Two House Candidates Who Stumbled Over Simple Questions

by Stuart Rothenberg November 6, 2013 · 2:28 PM EST

Retired Air Force Col. Martha McSally is personable and engaging, and her 2,454-vote loss to Democratic Rep. Ron Barber in Arizona’s 2nd District in 2012 demonstrates that she has appeal as a congressional candidate.

But none of that exempts the 47-year-old Republican, who is running again this cycle and oozes confidence about her prospects, from answering an important question: How would she have voted on the compromise that ultimately ended the government shutdown in October?

And yet, though I asked that question repeatedly in an Oct. 29 interview, McSally did her best to bob and weave, clearly intent on not giving a “yes” or a “no.” Instead, I heard a lot of baloney about not wanting to look backward and only wanting to look ahead.

I understand the question is an awkward one for Republicans, since many in the party’s grass roots opposed the deal and many moderate and swing voters favored it. Supporting the deal could cause problems for a candidate in a Republican primary but be an asset in the general election. (Some 87 House Republicans voted for the compromise, while 144 opposed it.)

But this is one of those questions a candidate should not be allowed to duck, since the answer says something about the candidate’s views and approach to the legislative process.

Given my interview with McSally and my conversations with others about her, I’m guessing that the GOP hopeful would have supported the compromise. But I shouldn’t have to guess, and McSally’s refusal to give an answer raises some disquieting questions about her and her campaign.

McSally often refers to herself as outspoken, and she notes that her lawsuit against the Department of Defense’s requirement that U.S. servicewomen in Saudi Arabia wear a cloak that covers virtually the entire body proves that she isn’t a shrinking violet. Apparently, she doesn’t see the irony in her unwillingness to address the House vote that reopened the government.

If McSally is as much of a straight-shooter as she says she is, she ought to answer the question about how she would have voted, even if she needs to add an explanation about her answer.

Unfortunately, from what I can gather, McSally isn’t the only candidate I interviewed recently who was less than entirely forthright with me.

Democratic House hopeful Jennifer Garrison, who is running against Republican Rep. Bill Johnson in Ohio’s 6th District, told me, my colleague Nathan L. Gonzales and Roll Call reporter Abby Livingston during an interview on Oct. 8 that she once supported defining marriage as between a man and a woman but now supports “civil unions.”

The phrase “civil unions” stuck in my head because, while it was a term often bandied about a year or two ago, it quickly fell into disuse as the broader debate on gay rights focused on same-sex marriage.

Garrison, one of six quality Democratic candidates I wrote about recently, did a brief video interview with Roll Call after my meeting with the congressional hopeful, and Livingston asked her to “describe your evolution on gay marriage.”

The former state legislator mentioned her earlier position but said she now supports “domestic partner benefits and some recognition by the state of those [same-sex] relationships.” She did not refer to civil unions, same-sex marriage or gay marriage. It was another odd response, especially given the wording of the question.

The problem with Garrison’s response to me — and to Roll Call — is that she apparently told political reporter David Skolnick of the Youngstown Vindicator in mid-July that she supported same-sex marriage. At least that’s what he wrote in a July 17 piece:

“Congressional candidate Jennifer Garrison, who made her opponent’s opposition to Ohio’s Defense of Marriage Act a key issue in her successful 2004 state House race, now says that she supports same-sex marriages.”

So, I telephoned Skolnick just to double-check, and he told me that Garrison skated around the issue until he asked point blank: Did she support same-sex marriage or not? “She paused,” he told me, “and then said ‘yes.’” Skolnick says that neither Garrison nor her campaign complained about how he characterized her position on the issue.

Of course, when Garrison spoke with Skolnick, state Sen. Lou Gentile was still actively considering a run for the Democratic nomination.

Gentile, who represents 10 of the congressional district’s 18 counties and is generally viewed as more liberal than Garrison, announced on Aug. 1 that he would not run for Congress. His decision made Garrison the heavy favorite to win her party’s nomination.

Am I nit-picking here? I don’t think so, and I doubt that people who have strong opinions on either side of the matter would think so. Same-sex marriage, domestic partner benefits and civil unions are not the same thing, and Garrison must know that.

Count me as skeptical that she accidentally used the “civil unions” and then “domestic partner benefits” language rather than referring to “same-sex marriage.” Instead, I suspect that she is trying to have it both ways. When she had to worry about Gentile, she tacked left and said she supported same-sex marriage. Now, with Gentile no longer a factor, she has moved back to a position where she is more comfortable.

Obviously, local reporters will and should press Garrison on the issue, but so far, it is pretty clear that she would rather dance around the subject than take a clear position.

I can only wonder if there are other issues that Garrison and McSally — who have some terrific candidate qualities and should be formidable challengers next year — are trying to finesse.