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Kanjorski in Trouble

Is the race for Pennsylvania's 11th Congressional District suddenly becoming competitive?

By 7.1.08

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Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-PA) has represented Pennsylvania's 11th Congressional District without much notice or distinction for the last 24 years. A member of the Financial Services Committee, his biggest accomplishments in the House have generally involved securing pork for his district (he requested $12,102,000 in earmarks in Fiscal Year 2008, according to the nonpartisan watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense) and using the pork barrel process to funnel millions of dollars into his family's business.

Given his track record of keeping his constituents happy while flying under the national media radar, Kanjorski, a 12-term incumbent who won his last two races by an average of 83.5 percent of the vote, was expected to cruise to re-election once again in 2008.

Unfortunately for those in Kanjorski's corner, the Pennsylvania Democrat's history of avoiding the national spotlight came to an end in a big way just weeks ago.

In late May, a video posted on YouTube showed Kanjorski telling a group of constituents that, out of an overwhelming "temptation to want to win back the Congress" in 2006, he and his fellow Democrats had purposely "stretched the facts" about their ability to end the war in Iraq once in control of the nation's legislature.

"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 back-to-back clips of a 2007 floor speech in which he went on the record vigorously opposing the counterinsurgency strategy, and accompanying "surge" in troops, that President Bush and General David Petraeus were advocating in Iraq, and of a May 2008 interview in which Kanjorski attempted to take credit for "forcing" President Bush into implementing that "surge" in troops and change in strategy.

In a failed attempt at damage control, Kanjorski adopted a policy of angrily refusing to answer any questions when queried about those recorded statements -- a reaction that, once again, found its way onto YouTube.

I broke these three stories on my website and on RedState.com over the course of the past month. Now, Capitol Hill insiders and professional Congress-watchers are speculating that the Pennsylvania Congressman may be talking himself into a much more competitive race this fall than anybody had previously expected.

IN A JUNE ARTICLE titled "Kanjorski vs. Kanjorski? GOP Thinks Incumbent May Be His Own Worst Enemy," Roll Call writer Shira Toeplitz had the following to say:

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 Monday [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.

Further, the March internal referred to by Toeplitz showed Barletta with a whopping 89 percent name ID within the district. Barletta, who has spent the last few years as Hazleton mayor building a conservative record on issues like illegal immigration (he's been as staunch an advocate of an "enforcement first" policy as anyone in the nation), suddenly appears far more poised than previously dreamed to knock off a Democratic incumbent long thought to be untouchable.

Ed Mitchell, a spokesperson for Rep. Kanjorski, refused to comment on the March poll. He did say, however, 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 comments about 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.

Llikewise, 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." Incidentally, both Kanjorski gaffes occurred after the Barletta campaign poll that showed the challenger up five points on the incumbent.

KANJORSKI HAS NO business being in such a vulnerable position -- especially given that he beat this same opponent by 14 points in a 2002 race for the seat. However, his inability simply to keep quiet and sit on his substantial monetary lead (he currently has $1.83 million on hand to Barletta's $154,000) has made what was expected to be just another overwhelming victory by a Democratic incumbent into a race in which the GOP has a fighting chance.

Kanjorski's sudden proclivity for verbally shooting himself in the foot, combined with the fact that the top of this year's Democratic ticket plays very weakly in his district (Barack Obama lost PA-11 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.

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About the Author

Jeff Emanuel, a special operations military veteran, is a columnist, a combat journalist, and a director emeritus of conservative weblog RedState.com.