WASHINGTON — As a reliably red state, Kansas has backed a Republican in each of the last 10 presidential elections. But Democrats say things could be different in 2008.
With their economy strongly tied to aviation and defense jobs, Kansans are riled over the Air Force's decision Feb. 29 to give a $35 billion aerial-tanker contract to a partnership with ties to France, rejecting a bid by Boeing, which would have done final assembly and testing of the planes in Wichita.
As the anger builds, Democrats are reminding voters that Arizona Sen. John McCain, this year's presumed Republican presidential nominee, has a history of sparring with Boeing, which promised to bring 3,800 jobs to Wichita if it won the contract.
"He has made it abundantly clear that, if president, he would be indifferent to the outsourcing of American jobs, even at a time when our families and our nation's economy are hurting the most," said Larry Gates, the chairman of the Kansas Democratic Party.
At a presidential debate in Florida two months ago, McCain boasted that he "saved the taxpayers $6 billion in a bogus tanker deal," a reference to his leading role in stopping a contract between Boeing and the Air Force in 2004 in the face of a procurement scandal that eventually sent Boeing's chief financial officer and a top Air Force acquisitions officer to prison. And in his run for the White House, McCain hired a finance director and several top advisers who'd lobbied on behalf of the European Aeronautics Defense and Space Co., the parent company of Boeing's rival, Airbus.
McCain has come under relentless attack since the Air Force awarded the contract, the second largest in Pentagon history.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said the tanker work would be "outsourced" largely because of McCain's opposition. Democratic Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois said the jobs were going overseas "all because John McCain demanded it."
Even Republicans are jumping in.
"Americans are outraged by the Air Force's decision to outsource American jobs," Kansas Republican Rep. Todd Tiahrt said. "As our presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Americans look forward to hearing from him. The more Senator McCain learns about this unfair tanker competition, the more I think he will identify with the outrage Kansans feel."
McCain also is getting plenty of criticism in the state of Washington, which expected to get 9,000 jobs if Boeing won the contract.
"I hope the voters of this state remember what John McCain has done to them and their jobs," said Democratic Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington state.
McCain's campaign declined to comment. But on the campaign trail, he's denied any role in getting the Air Force to award the contract to EADS, which teamed up with a U.S.-based partner, Northrop Grumman.
McCain's opponents said he laid the groundwork for Airbus in 2003, when Congress approved his amendment allowing the Pentagon to buy American military equipment from foreign companies. In 2006, McCain wrote letters to the Defense Department regarding the tanker project. Opponents said the senator was lobbying on Airbus' behalf, but McCain said he was merely calling for an open process that wouldn't exclude Airbus from bidding.
"All the senator advocated for was 100 percent full competition, and that's it," said Keith Ashdown, chief investigator with Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington watchdog group.
He applauded McCain's efforts.
"It was always about making sure the taxpayer was getting the best value for their dollar for new weapon systems," Ashdown said. "Politics is politics, and people are looking for ways — fairly and unfairly — to target each presidential candidate. And in the case of Senator McCain, I would argue that the Boeing episode is probably one of the reasons why he should be president, contrary to what Democrats claim."
Sensing a winning issue, Democrats and labor leaders are ready to go national with the brouhaha, hoping that it will cost McCain votes.
As Pennsylvania voters prepare for their primary April 22, their governor, Democrat Ed Rendell, went on national television to tell voters that the Air Force's decision to reject Boeing was wrong and "really unspeakable."
The AFL-CIO accuses McCain of having a consistent anti-worker record in the Senate, and it's sending union protesters to spread the word in Pennsylvania and anywhere else McCain goes until Election Day.
With his ties to Airbus lobbyists, McCain will have a harder time making the argument that he's independent of special interests, said Mike Gaughan, the executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party. He said McCain's refusal to question the Air Force's decision "gives us a glimpse into the kind of economic policy we can expect from a McCain presidency."
He noted that McCain already had been hurt by his ties to Airbus, citing as proof his loss in the state's Republican caucuses Feb. 9 to former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who has since left the race.