Politics » Politics Feature

Checking the Tide

In the aftermath of the health-care vote, Democrat Greg Rabidoux hopes for fair weather and good wind.



Like many academics in these parts, he has a predilection for the prefix “Doctor,” and he owns a modestly didactic manner to go with it, but, all the same, Democrat Greg Rabidoux, a poly-sci professor at Austin Peay University in Clarksville, may have the potential to run a better race against Republican congressman Marsha Blackburn in Tennessee’s 7th District than anyone else yet has.

For one thing, it can’t be said that Rabidoux isn’t taking his cause to the people. In the past several months, he has been a ubiquitous figure at county festivals, Democratic Party gatherings, and other such events where there was a fair chance of introducing himself to a crowd.

Rabidoux, who made a stop in Collierville late last month, recently completed a tour of the 15 counties in the district he seeks to represent, talking to party cadres about matters of organization and campaign technology and hyping them on a no-retreat philosophy that many hard-core Democrats, tired of feckless “me-too” rhetoric vis-à-vis the Republican opposition, thought they’d never see again.

When the House of Representatives finally voted for a health-care bill Sunday via the reconciliation process, Rabidoux was more forthright in its support than many Democrats in Congress, including many who voted for the bill, had been.

“While far from perfect, it does address denial of pre-existing conditions, closes the Medicare ‘donut hole’ for our seniors, eliminates ‘rescission’ and will provide insurance to the millions of Americans including the roughly 900,000 Tennesseans currently without any insurance,” Rabidoux said in a press release welcoming the bill’s passage.

In his late-February session with a handful of Democrats in Collierville (most of whom had come from points west in Shelby County), Rabidoux had addressed the subject of the GOP’s opposition to the bill, based on a strategy that he said consisted of “the three D’s – deny, delay, destroy,” and was being led in part by Blackburn, a member of the Republican House Whip team and a frequent talking-head on Cable shows and Sunday morning TV.

“If we were to take all 435 members of Congress tomorrow, tell them they’re uninsured, how fast would it take?” Rabidoux had said in Collierville about the various delays being encountered by the then-pending health-care measure.

He intends to feature the same impatience with obstructionism in his fall campaign against Blackburn, whom he characterizes as a politician who will “zip in here, take a picture, then zip out there,” but won’t attend to the people’s business. “I’m always getting questions about ‘why did Marsha Blackburn vote this way, say No to this, etc.,’” said Rabidoux.

And, while he indicates he won’t be bashful about embracing Democratic Party positions, he means to treat the race not as a party-versus-party match-up -- “If we make this D versus R, you could have the greatest candidate ever and still lose big” -- but a simple one-on-one affair: “Can you vote against Marsha Blackburn?”

Rabidoux is well aware that the 7th District – comprising the elite suburbs of Memphis and Nashville and a good deal of socially conservative country in between – is a GOP stronghold, made progressively more so over the years, as much to suit Democratic purposes in adjoining districts as Republican ones in the 7th.

He doesn’t shy away from the occasional hard-edged ideological attack. Rabidoux suggested in Collierville that Blackburn had made common cause on immigration issues with the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), cited as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center and one which Rabidoux charged had “two white supremacists” on its board.

(A spokesman for Rep. Blackburn said her purpose at that press conference, held in November of last year, was merely to support a proposal by Rep. Joe Wilson , R-Ala., to exclude illegal aliens from government-sanctioned health-care coverage.)

But mainly he intends to reap discontent with the incumbent wherever he can find it -- right, center, or left. Exploiting the fact that Rep. Blackburn had backed out of her scheduled participation in last month’s Tea Party Convention in Nashville, Rabidoux organized a group of demonstrators for a rally at the site, making the point to the Tea Party faithful that “she quit on them, too.”

For that matter, Rabidoux isn’t averse to letting it be known that his most direct experience with the work of Congress up to this point was as a staff member for the congressional representative of the 6th District in his native Connecticut.

That would have been Nancy Johnson, a Republican like Blackburn. “That may be helping me now with that side of the fence,” Democrat Rabidoux says with a wry smile.

• Marsha Blackburn, of course, will not be an easy foe – unless Rabidoux is correct in believing that her role as a national spokesperson for Republican talking points, a role she assumed throughout the course of the health-care debate, gets in the way of her relations with constituents.

Thus far, there is no apparent evidence of that sort. In fact, during the stormy summer of 2009, which saw Sturm and Drang all over the land during “town meetings” on national health-care legislation, Blackburn’s own meetings on the subject were exercises in unanimity.

There was intensity, to be sure, and generous amounts of zeal, but most of it was supportive of Blackburn’s own adamant opposition to virtually every aspect of the bill then being considered.

And, as far as the congressman is concerned (“congressman,” by the way, is Blackburn’s preferred appellation), she isn’t giving up the fight. Indeed, on Monday, the day after two House votes in favor of the Democratic-sponsored health-care bill, one on the Senate bill itself, the other on some points of budget reconciliation, Blackburn was on the floor of the House setting forth her continued opposition.

Heaping scorn on the celebrating Democrats, Blackburn said in part, "My colleagues celebrate this day as being like the days when social security, Medicare, Medicaid were passed. They forget that today those programs are insolvent and will likely crush our children under their debt.

"My colleagues are overjoyed that soon their goal of having Americans dependent on the Federal Government for mortgages, student loans, retirement, and health care will be realized. That is a chilling goal."

Blackburn’s somewhat stunning expression of no confidence in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid – the first two entitlements, at least, regarded as staples by the middle class, even by many who supported her opposition to health-care legislation – may turn out to be a risky piece of rhetoric, open to exploitation by Democrat Rabidoux.

But the challenger may be minimizing Blackburn’s resources – as well as her resourcefulness. Aside from the publicity gained by her whip duties and TV appearances and her access, as a four-term incumbent, to campaign cash, she can avail herself of all the tools of office. Just in the last week, she has held a Jobs Fair in the district and presided over a “telephone listening session.” She has multiple ways of reaching her constituents and a demonstrated ability to use them.

Given the fact that even Rabidoux concedes that the 7th normally votes Republican, he has his work cut out for him. If he should succeed in making this year’s contest for the 7th congressional seat a real race, that would be a major achievement indeed. The odds, as he well knows, are heavily against him.

But the ultimate showdown is still seven months off. It may in fact be the case, as all Republicans and most pundits believe, that this is a Republican year at the polls, and that Tennessee has turned into a Republican state.

But a hard core of political observers still believe that Tennessee’s function now, as always before, is that of a bellwether state – one that can shift in the direction of a trend and even lead the way. Strange and volatile things have happened before in the state’s elections, and they could again.

Rabidoux remains hopeful. As he said in Collierville earlier this month, “After the primary, I hope to have something of a media war chest.”

It certainly looks as though the tide favors Blackburn. But who knows? Maybe circumstances, like a dawning voter appreciation of the health-care bill, will generate a shift, one that he can ride. In any case, he’ll need something to surf with, and the aforesaid media war chest would certainly serve the purpose.

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