Monday, September 28, 2009

In Virginia, Culture War Looks Very Much Alive on One Side

By Stuart Rothenberg

Somebody needs to tell Virginia gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds that the “culture wars” are over. Apparently, he didn’t get the memo.

Deeds is banking on completing his comeback in this year’s Virginia gubernatorial race by portraying Republican nominee Bob McDonnell, the commonwealth’s former attorney general, as a Neanderthal who opposes abortion, birth control and women in the workplace.

If that isn’t a “cultural” argument, I don’t know what is.

And yet, it was just two months ago that Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the left- leaning Center for American Progress, assured us in an article, “The Coming End of the Culture Wars,” that “culture wars, far from coming back, are likely coming to an end as a defining aspect of our politics.”

And it was less than six months before that Peter Beinart, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, assured us in his Daily Beast post, “The End of the Culture Wars,” that President Barack Obama “wants to remove culture from the public debate.”

The president, wrote Beinart, thinks many conservative white Protestants and Catholics “will look beyond culture when they enter the voting booth as long as he and other Democrats don’t ram cultural liberalism down their throats.”

And 18 months ago, in March 2008, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. wrote that the questions that “will most engage us will be about survival and prosperity, not religion and culture.”

Teixeira, Beinart and Dionne aren’t completely wrong, of course. The economy has pushed cultural issues to the back burner, and while Obama holds predictably liberal views on abortion and gay marriage (as evidenced by the president’s recent statement that the Defense of Marriage Act is “discriminatory” and “should be repealed”), he has not lectured the country about them.

Deeds, on the other hand, is using cultural issues as his ultimate wedge in Northern Virginia, and as we have seen recently, the White House (not to mention Democratic National Committee Chairman and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine) is very much supportive of Deeds’ candidacy.

As reporters Anita Kumar and Jon Cohen wrote in the Washington Post on Sunday, “Deeds has made McDonnell’s 20-year-old thesis and his views on women centerpieces of his campaign, particularly in the more liberal, vote-rich northern part of the state.”

Deeds is now airing two different TV spots on cultural issues, citing McDonnell’s alleged positions against abortion, birth control “even for married couples” and working women.

This emphasis is interesting, considering that the top concern of voters is not cultural issues but the economy, at least according to the Post’s own poll, which showed that issue (the economy/jobs/unemployment) far ahead of other issues in the minds of voters.

After that, voters were most concerned about a quartet of issues: education, health care, taxes and transportation.

The same poll showed voters trusting McDonnell more than Deeds on the economy and jobs (48 percent to 43 percent), taxes (50 percent to 39 percent) and transportation (46 percent to 38 percent), while they trusted Deeds on health care (47 percent to 43 percent).

Yet Deeds continues to pound away, at least in Northern Virginia, on culture, and he is doing so for one reason and only one reason: He figures that it is good politics.

Deeds has been underperforming in crucial Northern Virginia, and his campaign wisely decided that hitting McDonnell on abortion and other cultural issues will peel off suburban moderate voters not enamored of Deeds’ rural roots from the Republican and motivate them to turn out in November for the Democratic ticket.

So far, few commentators have remarked about Deeds’ strategy given the top issues of the day. You can be sure that if it were McDonnell, not Deeds, who was bringing up abortion and other cultural issues, he’d be criticized for being divisive and for focusing on allegedly tangential matters at a time of economic distress.

Indeed, that was the message in a Nov. 10, 2005, E.J. Dionne Jr. column written shortly after Kaine’s election as governor. Dionne wrote that a “jovial” then-Gov. Mark Warner (D) talked about the “failure” of the GOP’s gubernatorial campaign, and its focus on hot-button social issues, and Warner stressed that voters preferred candidates who dealt with questions that governors “actually spend 98 percent of their time working on,” such as the budget, health care, education, transportation and job growth.

Instead, the Washington Post cheered Deeds on in a mid-August editorial for talking about abortion and called the McDonnell campaign “disingenuous and wrong” for complaining that Deeds’ attacks were divisive.

And oddly, no one has mentioned that Deeds, who ran as a moderate in the primary, is now relying on a pro-abortion-rights message usually employed by liberal Democrats in general elections.

“I think somebody like me, from my part of the state, can bring people together, can create consensus,” Deeds says in a new TV spot that is running at the same time that he is attacking his opponent in the two abortion/birth control ads.

It’s too soon to say whether Deeds’ strategy will work. Democratic conventional wisdom over the past few years says it won’t, and if Mark Warner was correct back in 2005, Deeds is toast. But, in any case, reports of the death of cultural issues have been greatly exaggerated.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on September 24, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Seniors, Health Care and Their Impact on the 2010 Midterms

By Stuart Rothenberg

The nation’s two main political parties are a little like an old married couple. Both are carrying chips on their shoulders from past slights and injustices, real and imagined. It’s all about “getting even” these days — plus a dose of short-term politics for good measure.

The current fight over health care reform, and particularly over how seniors view the debate, is a clear case in point.

Senior citizens remain a crucial electoral group, both because of their attention to politics and because they vote, even in midterms. So the two parties are jockeying for position, trying to portray themselves as “friends” of seniors and the opposing party as an enemy.

In both 2004 and 2008, exit polls showed that voters age 65 and older constituted 16 percent of the presidential year electorate. But in 2006, voters 65 and older constituted 19 percent of the midterm electorate. That’s a significant difference.

Total turnout drops noticeably from the presidential year to the midterm election, and participation among lower-turnout groups (i.e., younger voters, African-Americans and voters at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder) traditionally drops off more than among higher turnout groups.

The overall drop in participation translates into the increased importance of seniors during midterms, and that’s particularly the case next year because of the heavy media attention given to health care and Medicare this year.

Seniors age 65 and older were a particular problem for President Barack Obama last year, both in the Democratic primaries (against then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton), and also in the general election.

Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who lost to Obama by about 7 points nationally, carried voters 65 and older by 8 points, 53 percent to 45 percent, according to the national exit poll. That was the only age cohort won by the Republican.

Obama carried voters 18-29 years of age by 66 percent to 32 percent, and he won voters age 30-44 by 6 points, 52 percent to 46 percent. Voters in the largest age demographic, 45- to 64-year-olds, split almost evenly between the two candidates, 50 percent for Obama and 49 percent for McCain.

Recent polling has shown seniors particularly skeptical about the president’s health care agenda.

A late August survey by Republican polling firm OnMessage Inc. showed only 39 percent of voters age 65 and older approving of the president’s job performance on health care, while 51 percent disapproved.

In an effort to tweak Democrats and use an issue that Democratic political strategists have been using against GOP candidates and the Republican Party for at least the past 30 years, the Republican National Committee recently aired a morning TV spot on FOX News’ “Fox & Friends” and MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” — as well as more heavily in the Panama City, Fla., media market.

The ad featured RNC Chairman Michael Steele urging Congress to pass a senior citizens’ bill of rights.

While the ad buy wasn’t significant enough to have much bite, except possibly in the single Florida media market, it reflects the view of GOP strategists that seniors (along with independents, of course) will be a key component in their party’s midterm election rebound.

Republicans chuckle that when Democratic Members of Congress started to talk about Medicare “savings” to pay for health care “reform,” it presented them with an opportunity to give Democrats a dose of their own medicine.

Most Democrats (and some in the media) apparently don’t see the humor — or the irony — in the GOP tactic, instead preferring to complain about Republican hypocrisy.

But Democrats certainly are aware of their vulnerability with seniors, and they quickly fired back with a TV spot of their own, though party insiders say that the ad buy had been in the works before the RNC ad hit and wasn’t a “response” to the very light Republican TV buy.

The Democratic National Committee-produced TV spot, “Republicans Want to End Medicare,” charges that Republicans have “voted to abolish Medicare for future generations” and includes photographs of former President George W. Bush and former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

The ad ends with the announcer saying “The Republican Party: No friend of Seniors,” as the same words appear on the TV screen.

The DNC put more than $100,000 behind the ad, running it on national and Washington, D.C., cable TV stations and in 10 districts represented by GOP incumbents.

We are likely to see more of these kinds of skirmishes between now and next November, as the two parties try to define themselves and their opponents, and to woo seniors. But Democrats, almost certain to lose some ground with seniors, must find a way to offset those losses by motivating groups who turned out in big numbers last time for Obama but normally vote in fewer numbers in midterm elections.

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

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

2010 House Ratings

Here are our latest House ratings.

#- Moved benefiting Democrats
* - Moved benefiting Republicans

Pure Toss-Up (3 R, 11 D)
  • AL 2 (Bright, D) *
  • ID 1 (Minnick, D) *
  • IL 10 (Open; Kirk, R)
  • MD 1 (Kratovil, D) *
  • MS 1 (Childers, D) *
  • NH 1 (Shea-Porter, D) *
  • NH 2 (Open; Hodes, D) *
  • NM 2 (Teague, D) *
  • NY 23 (Open; McHugh, R)
  • OH 1 (Driehaus, D) *
  • OH 15 (Kilroy, D) *
  • PA 6 (Open; Gerlach, R) #
  • PA 7 (Open; Sestak, D) *
  • VA 5 (Periello, D) *
Toss-Up/Tilt Republican (1 R, 1 D)
  • LA 3 (Open; Melancon, D) *
  • WA 8 (Reichert, R) #
Toss-Up/Tilt Democratic (0 R, 5 D)
  • CO 4 (Markey, D) *
  • FL 8 (Grayson, D) *
  • FL 24 (Kosmas, D) *
  • IL 14 (Foster, D) *
  • MI 7 (Schauer, D) *

Lean Republican (2 R, 0 D)
  • CA 3 (Lungren, R)
  • CA 44 (Calvert, R)
Lean Democratic (0 R, 3 D)
  • AL 5 (Griffith, D)
  • NY 24 (Arcuri, D) *
  • NY 29 (Massa, D) *
Republican Favored (9 R, 0 D)
  • AK A-L (Young, R)
  • CA 45 (Bono Mack, R)
  • MI 11 (McCotter, R)
  • MN 3 (Paulsen, R)
  • MN 6 (Bachmann, R)
  • NE 2 (Terry, R) #
  • OH 2 (Schmidt, R) #
  • OH 12 (Tiberi, R) #
  • PA 15 (Dent, R) #
Democrat Favored (2 R, 11 D)
  • AZ 5 (Mitchell, D) *
  • CA 47 (Sanchez, D)
  • DE A-L (Open; Castle, R) #
  • GA 8 (Marshall, D)
  • LA 2 (Cao, R)
  • MO 4 (Skelton, D) *
  • NY 19 (Hall, D)
  • NY 20 (Murphy, D)
  • NC 8 (Kissell, D) #
  • OH 18 (Space, D) *
  • PA 10 (Carney, D) #
  • TX 17 (Edwards, D)
  • VA 2 (Nye, D)
Total seats in play: 48
Republican seats: 17
Democratic seats: 31

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

New Print Edition: 2010 House Overview

The September 18, 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 the introduction to this edition:

House Outlook For 2010

The national political landscape has changed noticeably over the past few months, with Republicans the beneficiaries.

The President’s standing has weakened, Democrats are on the defensive on the economy, spending and health care, and key midterm voting groups – including seniors and Independents – are moving away from the Democrats and toward the GOP.

Tracking with those changes is an uptick in Republican fundraising and a surge in Republican recruiting and optimism. Democratic strategists understand that the dynamics of 2009-2010 are – and will be – very different from the previous two cycles, and they are taking steps to minimize the damage.

The cycle is starting to look more and more like a typical midterm election, with the majority party (in this case the Democrats) trying to localize elections by beating up their Republican opponents, and the out-party (in this case the GOP) trying to ride a wave of change and dissatisfaction – and seeking to have voters “send a message” to President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

We’ve moved a number of races, but it’s still early, and we expect many more races to develop that are not now on our chart. Eventually, this should put more Democratic seats at risk.

Democratic control of the House is not now at risk, and Republicans could gain anywhere from only a handful of seats to a couple of dozen or more, depending on how things develop over the next year. Two things seem clear: the NRCC’s 2006 and 2008 long nightmare is over, and Democrats must localize races to limit their losses in 2010.

Subscribers get a district-by-district breakdown of the most competitive races in the print edition of the Report.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Ohio 15: For Some Incumbents, Vulnerability Is Already a Fact of Life

By Stuart Rothenberg

It’s just after Labor Day of the off year, but at least a dozen House incumbents who narrowly won last year already have formidable opponents for 2010. One of the most vulnerable surely is Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy (D-Ohio), a freshman who represents Union and Madison counties, as well as a part of Franklin County. (She represents all but the east side of Columbus.)

Kilroy served two terms on the Columbus Board of Education before winning election on the Franklin County Commission in 2000. Four years later, she won a second term. In 2006, she ran for Congress against then-Rep. Deborah Pryce (R). While late polling in that race showed Kilroy ahead of Pryce, who was then in the GOP leadership, the Congresswoman won re-election, by just 1,062 votes. Most observers (including me) were surprised.

Pryce took the close call as an opportunity to leave Congress as a winner, opening up a swing district that had been inching toward Democrats and seemed almost certain to go Democratic in 2008. Republicans had recruiting problems in the district until Steve Stivers, who had been appointed to fill a vacant state Senate seat, reversed an earlier decision and decided to make an uphill run for Congress.

Given her previous race, the lack of an incumbent, the public’s desire for change and the Republicans’ disastrous image both in the state and nationally, Kilroy looked like an obvious favorite to win the contest.

On election night, almost complete results showed her trailing very narrowly. But a few days later, when all of the results were in, Kilroy won by 2,312 votes — a margin of less than 1 point.

Kilroy spent $2.6 million in the race compared with Stivers’ $2.4 million, with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spending almost double what the National Republican Congressional Committee did in the district — $2.1 million to $930,000.

This time Stivers is back, and the landscape is almost certain to be dramatically better for the Republican.

Last year, Gov. Ted Strickland (D) was popular, while outgoing President George W. Bush was a weight around the neck of his party and his party’s Congressional candidates. At the same time, presidential nominee Barack Obama was a strong motivator for turnout among African-Americans, young people (Ohio State University is located in the district), Democrats and many independents. Obama won the district 54 percent to 45 percent.

This cycle, Strickland’s numbers are down and the Ohio GOP has begun its rebound. Democrats won all but one of the statewide offices in 2006 (Mary Taylor squeezed out a win in the state auditor’s race at the same time as the GOP gubernatorial nominee was losing by 24 points and the party’s sitting U.S. Senator was losing by more than 12 points), but virtually every single one of the statewide races should be competitive in 2010. No matter how those races fall next November, the state landscape will be different, and vastly improved for Republicans, than it was in 2008.

Maybe more important, 2010 will be about Obama and Kilroy, not Bush and Stivers. Kilroy now has a record on controversial federal issues, including votes on a climate change bill, with its cap-and-trade provision, and stimulus bill (both of which she supported), to say nothing of health care reform.

While the Congresswoman’s record certainly will please some, Republicans will be able to paint her votes in an unfavorable light, particularly if unemployment remains high, the economy’s rebound is sluggish, and the deficit balloons.

Moreover, midterm elections tend to bring out voters who are dissatisfied and want to express their displeasure. As of now, that should help Republicans because conservatives are angry and recent polling suggests that independent voters, who behaved liked Democrats for the past two election cycles, are starting to look more like Republicans in their displeasure with Obama.

Finally, last year, two lesser candidates on the ballot drew almost 27,000 votes. One of them was a Libertarian, and that party may well field another candidate next year. But the other name on the ballot, Don Eckhart, was an Independent who opposed abortion and stem cell research and was endorsed by Ohio Right to Life.

Eckhart drew 12,915 votes last time — almost certainly taking more votes away from Stivers than Kilroy. While it’s unclear whether another pro-lifer will be on the ballot next year, the Columbus Dispatch reported in July that Eckhart said he does not plan to run again.

Democrats are already dusting off some of the same attacks that they used last year against Stivers, calling him a lobbyist for the banking industry. Given the industry’s reputation, the charge undoubtedly will resonate with some. But it’s not new.

Kilroy will need to alter the fundamentals of next year’s race by making it a referendum on the challenger, Stivers. That’s not impossible, but it is difficult, especially because Stivers has already been under the microscope.

Last time, Stivers and the NRCC tried to make the race about Kilroy, but they failed because the electorate’s mood was so strongly inclined against the GOP.

Kilroy is sure to be well-funded, and the district is so narrowly divided that a close race appears to be inevitable. But the arithmetic is very difficult for the Congresswoman, and that makes her one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country.

This column
first appeared in Roll Call on September 17, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Parties Watching 2009 Races for Clues

By Nathan L. Gonzales

With the midterm elections more than a year away, all eyes are on this fall’s gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey. But instead of simply tallying wins and losses, party operatives are digging below the surface for clues as to what the political environment will be like next year.

In Virginia, Republicans are watching how former state Attorney General Bob McDonnell (R) performs in three Congressional districts that span three very distinct regions of the commonwealth: Southside (Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello’s 5th district), the Valley (Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s 6th district) and Southwest (Democratic Rep. Rick Boucher’s 9th district).

Republicans believe both Perriello and Boucher are vulnerable, but they’re looking for broader implications for other GOP-leaning districts that are currently represented by Democrats.

“If we get ... to the Bush 2000 number in those regions then we will have ‘bounced back’ in our base areas,” according to one House GOP strategist, referring to George W. Bush’s vote totals in the 2000 presidential race. “That’s the first step toward getting healthy.”

George W. Bush received 55 percent in the 5th and 9th districts and 60 percent in the 6th in 2000, when he faced then-Vice-President Al Gore. But Democrat Mark Warner outperformed Gore’s percentage by at least 10 points in the trio of districts in his successful 2001 gubernatorial run. And Gov. Tim Kaine (D) did about 8 points better than Gore in the 5th and 6th when he was elected to the governor’s mansion in 2005.

Kaine equaled Gore’s 2000 percentage in the 9th only because it was GOP nominee Jerry Kilgore’s home district. In similar fashion, McDonnell may have a hard time racking up big margins in the Shenandoah Valley and southwestern Virginia because his opponent, state Sen. Creigh Deeds (D), is from the 6th district. But Republicans believe their nominee will do well.

Both parties are also looking at how specific demographic groups perform statewide, including suburban voters, seniors, African-Americans and college students. All of them were keys to President Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, both in Virginia and elsewhere, and they will go a long way in determining which party is successful in 2010.

If McDonnell does well in Loudoun, Prince William and Stafford counties in the Northern Virginia suburbs, as well as Henrico County (a Richmond suburb) and the city of Chesapeake, Republicans believe it could foreshadow their ability to win over suburban voters in other states for the first time in four years.

Seniors have traditionally been an important voting group in midterm elections because of their propensity to vote. And Republicans believe Democrats gave them a window of opportunity by mentioning Medicare as part of the broader health care reform debate.

Meanwhile, both parties are interested in how dramatic the drop in turnout among African-Americans and college students will be when Obama is not on the ballot this fall.

Plus, overall turnout in both states is likely to be even lower next year because of the absence of any statewide or legislative elections.

In 2001, the Republican National Committee used the off-year gubernatorial elections to test-drive its 72 Hour Task Force. The RNC targeted areas with different get-out-the-vote tactics in an effort to hone its ground game for the 2002 midterm elections and ultimately Bush’s 2004 re-election. But this year, Republicans are taking a different approach.

“We’re done with experimenting,” one Republican strategist said. “We need to win.”

In the end, the RNC will spend at least $7 million in Virginia to help McDonnell take over the governorship after eight years of Democratic control. At least $5 million of that total will be spent on the ground in what one strategist called a massive, “Obama-style” get-out-the-vote effort.

“It’s an acknowledgement that the Obama campaign was in every way superior than the McCain campaign at getting people to the polls,” said the GOP strategist, referencing Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) failed bid for the presidency.

The Democratic National Committee, led by Kaine has also committed $5 million to the race.

But with Democratic nominees in both New Jersey and Virginia down in the polls, and facing the real possibility of losing both states, Democrats are quicker to downplay the 2009 results and much slower to draw any conclusions for 2010.

“The race will be decided by Virginia voters,” said one DNC official trying to set expectations low. “We’re not using it as any sort of litmus test.”

Strategists on both sides of the aisle do seem to agree that the New Jersey race is more an anomaly than a road map to the midterm elections.

“New Jersey is tougher,” according to one House GOP operative. “It appears to be more of a referendum on [incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon] Corzine than anything else.”

If former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie (R) defeats Corzine, it will be Republicans’ first statewide victory in more than a dozen years. Christie will need Democrats to cross over in order to win, but that doesn’t mean GOP candidates nationwide should expect Democratic support in next year’s midterms.

House Democratic strategists aren’t dismissing the New Jersey results entirely. They’re interested in the 3rd district, where Rep. John Adler (D) took over a Republican-held open seat in 2008 and could potentially be vulnerable next year.

There is a danger in projecting 2010 results simply based on 2009 outcomes. When Republicans won New Jersey and Virginia in 1993, it was the beginning of a tidal wave that reached its peak a year later. But when Republicans lost New Jersey and Virginia in 2001, they still made limited gains in 2002.

Even if they lose both governorships this fall and the expected special election in New York’s 23rd district, Democrats don’t consider the whole year a loss. They held New York’s 20th district in a competitive special election this spring, held a state House seat in Iowa, held a state Senate seat in Louisiana and took over a state Senate seat in Kentucky.

Rest assured that the party that wins big this fall will say it’s just a taste of what’s to come next year. The party that loses will be channeling former Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) and dusting off the “all politics is local” mantra.

This story first appeared in Roll Call on September 15, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

South Carolina 2: Forget Health Care and Afghanistan: Let’s All Talk About Joe Wilson

By Stuart Rothenberg

The idea that South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson (R) created a firestorm about anything is amusing. Who, other than his buddies in the House and his constituents in the Palmetto State, has ever heard of the guy?

But the 2nd district Congressman’s ill-advised, improper and inappropriate shout during President Barack Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress got Wilson more bad publicity than he ever could have imagined. Learn to control yourself, Congressman.

Having said that, most of the attention to and outrage about Wilson’s behavior is pretty silly. The guy acted like a jerk. He apologized. Fine, let’s move on. Personally, I think he should have quickly apologized from the House floor, since that’s where he made his blunder. But it’s not that big a deal.

Still, we live in an era when much of politics is about tactics, not ideas, so, confronted by a conundrum about health care, uncertainty about what to do about climate change and energy, and unappealing alternatives regarding Afghanistan, Democrats and many in the media decided that the No. 1 topic of the day was Wilson’s “You lie!” rebuke of Obama.

The Connecticut Democratic Party, for example, quickly issued a press release demanding that Republican Senate candidate Rob Simmons, a former House Member, “return” the $8,000 that Wilson had donated to Simmons years ago (before Wilson acted like a jerk last week). This is a standard tactic — both parties do it — even if it’s nonsense.

Less than 24 hours after Wilson’s screw-up, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was out with a fundraising e-mail about the South Carolina Republican’s behavior. Democratic fundraisers are no fools, and they wasted no time in trying to get angry Democratic contributors to dig deep.

Given how public opinion has changed regarding the president — and Congress — over the past six weeks, it’s hard to blame Congressional Democrats and their allies on MSNBC for trying to change the subject.

But let’s get real: Wilson doesn’t even rise to the importance of a footnote in history.

Wilson is getting credit for reviving a Democratic Party that seemed very much down in the dumps. Contributions to Wilson’s likely 2010 Democratic opponent, Rob Miller, skyrocketed. The DCCC reported on Thursday afternoon that Miller had taken in “more than $200,000 since Wilson’s outburst” from “5,000 new contributors.” By Friday afternoon, the fundraising total was over $800,000.

Influential Washington Post writer Chris Cillizza concluded that Wilson re-energized the Democratic base and helped “remind liberals that when compared to the alternative, the plan being put forward by Obama is far better.”

My friends at the Cook Political Report quickly changed their rating of Wilson’s re-election prospects, from safe Republican to likely Republican, though they didn’t change their fundamental evaluation of the seat.

“This conservative seat remains relatively secure,” they wrote, adding that the controversy looks like little more than “a distraction for the GOP.”

Still, that didn’t stop the DCCC from sending around the ratings change. Nor did it stop some at the liberal Daily Kos blog from encouraging like-minded combatants to support Miller, who lost to Wilson by 8 points in 2008 and is running again.

Is the “Joe Wilson controversy” likely to alter the health care debate, the future of the Obama presidency, the outcome of the midterm elections or the fate of Wilson, himself?

We won’t know the answer to any of these questions for months, but count me as skeptical that it will have much long-term impact at all.

The Wilson brouhaha is reminiscent of the Van Jones brouhaha, which percolated for a few days as conservatives, Fox News Channel and some mainstream reporters drove themselves into a tizzy over the administration official’s vulgar words and strange views about 9/11 (which he disavowed). But in the grand scheme of things, that, too, was a mere bump in the road.

When we all get back to discussing and fighting over health care reform — about the cost, the extent of coverage, the role of the bureaucracy and the inclusion (or not) of a public insurance option — the Wilson stuff will be quickly forgotten.

Two weeks from now, will still be angry at Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) will still be so worried about her re-election that she opposes a public option, and Republicans will still score points with seniors and conservatives worried about a “government takeover of health care.”

As for Wilson, who has also seen a fundraising windfall from the controversy, he remains, at least at this point, a solid favorite for re-election.

Miller, who drew 46 percent against Wilson last year, will have a bigger war chest next time, but he will also face greater hurdles.

Miller spent a considerable $624,000 in 2008, meaning he ran a real campaign. The combination of that cash, plus Obama’s appeal and the worst political environment for Republicans since at least 1982 (if not 1976), helped Miller add about 9 points to the showing of Wilson’s 2006 Democratic opponent, Michael Ray Ellisor, who did not raise enough money that year to file a federal fundraising report.

Given that Obama drew 45 percent of the vote in Wilson’s district in 2008, Miller’s percentage looks somewhat less than remarkable.

Wilson did energize liberals, but that was bound to happen anyway. The bloggers and cable TV talkers would have made sure of that. Tactics, after all, is what it’s all about these days.

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

Monday, September 14, 2009

Poll Results Daunting for Democrats in ’09 Gubernatorial Races

By Stuart Rothenberg

Given that I’ve spent the past 30 years reporting on and analyzing candidates, campaigns and elections, it should come as no surprise that I believe that campaigns matter. I’ve seen more than enough candidates who appeared headed to victory stumble their way to defeat during the post-Labor Day stretch.

But cycle fundamentals are crucial, too, and poll numbers in the middle of September often are good predictors about the final result.

Yes, voters are increasingly likely to pay attention to candidates and campaigns as the calendar rolls through September and into October, so voter sentiment can change as events occur. But that is at least somewhat offset by the tendency of many voters to dismiss TV ads and charges late in the campaign as nothing more than election year politics.

Purely from a technical point of view, recent poll numbers in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races remain horrendous for Democrats. And what has to be really scary to party strategists is the similarity in their candidates’ positioning in the two contests.

Public opinion analyst Mark Blumenthal of astutely observed a week ago that the best way to understand what is going on in the Garden State gubernatorial race is to focus on Gov. Jon Corzine’s (D) numbers in ballot tests, not on the margin of Republican challenger Chris Christie’s lead. The governor, after all, is a known commodity to Garden State voters, so his strength in ballot tests reflects the public’s view of his candidacy.

Corzine’s showing in ballot tests over the past 33 polls, dating back to a mid-January Monmouth University/Gannett survey, has ranged from a low of 35 percent to a high of 42 percent, a weak showing for a sitting governor. And Corzine hit 45 percent in that Monmouth/Gannett poll only when matched against conservative Steve Lonegan, who lost to Christie in the June GOP primary.

Corzine’s consistency suggests that he has hit something of a ceiling in the state. While incumbents — even Democratic incumbents — often underperform in New Jersey, in part because of the importance of the New York City and Philadelphia media markets, they rarely are in as bad a shape as Corzine is this late in an election year.

Four years ago, in polling conducted in mid-September and early October, Corzine was drawing 44 percent to 48 percent of the vote against his GOP opponent, Doug Forrester, in five nonpartisan polls (Fairleigh Dickinson University, Quinnipiac University, Monmouth/Gannett, Star-Ledger/Eagleton Institute of Politics and WNBC/Marist Institute for Public Opinion). But Corzine was then a sitting U.S. Senator, and he also held a lead of 2 to 8 points over Forrester in those same polls’ ballot tests.

Blumenthal’s point about Corzine’s numbers is also relevant in Virginia, where Democrat Creigh Deeds’ ballot test numbers are eerily similar to Corzine’s.

True, there is no incumbent seeking re-election in Virginia, but Democrats have held the governor’s office for eight years, and that makes the Democratic nominee this year the de-facto incumbent in the minds of many voters.

Deeds has drawn 37 percent to 43 percent of the vote in 10 polls conducted since July. In each of those surveys, he trailed Republican nominee Bob McDonnell by anywhere from the low single digits to the midteens. (Deeds looked much stronger in two mid-June polls, but those results undoubtedly were skewed by his June 9 primary victory, making them largely irrelevant.)

In six of the last eight surveys of likely voters, McConnell was over the 50 percent mark in the ballot test against Deeds, and in the other two, the Republican was at 49 percent.

Four years ago, the Virginia governor’s race looked tight. A mid-September Mason-Dixon Polling & Research survey of likely voters had Jerry Kilgore (R) leading Tim Kaine 41 percent to 40 percent. A month later, the same survey showed Kilgore ahead 44 percent to 42 percent. A mid-October Diageo/Hotline poll showed Kaine leading Kilgore 41 percent to 40 percent among likely voters.

Kaine eventually went on to win the race by almost 6 points, and he certainly was helped by then-President George W. Bush’s sinking poll numbers, as well as outgoing Gov. Mark Warner’s (D) popularity. Kaine also painted Kilgore as too conservative for the state, particularly for crucial Northern Virginia.

While Deeds and Corzine will now have almost eight weeks to change voters’ minds, they start from deep holes.

This time, neither Deeds nor Corzine get much advantage by blaming Bush for the economy or the public’s discontent (though they have already tried to do so), and the GOP has nominated candidates in both states who seem intent on ensconcing themselves in the political middle, exactly where most swing voters are. Because of that, many voters dissatisfied with the direction of the country, or of their state, will be more inclined to cast their votes for the Republican nominees than they were four years ago.

Corzine and Deeds will likely have to launch increasingly tough attacks on their GOP opponents, seeking to make the elections referendums on the Republican nominees. But that strategy will also give Christie and McDonnell the opportunity to paint their opponents as desperate and negative. A quick surge in multiple polls by either Democrat could change the dynamic, of course.

As Yogi Berra might put it, the two contests aren’t over until they are over, but the fundamentals, as reflected in state ballot tests, simply don’t look good for Corzine or Deeds.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on September 10, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Friday, September 11, 2009

New GOP Poll Shows Changing Political Reality

By Stuart Rothenberg

A newly released Republican survey of 1,200 likely voters conducted Aug. 25-26 by OnMessage Inc. suggests that the national political landscape has changed noticeably over the past two months, with Republicans benefiting.

The survey, which was released Thursday, shows Democrats and Republicans tied at 36 percent in the Congressional generic ballot, a dramatic improvement for Republicans, who trailed Democrats by 5 points, 38 percent to 33 percent, in the firm’s mid-June poll.

The survey also showed considerable movement in the public’s attitude toward the two parties. In June, OnMessage found 41 percent of those polled with a favorable view of Democrats in Congress, while 42 percent had an unfavorable view. The new survey found that 40 percent of respondents now have a favorable view of Democrats in Congress, while 46 percent have an unfavorable view, a worrisome rise in the Democrats’ negative rating.

Congressional Republicans, however, are still “upside down” in the new survey, with only 38 percent of those surveyed having a favorable view of Congressional Republicans, while 44 percent have an unfavorable view. Still, that’s an improvement for Republicans from June, when they had a 33 percent favorable/47 percent unfavorable rating.

President Barack Obama’s job rating came in at 55 percent approve/43 percent disapprove in the new GOP survey, down from 61 percent approve/34 percent disapprove in June. Among independents, the president’s August ratings were down to 46 percent approve/50 percent disapprove.

The new survey also found Republicans closing ground on a number of issues.

While more respondents said they trusted Democrats to cut taxes for the middle class, the party’s 45 percent to 31 percent advantage over the GOP in June narrowed to 39 percent to 35 percent in August.

On health care, voters still trusted Democrats very narrowly on health care, 41 percent to 39 percent, but that was a dramatic narrowing after Democrats’ 48 percent to 29 percent advantage over the GOP in June.

This story first appeared on on September 10, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

All Signs Point to Another Top-Notch Election Cycle in 2010

By Stuart Rothenberg

I began this year doubtful that we’d see much excitement in the 2010 elections. I’m quickly changing my tune.

After two big elections, Democrats didn’t have many opportunities left in the House. GOP Senate retirements seemed to open the door to more Democratic gains, but with the Democrats controlling 59 (then 60) seats, additional party gains, quite frankly, wouldn’t be regarded as significant.

But growing public concern about spending, taxes and the size of government has started to shift the national landscape away from the Democrats to a more neutral position, and quite possibly toward the GOP. The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll has even found that Republicans have regained their historic advantage as the party better suited to deal with spending and taxes.

The change in the political landscape has encouraged Republican candidates and prospects. But Democratic recruiting remains on track, with a list of strong candidates.

Even now, a number of top-shelf contests are developing, making for a surprisingly interesting 2010 election.

Open Senate seats in competitive states seem to guarantee feisty contests in Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio, Kentucky and Illinois, while vulnerable (or potentially vulnerable) incumbents in Connecticut, Louisiana and North Carolina create uncertainty. And of course, there is Pennsylvania, where one of the nastiest, meanest and bloodiest primaries in recent history seems inevitable, and where too many people are underestimating the chances of a competitive general election.

Indeed, the large number of competitive Senate primaries can only make the cycle more volatile.

Over in the House, recent Democratic recruiting against Republican Reps. Jean Schmidt (Ohio state Rep. Todd Book), Michele Bachmann (Minnesota state Sen. Tarryl Clark) and Charlie Dent (Bethlehem, Pa., Mayor John Callahan) gives Democrats some interesting opportunities even as the overall national political environment is moving away from them.

Democratic insiders are also enthusiastic about Nebraska state Sen. Tom White against Rep. Lee Terry (R) and Palm Springs, Calif., Mayor Steve Pougnet, who is taking on Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R). Other challengers could emerge, as well. It’s still early.

The big question, of course, is whether these seemingly strong Democratic challengers waited one cycle too long to take the plunge into a Congressional race. Mediocre challengers sometimes do better in a great year than strong challengers do in a difficult one.

Republican open seats in swing or Democratic-leaning districts (currently represented by Illinois Rep. Mark Kirk and Pennsylvania Rep. Jim Gerlach) give Democrats better opportunities, as does an expected open seat in Delaware, where former Lt. Gov. John Carney (D) looks to be a formidable candidate. But could the midterm trend that works against the president’s party allow Republicans to hold Kirk’s suburban Chicago district and Gerlach’s suburban Philadelphia seat?

Republican House prospects looked good technically — that is, many Republican districts are now held by Democrats who should theoretically have re-election problems — but the GOP’s damaged brand and minority status didn’t seem like a great argument for recruiting.

And the special election in New York’s 20th district earlier this year suggested the political environment hadn’t changed much from 2008.

But the National Republican Congressional Committee has already recruited some intriguing challengers, and a noticeable shift in the national mood will almost certainly put more Democratic seats into play over the next six to 12 months.

Repeat GOP candidates such as Steve Stivers (Ohio), Andy Harris (Md.) and former Rep. Steve Chabot (Ohio) have to be regarded as strong challengers given their narrow defeats last time. Former Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), who is running to regain a seat he gave up to run for the Senate, is another strong contender.

Republicans are also high on California Assemblyman Van Tran, Manchester, N.H., Mayor Frank Guinta, Colorado state Rep. Cory Gardner, Honolulu Councilman Charles Djou and Montgomery, Ala., City Councilmember Martha Roby, who give the GOP an unusual mix of challengers with considerable appeal. And former U.S. Attorney Pat Meehan is about to enter the open-seat race in Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak’s Pennsylvania district, giving the GOP a chance to win the seat.

House retirements have been relatively few, and as the last election in this redistricting cycle, total House retirements may be down. But we still should see some additional retirements over the next few months, possibly adding to the list of competitive contests.

Finally, there are plenty of races for governor.

Again, I thought that many of the gubernatorial outcomes were easily predicted, but the combination of a weak economy and some interesting candidates have shaken up a number of races. It’s early, but contests (in some cases both primaries and general elections) in a number of large states, including Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and even California, look potentially fascinating.

The tide clearly has turned nationally, with the president’s popularity down and Democrats fighting against a growing mood of dissatisfaction. That’s a huge problem for Democrats in the two states that will have gubernatorial elections this year.

But while Republican strategists are showing greater optimism about the midterms, they also say that they wish those elections were taking place this November, not more than a year from now. And that’s another reason why the next 14 months should be so exciting.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on September 8, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Illinois 14: State Senator May Enter GOP Primary Against Hastert

By Nathan L. Gonzales

It appears that attorney Ethan Hastert (R) may not have a clear path in his effort to take back his father’s former Congressional seat as state Sen. Randy Hultgren (R) is actively exploring Illinois’ 14th district race, according to local GOP sources.

Republicans are targeting Rep. Bill Foster (D), who won the seat in a spring 2008 special election after former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R), Ethan’s father, resigned. A personal and bitter GOP primary, coupled with President George W. Bush’s declining job approval ratings, contributed to Foster’s victory.

Republicans are hoping to avoid a replay of last year, but it’s unclear how the GOP primary will play out.

It looked like Hastert, who has been building his campaign for months and raising money, was going to avoid a serious threat, especially since Republicans in Illinois expect state Sen. Chris Lauzen (R) to run for re-election. Lauzen narrowly lost to wealthy dairy magnate Jim Oberweis, who was endorsed by Dennis Hastert in the 2008 primary, and the feud between Lauzen and the former Speaker is widely known.

Lauzen represents a large chunk of the 14th district and may encourage his supporters to support Hultgren over another Hastert. Hultgren’s legislative district is split between the 14th and the 6th district, which is represented by Rep. Peter Roskam (R). Hultgren was elected to replace Roskam in the state Senate in 2006.

Hultgren hasn’t made a final decision, but according to Illinois sources, he’s talking to a number of experienced local operatives. He may not represent a large share of Republican primary voters, but if he can tap into Lauzen’s support and into people who weren’t happy the way Speaker Hastert left office and gave Democrats an opportunity, the primary could develop into a serious contest.

Former Defense Department civilian employee Mark Vargas, property maintenance manager Jeff Danklefsen and former Aurora Councilman Bill Cross are also interested in running. Vargas had been exploring a bid against Rep. Melissa Bean (D) in the 8th district. Former state Sen. Steve Rauschenberger (R) is expected to run for his former seat instead of running for Congress.

Because of the Feb. 2 primary, candidates are already circulating petitions in advance of the November filing deadline.

This story first appeared on on September 8, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. You can get the entire baseline story on the Illinois 14 race in the September 3, 2009 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report.

Here is a little more information from the September 10 issue of Roll Call:

It appears that attorney Ethan Hastert (R) may not have a clear path in his effort to take back his father’s former Congressional seat. State Sen. Randy Hultgren (R) is close to jumping into the 14th district race, according to local GOP sources.

“We hope to make a decision very soon,” Hultgren told Roll Call. The state Senator is talking to a number of experienced local operatives and fundraisers and is expected to announce his decision within the next week.

Ethan Hastert is a first-time candidate, but he’s been building his campaign for months and raising money. Hultgren has run for office numerous times before but never anything close to a competitive Congressional race. He was elected to the DuPage County Board and later elected to the state Legislature.

When Rep. Peter Roskam (R) ran for Congress in 2006, Hultgren ran for his open state Senate seat and faced a competitive primary until his opponent allegedly shoved a police officer during a New Year’s Day parade. Hultgren will also have to upgrade his fundraising, according to a GOP source in Illinois.

Republicans are hoping to avoid a replay of last year when a bitter primary helped Rep. Bill Foster (D) win the open seat in a special election after former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) resigned.

State Sen. Chris Lauzen, who ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination in 2008, was initially mentioned as a potential 2010 candidate, but he’s expected to seek re-election. Hultgren is in midterm so he would not have to give up his Senate seat in order to run for Congress in 2010.

The feud between Lauzen and the former Speaker is widely known, but it’s unclear how hard Lauzen would work for Hultgren because, although they are ideologically similar, Lauzen has future interest in the Congressional seat, according to local GOP sources.

Since Hultgren represents only about 10 percent of the 14th district and his Wheaton base is outside of it, he’ll need to tap into Lauzen’s grass-roots network. Hultgren’s legislative district includes parts of the 14th, Roskam’s 6th district and Republican Rep. Judy Biggert’s 13th district.

Hultgren could also get support from people who weren’t happy with the way Speaker Hastert left office and gave Democrats an opportunity.

2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

New Print Edition: Illinois 14 & Pennsylvania 7

The September 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 introduction to this edition:

Illinois 14: Son of Speaker Man
By Nathan L. Gonzales

Republicans believe Cong. Bill Foster’s (D) election last year was a mistake, and even though Illinois’ 14th District sits in President Barack Obama’s backyard, GOP operatives believe their party has a great chance of taking back the seat.

Democrats seized the opportunity when Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) resigned his seat in Congress and Republicans were left with a damaged candidate after a bitter and divisive primary. Foster won the spring 2008 special election and cruised in the November general election, defeating Jim Oberweis both times.

This time around, Foster won’t face Oberweis, Illinois’ favorite son won’t be at the top of the ticket, and the congressman won’t likely have the political wind at his back. Republicans may still have a primary, but their hopes ride on the shoulders of young attorney Ethan Hastert, son of the former Speaker. Subscribers get the full story in the print edition of the newsletter.

Pennsylvania 7: Suburban Test Case

When Republicans lost Pennsylvania’s 7th District in 2006, many strategists didn’t think they’d have a chance of winning back the suburban Philadelphia district anytime soon.

But after only two terms, incumbent Cong. Joe Sestak (D) is vacating the seat to run for the U.S. Senate, and Republicans convinced former U.S. Attorney Pat Meehan (R) to switch from the gubernatorial race to a U.S. House run, putting them in a very competitive position.

Meanwhile, Democrats are turning to Iraq war veteran and state Rep. Bryan Lentz (D), whom many party strategists thought would be a great candidate in 2006 before Sestak got into the race, to hold the seat in 2010.

Even though the district is becoming more Democratic, Lentz’s and Meehan’s profiles have the makings of a great race in which the national political environment could be a major factor.
Subscribers get the full story in the print edition of the newsletter.

On ABC: Van Jones' Resignation, School Speech Top List of Distractions for Obama

Stu talks about the Van Jones' Resignation and Obama's school speech in light of the upcoming week on health care reform. You can watch the video on the ABC News web site, here.

Monday, September 07, 2009

On NBC: Fiery Obama Preps for Health Push

Stu talks about President Obama's push this week for his health care reform bill on NBC's Nightly News. You can watch below or click here for the link.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

On FOX: Political Bogeymen

Stu talks about the use of political bogeymen on FOX. You can watch below or click on the video here.