Tony Knowles is a Democrat who knows how to win in Republican Alaska, a state that gave Al Gore political frostbite and just 28% of its votes in 2000. The popular former two-term governor regularly feuds with party liberals and makes it clear that Democratic standard-bearer John Kerry ought to give Alaska a wide berth as he campaigns for President. Now running for the Senate, Knowles is positioned as the un-Kerry and trumpets his support for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and his opposition to extending the assault weapons ban. Knowles tells Alaskans he's "an independent fighter willing to take on both parties."
The Alaska Freeze-Out is an example of a Kerry-Free Zone -- one of many on 2004's political map. In conservative states, a liberal senator from Massachusetts could hurt Democratic chances in close House or Senate races. Not that it's unusual for candidates to shun their party's leader: In the 1984 Reagan landslide over Mondale and the Clinton-vs.-Dole debacle of 1996, pols lower on the ballot struggled to avoid going down with the sinking ship. What's new in 2004: The national race is a dead heat, but candidates are still dodging top-of-the-ticket taint.
Chalk it up to Red-Blue Nation. In the two-thirds of states whose Presidential votes are already locked up, a close link to the likely loser can be the kiss of death. "If you're running ahead of a Presidential candidate in your state, you don't want to do anything that will raise red flags," says political scientist Andy Hernandez at St. Mary's University in San Antonio.
Democrats have the most to fear this year: 22 of the 34 Senate seats up for grabs are in states George W. Bush carried in 2000, including five Southern seats vacated by Democrats. North Carolina venture capitalist Erskine Bowles doesn't dwell on his time as Bill Clinton's Chief of Staff -- or that he lobbied Congress to ratify free-trade pacts -- now that he's running for the Senate as a defender of the conservative state's besieged textile and tobacco industries. In neighboring South Carolina, Inez Tenenbaum is trying to keep the Dems' hold on retiring Senator Fritz Hollings' seat by playing up her opposition to gay marriage and support for the death penalty. "You can't benefit from being associated with Kerry in this state," says Clemson University political scientist Bruce Ransom.
Republicans are doing their best to tie Democrats to their White House hopeful -- and his fellow Massachusetts Senator, Ted Kennedy. In Alaska, the National Republican Senatorial Committee flooded the airwaves with ads suggesting that Knowles would cave in to Kerry on drilling. "Democratic candidates will meet Kerry at the border and tell him not to come," says the NRSC's Dan Allen, "while Republican candidates would welcome a campaign visit from President Bush with open arms."
Well, not everywhere. In Connecticut, where Republican Representative Rob Simmons' district cast only 40% of its votes for Bush, or in Buffalo, N.Y., where 53% of retiring Representative Jack Quinn's district went for Al Gore, local Republicans hope the Prez steers clear.
No Presidential candidate likes to face an unwelcome mat. But both Kerry and Bush are political pragmatists. That's why Kerry stayed far away this spring when Democrat Stephanie Herseth won a special House election in South Dakota. And it's why the polar ice cap will melt before Kerry is likely to venture into Alaska.
If you like George, can you like Ralph, too? Some Bush-hugging Republicans seem to have a soft spot for Nader. On June 23, two Democratic voters sued to block Nader's petition to get on Arizona's ballot, arguing that he has only 10,161 valid signatures. The Arizona Democratic Party says about half of those -- 4,727 names -- while valid, are registered Republicans. Dems shockingly suggest that GOPers are backing Nader so he'll draw votes from John Kerry.
Nationally, at least three dozen Bush donors have opened their wallets for Nader. Among them: Richard J. Egan of Hopkinton, Mass., who maxed out with a $2,000 gift. Could this be the same Richard J. Egan who was chairman of EMC Corp.? Who served as President Bush's ambassador to Ireland? Who has raised at least $200,000 for Bush?
No, Egan's assistant says, that's "a different Dick Egan." What a coincidence, since state and Federal Election Commission records show Dick Egan the Naderite living at the same address as Dick Egan the Bush Ranger. The Ranger's son, John R. Egan, a $10,000 donor to the Republican National Committee, also has ponied up $2,000 for Nader.
Collectively, Bush donors account for about $41,000 of the $1 million Nader has raised. Nader says he sees no evidence that Republicans are conspiring to hurt Kerry by helping him.