Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Indignation Aside, Both Parties Are ISO an Iraq Strategy

By Stuart Rothenberg

“What we’ve got here is ... failure to communicate.”

That’s the line actor Strother Martin uttered in the classic film “Cool Hand Luke,” but it just as easily could have been said by a thoughtful Member of the U.S. Congress in recent weeks.

Members on both sides of the aisle are sounding so frazzled these days that a few hours of professional therapy are in order. Clearly, neither party knows what to do next on Iraq.

Frustration has been building up for months on Capitol Hill, and we finally got our explosion shortly after Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. John Murtha announced that it was time to pull out of Iraq.

Outraged that Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) used the words “coward” and “Murtha” in the same sentence, and that other Republican House Members had bashed Murtha’s comments, Democrats rushed to Murtha’s defense. Not that he needed it. He can take care of himself.

Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) charged across the House floor berating the recently minted Republican Congresswoman from Ohio, while Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) branded the “Republican attacks” as “sickening.”

Republicans are frustrated because the war in Iraq has become an albatross around their necks. They had hoped — expected — that things would go better. For many, the only option is hunkering down and hoping that things will improve in the future. That’s not an approach that most politicians prefer, particularly when elections are approaching.

For weeks, Democrats have all but called the president of the United States a liar and a cheat who “manipulated” intelligence and “misled” the nation into war. With left-wing conspiracy theorists running amok on the Internet and Cindy Sheehan trying to confront President Bush at his ranch and at the White House to demand an end to the Iraq war, it’s no wonder many Republicans are frustrated and angry.

But Republicans also know that Democrats are trying to have it both ways when it comes to the war in Iraq — berating the president for misleading us about intelligence to drag the country into an unnecessary war and pummeling him for all the bad news emanating from Iraq, while at the same time emphasizing their support for the troops and opposition to a quick exit from Iraq.

Murtha called for the United States to withdraw all of its troops from Iraq within six months, a rash proposal by any account. More than five dozen House Democrats applauded Murtha’s proposal, but most high- profile Democratic leaders said that while they admired the Pennsylvania Congressman, they opposed his plan.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) called an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq “a big mistake,” while Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said, “I don’t support immediate withdrawal” from Iraq.

Republicans must feel as if they are witnessing a good cop/bad cop routine being played out, with party bigwigs such as Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), Reid, Clinton and even liberal House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) trying to appear as statesmen while others rip away at the president’s character and policies.

Republicans have no choice but to challenge Murtha and try to entice Democratic leaders to climb aboard the “out now” bandwagon. They have to force Congressional Democrats to declare flatly whether they support the war or oppose it.

Democrats are also frustrated.

They believe the Bush administration didn’t level with them completely before the president gave the order to attack Iraq, tricking them into supporting a position that they now believe to have been a fraud. Yet many of them can’t quite figure out how to change their positions without looking like a newer version of George Romney, the one-time governor of Michigan who undermined his own credibility by saying that he had been “brainwashed” about the war in Vietnam.

Democrats are also frustrated about their continued inability to figure out how to deal with military, defense and national security issues generally.

Remember, this is a party that thought it could inoculate itself against expected charges during the 2004 presidential race by nominating a Vietnam War veteran and by marching a dozen or so former generals onto the stage at the Fleet Center in Boston to attest to the party’s patriotism and toughness. Not only did that not work, but Iraq almost certainly cost Kerry the White House.

Now, Democrats are caught in a bind once again. Do they fall back on being the anti-war party, as many in their grass roots would prefer? Or do they try to change their image fundamentally by talking and acting tough about terrorism and Iraq? And if the party is divided, what message will that send to the American public?

In the short term, Democrats certainly are benefiting from Iraq. But neither party seems to have a good handle on where to go from here.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on November 28, 2005. Copyright 2005 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Democrats Hope the Bluegrass State Is Just Their Color

By Stuart Rothenberg

While many in the national media have become infatuated with the problems of Ohio Gov. Bob Taft (R) and the possibility that Democrats can ride a wave of voter anger in the Buckeye State, neighboring Kentucky seems to offer Democrats a similar opportunity.

Like its neighbor to the north, Kentucky possesses a Republican governor with weak poll numbers and, Democrats hope, some surprising opportunities for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

But the DCCC faces the same problems in the Bluegrass State that it does in Ohio: a dearth of obvious Republican targets and a shortage of top-tier challengers. Still, if a Democratic wave develops a year from now, as Democratic insiders hope it does, the party intends to be ready with credible candidates in three or maybe even four Kentucky districts.

The administration of Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) has been the target of a criminal investigation for months over hiring practices. Eleven current or former members of Fletcher’s administration have been indicted, a stunning development for a candidate for governor who campaigned as a reformer who would “clean up” Frankfort.

Fletcher has already fired nine political appointees, including his deputy chief of staff and the director of the governor’s Office of Personnel and Efficiency, and he has accepted the resignation of Daniel Groves, a top aide and the manager of his 2003 campaign.

Fletcher has already pardoned nine people indicted in connection with the investigation into the administration’s personnel decisions, and local observers are waiting to see whether Fletcher himself may be indicted. The governor also has called for the firing of the Republican state party chairman.

Not surprisingly, given the controversy, Fletcher’s ratings have plummeted.

A Sept. 7-13 Courier-Journal Bluegrass Poll of 801 adults found the governor’s job approval standing at 38 percent, while 54 percent of respondents disapproved. Another Courier-Journal poll, conducted in August shortly after Fletcher announced that he would seek re-election in 2007, found only 17 percent saying that they’d vote to re-elect him. Twice as many respondents, 34 percent, said they planned to vote to replace him.

The governor’s problems and sinking poll numbers, coinciding with President Bush’s problems, have Democrats wondering whether Bluegrass State Republicans might be hit with a “perfect storm” next year.

But you can’t beat somebody with nobody, and Democrats still have work to do to field strong challengers in a number of districts.

Democratic insiders currently are most excited about their announced challenger to 2nd district Rep. Ron Lewis (R), state Rep. Mike Weaver. Weaver is a pro-life Democrat who served 34 years in the military, both in the Navy and the Army, including two tours of duty in Vietnam.

But the legislator, 67, has never raised much money in his races and may not fully understand what he faces running against an incumbent in a Congressional district that Bush carried by 31 points, 65 percent to 34 percent. Lewis won his last re-election with 68 percent, about a point and a half below his 2002 showing.

Private Democratic poll numbers suggest that Weaver could become a credible challenger to Lewis. But Republican insiders argue that Lewis and influential Kentucky Republicans are well aware that Democrats are targeting the race, and that Lewis will have the resources he needs, as well as the ammunition, to fend off Weaver.

In Kentucky’s 3rd district, the Democrats’ longtime nemesis, Rep. Anne Northup (R), just dodged a bullet when Jack Conway, who drew 48 percent against Northup in 2002, decided not to challenge the Congresswoman next year.

Democrats insist that they will have a strong opponent for Northup, but former Kentucky Secretary of State John Brown III, another name widely floated as a possible candidate, apparently is not interested. Now, some Democrats mention former U.S. Attorney Steve Reed as a possible candidate. Reed, an African-American, is managing partner of a Louisville law firm and a member of the board of trustees of the University of Kentucky.

On paper, Northup’s district is very competitive. Both Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and then-Vice President Al Gore carried the district, and GOP strategists readily admit that Northup has to work hard all the time to hold the seat. But it’s also true that the DCCC has thrown a number of strong candidates of very different stripes against the Republican. Northup, who is now sitting on just more than $1 million, has survived each time in part because she runs excellent races.

Democrats also hope to recruit a credible challenger against 1st district GOP Rep. Ed Whitfield, who had just under $1 million in the bank on Sept. 30. A one-time lobbyist who was elected in the GOP wave of 1994, Whitfield was unopposed in 2000 and won each of his past two races with more than 65 percent of the vote.

So far, the only Democrat who has filed is former Rep. Tom Barlow, who was ousted by Whitfield in 1994. Insiders dismiss Barlow as a serious contender, pointing to his defeat by Whitfield in a 1998 rematch and his unsuccessful bid for the Senate nomination in 2002.

Finally, Democrats haven’t given up hoping that they can recruit an opponent for freshman Republican Rep. Geoff Davis, who won an open seat last year. But Davis’ district is normally a Republican stronghold, and Democrats still haven’t found a strong challenger.

Clearly, Democrats don’t yet have the candidates they need to take advantage of the GOP’s troubles, both nationally and in Kentucky. But the Bluegrass State remains the kind of political environment that Democrats want and need, and that means Republicans can’t take their incumbency for granted.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on November 21, 2005. Copyright 2005 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

New Print Edition: AZ1 & Georgia 8 & 12

The new November 21, 2005 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report is on its way to subscribers. (Click here for subscription information.) Here is a sample from the current issue.

Arizona 1: Making Up Ground
By Nathan L. Gonzales

After a surprising primary and general election loss three years ago in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District, Democrats have never been able to recover. Cong. Rick Renzi (R) is once again a target, with national Democrats excited about their likely nominee, former state Rep. Jack Jackson, Jr. (D).

Back in 2002, after redistricting created a new, open seat, Democrats were optimistic about their chances of winning the district. But businessman George Cordova won the crowded primary in an upset, and Democrats were left reeling.

Renzi won the close initial general election and coasted to reelection last year. But in their race to 218 seats and a House majority, Arizona 1 is back on the target list with Democratic hopes riding on DCCC recruit Jackson.

The GOP congressman is not safe by any means, but Jackson has some significant hurdles to overcome in order to defeat the incumbent. Click here for the rest of the story..

Georgia 8 & 12: Looking for a Silver Lining

Democrats are on the prowl nationwide, searching for congressional districts to put in play in their effort to win the majority in the House. But while Republicans will be on the defensive in most of the serious races next year, the GOP is pulling out all the stops against two Democratic congressmen in Georgia.

Freshman Cong. John Barrow (D) and two-term Cong. Jim Marshall (D) face parallel challenges. Each is running for reelection in a redrawn district against a former Republican congressman. Former members Max Burns (R) and Mac Collins (R) are hoping to be the silver lining in what could be an otherwise long election night for Republicans in 2006. But they each have a tough road ahead.

If the national environment continues to deteriorate, Republicans may need every extra seat they can get, and could look to Collins and Burns to plug the final holes in the dam. The rest of the story...

2005 Statewide Ballot Initiatives: A Review

By Louis Jacobson

Most of the attention given to ballot initiatives in the 2005 election had to do with the failure of the four-part reform package proposed by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). That’s understandable, but it’s also the tip of the iceberg.

Nationally, there were more ballot measures for voters to consider this year than in any recent off-off-year election. Yet according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only two of the 18 citizen-initiated ballot measures passed on Nov. 8 – a dramatically lower approval rate than normal. (Other measures were placed on the ballot by legislators.) Read more...

For information about a one-year or two-year subscription, please go here.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Poll Numbers Do More Than Merely Reflect Bush’s Problems

By Stuart Rothenberg

I’ve been thinking about writing this column for a few months, but this week’s reporting on President Bush finally convinced me that I could wait no longer.

On Monday night, I heard CNN’s Anderson Cooper report that “Mr. Bush’s trip [to Asia] comes as his approval rating dips to the lowest level of his presidency.”

That phrase, “the lowest level of his presidency,” or similar phrases have been uttered innumerable times over the past six months as Bush’s poll numbers have dropped. Sometimes the description has even been accurate, but in every case, the comment has added to the president’s woes.

Cooper added, “A new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found only 37 percent of Americans approve of the way he’s handling the job. Sixty percent disapprove.”

That additional bit of information both clarified and corrected Cooper’s initial assertion that Bush’s numbers were at their nadir, in CNN polling, at least.

Actually, the president’s job approval has been lower in national polling. An Oct. 30-Nov. 1 survey conducted by CBS News found Bush’s job approval at 35 percent. And polls conducted by Newsweek, Fox News/Opinion Dynamics and the Pew Research Center, and released before the CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey reached CNN’s air or hit the pages of USA Today, also found the president with a lower job approval rating of 36 percent.

Of course, CNN isn’t the only network to hype the “lowest” poll. On the Nov. 13 edition of “Good Morning America,” ABC’s Kate Snow referred to a “new poll” that found the president’s job approval at 36 percent, “the lowest of his presidency.”

Again, that ABC report came well after the CBS survey showing Bush’s job approval at 35 percent.

Over at CBS, things were a bit more confused (and confusing).

On Nov. 14, according to a CBS News transcript, reporter Thalia Assuras referred during “The Early Show” to “new poll numbers showing the president’s job approval his lowest ever: 36 percent according to Newsweek magazine.” But the reporter then continued that “a CBS poll showed his rating down to 35 percent.”

My point definitely is not that Bush’s problems are a creation of the media. Rather, it is that Bush has plenty of problems, from Iraq to gas prices to the indictment of the vice president’s chief of staff, and that the explosion of polls is turning out to be another headache for the White House.

Every few days, there is another survey that finds Americans unhappy with the president’s leadership, his performance on the economy, health care or Iraq. Television networks and newspapers report about their own polls, as well as about surveys released by other television networks, major newspapers or institutions of higher education.

The constant drumbeat of negativity creates a bandwagon effect. After all, if more and more people think Bush is doing a poor job, maybe he is doing a bad job. That sort of thinking can’t help Bush.

Moreover, the focus on poll results emphasizes process, not policy. The result is that the president is unable to get his message out about his agenda. (Admittedly, it probably doesn’t help the White House that it appears not to have much of an agenda. But that’s a different problem.)

The president has begun to fire back recently, arguing in speeches that his adversaries are rewriting history on Iraq. But while that White House response is necessary and politically appropriate, it isn’t likely to move public opinion very far, if at all.

Few other voices have joined the president in defending himself. Congressional Republicans would prefer the Iraq war to go away, so they haven’t become a chorus of support for Bush.

Bush’s White House team and Cabinet would seem to be an obvious place where he could generate a chorus of support, but their utility is limited. The vice president isn’t an asset at the moment, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld probably is a liability (since he serves as a reminder of earlier Bush administration claims), and the rest of the Cabinet — except for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — appears to be utterly irrelevant.

But the lack of a chorus defending him isn’t the biggest of Bush’s problems.

Opinion against the president is gelling, making it difficult for him to change public opinion merely by giving speeches. Sure, he might steel some grass-roots Republicans and remind conservatives why they supported him. But speeches aren’t likely to improve his standing with political moderates and independents, and that limits the extent to which his poll numbers can rebound.

Ultimately, the president needs some good news. He needs a reason for Americans who have become disillusioned to reassess his performance and change their opinion about the kind of job he is doing.

Unless and until that happens, all of the bad news — including all of the polling stories and survey results — will weigh Bush down. And down. And down.

This column originally appeared in Roll Call on November 17, 2005. Copyright 2005 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Gov. Romney Appoints New RGA Executive Director

The Republican Governors Association is making a top-level staffing move on the eve of a very challenging election cycle, and potential 2008 presidential candidate and current Gov. Mitt Romney (R) is in the middle of it.

RGA Executive Director Mike Pieper is set to become managing director at R&R Partners, Inc., in their Washington, D.C. office, in January. Pieper was originally appointed to the RGA post by Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn (R), who is also chairman of the RGA, and has served as executive director for one year. Deputy Executive Director Victoria Soberinsky is also leaving the RGA to join R&R Partners in January.

According to sources familiar with the situation, Phil Musser of the Dutko Group has been appointed by Gov. Romney, the vice chairman of the RGA, to replace Pieper.

Even though Pieper’s predecessor, Ed Tobin, served as executive director for two and a half years, this move is not particularly unusual. RGA chairmen are elected by their peers to serve one-year terms and often bring their own top level staff with them.

At their winter meetings in a couple weeks, the GOP governors are expected to elect Romney as chairman and Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue as vice chairman for 2006. With races for governor in Iowa and New Hampshire next year, Romney may be looking to oversee a strong showing in those important early primary states (and nationwide) next year in an effort to boost his 2008 presidential candidacy.

Prior to the RGA, Pieper worked as a top aide to Gov. Guinn, managed Barbara Vucanovich’s successful 1986 congressional campaign and served as her chief of staff until 1996. Pieper was also a former associate staff member for the House Appropriations Committee.

Musser is currently Vice President at Dutko Worldwide. He is a former deputy chief of staff at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, under both Mel Martinez and Alphonso Jackson. Musser was also a Lead Advance Representative for Bush-Cheney 2000 and senior staff member for the 2001 Presidential Inaugural Committee.

UPDATE: RGA Political Director Steve Treubner is also leaving the committee at the end of the year. The former aide to Gov. Bill Owens is returning to Colorado to open his own political consulting business, Truebner, Inc.

By Nathan Gonzales

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Forget the Spin: Here's What Really Happened In Tuesday's Elections

By Stuart Rothenberg

Much of what you've read and heard about Tuesday's election results is wrong. That goes for the panicky blame-laying by some Republicans and conservatives, as well as the wild claims of resurgence by Democrats.

"Americans" did not "resoundingly" support "the new priorities of Democratic candidates over the status quo policies of President Bush and Republican leadership," as Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) claimed Tuesday night. That's just being "on message." It's horrendous political analysis.

On the other side of the spectrum is columnist Robert Novak, who seems unable to explain the Virginia results beyond blaming Bush or complainingthat GOP nominee Jerry Kilgore wasn't conservative enough. But Novak needonly look to Democratic governors in normally Republican Wyoming, Arizona and Kansas, and to Republican governors in Hawaii, Massachusetts and Rhode Island to understand that states often elect governors from the "wrong"(that is, minority) party.

New Jersey is easy to decipher. Democratic presidential nominees John Kerry (Mass.) and Al Gore carried it by 7 and 16 points respectively, drawing 53percent and 56 percent. Jon Corzine drew 53 percent of the vote and won byalmost 10 points on Tuesday. In other words, a Democratic state elected a Democratic governor by a "normal" Democratic margin after a bitter, personalrace. End of discussion.

In Virginia, Democrats won the governorship (as they did in 1981, 1985, 1989and 2001) but lost the two other statewide races, albeit narrowly, forlieutenant governor and attorney general. In the state House of Delegates,Democrats gained only a single seat, so the Republicans still have a 58-39 edge over Democrats - a microscopic change from before Election Day. That's hardly a sweeping Democratic victory. It's not even close.

Anyway, Tim Kaine (D) defeated Kilgore (R) for governor by about 113,000 votes, a slightly bigger margin than Democrat Mark Warner's 96,943-voteplurality over Republican Mark Earley four years ago. Most of Kaine's victory margin (105,000 votes) came from three Northern Virginia areas -Arlington County, Fairfax County and Alexandria City. Total turnout in the three jurisdictions was largely unchanged from 2001.

The results from Fairfax County were stunning. Warner won the county by26,000 votes four years ago, while Kaine's margin ballooned to 57,000 votes. Kaine drew about 14,000 votes more than Warner did, while Kilgore drew17,000 fewer votes than Earley.

Kaine, a former Richmond mayor, did better than expected in two otherregions of note. He won Virginia Beach narrowly (Mark Warner lost it by almost 7 points in 2001), and he bested Warner's showing in Chesterfield andHenrico, near Richmond. Kaine's strategists targeted suburban voters, and their efforts apparentlywere successful. "Weak" Republicans and swing voters seem to have desertedthe GOP nominee this year, which is something that Republicans ought toworry about given the party's reliance on suburban voters nationally.

One astute Democratic insider I talked with had no doubt why the Democrat won. This observer insisted that Kaine won on leadership - convincing suburbanites that Warner had been an effective governor and that Kaine wouldstay the course and move the state forward. The Democrat noted that Kaineeffectively painted himself as a bipartisan, fiscally responsible, conservative Democrat while challenging Kilgore on crime, taxes andtransportation.

It's important to note that Bill Bolling, the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, drew 66,000 more votes than Kilgore did, and that BobMcDonnell, the GOP's nominee for attorney general, drew 58,000 more than hisparty's nominee for governor. These discrepancies were largest in Republican areas, such as Roanoke,Virginia Beach, Chesterfield and York counties. In those places, Kilgore generally ran behind his ticket mates 4.5 percent to 10 percent.

Kilgoretrailed his colleagues in Northern Virginia, too, but much more narrowly.Kilgore's weak showing suggests that Republican voters simply didn't like him. Maybe it was his Southwest Virginia style, his ads, his record - I don't know. But for whatever reason, they didn't vote for him.

The results don't support the conclusion that Bush caused Kilgore to lose. If that were the case, Republicans would have lost all three statewide contests and many more legislative races. In reality, a number of factorsundoubtedly worked to Kaine's advantage. Mark Warner's popularity helped,and Kaine's moderate rhetoric proved effective. Plus, Kilgore didn't help himself. Bush obviously was a liability, particularly in Northern Virginia, but I doubt that it cost Kilgore more than a couple of points statewide.

One Democratic operative summed up the meaning of the gubernatorial election perfectly. "This wasn't about Democratic turnout efforts or the lack of Republican turnout. It was a persuasion win" for Kaine.

Maybe the best way to think about the '05 Virginia governor's race is tothink back to the 2000 presidential contest, when Gore sought to succeed a popular president who had a major character flaw that elevated a set ofcultural issues, which ultimately undid Gore.

Kaine, too, sought to succeed a popular officeholder from his own party, but he did not have to overcome the baggage that Gore did. Unlike Gore, whorefused to identify with or campaign alongside former President Bill Clinton, Kaine attached himself to Warner, arguing that his election wouldproduce, in effect, a second Warner term. Suburban voters liked that idea,and they didn't warm to Kilgore.

Virginia voters selected Kaine, who ran as a pro-business, bipartisan socialmoderate, at the same time they were electing two Republicans statewide andaffirming the GOP's solid control of the House of Delegates. That's hardly evidence of a Democratic wave. So while Kaine's convincing victory should give Republicans pause and concern, it ought not cause panic in Republican ranks.

Finally, I still expect 2006 to be a very good Democratic year, with the House probably coming into play and Democrats poised to make major gains in the Senate. My caveat is that Tuesday's results have nothing to do with that assessment.

This column originially appeared in Roll Call on November 14, 2005. Copyright 2005 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Monday, November 14, 2005

On Redistricting, Voters Have Spoken Up for the Status Quo

By Stuart Rothenberg

Voters seem less than pleased these days with thedirection of the country, the performance of thepresident and the performance of Congress. In manystates, this sense of dissatisfaction extends to thegovernor and state legislature.

Yet when voters in California and Ohio were presentedwith the option of taking away from state legislatorsthe right to draw their own district lines, the votersturned their thumbs down. They stuck with the currentsystem.

Specifically, in Ohio, voters turned down Issue 4, astatewide ballot measure that would have created a“nonpartisan” panel to draw the state’s Congressionaldistricts every 10 years, instead of allowing thestate Legislature to do it.

The measure lost overwhelmingly (drawing only 30percent) even though scandal has ripped through thestate, discrediting Gov. Bob Taft (R) and a major GOPfundraiser at the same time an Ohio RepublicanCongressman is under a cloud for allegedly allowing alobbyist to pay for a golf outing in Scotland.

In California, Proposition 77, which would haveamended the state’s constitution to take Congressionaland state legislative redistricting away from theLegislature and handed those responsibilities over toa new three-member panel of retired judges, went downto defeat as well, 59 percent to 41 percent.

Voters don’t need me to lecture them about theirdecisions, and I won’t. I have a self-interest in thecreation of more competitive House districts, since Ihandicap those races and would likely benefit frommore competitive contests.

But I’m not the only one who thinks creating morecompetitive districts would be a healthy development,both for Congress and for the two-party system.Democracy requires competition, and too many one-partydistricts breed cynicism and politicians who seelittle or no need to compromise once they reachWashington, D.C.

Whether you agree with that or not, it is stillnoteworthy that voters who seem so dissatisfied withthe current state of the nation and national politicswere so content to stick with the status quo when itcame to the drawing of district boundaries.

Nationally, polls show that voters don’t have aparticularly high opinion of Republicans or Democratsin Congress, and I rarely meet people who trustpoliticians further than they could throw them.

Yet voters in Ohio and California rejected proposalsto change the current system that allows statelegislators to draw their own district lines. How isthis possible?

In California, Democrats had an obvious politicalreason to oppose the proposition, since new linescould undermine the party’s dominant position in thestate Legislature and cut the party’s margin in thestate’s Congressional delegation.

Politics being what it is, their opposition was bothpredictable and understandable. Some state GOPlegislators opposed the measure, fearful that newlines would put their political careers at risk.There’s principle for you, huh?

More than a few Golden State voters undoubtedlyopposed the initiative because it was supported byGov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), whose poll numbershave sunk more quickly than the Titanic.

All of the high-profile measures backed by thegovernor were defeated, so in voting againstProposition 77, some voters were simply sending amessage to the Terminator that they didn’t want topass anything that had his fingerprints on it.

In Ohio, it was Republicans who were threatened byIssue 4, so many opposed the new plan (which wouldhave required another round of redistricting prior tothe 2008 elections) in order to protect the party’slegislative and Congressional incumbents.

In both Ohio and California, some voters almostcertainly opposed the ballot measures simply becausethey regarded the entire matter as arcane, complicatedand confusing.

As one insider who supported the Ohio redistrictingballot measure told me Tuesday, it’s far easier toexplain the benefits of simplified absentee voting orthe advantages of campaign contribution limits than itis to first explain how districts are drawn, thenexplain why that system needs to be changed andfinally to propose a new system for drawing the lines.

Days before the results were in, true “reformers” —I’m not talking about partisans who jumped on thereform bandwagon but only wanted to redraw districtsto improve their electoral opportunities next time —were claiming victory of a sort. They insisted thatthey had already begun to “educate” voters and wouldpress on with the battle to change the way districtsare drawn.

Sorry, but that dog won’t hunt.

A dispassionate assessment of the Ohio and Californiaballot measures can only interpret the results as ablow to those who want to change how district linesare drawn. Voters simply don’t care enough about theprocess of drawing legislative and Congressionaldistricts, and it will be hard to motivate them inother states to support changes via the ballot.

This column originially appeared in Roll Call on November 10, 2005. Copyright 2005 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Don’t Expect the GOP to Roll Over in the Battle for the Senate

By Stuart Rothenberg

With one year to go until the midterm elections, Democrats believe that control of the Senate is at stake. They’re optimistic, and they should be. Their fundraising and recruiting have been strong, and national poll numbers show President Bush in a hole and voters looking for change.

But netting six seats when only 15 Republican-held Senate seats are up — and when seven of those are safe for the GOP — is a daunting task. It may even be an impossible one.

While Democrats are using 1994 as a model of what could happen next year, that cycle isn’t all that helpful for the party’s case. (Coincidentally, the Senate class up this cycle was also up 12 years ago.)

That year, with a Republican wave clearly under way, Democrats lost eight seats. But six of those came in open seats, while only two incumbents — Pennsylvania’s Harris Wofford and Tennessee’s Jim Sasser — were defeated. And Wofford had won a special election only three years earlier.

This cycle, there is currently one Republican open seat (Tennessee) with another in Mississippi possible. Neither state is particularly hospitable to Democrats in federal contests. So Democratic challengers will need to unseat Republican incumbents — a more difficult task than pilfering open seats.

Interestingly, a number of Democrats held on against the GOP wave in 1994 even though they had credible opposition. The list included then-Sens. Bob Kerrey (Neb.) and Chuck Robb (Va.) and Sen. Kent Conrad (N.D.).

Two better historical models for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee may be 1980, when Republicans netted 12 seats, or 1986, when Democrats netted eight. But even these precedents have limited applicability.

In 1980, a presidential election was under way, and voters were making a big statement about the role of government that November. Moreover, Democrats held seats in a number of Republican and/or conservative states (including Alaska, Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, New Hampshire, North Carolina and South Dakota), and those Democrats — incumbents such as George McGovern (S.D.), Frank Church (Idaho), Birch Bayh (Ind.) and even John Durkin (N.H.) — were far to the left of their state electorates.

Voters may want to make a grand statement next year about the two parties or the responsibilities of government — or they could simply say that they want change. Incumbents have a better chance of dealing with the second alternative.

And 1986 may not be particularly relevant either. Democrats netted eight Senate seats that cycle, knocking off six elected GOP incumbents and one who had been appointed. But many of those were weak Republicans who had been swept in six years earlier. This year’s Republican Senate class is not particularly weak.

So where do Democrats stand now?

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) trails by double digits, an incredibly huge deficit for an incumbent. Challenger Bob Casey Jr. has a great name and will raise plenty of cash, but insiders acknowledge that he has some candidate weaknesses, which is probably why he has not made many media rounds yet.

Santorum will likely run a vigorous and effective campaign, but he simply starts too far behind to be anything but an underdog.

Elsewhere, Democratic prospects are less certain.

Their chances in Rhode Island, Montana and Ohio depend, to various extents, on the nature of the outcome of competitive primaries (including a GOP contest in Rhode Island).

Democrats regularly underestimate all three Republican incumbents in those states. In fact, Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) fits his state well and benefits from his reputation and approachability in a small state, and Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), for all his self-inflicted wounds over the years, simply wins. He, too, reflects his state’s style and ideology.

The vulnerability of Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine (R) comes mostly from his state, where the Republican Party has taken some brutal hits on ethics in recent months. DeWine also has problems with his conservative base. But if control of the Senate comes down to Ohio, will conservatives really sit by idly while DeWine loses?

Even if Democrats win all four of those races, they still need two more if they are to net six seats. (This assumes that they hold all of their own seats, which now appears likely. While the Democrats’ open seat in Minnesota is a tossup, Republican Mark Kennedy will have trouble winning his race in the face of a strong Democratic breeze nationally.)

So where do those two more seats come from? In Missouri, polling shows Sen. Jim Talent (R) running only even against state Auditor Claire McCaskill (D). But Talent also fits his state well, and he will be hard to defeat. The same goes for GOP Sen. Jon Kyl in Arizona.

The Democrats are headed for Senate gains, and they now have enough quality challengers to give them an outside shot at 51 seats if the Democratic wave that seems to be building nationally continues to grow. But they are still likely to need something close to a clean sweep of competitive races — and that is never easy to accomplish, especially where incumbents are involved.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on November 7, 2005. Copyright 2005 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

New Hampshire 1: Democrats Cheer, but ‘06 Recruit Stumbles

By Nathan L. Gonzales

As Democratic leaders scramble for the hilltops to shout the results of last night’s victories in Virginia and New Jersey, one down ballot race in New Hampshire symbolizes part of the Democrats’ challenge next year.

Three-term incumbent Mayor Bob Baines (D) lost reelection in Manchester, 51%-48%, to Republican Alderman Frank Guinta. In his victory, Guinta not only knocked off the incumbent mayor but knocked the wind out of the sails of a top DCCC recruit.

Guinta highlighted Baines’ six-year record, including a 55 percent increase in violent crime, tax increases, and three local high schools that failed federal testing standards, according to local media reports. In the final week, Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), Evan Bayh (D-IN), and Joe Biden (D-DE), all made campaign appearances with Baines. Kerry and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) also paid for some staff for the mayor.

Though his intentions were not public, there was little secret about Baines’ plan to run for Congress in 2006. His reelection last night was supposed to be a small hurdle. Instead it was a brick wall. Baines has not made an official announcement, but according to one local Democrat, the mayor’s congressional prospects are definitely in doubt.

(On a side note, in Connecticut, two of Baines’ fellow mayors won reelection on their way to running for governor in 2006. Stamford Mayor Dannel Malloy (D) won reelection 51%-46% and New Haven Mayor John DeStefano won reelection with 75%.)

Now in the Granite State, Cong. Rahm Emmanuel (D-IL) and the DCCC are left searching for another candidate to put New Hampshire’s 1st District in play. State Rep. Peter Sullivan (D) and attorney/U.S. Army Reserves officer Pete Duffy (D) are running. And Rye School Board Member Gary Dodds (D) is mentioned. But Baines was the clear target of Democratic recruitment efforts since he represented Manchester (population 107,006), the district’s anchor.

According to one local Democratic insider, state House Democratic Leader Jim Craig (D) of Manchester will likely field the next batch of recruiting phone calls. Steve Marchand (D), elected mayor of Portsmouth almost 24 hours ago, is also mentioned.

Cong. Jeb Bradley (R) was first elected in 2002, defeating Martha Fuller Clark (D), 58%-39%, in the open seat vacated by now-Sen. John Sununu. Bradley won reelection 63%-37% two years later over attorney Justin Nadeau (D).

The GOP congressman ended September with over $157,000 on hand, according to FEC reports. In comparison, Dodds showed almost $30,000 in the bank, while the others did not file third quarter reports.

The district is competitive by the numbers. George W. Bush won it both in 2004 (51%-48%) and 2000 (50%-47%). But Democrats cannot take back the House without credible candidates to serve as alternatives to Republican incumbents.

2005 Statewide Ballot Initiative Results

By Louis Jacobson

Here are the latest results, as of 10 am ET Nov. 9, for the key statewideballot measures on the Nov. 8 ballot.

California Prop. 73. Requires parental notification for minors seeking anabortion, except in cases of medical emergency or with a judicial waiver. 47% Yes, 53% No, 100% reporting

California Prop. 74. Extends employment time before teachers qualify fortenure, from two years to five. 45% Yes, 55% No, 100% reporting

California Prop. 75. Requires approval in writing from union members beforetheir dues are used for political purposes. 47% Yes, 53% No, 100% reporting

California Prop. 76. Caps growth of state spending. 38% Yes, 62% No, 100% reporting

California Prop. 77. Creates a non-partisan commission of retired judges todraw new district lines. 41% Yes, 59% No, 100% reporting

California Prop. 78. Creates a voluntary program of prescription-drugdiscounts for low- and moderate-income residents. Backed by drug industry. 42% Yes, 58% No, 100% reporting

California Prop. 79. Creates a program of prescription-drug discounts forlow- and moderate-income residents. Backed by consumer groups and laborunions. 39% Yes, 61% No, 100% reporting

California Prop. 80. Re-regulates electric service providers under theauspices of the California Public Utilities Commission; bars non-utilityelectricity providers from selling power directly to consumers; and requiresthat retail suppliers of electricity increase their renewable energypurchases by 2010, seven years sooner than currently mandated. 34% Yes, 66% No, 100% reporting

Washington Initiative 912. Repeals 9.5 cent per gallon gas tax enactedby the legislature in 2005 that would fund transportation improvementsstatewide. 47% Yes, 53% No, Updated 7:00 AM PT

Washington Initiative 330. Restricts non-economic damages to $350,000in medical-malpractice lawsuits. 46% Yes, 54% No, Updated 7:00 AM PT

Washington Initiative 336. Revokes licenses of doctors with threemalpractice incidents; creates a malpractice-insurance program thatsupplements private policies; regulates insurers' ability to increase rateson malpractice policies. 41% Yes, 59% No, Updated 7:00 AM PT

Washington Initiative 901. Bans indoor smoking in public places andoutside within a certain perimeter. 63% Yes, 37% No, Updated 7:00 AM PT

Washington Initiative 900. Requires performance audits for state andlocal governments. 57% Yes, 43% No, Updated 7:00 AM PT

New Jersey Public Question: Lieutenant Governor. Creates the office of lieutenant governor. 56% yes, 44% no, 89% reporting

Maine Question 1. Should voters repeal a law passed by the legislature thatprohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation? 45% Yes, 55% No, 84% reporting

Texas Prop. 2. Defines marriage as between a man and a woman. 76% Yes, 24% No, 94% reporting

Texas Prop. 4. Expands conditions under which a judge can deny bail tocriminal defendants. 85% yes, 15% no, 94% reporting

Texas Prop. 5. Allows legislature to exempt commercial loans from state lawsthat set maximum interest rates. 43% yes, 57% no, 94% reporting

Texas Prop. 7. Allows reverse mortgages. For: Realtors, AARP, bankers,Fannie Mae. 60% yes, 40% no, 94% reporting

Ohio Issue 1. Provides $1.85 billion in bonds for infrastructure andresearch and development. 54% yes, 46% no

Ohio Issue 2. Gives citizens right to an absentee ballot for any reason upto 35 days before the election. 37% yes, 63% no

Ohio Issue 3. Would significantly reduce the amount of money thatindividuals and political action committees could give to candidates. 33% yes, 67% no

Ohio Issue 4. Would create a non-partisan system of redistricting. 30% yes, 70% no

Ohio Issue 5. Would replace the Ohio secretary of state with a nine-memberbipartisan board to oversee elections. 30% yes, 70% no

New York state Proposal 2: Authorizes the creation of a state debt in theamount of $2.9 billion for the construction, improvement, reconditioning andpreservation of transportation systems and facilities. Yes 55%, No 45%, 97% reporting

New York state Proposal 1: The proposed amendment to Articles IV and VII ofthe Constitution would change the process for enactment of the state budget. Approved by roughly 3-1 ratio

Louis Jacobson, the deputy editor of Roll Call, has covered ballot initiatives in every cycle since 1994. He also handicaps the 50 state legislatures for the Rothenberg Political Report.

Monday, November 07, 2005

It’s Worth Your While to Watch the Off-Year Elections

By Stuart Rothenberg

Longtime readers of this column are probably well aware of my habit of downplaying the national importance of off-year gubernatorial elections, on the grounds that those contests say much more about the particular candidates involved and the political dynamics of the state than about the national mood or the president.

This year, I’m not so sure.

The candidates and their campaigns still matter a great deal. So do state-specific circumstances, including the relative strength of the parties, the standing of the incumbent governor and local issues.

But I believe that gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey are worth watching this year, in part because they may tell us something about whether the president’s problems have started to filter down to Republicans running for other offices. They also may tell us something about the mood of the electorate nationally — information that could be useful as we evaluate the parties’ opportunities and vulnerabilities next year.

While Democrats are on the attack nationally about alleged Republican ethical lapses from the White House to Congress to the governors’ mansions, the shoe is on the other foot in New Jersey. Voters in the Garden State see Democrats as more ethically challenged.

New Jersey has become a Democratic-leaning state, and, all things being equal, the Democratic nominee for governor, Sen. Jon Corzine, should have a considerable advantage over his GOP adversary, businessman/unsuccessful 2002 U.S. Senate candidate Doug Forrester.

But ethics questions surrounding Corzine, coming on top of a scandal that forced then-Gov. Jim McGreevey (D) from office, have given Republicans an opportunity. Moreover, Forrester’s effective use of the property tax issue has also enhanced his chances.

By 43 percent to 22 percent, registered voters told a WNBC/Marist poll that Democrats were more to blame for government corruption in the state. The same poll found that voters favored Republican gubernatorial candidate Forrester as likely to do a better job cleaning up corruption, 41 percent to 36 percent.

A stronger-than-expected showing by Forrester — not to mention an unexpected victory — would suggest that Garden State voters, who gave Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry (D-Mass.) a healthy 7-point victory, are more affected by state and local issues than by the negative national media attention that has dogged Republicans for months.

Barring an upset victory by Forrester in New Jersey, Virginia is likely to get most of the national attention, since the race has been regarded as close for months.

True, Gov. Mark Warner (D) now controls the state’s top office, so a Tim Kaine (D) victory would constitute the maintenance of the status quo, not a break from it. But when the Virginia gubernatorial race began many months ago, most observers thought the Republican nominee, Jerry Kilgore, had the edge given the Republican lean of the state. So a Kaine victory, even given the popularity of Warner, would still be noteworthy as a psychological defeat for the GOP.

One GOP insider told me that a Kaine victory, particularly if it is regarded as more decisive than polls have been predicting for weeks, would be regarded as “the canary in the coal mine.”

“It could be worse than people now know. We could be in for a big ass whipping,” said the veteran Republican insider who promised that a clear Kaine victory would produce a “meltdown” in the national party.

You can bet that a Republican loss in Virginia’s gubernatorial race will have allies of President Bush blaming the defeat on the campaign of Kilgore, while some party strategists will surely point fingers at the White House — though only under the table, so that Karl Rove doesn’t see.

Privately, Republican insiders are expressing more and more concern about Kilgore’s showing in Northern Virginia, where down-ballot Republican candidates seem to be running into a strong wind. If Kilgore fares poorly there, it would unquestionably have GOP strategists worried about the party’s standing in similar suburban areas around the country. (Obviously, weaker-than-expected Republican showings in other parts of the state would raise different questions.)

The bottom line is that the Republicans need at least a split in next week’s gubernatorial elections to change the current political psychology. If that happens, they can argue that voters are focused on individual candidates and individual races, not on Hurricane Katrina, high gas prices, the war in Iraq or Scooter Libby. And that would boost their flagging morale.

On its face, a Democratic sweep of the two gubernatorial contests would merely maintain the status quo. But it would still be a disappointing outcome for national Republicans.

This column first appeared November 3, 2005 in Roll Call. Reprinted with permission. Copyright 2005 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved.

Friday, November 04, 2005

New Print Edition: NM1 & Washington Senate

The new November 4, 2005 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report is on its way to subscribers. Here is a sample from the current issue.

New Mexico 1: Repeat Defender
By Nathan L. Gonzales

First District Cong. Heather Wilson (R) is no stranger to Democratic target lists. Since her initial election back in 1998, Democrats have consistently targeted the congresswoman, and her Albuquerque-area seat, for takeover, in large part because of its Democratic performance.

But each cycle, Wilson prevails. With or without a Green Party candidate on the ballot and often without any help from the top of the ticket, she has won reelection four times. But Democrats are hoping the fifth time is a charm.

In the last few weeks, state Attorney General Patricia Madrid (D) announced she would take on the incumbent. Democrats believe Madrid is one of their strongest candidates in the country and that she is the strongest challenger Wilson has ever faced.

Wilson has heard it before, but never in the sort of environment she could face next year. President George W. Bush’s shrinking job approval numbers are a concern for Republicans nationwide, but specifically for incumbents like Wilson who sit in Democratic-tilting districts.

The Republican has proven to be a tough campaigner, but she faces her toughest fight yet. More...

Washington Senate: Crosscurrent

In a cycle where the tide is turning against the Republican Party, one candidate is trying to swim upstream. Former insurance executive Mike McGavick (R) is taking on Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) in Washington, as she seeks to solidify herself and win reelection to a second term.

The Evergreen State has a recent history of ousting incumbents. Back in 1980, Republican Slade Gorton defeated Sen. Warren Magnuson (D). Two decades later, Cantwell knocked off Gorton, albeit by a slim margin. Now, Cantwell is hoping to avoid the same fate as her predecessor.

In a state that’s trending more blue than purple, McGavick as a tough task ahead of him. But after Democrats narrowly and controversially won the governor’s race last cycle, GOPers are hoping to tap into any voter dissatisfaction with the outcome and current governor. The rest of the story...

Virginia & New Jersey Go Down to the Wire
Stuart Rothenberg

Early on, Republican Jerry Kilgore seemed to have the edge in this year’s Virginia’s gubernatorial race, while Senator Jon Corzine (D) seemed headed for a decisive win in New Jersey.

But as the two races head to the wire, Kilgore’s advantage seems to have evaporated, and Corzine’s position has grown more uncertain. Read more...

For information about a one-year or two-year subscription, please go here.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

In Need of Fresh Start, Can Bush Turn the Page on Bad News?

By Stuart Rothenberg

So now what?

The president has had a horrible year. But he’ll still be in the Oval Office for another three years. So how does he turn things around, assuming of course that he doesn’t just want to chop wood and cut brush?

I asked a number of veterans of past Washington, D.C., wars about George W. Bush’s options, and found two general lines of argument (Some spoke on the record; others didn’t).

One view is that the White House has little or no near-term control over the two major issues of the day — Iraq and Republican ethics problems — so the president should simply hang tough for the next few months in the hope that those issues will fade or at least become less toxic, allowing him to retake the policy initiative.

These are two problems that “the administration can’t manage, can’t control,” said one observer, noting how frustrating that fact must be to a White House that has prided itself on the ability to control information and leaks.

“Reagan had problems. Clinton had problems. And they both were presented with opportunities to get beyond them. Bush will also have opportunities.”

The other basic line of argument is more proactive and more popular. It dismisses the “stand pat” response as too passive.

Yes, Bush could just “muddle through,” said one veteran, but that would mean nothing more than “managing a presidency in decline.”

“He needs Operation Fresh Start,” said a Republican insider, adding that that would include hiring new people to key positions, honing a domestic agenda and making a strong recovery from the Harriet Miers debacle (which already seems like ancient history).

But, I asked, wouldn’t proclaiming a fresh start acknowledge that Bush had hit a brick wall and that his presidency was in trouble?

“Every once in a while you have to acknowledge the obvious,” the veteran insider said, noting that the late Lee Atwater, a former top GOP strategist and White House aide, always argued that embattled presidents need to “pivot” to recapture the momentum and agenda when on the defensive.

Another GOP veteran, former White House Chief of Staff Ken Duberstein, generally agreed with those sentiments.

Duberstein was Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff in 1987 when the president had his own problems, including the Iran-Contra controversy and a thin domestic agenda. He told me Bush “needs to recapture a reform agenda. He needs to demonstrate that the status quo isn’t acceptable.”
So who is right? Those who propose that Bush gut it, out and circumstances will give him the opportunity to recast that national dialogue? Or those who insist he needs to prove that he has an agenda, recognizes his administration’s shortcomings and that he is going to retake the initiative in the nation’s capital?

They both are, to some extent.

Bush can’t do much to speed up the process in Iraq, and no credible officeholder or expert has suggested that the United States simply withdraw immediately. He must hope for better news from the region and improved conditions that allow for the beginning of a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

And the White House can’t do much about the ongoing ethics inquiries involving GOP officeholders and operatives in D.C. and around the country. All Bush can hope for is the best.
But you don’t have to be Bob Strauss or Atwater or even Karl Rove to see that this is an administration in deep, deep trouble.

The Miers nomination was a disaster, but was it really any worse than the way the administration rolled out Social Security reform, handled Hurricane Katrina or Iraq, or dealt with runaway federal spending?

The administration probably would benefit from a few fresh faces — and even more from getting rid of a few old ones.

“He must bring in new blood to the White House. For a president who has been loyal to a fault, to bring in a new team — people of the stature of John Danforth or Rudy Giuliani — would be a powerful signal,” argued Leon Panetta, who joined former President Bill Clinton as White House chief of staff at a time of controversy. But any replacement would have their share of detractors within the party.

And everyone I talked with agreed that the White House needs to find a few issues to push next year, possibly including changes in the tax code and in spending.

International travel and foreign policy initiatives could also help the president’s image, taking him out of the nitty-gritty of partisan domestic politics and surrounding him with the trappings of his office in his role as the nation’s top diplomat and its commander in chief.

Finally, Bush needs to once again become something he is not now — a leader.

Leadership can involve bringing the two parties together on a major issue (which inevitably means reaching out to Democrats) or rallying the base with a strongly conservative Supreme Court nominee. And it means admitting errors and charting a new course.

How likely is this to happen?

“It’s easy to tell yourself you have an agenda when you really don’t,” said one Washington veteran, adding, “It’s easy to hunker down and feel underappreciated and blame the media.”

But Bush must take steps to jump-start his second term. Now is the time for the president, working with party leaders and graybeards, to begin thinking about how he will recast his administration. He must be bold, even in these times of obvious weakness.

This column first appeared October 31, 2005 in Roll Call. Reprinted with permission. Copyright 2005 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved.