.

With Kuster leading in endorsements and local support, the Swett campaign may have drawn attention to Kuster's lobbying ties in an attempt to get traction, said political analyst Dean Spiliotes. But once the bouts of criticism have begun, he said, they will likely continue up to the primary.

'At some point you forget who the initial instigator was, and it becomes this tactical back-and-forth between the campaigns,' Spiliotes said.

The recent exchanges began last Wednesday when Swett campaign manager Meagan Coffman asked Kuster to answer for her years as 'a well-paid lobbyist' for pharmaceutical companies. The Kuster campaign pointed to a program that provides free prescription drugs for seniors as evidence of the good Kuster did, and the Swett campaign accused Kuster of masking the profit-driven nature of lobbying.

Then, on Tuesday, Kuster spokesman Neil Sroka linked Swett to Bush, saying in a statement, 'The tax cuts for the wealthiest that George Bush proposed and Katrina Swett supported have deeply harmed our economy, increased our national debt by over $2 trillion and they are now wreaking havoc with the tax code.'

Instead, Congress should have 'passed tax relief for middle class families, kept the deficit under control and invested in the job-creation that was missing over much of the past decade,' goals Kuster supports, Sroka said.

In New Hampshire, 36 percent of the tax cut went to the top 1 percent of earners, those with an income of $368,000 or more, according to a 2001 analysis by Citizens for Tax Justice, a liberal public policy organization. Those taxpayers received an average tax cut of $58,179, while taxpayers with an income of $41,300 - the average of the middle 20 percent of incomes - saved $712, according to the report.

During her 2002 campaign, Swett said she supported the federal tax cuts that had been passed a year earlier but would have liked more benefits for poor and middle-income people. Swett lost that race to Charlie Bass, the six-term congressman who is running again for the Republican nomination.

When Coffman responded that Swett had supported parts of the legislation but never said she would have voted for it, Sroka balked.

'Is Katrina Swett seriously claiming that she 'supported' the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans but at the same time might have voted against them if she was in Congress?' he said in a statement. 'We don't need any more double-speak like that in Washington.'

Coffman said yesterday that Swett gave her 2002 support for the tax cuts when asked whether the legislation should be repealed amid an economic downturn, and she did not want to repeal the portion of the cuts affecting the middle class.

President Obama and Democratic congressional leaders have said they want to let the tax cuts expire for the wealthy but extend them for the middle class, which they define as people earning less than $200,000 a year or households earning less than $250,000. Both the Kuster and Swett campaigns said yesterday their candidates support extending tax cuts for the middle class but not the wealthy.

Sroka said the Swett campaign's statements about the tax cuts were intended to inform voters about policy differences and offer clarity.

'Everything that comes from a campaign matters,' Sroka said. 'When a candidate is unclear on their stance on an issue, voters need to know about that lack of clarity, and that's why we ask the question.'

The Kuster campaign will also highlight Kuster's endorsement by every major pro-choice group and her opposition to invading Iraq and sending more troops to Afghanistan, he said. Swett supported the invasion of Iraq and escalation in Afghanistan.

Coffman said the Swett campaign plans to focus on its own positions, unless they are distorted by opponents.

'We're focusing on Katrina's positive message of fighting for the middle class,' she said.

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