Thursday, February 26, 2009

Are Republicans Ready to Mount a Comeback in the Northeast?

By Stuart Rothenberg

It’s so widely accepted as a truth that the Republican Party is clinically dead in the Northeast that no warnings to the contrary would even get a second look. But like so many other sweeping generalizations with more than a grain of truth, the death of the GOP in the Mid-Atlantic and New England states has been greatly exaggerated.

True, over the past decade, the GOP has been slaughtered in New England. Republicans don’t control a single state legislative chamber in the six-state region, and Democrats now hold all 21 of New England’s House seats after losing their last holdout, Rep. Christopher Shays, in southwestern Connecticut last year.

Democrats also hold nine of the region’s 12 Senate seats and hope to pick up a 10th in New Hampshire next year.

In the Mid-Atlantic, things aren’t much better for Republicans. New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland each send two Democrats to the Senate, while Pennsylvania has one Democrat and one Republican, Arlen Specter — who is a top Democratic target in 2010. The GOP controls the Pennsylvania state Senate, but Democrats have a majority in each of the region’s other legislative chambers.

In the House, Republicans hold only one of Maryland’s eight districts, five of New Jersey’s 13 districts and just three of New York’s 29 districts. The GOP holds all of Delaware’s (OK, it’s just one), but only seven of Pennsylvania’s 19 House seats.

And in the 12 states in New England and the Mid-Atlantic, the GOP holds just three governorships: Rhode Island, Connecticut and Vermont.

But 2010 could be the start of a comeback for the GOP in the Northeast, in part because the party suffered such complete devastation that a bit of a rebound seems close to inevitable.

First, two of the party’s three governors are eligible to seek re-election, and Jim Douglas in Vermont and Jodi Rell in Connecticut are expected to do so. Rell is wildly popular and a solid favorite for another term, while Douglas is a more narrow favorite.

The GOP is likely to lose the Rhode Island governorship after holding it, somewhat surprisingly, for 16 years in a row. But Pennsylvania’s open governorship offers the GOP an excellent opportunity for a takeover, and Republicans may even be competitive in the race for Maine’s open governorship.

In New York, Republican Jim Tedisco is favored to win appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D) open Congressional seat, adding to the GOP ranks in the state. Businessman Richard Hanna (R) came within an eyelash of upsetting Rep. Michael Arcuri (D) in November, and Republicans are certain to make another run at the two-term Democrat next year.

Assemblyman Greg Ball (R) is entering the race in New York’s 19th district (which stretches from Westchester almost to Poughkeepsie), giving the party a credible nominee against two-term Rep. John Hall (D) in a GOP-leaning district, and if the party can recruit a strong challenger to Rep. Eric Massa in the 29th district, the freshman Democrat could have major problems.

In statewide contests, Gillibrand could face a nasty Senate primary, as could Gov. David Paterson (D), giving Republicans two opportunities. The Democratic nominees would be favored in both races, but a strong GOP bid in either contest would boost party morale, helping further recruitment down the road and down the ballot.

In New Jersey, polling shows the favorite for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, former U.S. attorney Chris Christie, being a formidable opponent for Gov. Jon Corzine (D) later this year, especially given the state’s economic problems.

In Connecticut, Sen. Chris Dodd (D) suddenly looks weaker than ever, primarily because of allegations that he benefited from special treatment given to him by mortgage lender Countrywide Financial. Former Rep. Rob Simmons (R) is considering a run, and while he would be an underdog, he would at the very least be the most formidable GOP Senate candidate in Connecticut since Lowell Weicker in 1988.

If the National Republican Congressional Committee can recruit state Sen. John McKinney, 44, to run against freshman Rep. Jim Himes (D) in Connecticut’s 4th district, the GOP would also have a top-tier contest in the state. McKinney, the youngest child of former Rep. Stewart McKinney (R-Conn.), is in his fifth term in the state Senate, where he is Minority Leader.

Republicans will make major efforts to win back Maryland’s 1st district and Pennsylvania’s 10th — two seats that the party never should have lost because each remains very Republican territory. While the open New Hampshire Senate seat of retiring Sen. Judd Gregg (R) gives Democrats another opportunity for a gain in New England, Rep. Paul Hodes’ (D) Senate bid opens up his House seat, giving Republicans an excellent opportunity to win back another seat in the region.

I’m certainly not predicting major Republican gains in the Northeast, but given the avalanche of discussion about the death of the Republican Party from Maryland to Maine, it’s at the very least worth noting that, though fundamentally far weaker than it was 30 or 40 years ago, the GOP can still contest many races in the New England and Mid-Atlantic states.

It’s possible that 2009 and 2010 could be the beginning of a rebound for the party. While Democrats will continue to hold a clear advantage in the region, Republicans have the potential to become relevant once again.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 23, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.