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Politics, parties keep some away from conventions

By Allison Brennan, CNN
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Thu August 23, 2012
Members in tough races from both sides of the aisle are opting out of their party's conventions this year for a variety of reasons.
Members in tough races from both sides of the aisle are opting out of their party's conventions this year for a variety of reasons.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Candidates offered a number of reasons for not attending party conventions
  • Political analysts said that politics factor heavily in those decisions
  • Mixing with political elite at lavish parties may not play well back home
  • To some, conventions now appear heavily scripted, more like TV award shows

Washington (CNN) -- When U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill announced in June that she would not attend the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, she joined a number of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle planning to skip the presidential nominating events.

Different reasons were given, but a closer look shows most are in tough races.

"I've got a really hard election," McCaskill of Missouri said. "If you had a really hard election and it was after Labor Day would you go to North Carolina to a bunch of parties and glad-handing or would you stay home and work as hard as you know how to convince Missourians they should rehire you?"

McCaskill has been trailing in polls in her race against Republican Rep. Todd Akin, who this week rocked his candidacy with comments about rape and pregnancy.

Drama is rare in modern conventions

Republican Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois is up against Tammy Duckworth, who was severely wounded in Iraq when her Black Hawk helicopter came under attack. Walsh said in July that he would not attend the Republican National Convention, which begins on Monday in Tampa. He said the event runs counter to his independent political persona.

"Not as a candidate or as a congressman have I ever been one of the political class," Walsh said in a statement. "I came to Washington to serve the people of my district and reclaim our country from the growth of government. Rather than mingle with party insiders in Tampa, I will be in the 8th (congressional) district to continue to serve as an independent voice for the people."

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Political analysts believe that the mix of fat-cat partying, presidential politics, and a heavy dose of Washington schmoozing at conventions may not resonate on Main Street especially with the electorate so closely divided and the partisan political climate so sharp.

Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report, said those optics for members in tough races could make them seem disingenuous.

"They don't want to be seen as hobnobbing with national Democrats, with the president, with Nancy Pelosi, with (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid," Rothenberg said.

"They say one thing when they are in Montana, they do another thing when they are in Washington," he said.

Lawmakers are also staying away because they can get "more bang for their buck" staying home and campaigning -- laying the groundwork for the campaign season headed into September.

"There isn't a lot of value in going to the conventions," Rothenberg said. "Unless they are going to cocktail parties and they could do minimal fundraising."

Pelosi, the former House speaker and now the chamber's minority leader, urged Democratic members to stay home.

Some Democrats to skip their convention

"I'm not encouraging anyone to go to the convention, having nothing to do with anything except I think they should stay home, campaign in their districts, use their financial and political resources to help them win their election," Pelosi told POLITICO in July. "It's campaign time. It's the first week in September."

Michelle Swers, professor of American government at Georgetown University, said people start tuning in after Labor Day, so the weeks before then are a good time for candidates to prepare for the fall stretch.

Other Members in tough races passing on conventions this year include incumbent Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana and his challenger, Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg. Virginia's George Allen, a Republican looking to reclaim his Senate seat, is also staying home as are a host of New York Democrats.

Rep. Mark Critz of Pennsylvania is up for election in November in a re-drawn competitive 12th Congressional District. In a statement, Critz said it is more important that he spend time in the district "listening to the people" instead of at the convention.

In convention speeches, history is made

The list also includes Sen. Joe Manchin and Rep. Nick Rahall, both Democrats of West Virginia, and Republican Senate challengers Linda McMahon, in Connecticut, and Heather Wilson, in Arizona.

In the Massachusetts, where Democrats have long considered the home of the Kennedys a strong-hold, candidate Elizabeth Warren is in a dead heat with incumbent Republican Scott Brown for his Senate seat. However, her appearance at the convention is viewed as a plus.

"If you are Elizabeth Warren, it's good to associate yourself with President Obama," Swers said. "But if you're Claire McCaskill, you would want to distance yourself."

Obama handily won Massachusetts in 2008 and has little chance of dropping it to Mitt Romney this time, even though his Republican rival is a former Bay State governor. But Obama narrowly lost Missouri.

Warren, a consumer advocate and former adviser to Obama, has a prime speaking spot at the convention and along with it, television access to a national audience.

But, there is evidence that the conventions are less important to voters and the parties than they once were. For instance, television viewership of the Republican convention, declined from almost 22 million people across all major networks in 1976 to 17 million in 2008. Likewise, viewership of the Democratic conventions fell similarly over the same period. The numbers have led the networks to slash their coverage.

Even though Swers says conventions are important for building relationships in the parties, she acknowledges, "You're not going to have a floor fight that decides the presidential candidate or the vice presidential candidate."

And without that scenario, the debates become predictable.

"Even when nominations were not in doubt, there was always business in the convention, there was chaos and uncertainty," said Rothenberg, who added that the events are more scripted and appear more like TV awards shows.

Memorable convention moments

Are you going to the RNC? Share your sights and sounds with CNN iReport.

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