Friday, February 05, 2010

For Republicans, Overconfidence Poses a Growing Problem

By Stuart Rothenberg

Maybe House Republicans learned their lesson last week after President Barack Obama joined them at their retreat and proved once again to be a very formidable opponent rather than a mere foil.

But even if the president’s poised performance brought some of them back to reality, Democratic defeats in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts, as well as public opinion polls showing voters unhappy with the direction of the country, have combined to make too many Republicans downright giddy about the fall elections.

In fact, GOP political consultants and strategists aren’t popping Champagne corks yet. Instead, they worry about the euphoria on the right and believe that the party has a long way to go before it can nail down a big win in the midterm elections.

Some Republican operatives are openly concerned about the party’s tactical disadvantages, most notably its financial position. Others fear that circumstances could change, robbing the GOP of its strategic advantage.

The National Republican Congressional Committee ended 2009 with $2.6 million in the bank, far behind the $16.7 million that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had. While the DCCC raised $55.7 million for the cycle, the NRCC brought in about $20 million less.

“I don’t care how great the political environment is,” one smart Republican asserted, “if you don’t have the cash, you are going to get smacked. [Democrats] can buy their way out of trouble if they have that kind of financial advantage in the fall, just the way that we used to do.”

During five election cycles from 1996 to 2004, the NRCC carpet-bombed Democratic challengers with cash and TV ads, rescuing each cycle a handful of underwhelming Republican Members who couldn’t find their own way out of a paper bag. Now the DCCC surely will employ the same strategy.

And Democratic incumbents are not without their own resources. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) had almost $1.6 million in the bank at the beginning of the year, while Rep. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) had just less than $1 million. Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) had just more than $1 million on hand, while Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D-Fla.) had almost seven times as much money in her war chest as her best-funded challenger.

Reps. Mark Schauer (D-Mich.), Zack Space (D-Ohio) and Michael McMahon (D-N.Y.) are also sitting with more than $1 million in the bank each and with huge cash advantages over their likely opponents.

“In 1994, Democrats didn’t have much advance warning [about the Republican political wave]. We aren’t going to catch anyone off guard this time,” a GOP consultant worried.

Republican prospects in the House and the Senate increasingly look good, but that doesn’t mean that every race is winnable.

“Everyone [on our side of the aisle] now seems to think that Massachusetts can happen everywhere,” said one GOP consultant derisively about the excessive optimism that some Republicans are exhibiting after Scott Brown’s special election victory.

Suddenly, some Republicans and overly enthusiastic journalists are talking about the GOP winning Senate races in Washington state, Wisconsin and other states where the party has no candidates or weak ones.

Republican exuberance is also dangerous from a strategic point of view.

Excessive optimism tends to produce an arrogance that voters don’t like, and it often leads politicians to grand ideological conclusions about what the voters really are saying. (Voters are usually saying that they are happy or unhappy, not much more.)

When Obama complained to House Republicans at their Baltimore retreat that they likened his health care bill to “some Bolshevik plot,” you could hear a smattering of applause. And that applause wasn’t meant to echo the president’s complaint. Rather, it was intended to indicate support with the characterization that Obama was complaining about.

True, the clapping was isolated. But it should remind party strategists of the danger that an officeholder — or even someone outside the formal party structure — might cross the line of civility and make the case to voters that Republicans are partisan, mean-spirited and vindictive.

The last thing Republicans need is for the election to be about them.

Finally, an uptick in the economy, a spike in the president’s standing in the polls or some unpredictable event that could rally public opinion around the president could shake up things between now and November.

“We certainly have the wind at our backs now,” one veteran Republican consultant told me recently. “But as Scott Brown proved, two or three weeks is a lifetime in politics. Eight months is several political lifetimes.”

Polls, pollsters are fond of pointing out, are nothing but snapshots of current sentiment. Right now, those snapshots look excellent for the GOP. But does anyone really believe that Republicans aren’t capable of screwing things up?

This column first appeared in Roll Call and on February 4, 2010. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.