Tip O'Neill, the late Speaker of the House, used to say that all politics is local. This will certainly be the case for the races this November, which will be decided by local issues. This fact only adds fuel to the fire for Republican strategists who are injecting the mosque debate into their campaigns in the hope of swaying ambivalent voters on this highly emotional issue.
Now that the mosque controversy has ballooned into an international issue, it is worth taking a look to see whether the Republicans were correct in attempting to turn the fight into a November talking point; it may just be a double-edged sword.
In its early stages, the mosque debate focused on local zoning issues and the question of whether the proposed location was an insult to the families of 9/11 victims. It festered, but remained a local topic until President Barack Obama jumped in and offered his views on religious freedom. Even though he did not give an opinion on whether he condoned the mosque's potential location, his remarks evoked a knee-jerk reaction from several key Republicans.
Senator John Cornyn was the first GOP stalwart to say that Obama's remarks were "an affront" to the survivors of 9/11. House Minority Leader John Boehner, smelling Democratic blood in the water, chimed in with anti-mosque remarks as well. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is testing the waters for a 2012 presidential run, poured his own brand of gasoline on the fire, equating the location of the mosque to placing a "swastika near the Holocaust Memorial."
From that point on, a chorus of Republicans around the country offered their views, including GOP consultant Ed Rollins who called the President "stupid" for getting involved in the issue.
Initial support for the mosque came from local free speech groups and Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) who labeled it a religious freedom issue that should be left to local governments to decide. The defense of the mosque's construction attracted even more attention when Mayor Michael Bloomberg made a series of strong remarks invoking religious freedom and talking about America's reputation as a haven for all religious groups. Bloomberg received a very mixed response over his remarks - some applauding his application of the First Amendment, while others remained less supportive of his stance.
Not to be outdone and sensing that the mosque controversy might be a vote-getting strategy, Rick Lazio, the New York Republican candidate for Governor, attacked the Democratic candidate Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, chiding Cuomo for failing to investigate the source of funding for the project. The criticism of Cuomo gave Lazio a temporary boost in his polling numbers against Paladino.
Like all other issues that seem to take on a life of their own, the muddy mosque topic took an even weirder tone when Florida Pastor Terry Jones linked his promise to burn the Koran to the mosque conflict. Jones offered to abandon his book burning in return for a promise that the mosque site would be moved.
With all of the shots having been fired, we can now determine if Republicans gained any points by entering the debate. There is no doubt that some candidates for Congress and other local offices will get a temporary boost from staking out their "anti" positions, but with six weeks to go until Election Day, short-term spurts of popularity may not last very long or prove helpful.
Like it or not, the mosque controversy has reignited fears over the Republican Party's position on topics such as immigration, which is a serious issue among Hispanic Americans. The controversial Arizona immigration law hasn't won any Hispanic converts to the GOP, especially in states like California, New Mexico and Nevada.
Perhaps worst of all, in a year when Republicans have gotten substantial traction toward November's congressional races, their reaction to the Ground Zero mosque issue will ultimately undermine the "change" argument and elevate the fear of intolerance among key voting groups.
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