Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Evidence Grows of Incumbent Vulnerability in House Races

By Stuart Rothenberg

While there is plenty of evidence that voters are dissatisfied with the president, Congress and the direction of the nation, I am finally seeing a significant amount of evidence at the local level — in polling data and in recent primary election results — that the national mood is having an impact on incumbents.

The anger has hit incumbents of both parties, but it hasn’t been distributed evenly between Republicans and Democrats. Incumbent GOPers are taking more of the heat, and they are likely to suffer far more in November.

Last week, voters in Oregon and Pennsylvania sent messages of dissatisfaction to incumbents. In Oregon, incumbent Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) won renomination with just more than 54 percent of the votes in a three-way contest. While his 25-point win over former state Treasurer Jim Hill may seem substantial, it is a sign of weakness, not strength.

In Pennsylvania, state legislators who supported a pay raise for the three branches of state government, including themselves, fell like flies in the state’s May 16 primary. But the federal race that raised eyebrows involved the 10th Congressional district, where veteran Republican Rep. Don Sherwood (who admittedly has unique problems of a personal nature) squeezed out a 56 percent to 44 percent primary win over a prohibitive underdog.

A number of early polls now suggest greater vulnerability among Republican incumbents this cycle than I had previously assumed. (Even if you don’t accept all of the numbers in all of the polls, the surveys as a whole confirm that something is going on.)

Democratic polls in Republican-held districts such as California’s 11th (Richard Pombo), Indiana’s 8th and 9th (John Hostettler and Mike Sodrel), Pennsylvania’s 10th (Sherwood), Kentucky’s 4th (Geoff Davis), and North Carolina’s 8th and 11th (Robin Hayes and Charles Taylor) show Democrats running better against GOP incumbents than they should if this were a “normal” election cycle. In some of these districts, the Democrat is essentially unknown but running well ahead of his or her name identification.

The best evidence that the national GOP meltdown is affecting individual Republicans may well be North Carolina’s 11th district, where Taylor is facing Democratic challenger Heath Shuler.

Surveys conducted by Democratic pollster John Anzalone in the district in 2003 and 2004, as well as two newer surveys conducted for Shuler in February and May of this year by Anzalone Liszt Research, strongly suggest that President Bush’s current weakness is taking its toll on Taylor.

In August 2003, Anzalone found Bush’s name identification at 59 percent favorable/39 percent negative in North Carolina’s 11th district. Eight months later, in April 2004, Bush’s ID was down to 55 percent favorable/45 percent unfavorable.

In February of this year, the president’s name ID had fallen even further — to 51 percent favorable/48 percent unfavorable. And earlier this month, President Bush’s ID in the district stood at 44 percent favorable/53 percent unfavorable.

That precipitous drop corresponds to a drop in the Republican “generic ballot” — a longstanding survey question that asks whether respondents plan to vote Republican or Democratic for their Member of Congress in the next election.

In August 2003, the generic ballot in the district was even (38 percent Republican and Democrat), and it was still even in April 2004 (40 percent Republican and Democrat), according to Anzalone.

But in February of this year, Democrats held a very narrow 41 percent to 39 percent edge in the district, and in polling earlier this month, the Democratic generic ballot advantage grew to 44 percent to 36 percent over the GOP.

As Bush’s numbers have fallen and the generic ballot has turned in favor of the Democrats in the district, Taylor’s numbers have also dipped. I’m betting that’s not a coincidence.

In 2004, Taylor was re-elected to Congress by 55 percent to 45 percent over Democrat Patsy Keever — about his normal winning percentage in recent years.

In February of this year, Anzalone Liszt Research polling showed Taylor holding a 47 percent to 40 percent lead over Shuler. Three months later, in a May 9-13 survey, the Democrat reversed that, pulling ahead (albeit narrowly) by a 45 percent to 43 percent margin. During the same time period, Taylor’s 46 percent “re-elect” score in February dropped to 42 percent in May.

Bush’s job approval in the district also slipped over the past three months, falling from 44 percent positive in February to 38 percent positive in May.

Since Shuler didn’t run any district-wide TV or radio advertising between the February and May surveys, it’s reasonable to assume his movement in polling reflects the overall deterioration of the environment for Republicans, rather than voters’ sudden warming to him. After all, despite Shuler’s fame as a football player, most voters still don’t know much about what kind of Congressman he’d be.

Anzalone, who is polling for Democratic House candidates in a number of states this cycle — including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, New Jersey and Illinois — says that what is happening in North Carolina isn’t unique.

“It’s all about the environment, not the challenger,” he says. “Every Congressional poll that we have done for months has been good for Democrats and bad for Republican incumbents. Now, merely because of the environment, Democratic candidates can be at 10 percent in name ID and still be sitting in the mid-30s in [ballot tests]. That’s a huge difference from past years.”

And that’s why Republicans in 2006 are starting to look like the Democrats in 1994.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 25, 2006.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Rothenberg Predicts Greater Gains for House Democrats

By Stuart Rothenberg

National and district-level numbers continue to raise red flags for Republicans around the country. In past cycles, the question was whether Democrats could nationalize races and pick off enough Republican seats to get to 218 seats -- and a majority. Now, the environment has already been nationalized and the question is whether Republicans can localize elections in enough districts to hold onto the House. It is far from clear that they can.

Given that, as I wrote in the most recent edition of the Rothenberg Political Report, we are increasing our estimate of likely Democratic gains from 7-10 seats to 8-12 seats (they need to net 15 seats for control), with a bias toward even greater Democratic gains.

This item appeared on Political Wire on May 24, 2006.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Heeee’s Back: The Fall and Rise of Sen. Trent Lott

By Stuart Rothenberg

Cleveland, Miss. — Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), surrounded by well-wishers and smiling faces, looked and sounded relaxed 10 days ago as he headed toward the stage of the Bologna Performing Arts Center on the campus of Delta State University.

He was having fun, or at least it certainly looked that way. It’s the way he must have been as a cheerleader and a frat rat at the University of Mississippi — energized, upbeat and ready. The only question is, “Ready for what?”

Dressed in a new seersucker suit and wearing tan Hush Puppies that resembled something singer Pat Boone might have worn 50 years ago, Mississippi’s junior Senator was the keynote speaker for the Delta Council’s 2006 annual meeting.

This wasn’t the same Trent Lott who was forced by his colleagues (with the backing of the White House) to give up the post of Senate Majority Leader because he uttered some comments intended to flatter and honor then-Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) during one of Thurmond’s many birthdays — remarks meant to be innocuous but which were interpreted by opponents and many in the media as racist and unacceptable.

Nor was it the same Trent Lott who, after his Pascagoula home had been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, hemmed and hawed about whether he would run for re-election again in 2006, leading everyone to believe that he would retire and finally make some money.

No, this was the Trent Lott who was taken down a notch or two but has since bounced back to become relevant once again in the Senate and in Republican politics. It was the Trent Lott who decided that he would indeed seek a fourth term in the Senate later this year.

Lott’s performance at the annual meeting of the Delta Council, an area economic development organization representing the 18 Delta and part-Delta counties of Northwest Mississippi, was nothing short of terrific. Using only a few notes, he walked the audience through a number of policy challenges on Capitol Hill, from immigration and taxes to agriculture and transportation.

But it was Lott’s off-the-cuff comments about a number of the guests seated behind him on the stage that showed that he still loves the political game — and what a skilled politician he can be. He wasn’t just funny. He was also clever, and he mixed in the kind of personal references and stories that drew laughs and nods of approval from the audience.

How has the Mississippi Republican changed? Well, a few years ago, the old Trent Lott didn’t try too hard to hide his dissatisfaction with and even anger at Arizona colleague Sen. John McCain (R), who never minded leaving the Republican reservation when Lott was trying to run the Senate.

The new Trent Lott has buried the hatchet with McCain, even endorsing the Arizona reformer for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. McCain has not yet announced his 2008 intentions, but few political observers would be surprised if he once again seeks the Republican presidential nomination again.

Lott noted that McCain’s family also came from Mississippi and that although the two “clans” fought a bit, they had plenty in common when they faced a common adversary.

Now Lott, a self-proclaimed pragmatist, apparently sees a threat coming from the Democratic Party, and he sees his old adversary McCain as the Republican who can beat Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) or whomever the Democrats nominate in 2008.

Lott’s future could well be a lot like his past, when he served as assistant leader under Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and moved up to Senate Majority Leader in 1996.

Lott hasn’t announced that he’ll run for his party’s No. 2 post after the midterm elections, in part because that post isn’t yet vacant. But the current leading candidate for assistant leader, Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), is in serious trouble in his bid for re-election, and if he loses in November, Senate Republicans will need to find a replacement.

Still, Lott isn’t denying interest in a party leadership position, and many Republican insiders who know Lott well and are watching him closely believe that he’ll actively seek the post if it becomes vacant in November. That won’t please everyone on Capitol Hill, and that includes more than a few in his own party.

In his remarks at Delta State, Lott sounded more like a pragmatist who had tired of gridlock and wanted action on Capitol Hill than an ideologue who was satisfied with the status-quo if he couldn’t get the exact kind of legislation he preferred.

But most of all, he sounded like someone having fun, speaking his mind and letting the chips fall where they may. Of course, Lott is still very much the politician, so it would be wise to believe that those chips are falling just where he intends them to.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 22, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Winners & Losers: Week of May 15-19

By Nathan L. Gonzales


Patrick Murphy (D). This is one Iraq War veteran who actually performed close to the expectations. Murphy defeated former Bucks County Commissioner Andy Warren, who used to be a Republican, 65%-35% in the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania's 8th District. The Philadelphia suburbs are ripe for change this cycle, but Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R) is sitting on $1.38 million for the general election.

Anne Northup (R). Though he won a competitive Democratic primary in Kentucky's 3rd District, nominee John Yarmuth's liberal stances and years of published newspaper columns should give the Republican congresswoman plenty of ammunition against him and make her reelection a tad easier, even though her district still tilts Democratic by the numbers.

Washington Nationals. Baseball owners approved the sale of the baseball club to Ted Lerner and Stan Kasten, allowing the Nationals to crawl out of the grips of Major League Baseball. With fate finally in its own hands, the Nationals can now focus on building a real team in preparation for the new stadium a few years down the line.


Don Sherwood (R). The Republican congressman from northeast Pennsylvania squeaked by a nominal candidate, 56%-44%, in the GOP primary. We thought voters in the district had looked past Sherwood's extra-marital affair. We were wrong. It looks like the incumbent will have a real fight against Naval reserve officer Chris Carney (D) in the general election.

Andrew Horne (D). The highly-touted Democratic recruit and Iraq War veteran never raised much money and was trounced by publisher John Yarmuth, 54%-32%, in the Democratic primary. Horne goes the way of other veterans like Tim Dunn (NC 8) and even Tammy Duckworth (IL 6), who have found the campaign trail to be tougher than expected.

Ted Kulongoski (D). The governor of Oregon took only 54% in Tuesday's Democratic primary against two candidates. Republicans probably helped themselves by nominating attorney Ron Saxton, the more moderate of the three major GOPers running in their primary. Kulongoski clearly has problems in his base and even state Sen. Ben Westlund, a Republican running as an independent, could draw some liberal votes on social issues, and make the governor's task more difficult.

This item first appeared on Political Wire on May 19, 2006.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Challenge to Lieberman Shows What’s Wrong With Politics

By Stuart Rothenberg

I was struck by a two-sentence comment from Connecticut Senate hopeful Ned Lamont (D) that appeared a couple of weeks ago in a Washington Post article by Shailagh Murray.

Lamont, who is challenging Sen. Joe Lieberman for the Democratic Senate nomination in the Nutmeg State, was warned by a party insider that by taking on the incumbent, he was putting at risk a safe Democratic seat.

“But you are not going to lose a Senator,” Lamont said. “You’re going to gain a Democrat.”

So now we know the awful truth: Joe Lieberman isn’t a Democrat.

That’s the same Joe Lieberman, of course, who served, as a Democrat, in the state Senate and as Connecticut’s attorney general. It’s the same Joe Lieberman who rallied Democrats to knock off incumbent Republican Sen. Lowell Weicker (Conn.) in 1988.

It’s the same Joe Lieberman who was selected by Al Gore to be the Democratic nominee for vice president and who campaigned across the country for his party’s ticket and his party’s agenda.

Yes, it’s that Joe Lieberman who isn’t a Democrat, according to Lamont.

And who is Ned Lamont, the man who hopes to shock Connecticut’s political establishment this weekend at the state convention by drawing one-third of delegates’ votes? [Editor's Note: He received 33% of the delegates.] He is a graduate of Harvard and the Yale School of Management. He is also a millionaire businessman from Fairfield County who served as a Greenwich town selectman years ago and hasn’t sought elective office since he was defeated for the state Senate in 1990.

He’s running against Lieberman — and drawing attention from local Democrats, the “netroots” and members of the national media — primarily because of the Senator’s relatively hawkish position on Iraq.

Sure, Lamont says there are other things about Lieberman’s record that he doesn’t like, including the position the Senator took on the controversy over the brain-damaged woman Terri Schiavo last year. But it’s difficult to believe that anyone would be taking a primary challenge to Lieberman seriously were it not for the Iraq conflict and the Senator’s outspoken support of it.

Lieberman’s crime is that he hasn’t always toed the party line. He’s decided for himself what’s right and wrong, even — and here is the most shocking thing — used his own values, judgment and intellect to decide where he stands on issues and how he’ll vote.

Lamont’s criticism has resonated with some Democrats around the state and online. The war is unpopular with Democrats in Connecticut, as it is elsewhere, and many voters are unhappy with Lieberman’s general support of President Bush’s Iraq policy.

It doesn’t seem to matter to those angry Democrats, or to Lamont, that Lieberman is widely respected for his thoughtfulness, integrity, civility and intellect. Or his overall voting record.

After all, let’s not pretend that Lieberman is an heir to former Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). The Connecticut Democrat votes the liberal line on abortion rights, gun control, the environment and plenty of other issues.

And remember, his job, at least in part, is to represent his state’s interests — a state home to the insurance industry and General Electric.

When Gore picked Lieberman as his running mate in 2000, the public reaction was almost universally positive. How nice, people said, that Gore didn’t select an attack dog or a knee-jerk partisan but someone with impeccable credentials and a reputation for being serious and, yes, even centrist.

It isn’t just that Lieberman is a centrist, however, that makes the primary challenge to him unseemly. Not all centrists deserve to be re-elected any more than all liberals or all conservatives do. Rather, it’s the Connecticut Democrat’s stature and character that, in another day, would make a primary challenge to him by a former Greenwich selectman laughable.

Ironically, most of the House and Senate Democratic challengers that I have interviewed this cycle have decried their opponents’ party-line voting and promise to be an “independent” voice for their state or district.

They know voters like the idea that their elected officials are “independent” and will cast their votes not on the basis of what the president or the party leaders want, but on what’s best for the country and for their districts or states. And, voters believe, partisan loyalty isn’t always the best route for legislators.

Well, somebody better tell those candidates I’m interviewing that if they are “independent,” they may well draw a primary opponent who, like Lamont, thinks that they aren’t “real Democrats” if they don’t toe the party line.

The Lamont pitch, of course, isn’t new, and it isn’t limited to Democrats.

In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt tried to defeat members of his own party who were running for re-election to the Senate but weren’t sufficiently supportive of his agenda. And over the past two cycles, Republican Sens. Arlen Specter (Pa.) and Lincoln Chafee (R.I.) have had to defend themselves from attacks by conservatives because they have not always followed the party line.

Everyone has his or her opinion about the worthiness of each of these challenges, and there is no right answer about when a Member of Congress has proved to be so “independent” that he or she deserves to be defeated in a primary. But there certainly ought to be a place in our political system for someone like Lieberman. His defeat, unlikely as it may be, would be a sad, sad chapter in American politics.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 18, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Friday, May 19, 2006

The Empty Threats of Evangelicals

By Nathan L. Gonzales

President Bush is an easy target these days. Two-thirds of Americans disapprove of the job he is doing and even Bush’s loyal supporters are taking the opportunity to pile-on. Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family and other evangelical leaders are criticizing the president for inaction on social issues dear to their hearts and threatening to withhold their support in the November elections.

While the threat seems intimidating at first glance, the concept of staying home in November carries little long-term consequences for President Bush and Republicans but virtually certain consequences for the very issues social conservatives wish to promote.

First, President Bush is not on the ballot in November. Evangelicals patted themselves on the back in 2004 for reelecting the president, returning the House GOP majority, and taking over the U.S. Senate. Evangelicals demanded credit, recognition, attention, and action on their issues.

Conservative evangelicals were promptly disappointed with the president for not taking strong action to prohibit gay marriage. It shouldn’t be a big surprise since he only paid lip service to the issue during his first four years in office.

Now, President Bush has no real electoral reason to cower to evangelical threats, because he won’t be on a ballot ever again. So, by attempting to punish Bush in November by staying home, evangelicals will actually punish conservatives like Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), Sen. George Allen (R-VA), Cong. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-PA), Cong. J.D. Hayworth (R-AZ), Cong. Marilyn Musgrave (R-CO), and others who could be sent packing by voters instead.

Note to evangelicals: it will be harder to get your agenda passed by exercising a strategy that allows political friends to be defeated for reelection. Then you’re left with an uncooperative and unpopular president, minorities in Congress, and no friends in those minorities.

On a macro-level, Republicans are already in danger of losing their majorities, but dismal turnout by base Republicans will make Democratic takeovers near-certainties. Then, conservative evangelicals would have no hope of getting their issues passed and would be lucky to get a meeting with the new majority, let alone private nurturing.

And with a Republican minority, conservative evangelicals will have to wait for 2008 and moderate-talking Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) to ride in on a white horse and trumpet conservative social issues he has never championed in his life.

Conservative evangelicals find themselves in a political predicament of their own creation. They have chosen to put all of their eggs in the Republican basket. But now that President Bush is as popular as the bird flu, they have nowhere to go. Instead of utilizing the incredible diversity and potential of the one-quarter of the U.S. population that calls themselves evangelicals, the movement’s leaders have chosen to paint themselves into a partisan corner.

So, while Republicans could suffer significant losses at the polls in November, they are in no real danger of losing the largest section of their base to the Democratic Party. Conservative evangelical leaders are determined to control the Republican Party instead of expanding their influence into both parties. That’s also why Democrats shouldn’t read too much into any electoral gains this fall. Democratic gains will be a result of President Bush’s lousy job numbers, not the effectiveness of Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean’s embarrassing outreach to evangelicals.

The current rhetoric of Dobson, Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins, and others shows a complete misunderstanding of the political environment. President Bush is not broadly unpopular because he has failed to ban same-sex marriage.

Yet, conservative evangelicals continue to press him to do so.

With the War in Iraq and increasing threats from Iran, if President Bush were to spend all of his time and energy on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, he would simply look silly, and his job approval ratings would likely plummet even further.

The idea of “staying home” to punish the Republican Party is absurd. For conservative evangelicals to tout the fundamental need for freedom and democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, but simply ignore their own opportunity to vote here in America is hypocritical.

For too many conservative evangelicals, the message appears to be: if you don’t get what you want, stay home. Apparently, to some of these evangelical leaders, the best way to win the political game is to take themselves out of it. That makes little sense in today’s world, or in today’s politics.

This column first appeared on Town Hall on May 17, 2006.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

New Print Edition: Virginia Senate, Pennsylvania 7, & New House Ratings

The new May 18, 2006 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report is on its way to subscribers. (Click here for subscription information.)

Virginia Senate: Common Goal, Common Wealth
By Nathan L. Gonzales

Democrats in Virginia and the nation’s capital are determined to re-take the majority in the U.S. Senate, and increasingly they are focusing on a new target: Sen. George Allen (R) of Virginia. Democrats realize that defeating Allen would not only increase their chances of getting to 51 seats on Election Night, but also destroy Allen’s presidential prospects in 2008.

Businessman/party activist Harris Miller and former Secretary of the Navy James Webb are battling for the Democratic nomination that will be decided in the June 13 primary. Neither man has held elective office, but both candidates have significant personal resources to spend in the race.

Democrats are trying to portray Allen has an inattentive Senator who is too conservative and looking beyond his current office. But the Republican is well-known commodity in a state he has represented for almost a decade. He defeated an incumbent to get to the Senate and has surrounded himself with a talented consulting team.

The national environment remains sour toward President Bush and the Republican Party. But both Miller and Webb were late entries into the race and start with very little name identification. The race could develop, but right now, it’s more rhetoric than reality for the Democrats, who still have seven better opportunities nationwide than knocking off George Allen.

For the whole story including bios on each candidate, analysis of the Democratic primary, a look ahead to the general election and The Bottom Line..subscribe now.

Pennsylvania 7: Shopping for Opportunities

Democrats are targeting Republican districts all over the country, but a couple of geographic areas could be the key to Democratic success on Election Night in November.

Connecticut is one obvious state with three vulnerable Republican incumbents, but just a few hours south, Democrats are hoping to knock off a trio of Republicans in suburban Philadelphia.

Seventh District Cong. Curt Weldon (R) hasn’t had a serious reelection race in two decades, but he could face a tough fight with retired Vice Admiral Joe Sestak (D).

Weldon is the third potentially vulnerable incumbent in the area along with Cong. Jim Gerlach (R-PA 6) and Cong. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-PA 8). Add in a competitive race for governor and for U.S. Senate, and the Philadelphia area will be a non-stop stream of campaign messaging come the fall.

Weldon clearly understands he is in the fight of his life. He has ramped up his fundraising, but made an early mistake in the campaign that could symbolize an incumbent who hasn’t run a race in a while.

But while Sestak has an interesting military-laden resume, he is virtually unknown in the district and will need considerable money to get known across the Democratic-tilting district.

For the whole story including bios on each candidate, analysis of the general election and The Bottom Line..subscribe now.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Key Democratic Race for ’08: Bayh vs. Warner vs. Edwards

By Stuart Rothenberg

The race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination won’t begin officially until after November’s midterm elections, but already there are signs that a race-within-the-race is developing to become the “alternative” to frontrunner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y).

The three contenders, all born in and identified with red states, are Southerner John Edwards, pseudo-Southerner Mark Warner and Hoosier Sen. Evan Bayh.

Edwards, the only one of the three with a real Southern accent and real Southern roots, is the most liberal. He’s also the only one of the three who has run for president (and vice president) — a significant advantage given the challenges of putting together a presidential campaign and of building both national name recognition and a network of key activists and contributors.

In addition, Edwards is the only one of the three who has proven campaign skills. He’s terrific working a crowd in a small Iowa meeting hall or a big theater in Manchester, N.H. And he already has an overall theme for his campaign, which he developed from his “two Americas” rhetoric during the 2004 campaign.

Unlike his two main adversaries, Edwards defeated a sitting Senator, demonstrating his ability to succeed in an unfavorable political environment.

But Edwards’ liberalism also makes him the least likely of the three to benefit from the “electability” argument, which could well be Clinton’s Achilles heel.

It’s likely that the New York Senator will be the choice of Democrats when the caucuses and primaries start in January 2008 unless Democrats conclude that she cannot win the White House. But since Edwards couldn’t even carry his own state as a member of the Democrats’ 2004 national ticket, and given his liberal record in the Senate, he is not positioned to take advantage of that crucial liability for the frontrunner.

Warner, a popular former Virginia governor, is about as Southern as a Philly cheesesteak or a pastrami on rye. But that hasn’t stopped him from emerging as the early favorite of many centrist Democrats who believe that Clinton would be a disaster as a nominee and that their party must choose someone who can carry at least a couple of red states.

Born in Indiana, Warner went to Rockville High School in Vernon, Conn., before attending George Washington University and Harvard Law School. But his success in Virginia — following a surprisingly strong, though unsuccessful, showing in a 1996 challenge to Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) and a 2001 gubernatorial campaign in which he wooed rural voters — has given him credentials as a moderate who can connect with Southerners, and red-staters in general.

While Warner is putting together a savvy veteran team and will have obvious appeal to Democrats looking for a centrist and a winner, he has plenty to prove. First, he has never won a race that wasn’t handed to him. His gubernatorial victory was much more about the disastrous performance of outgoing GOP Gov. Jim Gilmore than about Warner. (It also came shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, an event that froze the race in place at a time when Warner was comfortably ahead.)

In that race, Warner’s rural, conservative Democratic shtick, though extremely successful, was much more the creation of consultants Steve Jarding and Dave Saunders than the natural expression of Warner’s style and personality.

Second, even those sympathetic to the former Virginia governor say he is at heart a salesman who will have to prove to Democratic voters that he is serious enough and presidential enough to deserve their support.

And third, given the public’s attention to the war on terrorism and to national security issues, Warner’s almost total lack of foreign policy experience should strike voters as a serious liability. Edwards’ lack of credentials in that area clearly hurt him in his previous presidential bid (and likely will hurt him again) — and Warner has even less international experience than Edwards had.

Bayh is, in a sense, the only non-Southerner of the three hopefuls, though he has established a long political record that pegs him as a moderate who has succeeded in attracting Republican voters.

He, too, benefits from the electability argument, since he has won five consecutive elections — for secretary of state, governor and the Senate — in Indiana, one of the reddest of red states.

But like Warner, Bayh, the son of a former Sen. Birch Bayh (D), has never had a difficult race, so it isn’t clear how he will perform as an underdog. And while Edwards and Warner seem to have outgoing personalities, Bayh is much more low-key and stiff.

The Indiana Democrat strikes me as serious and sincere, and unlike most politicians, he talks about difficult issues as if he understands that few, if any, of them have easy answers. His service on the Senate Intelligence Committee is an asset given the problems facing the country today.

But the real question is whether Bayh can excite Democrats. In a party filled with so many angry people, how will Bayh sell?

Edwards proved to be a strong campaigner during the previous Democratic race, but it is hard to see how he has overcome his past weaknesses. Bayh is clearly presidential, but he may not be able to energize Democratic audiences enough to pull ahead of his competitors. And Warner has a long way to go to convince Democrats in early primary and caucus states that as a one-term governor he has the credentials, seriousness and maturity to sit in the Oval Office. Yet one of them could well emerge as “the alternative” to Clinton in January 2008.

The race within a race bears watching.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 15, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Nebraska Primary Wrap-Up

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Last week's heavyweight primary between Gov. Dave Heineman (R) and Rep. Tom Osborne (R-NE) lived up to the hype. Even though Osborne started with a large lead and seemingly impenetrable popularity, Heineman's victory was neither a surprise nor an upset, but it was an incredible finesse campaign by the governor.

When President Bush appointed Gov. Mike Johanns (R) to his cabinet, Heineman moved up to the state's top slot. Heineman succeeded in acting the part, and in the end, voters failed to see a reason to fire their new governor. "It was a slam dunk [for Osborne] early on before anyone knew who the governor was," said Jim Innocenzi, Heineman's media consultant, "It ultimately came down to Dave doing a good job and he did."

According to polling for the governor's campaign back in June 2005, Osborne started the race with incredible 90% favorable/7% unfavorable ratings and a 56%-32% advantage over Heineman in the primary match-up. Amazingly, Osborne finished the race with 80% favorable/16% unfavorable ratings but lost the nomination 50%-44%. "We wanted to create a choice between an icon and a guy who is doing a great job," added Innocenzi. Because of coach's popularity, Heineman did not have the opportunity to attack his opponent.

Osborne is a stranger to defeat. He posted a lifetime coaching record of 255-49-3. And in his last five years as head football coach at Nebraska, Osborne went 60-3 with three national championships. He also won three terms in Congress. But it's this last battle that will be in the back of his mind. Heineman is now the heavy favorite against David Hahn in the general election and the seat is Safe Republican.

But Bush's appointment of Johanns still has some Republicans scratching their heads because it took the GOP's best challenger to Sen. Ben Nelson (D) off the table. Wealthy businessman Pete Ricketts (R) won the primary on Tuesday with 48% over former state attorney general Don Stenberg (36%) and former state party chairman David Kramer (16%).

Ricketts has plenty of personal money to invest in the race even though demonizing Nelson will be difficult. But with the state's strong Republican bent and Nelson's narrow victory six years ago, the race is worth watching; Democrat Favored.

This item first appeared on Political Wire on May 11, 2006.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Can Democrats Win These Four Uphill Open Seats?

By Stuart Rothenberg

The Democrats have a real chance of sweeping three open seats in Democratic-leaning or tossup districts this fall: Arizona’s 8th, Colorado’s 7th and Iowa’s 1st. But they may need to win more open seats than that to take control of the House of Representatives.

To have the really big election night they’re hoping for, Democrats may need to win at least a couple of generally Republican-leaning open seats that went for President Bush. Can they do it?

The longer-shot open-seat opportunities are Minnesota’s 6th (Mark Kennedy), Wisconsin’s 8th (Mark Green), New York’s 24th (Sherwood Boehlert) and Illinois’ 6th (Henry Hyde). In each, national Democratic strategists are portraying the likely Republican nominee as ideologically extreme.

In Minnesota, Democrats argue that they got the Republican candidate they were looking for when the Republican district endorsing convention tapped state Sen. Michele Bachmann to be the GOP nominee in November. At the convention, Bachmann defeated two major opponents — one of whom had the backing of the influential Club for Growth — which assures her the Republican nomination in the fall.

Bachmann is an outspoken social conservative, and she was photographed crouching, as if she were trying to avoid being seen, as she was watching a gay rights rally.

Hours after her endorsement, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee issued a press release branding her an “out-of-step extremist” and charged that she voted against “competitive pricing for gasoline in Minnesota,” against increasing the minimum wage, against increasing the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse and against “making investigation of child neglect charges easier.”

Still, Bush carried the district twice, with 57 percent in 2004 and 53 percent in 2000. Clearly, it’s a district that likes Republicans.

In Wisconsin, Democrats have a three-way primary on Sept. 12, but they already know who their GOP opponent will be: state Rep. John Gard, the Speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly.

Democratic operatives paint Gard as an ethically challenged legislative insider and right-wing ideologue. Bush won the district with 55 percent in 2004 and 52 percent in 2000.

In New York’s 24th, the Republicans are likely to nominate state Sen. Ray Meier, whom Democrats will paint as more conservative than retiring Republican Boehlert and too conservative for the district. Democrats have a competitive primary, with Oneida County District Attorney Mike Arcuri the party favorite over health policy researcher/activist Les Roberts.

But the upstate New York district leans Republican, and Bush carried it with 52 percent in his previous race.

Finally, Democrats have been acting for months as if they already have Hyde’s Illinois open seat in their hip pocket. Their nominee, Tammy Duckworth, faces Republican state Sen. Peter Roskam, whom they portray as a protégé of Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and a conservative firebrand. Roskam worked briefly on Capitol Hill for DeLay (during the Congressman’s first term), as well as for Hyde.

Hyde’s open seat isn’t as Republican as you might think. Bush won it with 53 percent both when he first ran for the White House and four years later when he ran for re-election. Moreover, virtually all of the state legislators from the area are Republicans. But Democrats argue that the suburban Chicago district seems to be inching their way.

Republicans will not let even one of these districts slip away without a blood bath of a fight, and Democratic rhetoric about the Republican nominees in these four districts may not sell well among voters who actually have met the GOP candidates.

I’ve met three of the four Republican nominees in these districts — all but Meier — and, after hearing the Democrats describe Bachmann, Gard and Roskam as knuckle-dragging, fire-breathing, right-wing bomb throwers, I was more than a little surprised to find all three personable and reasonable-sounding.

I certainly understand why Democrats hate the Republican trio. All three are politically savvy, unapologetically conservative and results-oriented. In short, they’d likely be formidable adversaries on Capitol Hill.

But expectations are an important part of politics, and Democrats have spent so much time portraying Bachmann, Gard and Roskam as scary ideologues that when voters meet the Republicans, they may not only like them, they may also wonder about future Democratic charges and attacks. (Roskam was recently endorsed by local Teamsters and Operating Engineers unions.)

Of course, Democrats have various sorts of ammunition to use against each of the four Republicans, and if the Democratic tide is big enough, all four seats could turn Democratic. But Democratic strategists would be wise to treat the quartet of Republican nominees in these districts as serious, politically attractive candidates, not as crackpots.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 11, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

New Jersey Senate: Most Likely Democratic Loss in ’06?

By Stuart Rothenberg

I recently received an e-mail from a friend who also happens to be a very savvy observer of New Jersey politics and a veteran of Democratic Party wars. His point was both clear and concise: I was wrong in a recent column to identify the Garden State Senate race as the GOP’s best chance to pick up a Democratic Senate seat.

That got me thinking that readers probably deserve a more detailed explanation of why I believe Republicans have a better chance in New Jersey than in Minnesota or Maryland or Washington — states probably cited more often than the Garden State as potential Republican takeovers.

First, let’s be clear about what I’m arguing. I regard it as more likely that Republicans will fail to pick up a single Democratic Senate seat in November than that they will pick up any at all. For my money, they are underdogs in all of their potential takeover races.

So I’m not arguing right now that Republican state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. — who will win his party’s Senate nomination in the June primary — will defeat Sen. Bob Menendez (D) in November. I do believe, however, that Kean has a chance to win that contest.

Given the landscape this year, any Republican Senate candidate seeking to pick up a Democratic seat will need “special circumstances” to do so.

The president’s weak job approval ratings and the public’s perception that the country is headed down the wrong track combine to guarantee that GOP turnout will be depressed and that swing voters will swing toward Democrats. The president will be an albatross around the neck of GOP candidates.

That means that voters won’t be equally receptive to two candidates’ arguments. All things being equal, they will be more inclined to believe Democratic attacks. In that environment, a successful Republican will need a compelling reason — almost a unique reason — to win.

Being a “good” candidate with an agenda isn’t likely to be enough. Raising more money than your opponent won’t guarantee a victory. Painting your opponent as “too liberal” may not be enough if the entire election cycle is about reform and change.

So a successful Republican will have to have unique qualities or be in an unusual political environment that makes voters willing to consider arguments coming from a Republican. And the arguments can’t merely be about broad ideological approaches or personal accomplishments. All candidates have accomplishments.

In Washington state, Republican businessman Mike McGavick could benefit from a “special circumstance” — a belief among voters that Democrats stole the 2004 governor’s race.

In Michigan, the GOP nominee, probably Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard, also could benefit from the state’s economic problems and Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s poor standing with voters.

In Maryland, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R) could benefit from potentially very serious Democratic divisions, particularly along racial lines, and from his potential appeal to black voters.

At this point, there are no apparent “special circumstances” in either Nebraska or Minnesota beyond, of course, Nebraska’s strong Republican bent.

In Minnesota, Rep. Mark Kennedy (R) is an extremely aggressive candidate who has put together a good campaign. He’ll attempt to tear the hide off his likely Democratic opponent, Hennepin County District Attorney Amy Klobuchar, and if he finds ammunition that discredits her judgment and makes her unacceptable to Minnesota voters, he certainly can win.

But Klobuchar’s lack of a voting record and her law enforcement background, combined with the fact that Kennedy’s appeal is largely generic, makes me doubt that the Republican can swim against a strong Democratic current.

That leaves the best case of “special circumstances” — New Jersey, where voters’ desire for change and reform could as easily be tapped by Kean as by incumbent Menendez.

The most recent Quinnipiac University poll, conducted last month, shows that neither Menendez nor Kean is well known.

Only 20 percent of those polled said they had a favorable view of the Senator, while only 34 percent said they approved of his job performance. Yet, in the ballot test, 40 percent of voters picked Menendez to 34 percent for Kean.

The poll shows that state voters do feel strongly about one political figure — President Bush. His job ratings in the state, as in most parts of the country, are horrendous. A stunning 69 percent of state voters disapprove of the job the president is doing, including a stunning 78 percent of independents — a critical group in any state election. Given that environment, Kean’s showing suggests potential strength.

Another political figure who also has problems among New Jersey voters is newly inaugurated Gov. Jon Corzine (D). Corzine’s budget was not cheered by voters, and only 35 percent approve of the way he is handling his job, according to the Quinnipiac poll. He could be a lightning rod for voter anger that would otherwise be directed at the president and his party.

I’m not suggesting that Garden State voters will want to “send a message” to Corzine by voting against Menendez; only that the political environment in the state, to some extent, offsets the anti-Republican national mood. And given that Corzine appointed Menendez, the governor is something of a liability for Menendez if he remains unpopular through the fall.

Kean would be a stronger candidate if he were a little older and more experienced. He also will be outspent by Menendez, who is a strong campaigner and will aggressively counter Republican charges that he is a machine politician from Hudson County.

But Kean benefits from an unusually good political name in the state, can run as something of an outsider (from Washington, D.C., at least), benefits from the governor’s problems and can paint his appointed opponent in very unflattering ways. Those are advantages that few Republican Senate non-incumbents have.

This column first appeared on Roll Call on May 8, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Ohio Primary Paints Clearer November Picture

By Nathan Gonzales

A handful of competitive races got a whole lot clearer on Tuesday when Ohio voters went to the polls in their primary. And for the most part, Democrats remain well positioned to take advantage of Republican ineptness.

Of course even though the nominees have been chosen, these races are far from over. But the landscape in Ohio favors the Democrats and they are hoping to hit the bull’s-eye in the Buckeye State come November.

Ohio Governor. Secretary of State Ken Blackwell defeated state Attorney General Jim Petro 56%-44% in the GOP primary. Conservatives nationwide rallied around the African-American officeholder in an expensive and bitter race. Meanwhile, Congressman Ted Strickland (D) coasted to his party’s nomination with 79% of the vote. Even though the Democratic race was significantly less competitive, only about 50,000 fewer Democrats cast their ballot in the gubernatorial primary than in the GOP contest (794,748-749,064).

A February 2-3 Zogby International poll showed Strickland leading Blackwell by a slim 38%-35%. But given that Blackwell is a statewide elected official and Strickland only represents one-eighteenth of the state in Congress, Strickland is the candidate with room to grow. More importantly, the survey showed that 64% of respondents believe Ohio was headed in the wrong direction and only 16% gave out-going Republican Gov. Bob Taft an excellent or good job approval rating. Those are worse numbers than President Bush.

Before the primary, this race was Lean Takeover for the Democrats. And now that Blackwell is the Republican nominee, it’s still Lean Takeover for the Democrats.

Ohio 2nd District. Congresswoman Jean Schmidt (R) held back a strong challenge from former Congressman Bob McEwen (R), whom she defeated in last summer’s special election to replace Congressman Rob Portman (R). This race was very nasty and personal, and in the final days, McEwen’s campaign said Schmidt’s campaign was “imploding” and that according to their internal polling with only a week to go showed, “We expect this 5-7 point trend to hold and/or increase as May 2nd gets closer.” They were clearly looking at bad numbers and Schmidt prevailed 48%-42%.

So, even though Schmidt is hated by most Democrats because of her remarks on the House floor regarding Congressman Jack Murtha (PA), she is the heavy favorite to win reelection in November. President Bush won the 2nd District 64%-36% in 2004, and GOP primary voters outnumbered their Republican counterparts by over a 2-1 margin. This seat is currently Safe for the Republicans.

Ohio 4th District. After a brief scare, state Sen. Jim Jordan defeated banker Frank Gugleilmi easily, 50%-30%, in the GOP primary in western Ohio. Gugleilmi poured thousands of dollars of his own money into the race, making it a tight contest for a while, but Jordan and the Club for Growth struck back. Now, Jordan is the heavy favorite to win the seat being vacated by Congressman Mike Oxley (R). President Bush won the seat 65%-34% in 2004. This is a Safe Republican seat.

Ohio 6th District. This open seat, vacated by Congressman Strickland (D), is one of the most competitive races in the country. State Senator Charlie Wilson (D) couldn’t muster 50 valid signatures to get his name on the primary ballot. But he did mount an aggressive write-in campaign that earned him two-thirds of the vote and the Democratic nomination. The write-in effort was extremely costly (over $1 million between Wilson and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee), but Wilson’s presence on the ballot in November is a boost for Democrats.

Republicans nominated state Rep. Chuck Blasdel (he received 49% in a four-way primary) in a district that President Bush won narrowly in 2004. But almost 69,000 Democrats voted in Tuesday’s primary compared to only about 37,500 Republicans. Blasdel is a credible candidate but The Rothenberg Political Report is moving the race from Pure Toss-Up to Toss-Up/Tilt Democratic.

Ohio 13th District. Depending on the results of the Democratic primary, Republicans were looking to buck the trend in Ohio. But former state Rep. Betty Sutton prevailed with 30% in the eight-candidate Democratic primary. Capri Cafaro, the Republicans’ preferred opponent, finished second with 25%, and former Cong. Tom Sawyer was third with 22%. Craig Foltin earned the Republican nomination with 37% in the five-way race, but faces an uphill battle in the northeast Ohio district that Kerry carried 56%-44% against President Bush. Foltin is the mayor of Lorain, the district’s largest city, but it’s tough overall. Democrat Favored.

Ohio 16th District. Congressman Ralph Regula (R) found himself in a surprising close primary contest. First elected in 1972, Regula hasn’t had a general election under 64% since then, yet he got only 57% against county commissioner Matt Miller on Tuesday in the GOP primary. It looks like Regula avoided his biggest threat (President Bush won the seat 54%-46% in 2004) and is heavily favored to win in November.

Ohio 18th District. If you only listened to supporters of Congressman Bob Ney (R), you would think he was just reelected to another two years in Congress. But the reality is much different. Once the polls closed, the congressman’s supporters passed along excerpts from National Journal’s Hotline blog, saying that Ney pulled a “solid two-thirds” of the primary vote. The last congressman to garner a solid two-thirds of the primary vote was Tom DeLay (R-TX) and he subsequently decided not to run for reelection.

The embarrassment of the night was not Charlie Wilson, but instead former Chillicothe Mayor Joe Sulzer. Once the chosen nominee of national Democrats, Sulzer not only lost to Dover Law Director Zack Space, but he finished third behind former state board of education member Jennifer Stewart. Space took 39%, Stewart 25%, Sulzer 24%, and Ralph Applegate 12%.

Ney is already trying to pair Zack Space with the likes of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), George Soros, and even J.J. Cafaro, who pleaded guilty in 2001 to bribing Congressman Jim Traficant (D). But as long as Ney is on the ballot in November, the race will be a referendum on him. And with the current rumors linking him to discredited lobbyist Jack Abramoff, that’s not a good situation. Without Ney on the ballot, Republican chances improve dramatically in a district President Bush 57%-42% over Kerry. For now, this race is a Toss-Up/Tilt Democrat.

This column first appeared on Town Hall on May 5, 2006.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Can Bush Fill the Leadership Vacuum He Created?

By Stuart Rothenberg

Once upon a time, polls showed that most Americans believed George W. Bush was a strong leader. Now, fewer than half of those polled give him credit for leadership, and his poll numbers also have plummeted on integrity and honesty.

In separate incidents, two Democratic pollsters told me recently that when they poll voters about issues and the problems facing the country, respondents no longer volunteer President Bush’s name.

“He’s irrelevant,” one told me, explaining that those being polled will mention the president by name only when prompted to do so.

Given the issues facing the country and the White House today, that’s a stunning development.

Polls showing Bush’s job approval in the mid-30s have dramatically reduced the president’s clout nationally and even on GOP-controlled Capitol Hill.

Sure, Republican candidates for Congress this year still want the president to come to their districts for a fundraiser, but they also want him out of town as soon as possible after the checks come in. And on Capitol Hill, Bush seems to have little muscle.

The president is neither loved nor feared anymore, which is a problem for any chief executive trying to wield power.

The country could get along like this if the international arena was relatively calm and the nation could stumble its way through the next few years. But although the economy’s fundamentals look good, the country is facing problems that demand immediate attention.

Iran. The saber-rattling from Iran’s leaders and the country’s apparent progress in developing nuclear weapons requires a strong president who can marshal both domestic and international opinion.

Energy. High prices at the pump are an obvious short-term political issue, but drivers will get used to paying more than $3 per gallon at some point. Still, energy is a very serious long-term problem, and the nation needs to address it sooner rather than later. The growth of populist, socialist regimes in South America that are expropriating foreign investments, particularly in the energy area — oil in Venezuela and natural gas in Bolivia are two current examples — raises new questions about the United States’ access to energy. It also raises questions about our nation’s influence throughout the Western Hemisphere.

Medicare. A new report from Medicare’s trustees now states that the system could go broke in 2018 if nothing is done. Nobody wants new taxes, but nobody wants to cut or delay benefits, either.

Immigration. The current debate over immigration is a mess. Both extremes are dictating far too much of the debate, while the responsible middle is being out-shouted. Responsible voices exist, but there is no sign of movement on Capitol Hill. This issue is already at a full boil, with the problem getting worse every day.

Iraq. It’s a mess. Maybe there is progress; maybe there isn’t. But the public isn’t optimistic about the situation or the administration’s handling of the situation.

Each of these problems seems overwhelming, and given the president’s weakness, he lacks the political clout to dictate an answer to Congress and mobilize public support. In addition, fundamental divisions within the country and deep distrust of the White House among at least half of Americans are paralyzing government’s ability to grapple with these problems.

House Republicans seem unwilling to compromise on immigration reform. They prefer to rail on about “amnesty” than to work on a compromise that will stop the flow of illegal immigrants into the country while establishing a guest worker program that deals with the political and economic reality of millions of illegal immigrants who have been residing and working in this country for years.

While the White House has staked out a reasonable position on immigration, the president seems unwilling to go to the mat on the issue.

For their part, Democrats are in full campaign mode, looking for photo opportunities to attack Republicans and the president, and avoiding opportunities to work on real solutions to problems. That’s probably a wise strategy when it comes to winning elections, but it’s a hell of a way to govern. At the moment, Democrats are far more interested in scoring political points than addressing the country’s needs.

While the president’s power has seriously eroded, it hasn’t disappeared completely. The president needs to make himself more relevant, which means trying to throw his weight around (among Republicans primarily) on Capitol Hill and using the bully pulpit to tackle the nation’s problems head-on. I’m not talking about the same speeches he’s given over and over about Iraq or Social Security or immigration. He needs to offer new solutions, and certainly new rhetoric, that make him relevant again.

For Capitol Hill Republicans, there should be a strong incentive for helping a newly reorganized, and possibly re-energized, White House. No matter how fast and how far Congressional Republicans run away from the president, the midterm elections will be a referendum on his performance. The further he falls, the more vulnerable they become.

Republican advisers undoubtedly will worry that the president could suffer losses if he stakes his reputation on a particular compromise or agenda that fails. They shouldn’t worry about it. Another political defeat wouldn’t change the president’s reputation or standing in the polls. The White House doesn’t have much left to lose.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 4, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Ohio Results Give Democrats Good News

By Stuart Rothenberg

Tuesday’s Ohio results were almost uniformly good news for Democrats.

In the best news, state Senator Charlie Wilson (D) overwhelmed two primary opponents to win the Democratic Congressional nomination in Ohio’s 6th District. Wilson’s write-in victory was backed by Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee money and commitment. He’ll face Republican state Rep. Chuck Blasdel in November in a race that now favors the Democrats at least narrowly. The National Republican Congressional Committee ran ads beating up on Wilson for his performance in office, but Wilson’s strong showing, combined with Blasdel’s less impressive primary victory, enhances the Democrat’s chances.

Elsewhere, in Ohio 13, former state Rep. Betty Sutton defeated a number of Democratic primary opponents, including two contenders who, if nominated, would have given Republicans reason for optimism in the fall. The GOP nominee, Lorain Mayor Craig Foltin, is a credible candidate, but he may not have the issues he needs to stop Sutton from uniting Democrats and winning this Democratic district.

And in Ohio’s 18th C.D., Republican Representative Bob Ney won renomination with less than 70% of the vote, hardly the overwhelming victory he needed to persuade anyone that he is not vulnerable in November. GOP turnout in the district was unimpressive, thereby adding to questions about voter enthusiasm for Ney even among Republicans. The Democratic nominee, Zack Space, isn’t regarded as a top tier challenger, but given Ney’s legal and political problems, that probably will not matter.

Ohio remains an excellent Democratic opportunity with a number of GOP House seats in play -- including those held by Reps. Deborah Pryce and Steve Chabot -- and with Republicans trying to hang onto a Senate seat and the governorship. This is an absolutely perfect environment for Democrats. If they can’t sweep the state clean in 2006, they’ll never do it.

This item first appeared on Political Wire on May 4, 2006.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Is Tony Snow Likely to Bring Sunny Days to the White House?

By Stuart Rothenberg

The Republican National Committee churned out a couple of press releases recently after Tony Snow was selected to be President Bush’s new press secretary. The gist of both releases was that Snow is a great pick.

The releases quoted a variety of Democrats, conservatives and journalists praising Snow. Democratic lawyer Lanny Davis, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and former Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas) cited his integrity, fairness and credibility. NBC’s Tim Russert characterized Snow as “polished” and “articulate,” and ABC’s George Stephanopoulos called him “smart and very likable,” and predicted, “he’s going to do very well.”

Even if all of that is true — and I have no reason to doubt the characterizations, even though I don’t know Snow except to nod hello — it doesn’t really matter.

Five and a half years ago, the selection of Snow might have said something about Bush’s presidency. It might even have affected press sentiment, and therefore, public opinion. But not now. It’s way too late for that.

Voters don’t really care who the press secretary is or what he does, and one week from now, most people outside the Beltway won’t be able to tell you the name of the person in that position, except for loyal Fox News Channel viewers.

Americans are paying attention to the war in Iraq, gas prices, the cost of prescription drugs and a handful of other issues that pop up from week to week. But you can be sure that the White House press secretary isn’t one of them.

Can you imagine a husband turning to his wife over dinner to comment about the new press secretary?

“Hey, did you see that White House press briefing this afternoon while you were at work?”

“Yes,” says Gertrude, “You know, Earl, I haven’t been entirely happy with the president’s decision-making recently, but that Snow pick is great. I think Bush is doing a really good job after all.”

Snow may well be a strong advocate for the president, and I suppose he could have an impact on White House decision-making and even policy. But ultimately, the public is concerned about issues that have greater relevance to them and their lives.

Moreover, the RNC press release will be obsolete in a matter of hours. What matters is performance. If Snow does well — whatever that means — he’ll be an asset to the president. If he doesn’t, or if the news continues to be bad and Americans continue to be disappointed in Bush’s performance, it won’t matter that Durbin or anyone else thinks Snow is articulate, fair, smart or likable.

The administration’s personnel shake-ups haven’t had much of an effect on the public, or on the public’s perception of the president. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Real people— that is, those not in the media or the campaign industry, and those not living inside the Beltway — don’t see a new White House chief of staff, OMB director and press secretary as being all that relevant to their lives.

There has been plenty of buzz about possible other changes in the administration, including at Treasury. Of course, the economy is now one of the administration’s bright spots, so the White House will probably replace Treasury Secretary John Snow. It’s just logical.

In fact, the only personnel change that would really get the nation’s attention is at Defense. But so far, of course, the president has stood firmly behind Donald Rumsfeld.

Fairly or unfairly, Secretary Rumsfeld has received much of the blame for Iraq, and his resignation undoubtedly would be seen by many Americans (as well as those around the world) as an opportunity for the administration to change policy. His exit would be huge news — the kind of news that would get attention from real people.

Some analysts have suggested that the president can’t ask for Rumsfeld’s resignation because that would be tantamount to the president acknowledging that his policies haven’t been working.

But given that a majority of Americans believe that the war was a mistake, that the president’s handling of the war is receiving low marks and that most of the daily news out of Iraq does not encourage optimism, the Defense secretary’s continued service hasn’t convinced anyone (except, apparently, the president) that the existing policy is working.

Ultimately, it seems that President Bush and the White House have come to at least one correct conclusion: They have a messenger problem. But unfortunately, the White House has chosen to replace nonessential personnel, instead of replacing someone like Rumsfeld.

Replacing Rumsfeld would help correct the administration’s second problem: their message. “Stay the course” and “be patient” in Iraq isn’t cutting it with the American people. And the president’s party will suffer the penalties for that problem in November, no matter who is giving the daily White House press briefing.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 1, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

New Print Edition: Tennessee Senate & Arizona 5

The new May 3, 2006 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report is on its way to subscribers. (Click here for subscription information.)

Tennessee Senate: Three’s Company
By Nathan L. Gonzales

Senator Harold Ford. Those might be the three words Republicans fear the most on Election Night. If Democrats can successfully takeover the open Tennessee Senate seat being vacated by Majority Leader Bill Frist (R), they could well win a Senate majority in November.

Democratic hopes are riding on the young Democratic congressman from Memphis, while three Republicans are battling for their party’s mantle. Former congressman Ed Bryant, former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker, and former congressman Van Hilleary will face off in the August 3 GOP Primary.

Going into the general election, the Republican nominee will start with the advantage over Ford. But even though the Democratic congressman has a handful of tall hurdles in front of him, he should not be underestimated.

For the whole story including bios on each candidate, analysis of the GOP primary, a look ahead to the general election and The Bottom Line..subscribe now.

Arizona 5: Turning Up the Heat

Republican Cong. J.D. Hayworth is no stranger on the cable television circuit, but he isn’t used to seeing his name on Democratic target lists. Now, former state Sen. Harry Mitchell (D) is in the race and is looking to give the congressman his toughest race in a decade.

Mitchell is a well-known quantity in Tempe, where he was mayor for sixteen years. But Tempe is only about one-third of the suburban Phoenix-area 5th Congressional District. Democrats believe the national mood of the country and specific allegations linking Hayworth with discredited lobbyist Jack Abramoff puts this seat, which has not been competitive for years, into play.

But Hayworth has never been one to back down from a debate or a challenge. The district favors Republicans both in voter registration and voting patterns, and the Republican will be well funded.

Democrats failed to get a top-tier recruit against Rick Renzi (R) in the 1st District, but they have succeeded in putting the 5th District into play for now. (The state’s filing deadline is not until June.)

For the whole story including bios on each candidate, analysis of the general election and The Bottom Line..subscribe now.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Tony Snow and the Deteriorating Media

By Nathan L. Gonzales

President Bush’s new White House Press Secretary is all the rage. But unfortunately, Tony Snow’s appointment will only feed the media’s craving for personal recognition and attention.

One of the major problems with the media today is too much focus on the “personality” delivering the news, while any actual substance of the news takes second stage.

For years, the only face-time reporters might get at a press event would be at an official presidential press conference in the East Room or the Rose Garden. But Clinton Press Secretary Joe Lockhart started televising the daily press briefing from the White House back in 1995. This gave reporters a daily opportunity to be on-camera asking their questions and proving to the American public they were holding the White House’s feet to the fire.

In reality, the White House press corps could ask any question they wanted well before the television cameras were turned on, but it was the cut-away camera that raised the stakes.

Now, with Snow behind the podium everyday, the daily White House briefing will get significantly more attention. Snow’s profile and stature should, at least temporarily, help the White House get out the president’s message. But the Snow honeymoon will be short-lived and members of the press corps will resume taking their opportunities to “get” the White House and have it all captured on-camera.

Out-going Press Secretary Scott McClellan was actually a better choice for the position. He was bland and as energetic in front of the camera as John Kerry at a Bush reelection party. McClellan’s job was to prevent any breaking news at the briefing.

He succeeded more often than not, and that’s why the press corps didn’t like him.

Even though Snow as been promised a more “inside” role in the West Wing, he will still be forced to deliver the same message and same administration policies that McClellan did, the same policies that incite an antagonistic press corps.

Both the White House and the media appear to have a false sense of hope about Snow’s upcoming tenure. Tony Snow works for President Bush, and he is now a former member of the media who is being paid to present the Bush administration’s message. He will only be as open and forthcoming as he is told to be.

And the notion that the press corps will be easier on Snow because he is a former journalist is ludicrous. Ninety-five percent of the people in the briefing room used to be his competitor. Why would they let him off the hook now that he is working for an unpopular president?

All in all, Snow’s appointment will do little to further the way news is delivered today and will only contribute to reporters’ need to put themselves first and the news second.

This column first appeared on Town Hall on April 29, 2006.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Road Trip Along the Ohio River: Nine Races to Watch

By Stuart Rothenberg

The fight for the House of Representatives could be determined in nine adjacent districts in four states, stretching from West Virginia to Indiana. It’s an easy car trip, stretching fewer than 500 miles. Just follow the Ohio River.

The races are a diverse bunch, with contests involving veteran Republican incumbents, GOP freshmen, an open seat and even one Democratic incumbent.

This swath of prime campaign territory starts in Parkersburg, W.Va., right across the river from Ohio. It’s West Virginia’s 1st district — historically Democratic territory that went 57 percent for President Bush in 2004.

The incumbent, Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan, suddenly finds himself a major GOP target for November. Republicans have suddenly grown optimistic about the prospects of their candidate, state Rep. Chris Wakim, who just benefited from a fundraising event with Vice President Cheney. Given questions about Mollohan’s wealth and ethics, Republicans believe that they will be able to turn the Democrats’ “culture of corruption” message against one of their own.

Just across the river in Ohio is the state’s 6th district, a Democratic open seat being targeted by Republicans. State Sen. Charlie Wilson (D) appeared to be the early favorite to win the race, but he didn’t submit enough valid signatures to secure a spot on the primary ballot, so he’s running a massive write-in effort with the help of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

GOP state Rep. Chuck Blasdel is a serious general election contender, and while the state Republican Party has some serious image problems right now, Wilson’s ballot troubles give Republicans a serious chance for a takeover.

Next door, in Ohio’s 18th district, Rep. Bob Ney (R) isn’t merely in trouble — his political career is on life support.

Democrats will have a competitive primary to pick their nominee, and whoever it is will become the frontrunner for November. Ney’s problems, which include a far-too-close relationship with discredited lobbyist Jack Abramoff, play right into Democrats’ national message.

But some insiders continue to whisper that Ney could drop out of the race after he wins his primary, thus giving his party an opportunity to select a nominee who lacks his political baggage. Given the Republican bent of the district, that development would significantly improve the GOP’s chances of retaining the seat.

Next, head southwest toward Maysville, Ky., in the state’s 4th district. It’s a heavily Republican seat occupied by freshman Rep. Geoff Davis (R). Davis ordinarily would be considered safe, but his opponent is former Rep. Ken Lucas, a popular conservative Democrat.

A Democratic wave in November is likely to punish Republican incumbents representing Democratic districts. But the question is whether Lucas will be able to convince Republican voters to fire one of their own, even if that leads to Democrats taking control of Congress. The answer is unknown, but the race bears watching.

From Maysville, follow the Ohio River west, crossing over into Hamilton County and the city of Cincinnati. That’s Ohio’s 1st district, home to Rep. Steve Chabot, a six-term Republican who has coasted to re-election in his past two races.

Chabot’s likely opponent this year, Cincinnati City Councilman John Cranley, drew 45 percent against Chabot in 2000, and he is likely to be an even more formidable challenger this year. Democrats hope that the combination of Republican problems on the national and state levels will help Cranley ride a wave to victory in November.

Cross back into Kentucky and head southwest along the Ohio River until you hit Louisville. Now you will be in Kentucky’s 3rd district, a swing seat held since 1996 by Rep. Anne Northup (R).

Democrats couldn’t get a top-tier challenger to Northup, and they won’t have a nominee until after the May 16 Democratic primary. But the district is definitely competitive, leaving the Congresswoman vulnerable to a Democratic wave. Northup has proved she is one of the best campaigners in Congress, but that may not matter if the midterm election is a referendum on Bush and on change.

When you leave Louisville, proceed southwest along the Ohio River toward Owensboro, Ky., and GOP Rep. Ron Lewis’ 2nd district. Democrats have recruited state Rep. Mike Weaver, 67, a retired Army officer and a moderate-to-conservative Democrat, to take on Lewis. The Congressman hasn’t had a serious race in years, and Democrats see this district as evidence that they are “broadening the playing field.”

Across the river from Owensboro is Indiana’s 9th district, one of the Democrats’ top opportunities in the nation.

Freshman Rep. Mike Sodrel (R) faces the man he beat two years ago (and lost to in 2002), former Rep. Baron Hill (D). Early polling shows Hill leading, but the district does lean Republican, and voters already have fired Hill once. Still, Sodrel won by only 1,425 votes last time, so it won’t take much to flip the district back to Hill this time.

Finally, head west to Evansville and Indiana’s 8th district. Republican Rep. John Hostettler is always a Democratic target, in part because his district is competitive and in part because he refuses to raise money to finance his re-election campaigns. The district is culturally conservative but politically competitive, and the Democrats have their strongest challenger yet in Vanderburgh County Sheriff Brad Ellsworth.

The Ohio River has become a focal point of American politics recently, and that isn’t likely to change this year. And that makes the Parkersburg-to-Evansville trip worth taking.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on April 27, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.