Monday, October 27, 2008

It’s Getting Bleaker for McCain, Worse for Hill Republicans

By Stuart Rothenberg

While major media outlets are hesitant to pronounce the presidential race over for fear of being harassed by Republicans and conservatives, there isn’t much doubt at this late date that it is over. Democratic Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) will be elected president in less than two weeks.

Previously undecided voters have now decided that Obama isn’t as risky a choice as they once thought, and that has changed the contest. Talk that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been closing over the past week is simply not demonstrated in public and private polling. In fact, unreleased polls in a number of statewide and Congressional races show that McCain has weakened significantly over the past two weeks.

Obama is now over the crucial 50 percent mark in many credible national surveys, and public and private polling in key states from Wisconsin and Florida to Virginia and Colorado all show the same thing: The Democrat is now considerably over 270 electoral votes, and McCain is struggling to hold on to normally Republican states such as Indiana, North Carolina and Missouri.

Republicans, conservatives and some in the media (who don’t want the competitive race story to end) hang their hopes onto a poll here or there that shows a tight race. Those who want to believe Rasmussen’s national poll showing the presidential race at 4 points or the most recent Hotline survey showing Obama at only 47 percent can certainly do so, but the race is not that tight.

Two recent presidential polls in Florida, one by Fox News/Rasmussen and the other by SurveyUSA, showed McCain ahead in that state within the margin of error. They are more than balanced out in my own mind by a just as recent Republican poll in Florida that has not been released publicly and that showed Obama over the 50 percent mark and beating McCain by 8 points in the state.

But couldn’t things change in the final 10 days? Theoretically, yes. But the chance is so small as to be insignificant.

In what increasingly is looking like a historic election, Democrats continue to be headed for substantial victories in the House and Senate, though not everything has gone their way in the past week.

The revelation that Rep. Tim Mahoney (D-Fla.) has had multiple affairs, including at least one during his 2006 challenge to then-Rep. Mark Foley (R), has even Democrats uttering obscenities about the Congressman. GOP polling shows Mahoney is likely to be defeated by his Republican challenger, Tom Rooney.

In Senate races, there is remarkable agreement on the part of unbiased observers that Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens’ (R) chances of being re-elected have spiked after a trial in which the prosecution looked less than perfectly adept. But that race still hangs on the jury’s decision.

Still, Democrats are headed for huge gains in the Senate, and continuing competitive races in Kentucky, Mississippi and Georgia demonstrate how strongly the political landscape is tilted in their favor. Those three contests, plus races in North Carolina, Alaska and Minnesota, should determine whether Democrats reach the 60 mark in next year’s Senate.

So far, a five-seat Democratic pickup looks like a lock, with Democratic wins expected in Virginia, New Mexico, Colorado, New Hampshire and Oregon. A sweep of the other GOP Senate seats in play would give Democrats a double-digit gain. That’s certainly not the most likely scenario, but it is not impossible, because in a number of recent “wave” elections (including 2006), almost all of the close Senate races have been won by one party.

Obama’s weakness in Kentucky probably enhances Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R) chances of surviving, while the Democratic presidential nominee’s strength in Georgia, combined with Sen. Saxby Chambliss’ (R) late advertising and his delay in attacking Democratic challenger Jim Martin, puts the first-term Republican Senator at greater risk. The possibility of a runoff in the Georgia race if no candidate gets an absolute majority of total votes cast probably improves Chambliss’ ultimate prospects.

Democratic House prospects are almost as good, and after winning 30 seats in 2006, that’s noteworthy.

When I wrote a few weeks ago that Democratic gains in the 20-30 seat range were reasonable, some Democrats told me that I was way too far out on the limb, and one Democratic Congressman telephoned me to suggest that I had gotten carried away about Democratic chances.

But Democratic gains in that range still look very reasonable, even though Republicans now seem likely to knock off a few incumbent Democrats, including Mahoney, Rep Nick Lampson (Texas) and possibly Rep. Paul Kanjorski (Pa.).

GOP polling over the past couple of weeks shows McCain’s numbers worsening in many places, creating a problem for Republican strategists who hoped that the top of the ticket would be a considerable asset. Indeed, in some places, McCain has gone from an asset to a liability.

Democratic House gains of 27 to 33 seats now looks likely. This is the kind of wave election when even second- and third-tier candidates pull off upsets, and I’d expect that to happen this year. It would be only a guess to pick those winners, so all I can say is that a couple of long-shot Democratic upsets are likely as the party’s wave crashes ashore in 12 days.

Republican Congressional candidates will hope to stop the bleeding and improve their prospects in the campaign’s remaining days. But Democrats still have the momentum.

This column
first appeared in Roll Call on October 23, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.