Thursday, May 28, 2009

Pennsylvania Senate: Does Toomey Have a Chance to Win?

By Stuart Rothenberg

The Guest Observer in Roll Call’s May 18 edition, written by Brian Wild, who worked as chief of staff to then-Rep. Pat Toomey (R), makes some interesting claims about Toomey’s prospects in the 2010 Pennsylvania Senate race.

Wild begins by asserting that unidentified “Washington ... ‘experts’” want to deny that Toomey’s “dominance in polls is what led Specter to jump ship.”

This is a curious comment because every thoughtful discussion that I’ve heard about Specter’s party switch notes that he left the GOP because he was trailing badly in the polls and couldn’t beat Toomey in a primary. Specter even said so. There is no debate about that.

Wild also asserts that one of the reasons why Toomey can win a general election is “because he has won three elections in a Democratic-leaning Congressional district.” I’ve heard the district characterized this way before, and it is simply wrong.

Pennsylvania’s 15th district, which Toomey represented for three terms (starting in 1998), is and has been a competitive district since Don Ritter (R) won it in 1978. GOP Congressional nominees have won 12 of the past 15 House races in the district, which has remained a Northampton County-Lehigh County district with only minor changes since the early 1980s.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) carried the district by a single point in 2004, at the same time that Rep. Charlie Dent (R) was winning an open House seat, and Democrat Al Gore won it narrowly — 49 percent to 47 percent — in 2000, even while Toomey was being re-elected.

The 15th was and is a tossup district. The Dec. 12, 1997, issue of the Rothenberg Political Report concluded with the observation that “Republicans would be no worse than even money with either [state Sen. Joe] Uliana or Toomey as their nominee” in the open seat, and in the January 1996 and May 1998 issues, the Cook Political Report rated the House races in this district as tossups both when Rep. Paul McHale (D) was running for re-election in 1996 and when the seat was open in 1998.

Interestingly, Wild conveniently omits the fact that Toomey outspent his opponent in 1998, former state Sen. Roy Afflerbach (D), by 2-to-1, $1 million to $562,000 — certainly a factor in Toomey’s surprisingly easy 10-point victory that year.

Wild’s strangest point may well be his suggestion that Sen. Rick Santorum (R) lost re-election in 2006 because his base abandoned him. “And why did the base abandon the conservative Santorum?” Wild asks. “Because Santorum endorsed Specter in the 2006 elections.” (Note to Wild: Santorum endorsed Specter’s 2004 re-election bid.)

This is the most bizarre explanation of Santorum’s defeat that I have ever heard.

There are many contributing factors for Santorum’s defeat — George W. Bush’s unpopularity, the war in Iraq, the fundamental strength of challenger then-state Treasurer Bob Casey (D), and the perception that Santorum was intolerant and too conservative — but the idea that Santorum, who drew just 41 percent of the vote, lost because his base abandoned him is delusional.

Wild criticizes “the same old conventional wisdom,” which he defines as the view that “a ‘purple’ state should be represented by a purple politician, that voters prefer moderates and political pragmatists more than candidates who actually take a stand and have a core philosophy, and, importantly, that incumbency and a long political résumé are more important than new ideas and energy.”

I really don’t know where this guy gets this stuff, but he needs to start talking to smarter people and stop creating straw men.

Individual states elect a wide range of Senators, depending on the nature of the election cycle, the popularity and party of the sitting president and the qualities of the candidates. Incumbency usually is an asset, but not always, as Republicans found out in 2006 and 2008.

Iowa voters seem content with Republican Chuck Grassley and Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. There was a time when North Carolina voters were represented by Sens. Jesse Helms (R) and John Edwards (D). Pennsylvanians elected Specter and Santorum.

Finally, Wild’s assertions that passion is important and that voters want conviction and principle are correct. But Toomey won’t be the only candidate with conviction, passion and principle, and if passion were enough to win elections, Texas Rep. Ron Paul would have been the 2008 GOP presidential nominee.

When I first met Toomey during his 1998 race for Congress, I found him to be bright, articulate and extremely personable. He has been in and around politics and fundraising for more than a decade, and I don’t think anyone should dismiss him or his abilities out of hand. In fact, I can imagine circumstances under which he could win the Pennsylvania Senate race.

But Toomey is not the frontrunner in that race, notwithstanding Wild’s assertion that he is.

No public poll has shown Toomey ahead in the general election contest, while at least three surveys showed him trailing Specter by 6 points to as many as 20 points.

Moreover, recent voting trends and party registration figures show Pennsylvania inching toward the Democrats. The latest figures from the Pennsylvania secretary of state’s office show 4.3 million registered Democrats and only 3.1 million Republicans, and the gap has been growing. Over the past decade, Democratic Party registration increased by more than 850,000 voters, while GOP registration increased by fewer than 100,000 voters.

Registration figures alone, of course, don’t tell the whole story, but neither can they be ignored.

Santorum, the only modern conservative Republican to win a Senate race in the state, was first elected in 1994, one of the great Republican political waves in recent history. The GOP brand is much weaker than it was in 1994, and it is unlikely 2010 will produce a mammoth GOP wave.

Toomey will have to fight a media and Democratic caricature of him as an intolerant right-winger who drove Specter out of the GOP and who wants a litmus test for the Republican Party. That’s not an ideal starting point for a statewide race against a candidate who has been elected five times and has a reputation of doing what he needs to in order to win.

Toomey is sharp and should not be underestimated, especially given the many question marks about the contest. But wild assertions, straw men and selective memory are no way to evaluate a Senate contest.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 26, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Monday, May 25, 2009

For Democrats, a Political Pothole That Could’ve Been Avoided

By Stuart Rothenberg

Republicans have found the soft underbelly of the administration of President Barack Obama, and her name is Nancy Pelosi.

The Speaker performed admirably during her first two years as the top Congressional leader, elevating pragmatism over purity and successfully stepping back from the limelight to allow others to be the face of the Democratic Party.

But the recent flap over what the CIA did or didn’t tell Pelosi years ago when she was briefed by the agency on its interrogation techniques is a reminder of the California Democrat’s weaknesses.

Unable to crack Obama’s personal popularity and aware that his communication skills far exceed those of any GOP leader, Republicans have opted to go after a far weaker adversary, Congressional Democrats. And Pelosi is an easier target not just because it is always fashionable to complain about Congress.

For all of her noteworthy successes and abilities, and they are numerous, the Speaker is relatively weak on television and dealing with the press, as evidenced by her performance at her Thursday press conference. She’s particularly weak when backed into a corner. One longtime associate of the Speaker put it succinctly: “She doesn’t like dealing with the press. She doesn’t like to be questioned.”

Too often Pelosi seems flustered, even when she has no reason to be. Maybe it’s her halting speaking style, or that deer- in-the-headlights look that she regularly has.

Whatever it is, the California Democrat is a skittish speaker who doesn’t convey a sense of confidence and forthrightness. This makes her almost the polar opposite of the president, who invariably seems calm, poised, confident and straightforward.

The irony of the Pelosi-CIA controversy is that Democrats have created a problem for themselves because some in the party want to embarrass and punish members of the Bush administration. If that sounds weirdly reminiscent of the mistake Republicans made during the Clinton years, it is.

Democrats avoided these mistakes until recently because they understood that aggressive tactics could alienate voters and cause moderates to view them as partisan and petty.

Indeed, shortly after the 2006 elections, two high-ranking Democrats told me that the party’s victories came about because of Republican mistakes, not because voters had truly embraced Democrats. Both emphasized that their party needed to be cautious in the two years leading up to the 2008 presidential election.

But now, after a second straight drubbing at the polls for Republicans, some Democrats have assumed that voters agree with them on everything. Nothing good happens when party ideologues get too confident about their own moral superiority.

Regardless of where you stand on the Democrats’ desire to expose the transgressions of the Bush era or on who is telling the truth, the debate over who knew what and when has handed Republicans an issue and a target.

Some Democratic communications gurus dispute the seriousness of the problem, noting that the Speaker did not appear on any of the Sunday talk shows last weekend, and they insist the CIA-Pelosi feud will fade quickly as reporters look to other themes. They argue quite correctly, that the flap has not and likely won’t cost her support within her Caucus.

“She couldn’t cancel her weekly press conference,” argued one Democratic strategist I talked with. “That’s not who she is. She doesn’t run from a fight.”

And if Pelosi is telling the truth, she shouldn’t run from the fight. But that’s not the issue. The Speaker didn’t need to have a fight over this if she and her allies weren’t so concerned with what happened (or didn’t happen) years ago.

Even if the Pelosi flap subsides quickly (and Republicans will stoke the controversy as long as they can), the GOP now has a road map to follow. That’s an achievement for a party that has seemed just slightly short of clueless until recently.

Politics is about creating enemies, about demonizing opponents. That’s what Democrats have done to Vice President Dick Cheney and conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, and before them, to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Republicans did the same thing to Speakers Jim Wright (D-Texas) and Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) and to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Pelosi’s poll numbers already were weak before the recent flap. A mid-March CBS News poll showed her with an 18 percent favorable/35 percent unfavorable rating. A February CNN poll found her ratings at 36 percent favorable/43 percent unfavorable. A Feb. 26-March 1 NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey found 31 percent of respondents had a very positive or somewhat positive opinion of the Speaker, while 37 percent had a very negative or somewhat negative opinion.

Of course, Republicans could well overplay their hand on all this, looking like partisans merely after an issue rather than as defenders of national security and advocates of honesty in government. There is plenty of politics in the GOP’s indignation, and the party’s problems will not be solved by one controversy, especially one that does not involve Obama.

But even when the current controversy passes, it will leave its mark. National Republicans now have a political enemy who should help their fundraising, candidate recruitment and morale. And Democrats have a leader whose weaknesses have become apparent and who could be a lightning rod for an argument about national security that Obama and many Democratic strategists would rather not have.

This column
first appeared in Roll Call on May 21, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Friday, May 22, 2009

2010 State Races Will Shape Redraw

By Nathan L. Gonzales and Lauren W. Whittington

When Florida Gov. Charlie Crist announced last week that he is running for the Senate in 2010 instead of seeking re-election, the move was hailed as Senate Republicans’ biggest recruiting coup of the cycle.

But the news was hardly treated with applause from the Republican Governors Association or any Republican with an eye toward the upcoming post-2010 redistricting battle.

Crist’s departure creates an instantly competitive open-seat race — one of about a dozen next year that could have a serious effect on which party has more influence in the redrawing of House districts.

“Last time, the Republicans controlled more seats at the redistricting table than at any time since 1920,” former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) said in a recent interview.

Fast-forward almost a decade and the picture heading into the next redraw looks very different for the GOP.

Both parties are aware of what’s at stake in the 2010 gubernatorial and state legislative races in terms of what the outcomes mean for the next redistricting fight, and both are ramping up their efforts accordingly. But Republicans appear to have the most to win or lose.

The party is down 40 seats in the House and out of power in the White House, and the sizable lead in the number of governorships that the GOP controlled after the 2000 elections has been whittled down to a 22-28 deficit.

On top of that, the upcoming redistricting will be the first since passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which eliminated soft money and will severely limit Members’ involvement in the process.

Traditionally, the Republican National Committee has coordinated the GOP’s redistricting effort, relying heavily on soft money. In contrast, Democrats have relied on outside groups, such as labor unions for fundraising and coordination, making it easier for them to adapt to the new rules.

Davis was one of the key players in the last round of redistricting as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. He recalled how important soft money was in the committee’s effort to influence state legislative races in 1999 and 2000, the election cycle before the new lines were drawn.

For instance, Davis said the NRCC poured an estimated $1 million into General Assembly races in Virginia in 1999, the year that the GOP wrested control of the House of Delegates and therefore total control of the redistricting process.

“In 2000, we were very, very focused on the legislative elections, in terms of the state Legislatures,” Davis said. “We were planning well ahead of the game on that.”

But at the moment, Republicans appear to be barely getting out of the conversation stage in terms of their redistricting game plan, in part because of the transition to power of RNC Chairman Michael Steele.

The RNC is moving to take the lead once again, and on Friday, it announced Tennessee National Committeeman John Ryder will serve as chairman of the redistricting committee. The RNC also signed on Tom Hofeller, who is considered to be the party’s authority on redistricting when it comes to data and analysis.

“Every cycle there is a complete educational process within the party,” said Hofeller, who has decades of redistricting experience working at the RNC, the NRCC and as staff director of the House Subcommittee on the Census.

NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) has tapped Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (Ga.) to be the Congressional liaison to other Members and to state legislatures. Both men have extensive experience with redistricting in their home states.

“I’ve been given the task to win. So that’s what we’re working on,” Westmoreland said. “We’re just trying to get it all coordinated and make sure that the left hand knows what the right hand’s doing.”

The RNC will likely be a vehicle for number crunching (fusing upcoming, block-level Census data with precinct-level election results, which can be a laborious process) and a valuable resource to state legislative caucuses. But it’s unclear whether the RNC can devote the same resources without soft money.

Unless Republicans are planning on funding the entire redistricting effort, including the electoral, analytical and legal aspects, with hard dollars during a presidential cycle, an outside group or groups will need to be formed.

“Everyone is coming around to the reality that this is a team game,” another GOP consultant said.

While conversations within GOP circles are clearly ongoing, a specific answer to the expected fundraising and coordinated efforts of Democratic groups has not emerged. Party insiders are discussing ways to merge experienced redistricting operatives with individuals who can raise the millions of dollars necessary to fund the effort.

A host of Republican attorneys, including Ben Ginsberg, Mark Braden and Dale Oldham, and other GOP operatives who have experience in redistricting will likely find a home in the GOP strategy, but there isn’t a natural landing place for them yet, nor a clear way to pay them.

According to one GOP source, a high-profile national Republican strategist is on the verge of forming an outside group in an attempt to fill the vacuum on the Republican side. The group could come together in the next couple of weeks and help raise nonfederal dollars for the cause, including the inevitable legal battles.

Fundraising continues to be a very serious concern on the Republican side, particularly after a cycle when the conservative group Freedom’s Watch failed to deliver the financial muscle that many people expected. Members can’t have anything to do with raising nonfederal money, so Republicans may have to rely on former elected officials, governors or special interest groups to raise millions of dollars. According to one GOP consultant, Republicans have to train their donors to give to outside groups.

Redistricting veterans caution that there is only so much that can be done from Washington, D.C., because redistricting is largely a state-by-state war.

“Ultimately, it’s about controlling the governors and the legislatures,” Davis said.

Governors play a direct role in redistricting (whether it is veto power or appointment of a commission) in all but eight states. And state legislatures will draw the lines in 36 states.

The Republican Governors Association and Republican State Leadership Committee are separately focused on winning gubernatorial and state legislative races in order to secure seats at the redistricting table.

“Nothing we do will be more important than what happens at the ballot box in 2009 [and] 2010,” according to one House GOP aide.

One factor that Republicans have on their side looking toward redistricting, Davis argued, is that most of the states with population growth lean toward the GOP. In addition, because of the massive Democratic gains in the past two election cycles, Davis said the Democratic strategy may be more about preserving the territory that they already have rather than carving new seats.

He estimated there are only about dozen states where it might be possible to draw a Member out of office.

“Democrats have so overperformed at this point, that there’s not a lot a lot of pickup that they’re going to be able to get in redistricting outside of California,” Davis said.

Fewer Republicans in Congress also means it’s likely fewer deals will get cut. Two of the key states where incumbent protection deals were cut last time — California and Illinois — are unlikely to see similar agreements this time, and both states favor Democrats gains.

Getting Members, outside groups and others to focus at this stage can be difficult, unless it’s made clear what is really at stake, Westmoreland said.

“I don’t think it’s too early, and I think it is a big story because it will determine the next 10 years of Congress,” he said.

This story first appeared in Roll Call on May 19, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Politics of Guantanamo, Credit Cards, and Guns in National Parks

Last night, Stu was on the Newshour with Jim Lehrer and the Hotline's Amy Walter discussing the politics of Guantanamo, credit cards, and guns in national parks. You can check out the clip here.

With All the Bad News, How Can the NRCC Recruit Candidates?

By Stuart Rothenberg

Over the past few weeks, a handful of potentially strong Republican challengers have jumped into House races. Sid Leiken in Oregon, Frank Guinta in New Hampshire, Van Tran in California and Cory Gardner in Colorado, for example, look to be the kind of recruits whom Republicans didn’t get last cycle.

Leiken, who is running against Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), and Tran, who will challenge Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), are running in districts that the National Republican Congressional Committee hasn’t targeted in many cycles.

Of course, there is no guarantee that these Republicans will turn out to be ideal challengers, or even that they’ll win. On paper, former Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes (D) and Illinois businessman Steve Greenberg (R) looked interesting in the previous cycle. Then, as actual candidates, they flopped.

Given the Democrats’ certain fundraising advantage, the damage to the GOP brand, President Barack Obama’s strong poll numbers, the lack of an effective national Republican message and internal GOP divisions, how are national Republican strategists selling potential candidates on a 2010 run?

Is this first wave of GOP recruits merely the low-hanging fruit? Will the NRCC be able to recruit credible challengers in additional districts that they have ignored over the past few cycles?

And while the NRCC has interesting candidates against DeFazio and Sanchez, will the party have formidable challengers to freshman Democratic Reps. Bobby Bright (Ala.), Harry Teague (N.M.), Alan Grayson (Fla.), Larry Kissell (N.C.) and Mary Jo Kilroy (Ohio), each of whom is more vulnerable than DeFazio or Sanchez?

Republican strategists acknowledge that the national political landscape still isn’t wildly favorable for recruiting, but they argue persuasively that changes since November make recruiting far easier than during the previous two election cycles.

First, Republican operatives note the historical trend that the party controlling the White House loses seats in midterm elections, and they say that trend is one reason why some potential candidates are more interested in running in 2010.

Party strategists also argue that Democrats first elected to the House during the past two cycles have never run in a neutral political environment and therefore have never really been tested. That argument makes some Democrats seem less intimidating than their incumbency might suggest.

But GOP insiders say one factor is more important than any other in explaining the greater interest from potential candidates.

“Some candidates took a pass last time because they didn’t want to have to run in Bush’s shadow. Democrats don’t have Bush to use this time. This time, they’ll have to stand with the president or [Speaker Nancy] Pelosi. We definitely point that out to candidates,” one Republican operative said.

“We are using the same message that Democrats used in 2005: the president,” a Republican strategist echoed. “Whenever you have an activist president — on either end of the ideological spectrum — a lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t run decide that they have to do something. They believe that the president is running the country into a ditch.”

For many reporters and Democrats, this assessment seems odd because Obama’s polling numbers look good. But the president isn’t equally popular everywhere or among all groups, and his administration is already controversial.

Finally, NRCC insiders also say the committee has changed some of its approaches, even borrowing ideas and strategies from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The NRCC’s “Patriot” program is a thinly veiled copy of the DCCC’s “Frontline” program, which is aimed at helping re-elect incumbents.

“From now on, Members will be holding other Members accountable for running strong re-election efforts,” said one insider who expressed frustration and even contempt for past Republican incumbents, such as Reps. John Hostettler (Ind.) and Bill Sali (Idaho), who failed to fundraise or run modern campaigns.

The NRCC is also taking a page out of the DCCC’s playbook by trying to put more districts into play, a very different strategy from the one followed when Republicans controlled the House.

The committee has absorbed what was a small program initially established by GOP Reps. Eric Cantor (Va.), Paul Ryan (Wis.) and Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) — the “Young Guns” program — to help candidates put together quality campaigns and to measure the success of those efforts.

Candidates are required to meet a series of benchmarks that the NRCC (often in coordination with the campaign) identifies, including fundraising goals and a fundraising system; a volunteer database and recruitment goals; an e-mail list, press lists and communications strategies; and media training, vendors and other measures.

Candidates who reach the first set of benchmarks are placed in “On the Radar” status, while those who move on and satisfy the next set of benchmarks reach the “Contender” status. Reaching the top level of benchmarks gets a candidate the status of “Young Gun,” assuring a certain level of NRCC assistance with fundraising and staff. (Certainly sounds something like the DCCC’s “Red to Blue” program, doesn’t it?)

“It’s an interactive program,” said one Republican who is close to the NRCC. “We want to help candidates get there, not merely give them goals and tell them to get back to us when they have met them.”

The NRCC still has a long way to go in candidate recruitment. And potential retirements (and Senate candidacies), financial issues and branding problems could well leave the campaign committee in another hole for the cycle. But at this point, the Republican Party’s national problems haven’t dried up interest in 2010 House bids.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 18, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Republicans Try to Turn the Page

Stu was on Hardball last night talking about RNC Chairman Michael Steele and the state of the Republican Party with NBC's Chuck Todd. Here's the clip.

Parties Prepping for Redistricting Fight

By Nathan L. Gonzales and Lauren W. Whittington

Republicans and Democrats are already organizing and strategizing for their decennial battle over Congressional redistricting, with a decade’s worth of elections hanging in the balance.

While the fight over conducting the census is expected to take center stage over the next year and a half, partisans on both sides of the aisle are keenly aware of what is at stake in the post-2010 redrawing of district boundaries.

Democrats thus far appear to have the upper hand over their GOP counterparts in terms of behind-the-scenes planning for the fight, perhaps a result of the fact that the party lost the overall battle in the last round of redistricting.

Democrats are also now in control of Congress and the White House, which was not the case at the time of the last redraw, and they will no doubt look to the upcoming effort to help cement, and grow, their majority.

Former Rep. Tom Davis (Va.) was deeply involved in the last redistricting as head of the National Republican Congressional Committee from 1999 through 2002.

“They were sleeping last time,” Davis said of Democrats. “They slept through this stuff. I think they’ve gone to school on what we did.”

The upcoming round of redistricting will be unlike any other because it is the first since passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which prohibits the use of soft money and thus severely limits the involvement of Members. Lawmakers can still raise hard dollars for the effort, but party strategists on both sides of the aisle are trying to figure out how to tackle redistricting under the new guidelines.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has tapped fellow California Rep. Mike Thompson (D) to spearhead the party’s redistricting effort.

“We just want to make sure everybody’s ready,” Thompson said. “I’ve been meeting with the different delegations and making sure that any questions that they have can be answered. [That] they know exactly what they can and can’t do. And making sure that the states are ramped up and ready to go so that we don’t get caught flat-footed.”

Traditionally, Democrats have relied on outside groups to handle the nuts and bolts of their redistricting effort, putting them in a better position to adapt to the new rules.

The Democratic effort will utilize a divide-and-conquer strategy, covering the electoral, analytical and legal battles of the redistricting war.

A new entity is forming to head up the party’s legal strategy. According to multiple Democratic sources, it’s likely to be called the Redistricting Trust.

Final details and paperwork for the organization are still being worked out but former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Political Director Brian Smoot will be the executive director and a number of high-level DCCC veterans will be involved as well. The group will focus on developing national and state-specific legal strategies, according to Smoot, who is also a partner with 4C Partners.

The new group will be able to accept non-federal dollars, placing the funding burden squarely on outside groups.

“In 2003, progressive groups attacked redistricting as a political problem, but it was a legal problem,” said Democratic strategist Matt Angle. He stressed the need for progressive groups to embrace the legal cause, as well as the map-drawing and electoral aspects.

In July 2008, representatives from the major groups involved in the redistricting process — including the National Committee for an Effective Congress, Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, and American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees — met at Democratic National Committee headquarters.

The Democratic Governors Association and DLCC are focused on making sure that Democrats have as many seats at the redistricting table as possible. That means winning gubernatorial and state legislative races beginning this year.

“It’s all incidental if you don’t have the seats,” said one Democratic strategist. “It’s important to control the chambers.”

The governorships of 36 states are up for election next year. The governor has a direct role in Congressional remapping (whether it is veto power or appointment of a commission) in all but eight states. State legislatures will draw the lines in 36 states.

The DLCC is also involved in the Foundation for the Future, a Democratic 527 organized in July 2006 to prepare for redistricting.

The AFSCME is also involved with the foundation and party insiders credit the labor union for important work at the state level and bringing financial backing to the table. The NCEC, including Washington Director Mark Gersh, is considered the gold-standard when it comes to number-crunching, data analysis and projecting demographic trends in districts on the Democratic side and is also a key player in the Foundation for the Future.

Democrats view the NCEC’s work as critical because redistricting is more than drawing maps. It’s about understanding population trends in order to draw districts that survive electoral ups and downs. Data analysis is also important because this is the first remapping that will be undertaken with a Democratic-led Justice Department since passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The foundation appears to be the latest version of the National Democratic Redistricting Project, which began in the late 1980s and was led by then-Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.) in the early 1990s.

Then-Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas) led the party’s effort a decade ago through IMPAC 2000, and he is also likely to be involved again.

Angle, Frost’s former chief of staff, worked closely with IMPAC 2000 and has subsequently focused on Democratic efforts in Texas and is working as an outside consultant to the Foundation for the Future. Former DCCC political director and media consultant Peter Cari was executive director of IMPAC 2000 and is likely to be involved in the overall redistricting effort in some capacity.

In 2002, redistricting helped George W. Bush buck history, as Republicans gained seats in the president’s first midterm elections for only the second time since Abraham Lincoln. Fueled by their losses that cycle and a mid-decade redistricting by Republicans in Texas, Democrats are determined to not let that happen again.

“We want to make sure things are fair,” Thompson said. “We saw what happened in Texas where there was pretty unfair tactics used to redistrict that state. We want to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

This story
first appeared in Roll Call on May 18, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

2009-2010 Gubernatorial Ratings

Here are our latest gubernatorial ratings.
# - Moved benefiting Democrats
* - Moved benefiting Republicans

Lean Takeover (4 R, 4 D)
  • CA Open (Schwarzenegger, R)
  • FL Open (Crist, R) #
  • HI Open (Lingle, R)
  • RI Open (Carcieri, R)
  • KS Open (Parkinson, D)
  • OK Open (Henry, D)
  • TN Open (Bredesen, D) *
  • WY Open (Freudenthal, D)
Toss-Up (3 R, 4 D)
  • Brewer (R-AZ) #
  • Gibbons (R-NV)
  • SD Open (Rounds, R)
  • Corzine (D-NJ) *
  • MI Open (Granholm, D)
  • PA Open (Rendell, D)
  • VA Open (Kaine, D)
Narrow Advantage for Incumbent Party (2 R, 2 D)
  • Douglas (R-VT)
  • Pawlenty (R-MN)
  • Doyle (D-WI) *
  • NM Open (Richardson, D)
Clear Advantage for Incumbent Party (5 R, 5 D)
  • Herbert (R-UT)
  • Rell (R-CT)
  • AL Open (Riley, R)
  • GA Open (Perdue, R)
  • SC Open (Sanford, R)
  • Quinn (D-IL)
  • Paterson (D-NY)
  • Ritter (D-CO) *
  • Strickland (D-OH)
  • ME Open (Baldacci, D)
Currently Safe (4 R, 6 D)
  • Heineman (R-NE)
  • Otter (R-ID)
  • Palin (R-AK)
  • Perry (R-TX)
  • Beebe (D-AR)
  • Culver (D-IA)
  • Lynch (D-NH)
  • O'Malley (D-MD)
  • Patrick (D-MA)
  • OR Open (Kulongoski, D) #

Monday, May 18, 2009

Another Election Cycle, Another Couple of Polls to Consider

By Stuart Rothenberg

For some reason, campaign managers and press secretaries never tire of distributing press releases and campaign polls that they apparently assume will be taken at face value and regurgitated by political observers.

We’re six months into the 2010 election cycle, and I have already received a pair of press releases about polls that set off alarms, though for very different reasons.

One of the press releases that I received came from the campaign of Texas Senate hopeful Florence Shapiro, a Republican state Senator.

Shapiro is running for the seat held by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R), who may resign her Senate seat in order to focus on her quest for the GOP gubernatorial nomination next year.

The mid-April press release crows that “Shapiro has highest name ID among announced GOP candidates,” which is a little like saying that Shapiro has the highest favorability ratings when her immediate family was surveyed.

The poll was conducted from March 30 to April 1 by Global Strategy Group, a Democratic firm not in any way connected with Shapiro’s Senate bid. The sample included 603 voters likely to participate in a special election.

The Shapiro campaign’s release cited the Democratic survey and proclaimed that the state Senator’s name identification is more than twice the ID of the “next best known Republican currently running or exploring a campaign for U.S. Senate” and that she “enjoys a +8% net favorability rating,” which is “higher than any other Republican candidate who has taken public steps toward a Senate run.”

The only problem is that none of the other three Republicans who “have taken steps toward a Senate run” — former Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams and state Railroad Commissioners Elizabeth Ames Jones and Michael Williams — is regarded as among the frontrunners in the race, once the field eventually forms.

Most Texas observers expect either Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst or Attorney General Greg Abbott to enter the Senate race if and when Hutchison’s seat becomes vacant.

The Global Strategy Group poll did include Dewhurst in its questionnaire, and the results showed more than twice as many voters familiar with Dewhurst’s name than with Shapiro’s. Dewhurst’s net favorable rating was three times Shapiro’s. Abbott apparently was not tested in the survey.

Shapiro’s press release conveniently left out the Dewhurst numbers, since they weren’t flattering to the state Senator.

The Shapiro press release’s focus on the candidate’s “net favorability rating” advantage over the other announced candidates is also misleading, since it is a net +8 while the largely unknown Jones’ is a statistically identical +5, even though her total name ID is just 8 percent.

The Shapiro release, and the claims contained in it, makes the entire campaign look amateurish.

The other poll and press release comes from the campaign of Congressional hopeful John Garamendi (D), who is running in the expected special election in California’s 10th district, assuming Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D) is confirmed to a State Department post.

As far as I can tell, there is nothing wrong with the survey of 400 likely special election voters conducted in early May by JMM Research for Garamendi, or with the polling memo written by Jim Moore. It’s the breathless press release that accompanied the polling memo and the implication that Garamendi has a huge advantage in the contest.

The reason that Garamendi, the state’s lieutenant governor, leads the race now is that he has been on the ballot frequently for the past 30 years. In fact, Garamendi was on the ballot in California in every even-numbered year between 1974 and 1994, with the exception of 1978 and 1992 (when his wife ran unsuccessfully for a seat in Congress).

He has run for state Assembly, state Senate, state insurance commissioner, state controller, lieutenant governor and governor. Shortly before he released his Congressional poll, he was running in a different race — for governor.

Of course, name ID is important, and Garamendi’s name identification advantage certainly is worth noting. But name ID at the end of a campaign is much more important than before the race has even begun.

And Garamendi’s 11-point advantage over the second-place finisher in the hypothetical ballot test isn’t all that substantial given his name identification advantage.

The sitting lieutenant governor has a name ID of 80 percent but is drawing only 24 percent on the hypothetical Congressional ballot. That means that a large chunk of voters who say they have heard of Garamendi aren’t automatically drawn to him.

The Garamendi folks might also take a moment to consider what happened to Jim Tedisco, a well-known New York Republican state legislator who had been in politics for years. He held an early special election lead over an unknown Democratic opponent — who got known quickly once he went on TV and who overtook the longtime legislator when all the votes were counted.

Garamendi certainly is a very serious contender for this seat. It’s fair to call him the frontrunner. He’s been in politics far longer than his opponents, and that has given him name ID and connections. But the early poll is of limited predictive value, and the lieutenant governor’s campaign staffers might want to note that political longevity isn’t what it was once cracked up to be. Just ask President Barack Obama.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 14, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

New Print Edition: 2009-2010 Governors Outlook

The May 15, 2009 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report is on its way to subscribers.

The print edition of the Report comes out every two weeks. Subscribers get in-depth analysis of the most competitive races in the country, as well as quarterly House and Senate ratings, and coverage of the gubernatorial races nationwide. To subscribe, simply click on the Google checkout button on the website or send a check.

Here is a brief preview of this edition:

2009-2010 Gubernatorial Outlook

After suffering heavy losses over the last four years, Republicans’ best hope for regaining some territory may well be in gubernatorial races. The GOP has the opportunity to pick up governorships in both New Jersey and Virginia this fall. But they could also lose both races and squelch any optimism that had been building in the base.

Democrats currently control 28 governorships – compared to 22 for the GOP – but have to defend a number of open seats in very Republican states. Democratic opportunities in states such as California, Florida, Hawaii, and Rhode Island make a repeat of 1994 (when Democrats lost eleven governorships) extremely unlikely.

For the entire issue, including a breakdown of all 38 races, you must subscribe to the print edition of the Report.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

For Hill Republicans, an Opportunity to Rebrand Their Party

By Stuart Rothenberg

Republicans have begun their “rebranding” campaign by holding a town hall in Northern Virginia. Those efforts surely are necessary, since the party’s standing in polls continues to erode. But any success from the new approach is likely to proceed at a snail’s pace.

It’s difficult to change opinions that have gelled over the past few years, and GOP efforts to reach voters town hall by town hall are likely to be overshadowed by major fights on Capitol Hill, over everything from health care to spending to Supreme Court nominations.

The retirement of Justice David Souter is a case in point, and the fight over his replacement presents Republicans with an interesting conundrum.

Do Capitol Hill Republicans dig in for an Alamo-like stand, opposing President Barack Obama’s nominee right to the bitter end, or do they adopt a more cautious style in evaluating what almost certainly will be a nominee who will likely mirror Souter’s views and merely reconstitute the court’s four-person liberal bloc that already includes Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens?

The problem is more complicated, of course, than merely choosing one strategy. The GOP is divided, and there surely will be a wide variety of opinions of exactly how to respond to the president’s eventual selection.

Some movement conservatives already have begun to gather ammunition for a bloody, protracted fight with the White House, no matter who the president selects, and you can be sure that bookers on the nation’s cable “news” networks will be drawn to the most vociferous and confrontational, not necessarily the most thoughtful.

In other words, Republicans won’t automatically be able to choose their own spokesmen or limit the visibility of party bomb throwers as the debate over Obama’s selection proceeds.

Still, Republican leaders can’t ignore the fact that how party leaders respond to the president’s nominee will affect how the public views the GOP, and that the heavy media coverage over the selection and the Republican response to it will do more to reinforce or change public perceptions of the GOP than will a dozen town halls across the country.

The political realities of Washington, D.C., are clear: Democrats now hold 59 Senate seats and are likely to gain a 60th sometime in the next few months. Republican opposition to a Supreme Court nominee is fruitless unless at least one Democratic Senator opposes the nomination and would side with all 40 Republicans to block a vote.

A truly controversial selection might well give Republicans enough ammunition to delay or derail a nomination, but Obama is more likely to select a nominee who, while liberal, is not an easy target for Republicans. At least that is what Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) concluded after a conversation with the president during which Obama said he would not nominate a “bomb thrower.”

While the Republican knee-jerk reaction to the president’s selection is to fight, wiser heads might opt for a different response.

Democrats have been reasonably successful portraying the GOP as the “party of no.” While Republicans may have had good reasons for opposing the president’s stimulus bill and his budget, that’s not the point. Their opposition has allowed Democrats to portray them as heavily partisan, and voters don’t like the idea that partisanship is driving the decisions of elected officials.

April’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey found 55 percent of respondents saying that Congressional Republicans have been “too stubborn” in dealing with Obama, while only 25 percent said that he has been too stubborn when dealing with them. A clear plurality of those polled, 48 percent, said that Obama has “struck the right balance” in dealing with Congressional Republicans.

Expressions of concern about the Obama selection, followed by announcements by a series of key Republican Senators that they had decided to give the president every benefit of the doubt and would vote to confirm the selection might well be the best strategy for GOP lawmakers, who could both lay out their differences with the nominee (and by implication the president), yet ultimately stress their willingness to accept the president’s choice.

Accepting the inevitable is an old political trick. Republicans could look as if they were reaching out to the president even though they knew that they had few alternatives.

Of course, some on the right who relish confrontation and believe that only drawing a bright line between Obama and the GOP will create the kind of sharp contrast that will benefit conservatives and the Republican Party will be apoplectic at the thought that Republicans would accept a Supreme Court nominee without having first caused a bloodbath.

They will use the nomination as an opportunity to raise money and energize their troops. And they will receive some attention from the national media, as they both rail against Obama and Republicans who they see as insufficiently committed to the battle. But in a battle like this, not everyone will be happy.

Republican elected officials, strategists and activists would do well to look at the Supreme Court vacancy and Obama’s selection as an opportunity to start to rebrand the party — for the tenor and tone of their reaction will do more to define the GOP than will all those town hall meetings.

This column
first appeared in Roll Call on May 11, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Off-Year Shenanigans: What’s a Party Committee to Do?

By Stuart Rothenberg

It’s the off year for the House and Senate campaign committees, which means that most of the time is spent on matters like planning, fundraising and candidate recruitment.

But few campaign operatives are entirely content with doing just that. They’d rather stir the political pot whenever possible, hoping that they are laying the groundwork for the time when real voters are paying attention.

That’s the best way to explain some of the very early maneuvering over the years by the Republican and Democratic campaign committees during this political training camp period.

This cycle, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is already stirring the pot in a couple of places. For months, the DSCC has been churning out press releases blasting former Rep. Rob Simmons (R), who has entered the race against Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.).

On March 16, a DSCC press release demonizing Simmons included a five-year-old quote from him saying that he is a “big fan” of President George W. Bush and that he’s proud to be a Republican.

The release also asserted that Simmons held a fundraiser (in 2004) at a restaurant owned by lobbyist Jack Abramoff, accepted contributions from Abramoff and his wife, and accepted contributions from former Rep. Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) PAC.

Two weeks later, another DSCC release “congratulated” Simmons for “showing his true colors” by “hobnobbing at Republican headquarters with lobbyists who represent Washington special interests.”

Then, just to make sure that even voters who are illiterate got the message, the DSCC released a Web video on April 2 calling Simmons a “special interest Congressman” and a “special interest candidate,” and chiding him for attending “a meet and greet with lobbyists for Shell, Chevron, and Bank of America.”

On one hand, it’s interesting that Democrats have chosen to attack Simmons on his connection to lobbyists and special interests — Dodd’s greatest weakness and the reason the five-term Senator is performing so horrendously in the polls.

In September, the Hartford Courant wrote that Dodd had collected nearly $6 million over the past two years from PACs and employees of finance-related firms. Since then, the incumbent Democrat has been linked in unflattering ways to disgraced mortgage lender Countrywide Financial and even to American International Group, the embattled insurance and financial services company.

You might think that it’s crazy for Democrats to bring up ethics, lobbyists and Washington insiders where Dodd is concerned. Shouldn’t Democrats want the Connecticut Senate race to be about something where Dodd actually looks good? No, say a number of consultants I spoke with about the tactic.

They note that the DSCC’s strategy is right out of the campaign textbook: Convince voters that there is no difference on ethics and lobbyists between Dodd and Simmons, and voters will make their vote choice on other matters, including party, where Dodd has a significant advantage.

But observers also note something both very obvious but often ignored: Nobody is paying attention now except political insiders. Of course, as one Democratic observer reminded me, the DSCC’s audience isn’t primarily Connecticut voters — it is journalists and the “chattering class.”

When I watched the video on YouTube recently, it had recorded just over 2,100 views — hardly an indication that Connecticut voters are receiving the message.

Nothing drove home the point that most real people aren’t paying attention to press releases and Web videos more than the DSCC’s recent “media buy” in Florida last week.

In an April 29 press release, the DSCC trumpeted that its “first ad buy of the 2010 election cycle” was a “hard-hitting spot” direct against potential Senate candidate and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R).

Along with a transcript of the ad, accompanied by a description of the visuals, the release included four paragraphs lambasting Crist for everything from “a very casual work ethic” to the state’s unemployment rate.

In fact, that ad ran only in Tallahassee (the media market accounts for less than 5 percent of the state voters) and the TV buy was microscopic.

Technically, “Mess,” the name of the anti-Crist spot, was the first TV spot aired. But anyone who follows campaigns knows that this was a phantom buy, a phony buy. Voters don’t care about this now, so why should anyone run a real TV buy? And, in fact, the DSCC didn’t.

The DSCC’s audience for the TV spot was Crist himself and Tallahassee insiders. The committee hoped to get him thinking what a campaign would be like and, as one party operative told me, “chip away in Washington, D.C., at the perception that he is untouchable.”

National Democrats are so worried that their chances in the Florida Senate race will nose-dive if Crist gets in that they are trying to do anything they can to dissuade him from becoming a candidate — even a phantom TV buy inflated by media coverage.

The campaign committees do these sorts of things — in this case it’s the DSCC but other committees have run phony ad campaigns before — to manipulate reporters who are so eager to jump on a story that they don’t even discriminate between real news and phony news.

That’s probably reason enough for journalists to be more discriminating when writing about early ad buys, as well as about early campaign developments in general.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 7, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Anti-Establishment Candidates Come in All Shapes and Sizes

By Stuart Rothenberg

Senate primaries in three states already look like classic battles featuring insurgent candidates preparing to take on the preferred choice of “the establishment.” But each contest has its own particular features, and the three races may not produce identical outcomes.

Two of the contests are in Ohio. In the Democratic race, the party establishment has fallen behind Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, who faces Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner and a number of lesser-known candidates in a potentially heated primary. On the GOP side, former Rep. Rob Portman begins with a prohibitive advantage over wealthy businessman Tom Ganley.

In Missouri, Republican Party insiders have picked Rep. Roy Blunt to be their choice to hold retiring Sen. Kit Bond’s (R) seat, but former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman continues to look at a possible primary against Blunt.

Fisher, 57, served in both houses of the state Legislature and as Ohio’s attorney general before being elected lieutenant governor in 2006 on a ticket led by now-Gov. Ted Strickland (D). Strickland quickly endorsed Fisher’s bid for the Senate, and allies of the governor made it clear that Brunner should seek re-election rather than challenge Fisher for the Senate nomination.

But the secretary of state has other ideas.

Brunner, 52, worked in the Ohio secretary of state’s office — under now-Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) — before going into private practice. Later, she served for four years as a Franklin County Common Pleas Court judge, and in 2006, she was elected Ohio’s secretary of state.

Unlike Fisher, she has never lost an election. In 1994 (a horrendous year for Democrats), Fisher lost his bid for re-election as the state’s attorney general, and four years later, he lost an open-seat gubernatorial race to Bob Taft (R).

Surprisingly, given the lieutenant governor’s more frequent races and more extensive government service, Fisher and Brunner start off as virtually even in Quinnipiac University polling, both in the ballot test and in personal ratings. But Fisher held a substantial financial advantage at the end of the first quarter.

Brunner raised just $207,000 in the first quarter and ended March with $193,000 in the bank, while Fisher raised just over $1 million in the first three months of the year, ending March with $1 million on hand.

Still, I wouldn’t count Brunner out yet.

Ohio observers believe that Brunner has some national fundraising potential and will eventually earn the support of EMILY’s List, which is likely to help her raise considerable funds — at least enough to compete with Fisher. And those same observers believe that Brunner will be a more aggressive candidate than Fisher. In fact, most Republicans I spoke with expect her to be the Democratic nominee.

On the GOP side, Portman, 53, is a prohibitive favorite for his party’s nomination, but the prospect of him facing a wealthy businessman who may be willing to spend $8 million in a primary has some Republicans nervous.

A former Congressman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and U.S. trade representative, Portman has the backing of virtually the entire Republican establishment in the state. But part of his strength is a weakness: his extensive political experience and service in the administration of George W. Bush.

Ganley has no political record, but he also has no track record as a candidate. There is no way of knowing what kind of candidate he will be, whether he will actually spend millions and what kind of campaign he will cobble together. In any case, he’s not likely to upend Portman in a primary.

In Missouri, Blunt, 59, is the establishment choice for the GOP Senate nod. A former Missouri secretary of state, he was elected to the House in 1996 and served for a number of years as the party’s Whip. He lost a bid for Majority Leader in early 2006.

Blunt doesn’t yet have a major opponent for the Republican nomination, but Steelman, 50, certainly looks as if she will jump into the contest. She has already earned a reputation as an anti-establishment Republican.

Portraying herself as a “reformer,” Steelman brags about stopping payment on a check that constituted settlement of a sexual harassment complaint against the state agricultural director.

She publicly criticized the handling of the matter by then-Gov. Matt Blunt’s (R) administration, and she ruffled more establishment feathers last year when she ran in a primary against party insiders’ choice for governor, then-Rep. Kenny Hulshof (R). She lost that race by less than 5 points, a surprisingly narrow margin that demonstrates the appeal of her insurgent “reform” message.

Steelman lacks Blunt’s poise, and she isn’t as articulate as he is. But she also doesn’t have the heavy baggage that he does — his years in the GOP House leadership and the same last name as his son, Matt, who had a less-than-successful single term as governor. Whatever her weaknesses, Steelman isn’t burdened by the political liabilities that may make it difficult for Blunt to win a general election against the near-certain Democratic nominee, Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan.

In a sense, Steelman, Ganley and Brunner are all “challengers,” since they are running against candidates who have the approval of party insiders and power brokers. The question is whether they will have the financial resources, candidate skills, campaign savvy and message to allow them to win primaries and then run formidable general elections. Right now, two of them appear to have the potential to do so.

This column
first appeared in Roll Call on May 4, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

New Print Edition: California 10 & Mississippi 1

The May 4, 2009 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report is on its way to subscribers.

The print edition of the Report comes out every two weeks. Subscribers get in-depth analysis of the most competitive races in the country, as well as quarterly House and Senate ratings, and coverage of the gubernatorial races nationwide. To subscribe, simply click on the Google checkout button on the website or send a check.

Here is a brief preview of this edition:

California 10: Waiting for Tauscher
By Nathan L. Gonzales

A handful of Northern California Democrats are praying that Cong. Ellen Tauscher (D) paid her taxes on time.

President Barack Obama nominated the moderate congresswoman to be undersecretary of arms control and international security at the State Department. And while she has yet to be confirmed, the lack of a vacancy in California’s 10th District hasn’t stopped candidates from running to replace her.

State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D) is in, and has Tauscher’s blessing. But newly-elected state Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan (D) is running as well, and just to make things more interesting, Lt. Gov. John Garamendi (D) is switching from the gubernatorial race to the congressional contest.

In another time (when Republicans’ popularity wasn’t in the tank) and in another place (before redistricting), California 10 was a competitive seat. But in the current environment, Republicans will be hard-pressed to challenge in this special election. For the full story, you must subscribe to the print edition of the Report.

Mississippi 1: Returning to Form?

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Winning has consequences. After winning 53 seats in the House over the last four years, Democrats find themselves defending a number of Republican-leaning seats, including Mississippi’s 1st District.

Democrat Travis Childers was first elected in a 2008 special election, taking over a GOP seat and providing another clue that the electoral bath of 2006 was not over for the Republicans. Luckily for Childers, Democrats have a large enough majority in the House that they can afford to lose his vote and still pass significant legislation.

Republicans will be combing through Childers’ voting record and looking to couple him with a national Democratic Party that is far more liberal than his district. Republicans are also anxious to avoid a divisive primary, such as the one they experienced in last year’s special election, and keep their sights on winning back the seat. For the full story, you must subscribe to the print edition of the Report.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Specter Switch Could Send Ripples Far and Wide for Both Parties

By Stuart Rothenberg

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter’s party switch is one of those developments that both reflects the depth of the problems facing the GOP and could begin a new chapter for some Democratic officeholders who will face additional political challenges down the road.

Republican strategists are downright gloomy over the gleeful reaction of conservative activists to Specter’s exit.

To those conservatives, Specter was never a reliable Republican anyway, and they see his moderate record — including his support for the stimulus package and the omnibus appropriations bill, for abortion rights and equal pay, and for a comprehensive solution on immigration reform — as diluting the party’s brand and empowering Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and President Barack Obama.

But to Republican strategists, many of whom are personally conservative and have major policy differences with Specter, the grass roots’ reaction to the Senator’s party switch demonstrates that those activists don’t yet recognize the GOP’s fundamental problems and therefore aren’t ready to recruit candidates with broader appeal, particularly in parts of the country that are more liberal on cultural and environmental matters.

Thirty years ago, it was Democrats who imposed a rigid test on abortion, gun control and military spending, dismissing moderate Democrats as insufficiently pure. But party insiders learned their lesson after losing elections they assumed they would win, and the party started recruiting candidates who fit their districts.

The GOP is and will remain a conservative party. But unless its grass-roots activists come to accept the importance of nominating strong candidates who would be strong legislators, the party will be shut out of too many regions to enable it to be the strong national party that it was during the 1980s and 1990s.

Conservative activists don’t need to like Specter or agree with all of his votes, but cheering his exit from the party demonstrates that they don’t understand the seriousness of their political troubles or how they can rebuild their brand.

But if Specter’s switch is a headache for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) — and it surely is — it is potentially an even bigger headache for Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and dozens of other more moderate House and Senate Democrats who don’t agree with their party’s liberal wing and depend on the votes of moderate and conservative voters for their political survival.

Lincoln, who could well face a stiff challenge next year, surely would prefer that Republicans block some of the more liberal elements of the Obama/Congressional Democrats’ agenda, whether on health care, energy or government spending.

But now, with Specter switching teams and Democrats about to have 60 seats after Minnesota Democrat Al Franken is seated, Lincoln can’t count on the GOP restraining the Democratic majority. She and her more moderate allies in the Democratic Conference — from Nebraska’s Ben Nelson to Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and even Indiana’s Evan Bayh — will have to be the ones who restrain their colleagues, if they have the political will.

This is also likely to be true for dozens of House Democrats who were elected from Southern and rural districts, and who will now be expected by their constituents to be more active in blocking higher taxes, bigger deficits and government expansion.

While those Democrats are still free to vote against their party — thereby establishing their “independence” and “moderation” — they also must know that their political standing back home rests as much on what their party does on Capitol Hill as how they vote as individual legislators.

For Lincoln, for example, voting against big-ticket, big-government Democratic initiatives may not be enough to inoculate her against Republican attacks blaming her party for the country’s direction.

Indeed, this is exactly what happened to Republicans across the country the past two cycles, in swing districts that were both Democratic-leaning and Republican-leaning. Many Republicans, such as then-Sens. Jim Talent (Mo.), Mike DeWine (Ohio) and Gordon Smith (Ore.) and then-Reps. Christopher Shays (Conn.), Rob Simmons (Conn.) and Nancy Johnson (Conn.), lost not because voters were particularly angry with them, but because voters were unhappy and angry with Washington and the GOP.

The good news for Republicans now is that Democrats own everything, giving greater salience to the GOP argument that voters (and contributors) need to support Republican candidates and the party’s campaign committees so that Democrats don’t have a “blank check.”

Specter’s switch may also embolden Democrats in the nation’s capital to move further left than what the country is comfortable with, causing a voter backlash and internal party fissures. This could, in turn, bring a new focus by the media on differences within the Democratic Party rather than on differences between the two parties.

Democrats have every reason to be euphoric about Specter’s switch, but at the end of the day, it may not be the game changer that they hope. For grass-roots Republicans, Specter’s switch ought not be an opportunity to celebrate, but rather, a time to consider the party’s stunning demise.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on April 30, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.