Thursday, September 29, 2005

For Republicans, Will It Be United They Stand, Divided They Fall?

By Stuart Rothenberg

While high gas prices, the war in Iraq and political fallout from Hurricane Katrina have taken their toll on President Bush’s job approval ratings, Republican voters remain loyal to their commander in chief.

But that could change unless Republicans on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue can agree on an agenda than unites and energizes the party going into next year’s elections. So far, the signs are not good.

The president’s sinking job approval ratings - now between 40 percent and 45 percent in most polls - do not reflect an across-the-board deterioration in his poll numbers.

Democrats always have disliked Bush, and they continue to give him horrible job ratings, including a 12 percent approval rating in a Sept. 8-11 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll.

Bush’s worsening job ratings are due almost entirely to his growing weakness among independent voters. The same poll showed that just 31 percent of independents approved of the president’s performance, while two-thirds of those responding disapproved.

Republicans, on the other hand, remain remarkably loyal to Bush, considering the rash of bad news that has battered him and his presidency. In that Gallup survey, 85 percent of Republicans still approved of Bush’s performance, a relatively small drop in support in the past year.

Exit polling last November showed Bush winning the votes of 93 percent of Republicans, up from his 91 percent showing among Republicans in 2000. In contrast, former Sen. Bob Dole (Kan.), the GOP nominee for president in 1996, drew just 80 percent of Republicans that year, according to exit polls.

Republican support is crucial not only to the president, but also to his party when next year’s midterms roll around - less than 14 months from now.

Elections are first and foremost about each party’s base, and a dispirited GOP that stays home next fall could be disastrous for the Republican Party. (The president needs to keep this in mind when he selects his nominee for the Supreme Court’s second vacancy.)

Increasingly, there are signs of internal division within the GOP camp. Sure, Democratic opposition on Capitol Hill and throughout the country remains intense. But there isn’t much the president can do about that.

If the Republican coalition falls apart between now and November 2006, the party’s majorities on Capitol Hill could be threatened, even with the dearth of competitive House districts and the difficulty of constructing a Democratic Senate takeover scenario.

Fourteen months from the midterm elections, the GOP lacks the kind of uniting agenda that historically has served the party well. Whether it was taxes or national security, Republicans usually have been able to rally around a set of issues that play well with most or all elements of the party.

True, the party’s business wing hasn’t always been comfortable with Capitol Hill Republicans’ social agenda, and there have been divisions between tax-cutters and deficit hawks. But when those sorts of divisions became serious, the party invariably lost.

Now, Republicans are showing signs of deep division. Whether it’s spending and the deficit or immigration or even Iraq, Capitol Hill Republicans, as well as GOP grass-roots activists around the country, can’t seem to agree on much.

The party’s anti-tax activists are increasingly frustrated by their president’s spending initiatives and his refusal to veto Congressional pork. Its large and vocal anti-immigration forces disapprove of Bush’s immigration proposals. The party is divided over Social Security reform (which even insiders agree is absolutely dead) and over what kinds of tax cuts to pursue. Katrina now has a growing number of Republican legislators openly questioning whether to support making permanent tax cuts that already have been enacted.

While Republicans have acted like loyal soldiers for most of the president’s five years in office, they are now sounding mutinous. And as the midterms approach and Bush’s job ratings appear to be an albatross around the party’s neck, GOP officeholders are likely to look for high-profile issues on which to break from Bush, including immigration.

This isn’t only a problem for the president. It’s also a headache for his party. A divided GOP is likely to look increasingly inept, and it also is likely to make the president look ineffectual.

If the party can’t find a way to mobilize all of its elements, weak GOP turnout could produce a midterm electorate that will be more liberal and Democratic than the one that turned out to re-elect Bush.

I’m not suggesting that Democrats have a positive message or agenda of their own that will appeal to the American people. They are recycling the same tired rhetoric that they’ve used - unsuccessfully - for the past couple of decades. But they can count on Democratic animus toward the president to turn out voters next year.

It’s up to Republican Party strategists to try to figure out a couple of issues that will both distinguish the GOP from the Democratic Party and energize and unite Republicans.

Until that happens, 2006 will look ominous for GOP candidates.

For the moment at least, Republicans have met the enemy, and it is them.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on September 26, 2005. Copyright 2005 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Kerry’s Attacks on Bush May Prove to Be a Two-Edged Sword

By Stuart Rothenberg

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (D) came out swinging recently against President Bush, but it’s unclear whether he’s simply still fighting the last war - the ’04 presidential campaign - or positioning himself for 2008.

Minutes after Bush finished his Sept. 15 address to the nation promising action to help the people of the Gulf Coast, Kerry distributed a terse, five-sentence reaction that began, "Leadership isn’t about a speech or a toll-free number. Leadership is about getting the job done."

Unlike Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), whose reaction at least complimented the president for acknowledging "where our government failed in the rescue effort" and talked about "Americans everywhere ... coming together," Kerry sounded embittered and contemptuous, and almost as if his press release was written even before Bush delivered his remarks.

A few days later, speaking at Brown University, Kerry lambasted the Bush administration’s "pattern of incompetence and negligence" and blamed it for "a truly systematic effort to distort and disable the people’s government."

The next day, a report in the Providence Journal said the Senator "intends to become more partisan and speak out more forcefully against the Bush administration as the 2006 midterm election cycle begins in earnest."

What’s Kerry up to with his attacks? Has he decided to try to become the point man for the crowd?

Kerry insiders dismiss the suggestion that he is "moving left" to carry the banner of his party’s liberal wing. They note, quite rightly, that he was never the preferred candidate of the party’s bomb-throwers. But they don’t doubt that he is trying to send a message about who he is.

The Massachusetts Senator took plenty of criticism following his 2004 White House loss, including complaints from some Democrats that he failed to hit back quickly when attacked by Republicans and that he allowed himself to be branded as a flip-flopper by the Bush campaign.

In coming out swinging on issues from health care to Iraq, Kerry hopes to show he’s a fighter who has and will continue to take on the president. And by returning to traditional Democratic themes - and to topics that he addressed before and during his unsuccessful presidential bid - Kerry hopes to remind onlookers that he’s been a consistent advocate for Democratic values.

And Kerry isn’t just talking a good game. He’s putting his money where his mouth is.

Since he was defeated in November, Kerry has been pouring money into Democratic causes, ranging from the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ($1 million each) to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Democratic candidates for office and state parties. He’s also using his e-mail list to raise money for candidates.

But if Kerry supporters believe they are building a grass-roots effort and demonstrating a commitment to "retail" politics by bankrolling and raising funds for Democrats, I think they may be in for a rude awakening.

I don’t doubt that Kerry’s party efforts are appreciated. But they aren’t likely to win him much support for ’08.

Kerry won the Iowa caucuses because he was viewed by state Democrats as the "most electable" challenger to Bush, not because he excited them. The Massachusetts Democrat’s defeat last November shot a huge hole through that electability argument, and that hole will be impossible to repair.

If "electability" is a big concern to Democratic caucus attendees and primary voters in 2008, Kerry isn’t likely to be the beneficiary.

The major problem with Kerry’s new, self-described partisan approach is that it sounds as if he is trying to continue the 2004 campaign indefinitely.

While the Senator and his allies may see his confrontational style as a sign of his "combativeness" and proof of his commitment to Democratic issues, the rest of us - or at least many who watch the daily ebb and flow of national politics - see Kerry recycling the same issues and attacks that failed to win him the presidency. That’s not a formula for him to be taken seriously by the media or to be embraced by party activists looking for a winning message.

Kerry also is in something of a bind on Capitol Hill. As some of his more liberal and combative Democratic colleagues ratchet up their criticisms of Bush, Kerry may be forced to do the same. If he doesn’t, he’ll appear weak-kneed or even irrelevant. But if he does, he could appear to be shrill and pandering.

Allies of the Senator shoot back that, unlike his 2004 running mate John Edwards, Kerry doesn’t need to prove he is relevant. He is, they note, a sitting U.S. Senator and one of the leaders of his party.

Well, there is no disputing that Kerry is a Senator, and I suppose he is one of the better known Democrats nationally. But I haven’t heard many Democrats clamoring for another Kerry candidacy, or for the Massachusetts Senator to become the Democrats’ point man to take on Bush.

Kerry certainly has many assets if he opts to run again, including contacts around the country, a powerful e-mail list, deep personal pockets, demonstrated fundraising strength and the experience of running a race for the White House.

But when Kerry bashes Bush, he’ll seem to many like someone who is bitter from his loss and aching to even the score with Republicans next time. Fairly or unfairly, people will see his attacks as personal and as more about his needs than the country’s. That’s not the way to run for president.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on September 22, 2005. Copyright 2005 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Katrina Narrows Barbour’s Options - But Only for Now

By Stuart Rothenberg

Four years ago, a national tragedy transformed a controversial mayor, New York’s Rudy Giuliani (R), into a national celebrity. It also transformed a president with sinking poll ratings, George W. Bush, into a symbol of national unity (at least for a year).

Hurricane Katrina has had a very different effect on at least one politician.

For the past couple of months, friends of Gov. Haley Barbour had been kicking around the idea of a presidential bid by the Mississippi Republican, but the storm has swept away that talk, along with people’s homes and possessions.

"Running for president is not an option in his mind. The only thing on his mind now is rebuilding Mississippi," said Republican consultant Ed Goeas, who polled for Barbour’s 2003 gubernatorial race and was among those considering what a Barbour White House bid might look like.

To some, talk about a Barbour presidential bid always bordered on the absurd. I’ll admit that when I first heard his name mentioned as a possible 2008 hopeful, I dismissed it because of his home state and lobbying résumé.

Although, as one of only 50 sitting governors, he deserved consideration. And if over the past three decades governors from Georgia and Arkansas could occupy the Oval Office, why not someone from Mississippi?

But the hurricane has ended talk about a Barbour presidential run. Yet, it did provide him with an opportunity to show his strengths. Unlike Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) or Bush, both of whom received generally mediocre to poor reviews for their performances, Barbour has drawn raves.

"I have been a frequent critic of Barbour’s policies, but not now," wrote Clarion-Ledger Editorial Director David Hampton in the Jackson, Miss., newspaper shortly after disaster struck. "Mississippi’s governor is doing an excellent job in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. While federal officials have appeared like deer in the headlights, unsure and defensive, Barbour has shown the state effort is working as well as it can."

Clarion-Ledger columnist Sid Salter, also not known for being a Republican shill, wrote last week that Barbour "has exuded more calm, more competence and more command over the absolute bedlam of Hurricane Katrina than other officials."

Then, Salter really heaped praise on the governor.

"What the public hasn’t seen is Barbour at work managing the disaster between press conferences. For this consummate dealmaker schooled in the Byzantine political arts of moving Congress to act and to spend, it is this work that finds the governor most effective in his element.

"Wheeling. Dealing. Selling. Cajoling. Shouting. Laughing. Crying. Working. Getting.

"And in the midst of it all, Barbour has somehow managed to hold onto his sense of humor and his humanity."

Barbour, 57, knows it will take years to clean up the mess left by Katrina and rebuild portions of his state - well into his second term if he runs for re-election in 2007 and voters decide to re-hire him. That would be a challenge the native of Yazoo City ("the gateway to the Mississippi Delta") might not be able to resist.

But, looking at the hurricane another way, Katrina has made the governor a star in his state, and it may well have enhanced Barbour’s appeal nationally, giving him the kind of credentials that a future presidential candidate would love to have.

The governor may have put all thoughts of a 2008 presidential bid out of his mind for now, but that doesn’t mean that sometime in the future, maybe late next year or early in 2007, Barbour might not reconsider his political options.

It’s not as if the GOP field is so intimidating that Barbour couldn’t compete, even with the heavy baggage of his years of lobbying.

GOP frontrunners Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and Giuliani lead the pack because of their name recognition and celebrity status. Others in the field have assets and liabilities, and no one is a clear favorite for the nomination.

But Barbour may have other options, as well.

Savvy political observers in Mississippi and the nation’s capital are now whispering that they do not expect Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) to seek re-election next year.

Lott has not jumped at friends’ offers to hold fundraisers for his re-election, and the Senator’s own comments in this newspaper Thursday suggest he may well retire to the private sector.

While insiders agree that Lott wants to appoint Rep. Chip Pickering (R) to fill his Senate seat, some Mississippi observers insist that Barbour, who unsuccessfully challenged then-Sen. John Stennis (D) 23 years ago, has always dreamed of being a United States Senator.

Barbour’s Washington background (which includes his Republican National Committee chairmanship) and the glowing reviews of his performance after Katrina make him a potentially strong Senate candidate. True, timing might be a considerable problem for him, since critics would complain that in running for the Senate he would be turning his back on a job that he hadn’t finished. But Barbour could counter that, as a Senator, he could do more to help the state than he could as governor.

Some Barbour allies dismiss the Senate scenario, saying that he loves his current job. But everyone seems to acknowledge that the governor still has political options, and Katrina has enhanced his standing in the state and, potentially, nationally.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on September 19, 2006. Copyright 2005 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

2006 Back Issues

The following are past races covered in the hard-copy edition of The Rothenberg Political Report and are available only to subscribers. Back issues are not sold individually. Subscription information is here.

December 15, 2006, Vol. 29, No. 28
Illinois 6: Money Pit
Pennsylvania 4: To the Beat of Her Own Drum
TX 23 & LA 2: Surprise, Surprise!!

November 29, 2006, Vol. 29, No. 27
Texas 23: The Lone Ranger
Louisiana 2: "He Ain't no Saint"
Back Page: How'd We Do?

November 2, 2006, Vol. 29, No. 26
National Outlook & Ratings

October 27, 2006, Vol. 29, No. 25
National Outlook & Ratings

October 20, 2006, Vol. 29, No. 24
National Outlook & Ratings

October 13, 2006, Vol. 29, No. 23
House, Senate, & Gubernatorial Ratings

October 6, 2006, Vol. 29, No. 22
House Ratings & Updates and the Foley Situation

September 29, 2006, Vol. 29, No. 21
Senate, Governor, & House Ratings and Updates

September 22, 2006, Vol. 29, No. 20
Senate, Governor, & House Ratings and Updates

September 7, 2006, Vol. 29, No. 19
2006 Senate Outlook

August 25, 2006, Vol. 29, No. 18
2006 House Outlook

August 11, 2006, Vol. 29, No. 17
2006 Gubernatorial Outlook

July 28, 2006, Vol. 29, No. 16
Minnesota Senate: A Takeover or a Makeover?
The Senate: Democratic Gains but Not Yet Control

July 14, 2006, Vol. 29, No. 15
New Jersey Senate: It Depends on Your Definition of Change
Ohio 15: Is Pryce Right for the District?

July 7, 2006, Vol. 29, No. 14
Handicapping the State Legislatures: A 50-State Status Report
The Back Page: The Dog Days of Summer

June 30, 2006, Vol. 29, No. 13
Maryland Senate: Race Matters
Vermont At-Large: The Scarlet Letter

June 16, 2006, Vol. 29, No. 12
Missouri Senate: Guilt by Association?
Connecticut 5: The Loudest Sneak Attack
Governors Ratings

June 2, 2006, Vol. 29, No. 11
Senate Overview

May 18, 2006, Vol. 29, No. 10
Virginia Senate: Common Goal, Common Wealth
Pennsylvania 7: Shopping for Opportunities
House Ratings

May 3, 2006, Vol. 29, No. 9
Tennessee Senate: Three's Company
Arizona 5: Turning Up the Heat

April 21, 2006, Vol. 29, No. 8
House Outlook for 2006

April 7, 2006, Vol. 29, No. 7
Kentucky 3: Bucking the Trend
Michigan Senate: Wading Upstream
Senate Ratings & Updates

March 24, 2006, Vol. 29, No. 6
Pennsylvania Senate: First One To Fall
Ohio 13: Playing Catch-Up
Ohio 18: Going, Going Gone?

March 10, 2006, Vol. 29, No. 5
2006 Gubernatorial Outlook

February 24, 2006, Vol. 29, No. 4
West Virginia Senate: Generations
Texas 22: The Big One

February 10, 2006, Vol. 29, No. 3
2006 Senate Outlook

January 27, 2006, Vol. 29, No. 2
Illinois 6: Fighting Chance
Ohio Senate: Buckeye Battle

January 17, 2006, Vol. 29, No. 1
House Outlook for 2006

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

2005 Back Issues

The following are past races covered in the hard-copy edition of The Rothenberg Political Report and are available only to subscribers. Back issues are not sold individually. Subscription information is here.

December 20, 2005, Vol. 28, No. 26
2006 Political Landscape

December 16, 2005, Vol. 28, No. 25
California 50: Special Election Pre-Test

December 2, 2005, Vol. 28, No. 24
2006 Gubernatorial Outlook

November 21, 2005, Vol. 28, No. 23
Arizona 1: Making Up Ground
Georgia 8 & 12: Looking for a Silver Lining

November 4, 2005, Vol. 28, No. 22
New Mexico 1: Repeat Defender
Washington Senate: Crosscurrents
Virginia & New Jersey Go Down to the Wire

October 21, 2005, Vol. 28, No. 21
Senate Outlook

October 7, 2005, Vol. 28, No. 20
OH 6: Good Opportunity - Hostile Environment
Ballot Measures: A 2005 Preview
Handicapping the State Legislatures: A 50-State ReportVirginia Governor Correction

September 23, 2005, Vol. 28, No. 19
Virginia Governor: Down to the Wire
Colorado 4: Third Verse, Same as the First

September 9, 2005, Vol. 28, No. 18
2006 House Overview

August 29, 2005, Vol. 28, No. 17
2005-06 Governors Outlook

August 12, 2005, Vol. 28, No. 16
Minnesota Governor: Stay the Course or Ready for a Change?
NC 11: From Red to Varsity Blue?
MN 6: Can Too Many Candidates Spoil the Nomination?

July 28, 2005, Vol. 28, No. 15
Arizona Senate: Developing a Target
CO 7: Return of the Swing District

July 15, 2005, Vol. 28, No. 14
2006 Senate Outlook

July 1, 2005, Vol. 28, No. 13
FL 22: Perennial Target
Nebraska Senate: Falling from the Top Tier
Report Shorts: Florida Senate, CA 48

June 17, 2005, Vol. 28, No. 12
Montana Senate: Usual Suspect
IA 3: Da Race for Des Moines
Report Shorts: OH 2 Results

June 7, 2005, Vol. 28, No. 11
TX 28: Role Reversal for Re-run
IN 9: Bloodier Ninth
OH 2: Senate Compromise Hurting DeWine's Bid

May 20, 2005, Vol. 28, No. 10
2006 House Overview

May 6, 2005, Vol. 28, No. 9
2005-06 Governors Overview

April 22, 2005, Vol. 28, No. 8
New Jersey Governor: Nothing But Net
Rhode Island Senate: Multi-Front War
Vermont Senate: It All Depends on the Meaning of Independent

April 8, 2005, Vol. 28, No. 7
2006 Senate Outlook

March 29, 2005, Vol. 28, No. 8
Florida 11: Down by the Bay
Nevada 2: The Great Wide Open
Report Shorts: RI Senate, MD Senate, PA Sen, OH 2, CO 7, CA Gov, AZ Gov, AR Gov

March 16, 2005, Vol. 28, No. 5
Idaho 1: Dems Hoping for a Dynamite Race
Pennsylvania 6: New Cylce, (Slightly) New Scenario

February 25, 2005, Vol. 28, No. 4
House Outlook for 2006

February 10, 2005, Vol. 28, No. 3
Iowa 1: If It's Open, They Will Run
Illinois 8: Going for the Hold

January 28, 2005, Vol. 28, No. 2
2005-2006 Governors Outlook

January 14, 2005, Vol. 28, No. 1
2006 Senate Outlook

Monday, September 19, 2005

Stuart Rothenberg Bio

Stuart Rothenberg is editor and publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report, a non-partisan political newsletter covering U.S. House, Senate and gubernatorial campaigns, Presidential politics and political developments. He is also a twice-a-week columnist for Roll Call, Capitol Hill's premier newspaper.

He holds a B.A. from Colby College (Waterville, Maine) and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Connecticut. He has taught at Bucknell University (Lewisburg, Pennsylvania) and at the Catholic University of America (Washington, D.C.).

A frequent soundbite, Mr. Rothenberg has appeared on Meet the Press, This Week, Face the Nation, The NewsHour, Nightline and many other television programs. He is often quoted in the nation's major media, and his op-eds have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers.

Mr. Rothenberg served as a election night analyst for the Newshour on PBS in 2008 and for CBS News in 2006. Prior to that, he was an on-air political analyst for CNN for over a decade, including election nights from 1992 through 2004. He has also done on-air analysis for the Voice of America.

He is married, has two children and lives in Potomac, Maryland.

Nathan Gonzales Bio

Nathan L. Gonzales is political editor of The Rothenberg Political Report, a non-partisan political newsletter covering U.S. House, Senate and gubernatorial campaigns, and Presidential politics. He has been with the Report since June 2001 and is also a Contributing Writer for Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper.

Since 2002, Nathan has worked as an off-air consultant for ABC NEWS on their Election Night Decision Desk. Previously, he worked for and as associate producer for CNN's "Capital Gang."

His quotes have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, as well as numerous state and regional newspapers all across the country. Nathan has also appeared on CNN, Fox News Channel, and other local network affiliates.

Nathan, an Oregon native, holds a M.A. from the George Washington University (Washington, DC), a B.A. from Vanguard University (Costa Mesa, California), and has interned in the White House Press Office. He is married with one daughter and lives in Washington, D.C.

R.I. Senate Contest Heats Up With Laffey’s Entry Into Race

By Stuart Rothenberg

Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey entered the Rhode Island Republican Senate race with a bang - a wave of TV advertising that’s highly unusual more than a year before the 2006 primary. Now the question is whether the incumbent, Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R), can change the likely dynamic in the race and, with the help of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, win himself another term.

In my view - and it isn’t one shared by everyone - the odds are stacked against the Senator. That doesn’t mean Chafee will lose, only that he must come from behind, either by pummeling Laffey or by taking advantage of the mayor’s missteps.

First, let me note right off that I don’t believe the picture painted by a new Brown University poll that shows Chafee leading Laffey 44 percent to 24 percent in a Republican primary. While I don’t know that I agree with a friend who characterized that survey as "ridiculous," I do have major concerns about the sample - and the numbers don’t make sense to Chafee or Laffey supporters whom I respect.

Six months ago, a Laffey poll found more "likely Republican primary voters" holding an unfavorable view of Chafee than a favorable one. The so-called first ballot, which tested the candidates in a hypothetical ballot before any information was given about the two Republicans, showed Laffey with a healthy double-digit lead over the incumbent. I see no reason why those numbers should have changed measurably since then.

Chafee has hired the same talented consulting team that rescued Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) from an insurgent conservative primary challenger, then-Rep. Pat Toomey, and I expect them to put together a very competent effort. They may even win. But Chafee faces a much rougher road than did Specter, and at some point he may have to consider running as an Independent if he wants to keep his Senate seat.

Specter began his re-election with a solid favorable rating of more than 60 percent among Republicans - far, far better than where Chafee stands now. And Toomey began his challenge much further behind in the ballot test than does Laffey.

Specter led Toomey by more than 25 points in two polls conducted less than six months before the 2004 primary, and the Pennsylvania Senator was always at or above 50 percent. Chafee is nowhere near that number.

Moreover, Specter’s financial advantage over Toomey was more important than Chafee’s will be against Laffey, since Pennsylvania is a far larger state with more, and more expensive, media markets.

According to data supplied by Media Strategies and Research, a Democratic polling and media-buying firm, the cost for a point of TV advertising in the Providence-New Bedford media market, which covers the entire state of Rhode Island, will be about $93 in the third quarter of 2006. In contrast, Specter and Toomey paid about $750-$800 per statewide point during the nearly four months before their April 2004 primary.

Supporters of the Senator believe their opposition research is turning up enough information to put the mayor on the defensive, and Chafee already has hit Laffey in an interview for raising taxes in Cranston. That’s a good sign for Chafee partisans.

Backers of the Senator also argue that Chafee will attract the votes of unaffiliated voters. While Specter successfully convinced some Pennsylvania Democrats to change their party registration so that they could vote for him in the GOP primary, re-registration scenarios rarely succeed. But the bigger problem for the Chafee camp is that, as things stand, a Democratic Senate primary in the state will be held the same day.

Influential Rhode Island political columnist Charlie Bakst of the Providence Journal expressed surprise in a recent column at the content of Laffey’s announcement, noting that the mayor "cast himself as a populist, a reformer, a David who took on the Goliath special interests in Cranston," rather than as a conservative who supports President Bush.

Laffey’s outsider message does risk alienating some conservatives who would like to get rid of Chafee but not at any cost. However, the mayor’s message fits the current national mood quite nicely, since voters are generally dissatisfied with the performance of Congress and the direction of the country, and many are sick of the knee-jerk partisanship that is readily apparent in Washington, D.C.

Just as important, Laffey’s approach addresses the electability issue that his adversaries raise, since he would have a much better chance of winning a general election as a populist rather than as a bomb-throwing conservative who would toe the GOP line on Capitol Hill.

Laffey’s decision to run a wave of early TV advertising is a gamble, since it means spending resources now that he may need next fall. But that decision also suggests that the mayor’s campaign will be anything but predictable.

The one big question mark that can’t be ignored is Laffey himself. Running for the Senate is very different from running for mayor of Cranston, and if he isn’t careful, he could help Chafee snatch a victory.

Still, Chafee has serious problems in the primary, and he’ll need all of the help he can get from his friends at the White House, the Republican National Committee and the NRSC to help him dodge this bullet.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on September 15, 2006. Copyright 2005 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Midterms Spell Trouble, But ‘Itch’ Theory Is A Real Head-Scratcher

By Stuart Rothenberg

Over the next year, as we move toward the 2006 elections, we are likely to hear more and more talk of the so-called six-year itch - the historical "trend" that has meant big losses for the president’s party six years into his presidency.

That’s a pity, since the six-year itch is little more than a figment of the imagination that could overshadow a real, though less flashy, midterm trend that actually does favor the party not in control of the White House.

The idea of a six-year itch is often credited to author Kevin Phillips, who long ago traded political analysis for a soapbox.

"Over the last half century," wrote Phillips in a 1984 Christian Science Monitor opinion piece, "U.S. voters have invariably found themselves beginning to sour on administrations after six years." He went on to note that in these six-year itch elections (he attributed the term to unidentified "analysts"), "the party in the White House has lost heavily in both houses of Congress."

In the piece, Phillips noted four elections falling on the second midterm of a two-term presidency: 1938 (Franklin D. Roosevelt), 1958 (Dwight Eisenhower), 1966 (John Kennedy/Lyndon Johnson) and 1974 (Richard Nixon/Gerald Ford). The average loss for the president’s party in those four elections was 53 House seats and seven Senate seats, huge numbers when compared to almost any election.

Phillips, of course, sidestepped the fact that the 1966 and 1974 midterm elections were not true second midterms in a two-term presidency, since neither Johnson nor Ford had served anything close to six years in the White House when those elections occurred.

But even if I accept Phillips’ list, I have a hard time swallowing the view that four cases make a trend, particularly when various cycle-specific factors seem to explain the 1938, 1958, 1966 and 1974 results rather easily.

Two of these six-year-itch elections (1938 and 1966) were rebound elections, returning the House of Representatives to "normal" partisan levels after one party had achieved abnormally large gains.

In 1964, for example, Democrats made huge gains as Republicans were buried in the Goldwater landslide. Two years later, the GOP rallied for a big win, taking back normally Republican seats that the party had lost because of the aberrant 1964 election outcome. The 1966 results were more a reaction to 1964 than to voters "souring" on the Kennedy-Johnson administrations.

The 1974 Democratic wave also didn’t develop because voters "soured" on an administration after six years. It occurred, instead, because of the public’s reaction to the Watergate scandal.

The 1958 results, which resulted in major gains for the Democrats, can largely be credited to a farm crisis that hurt GOP candidates in the party’s Midwestern base. I suppose this could constitute "souring," but it followed from specific events, not because of a general fatigue with the president and his party.

Of course, one could argue that, for whatever reasons, presidents don’t perform well after they are re-elected to a second term, and this leads to public discontent with the president’s party. But even if that is the case, the election results follow from events and circumstances, not some inevitable "souring."

Anyone who still believes in the six-year itch must explain what happened in 1998, the last-second midterm election of a two-term presidency. The iron law of the six-year itch took a beating that year when, with Bill Clinton (D) in the White House, Democrats gained five seats in the House and there was no change in the Senate.

There are reasons why Republicans didn’t make "itch" gains that year, including a strong economy. And there are reasons why Republicans lost only five House seats in the previous "itch" election, in 1986, when Republican Ronald Reagan was president: a good economy and the fact that since the Republicans went into the election holding only182 House seats, they didn’t have many marginal districts to lose.

And that’s the point. Elections turn on a number of factors, including vulnerability, candidate recruitment and fundraising, issues, circumstances and breaking news - not an invisible hand that manipulates voters six years into a presidency.

So forget the six-year itch, and instead keep an eye on the Midterm Trend, which refers to a tendency over time, not an iron law of politics. The Trend starts where the six-year itch does (by accepting the fact that midterm elections provide critics of any sitting president with an opportunity to express anger or disappointment), but never suggests inevitability.

All you need to know - and everyone reading this column almost certainly already knows it — is that the president’s party often suffers defeats during midterm elections. We aren’t dealing with a handful of cases here. The midterm trend is based on 36 cases going back to the election of 1862.

In all but four of those elections, the president’s party lost House seats. That is a statistical trend, which includes exceptions but is based on enough cases to keep in mind as you watch the 2006 House and Senate campaigns.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on September 12, 2005. Copyright 2005 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Beware the Words ‘I’m From the Media, And I’m Here to Help’

By Stuart Rothenberg

I have lots of friends in the national media, and I value their intelligence, dedication and integrity, as well as the important stories that they’ve broken. But I’ve had it with the way the media as a whole - and television in particular - has handled the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Too many journalists have gone from asking questions to delivering lectures.

I’m particularly tired of the finger-pointing that quickly follows every tragedy. Journalists love the blame game, because it makes for good television or because it allows them to feel as if they are successfully playing their part as defenders of the public interest.

Few, if any, in the national media spent much time six months ago talking about federal spending on New Orleans’ levees. But they are all over the story now. Once again, reporters are fighting the last war. It’s a lot easier than planning for the next one.

Unlike government officials, journalists don’t have to be concerned about costs and priorities, about trade-offs or about what their constituents think - at least until a problem occurs. Then they can jump on decisionmakers, deriding them for their ineptness.

But where were those journalists before disaster hit, when the story didn’t seem very compelling? And even if a reporter or a TV anchor cared six months ago, would most Americans really have been willing to spend millions of dollars to upgrade New Orleans’ levees with no imminent threat in sight?

In the case of the New Orleans flood, the period between the tragedy and the finger-pointing was incredibly short. The rescue operation was still in its early stages when too many in the media started looking for government officials, particularly federal government officials, to blame.

Most of us in the media have never managed a truly large-scale business or a major rescue operation, let alone planned for or overseen the response to a disaster of historic proportions. Few know all of the contingencies that must be considered and all of the problems that can arise following a natural disaster. I certainly don’t.

But that doesn’t stop some in the media from voicing indignance and outrage about alleged failures of President Bush and his administration, and calling for heads to roll even before a formal, measured assessment of the emergency operations has begun.

Journalists are great with a computer keyboard and thesaurus, and we even know when to use a semi-colon. But we rarely, actually make difficult decisions affecting people’s lives. What we do is stand back, far from the responsibilities that others shoulder, and complain and criticize.

"Why wasn’t this or that done?" journalists, TV hosts and cranky old men on TV and talk radio asked, first rhetorically and then in commentaries thinly veiled as questions aimed at government officials just days after the levees collapsed.

Their clear implication was that federal, state and local officials didn’t care about those affected by the disaster, or that the officials were idiots for not taking a certain action or for not planning for a specific contingency. Apparently, it’s only journalists who really have the public’s interest at heart. Everyone else is lazy or self-satisfied.

Let me state the obvious: The damage from Katrina was extensive, and the damage and loss of life from the flooding of New Orleans was mind-boggling.

Residents waited too long for help, whether that assistance involved rescuing them from their roofs, providing them with food, clothing and shelter, or establishing law and order. I’m sure there is plenty of blame to go around, from local officials in New Orleans to state and federal government officials.

The dirty little secret that members of the electronic and print media won’t tell you is that it is in their interest to hype the crisis and to fuel controversies, and that’s exactly what they have done in the past week.

Cable TV’s ratings soared after the hurricane and flood, as viewers around the country showed a considerable appetite for around-the-clock coverage of the disaster. Tragedy always boosts ratings, of course, for the same reasons people slow down to look at a car wreck.

The cable TV networks and their anchors, producers and reporters have an incentive to keep the excitement coming, to keep running that b-roll of displaced elderly and babies at the Convention Center, and of people crying for help on roofs and bridges. And so that’s what they’ve done for the past 10 days.

I’m not suggesting that journalists somehow should downplay the effects of the tragedy. Cover it, but put it in some context.

The reality of today’s media is that executives, producers, editors and reporters all have a strong incentive to create - or at least feed - controversy by second-guessing officials. And they have an incentive to show people crying or screaming for help, complaining about how the government has let them down. It’s good TV.

I’m certainly not indicting every journalist. ABC’s Dan Harris did a terrific piece two days ago in which he looked at the traditional responsibilities of various levels of government (local, state and federal) before and after a hurricane. It’s the kind of piece that educates and is necessary before we have a discussion about responsibility and changes in the way government plans.

We need more of that kind of journalism and fewer lectures from media know-it-alls.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on September 8, 2005. Copyright 2005 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Candidates Look for Way to Move Voters in Va., N.J. Gov. Races

By Stuart Rothenberg

If you don’t live in Virginia or New Jersey, chances are you don’t know that those two states have gubernatorial elections coming up in just two months.

Come to think of it, even if you do live in those states, you might not be paying particularly close attention to the races. Voters in both states so far have seemed more concerned with the humidity and rising gas prices than with the candidates. But that could change after Labor Day, when campaigns will begin their final pushes to November and will launch major TV advertising campaigns.

Neutral observers of the New Jersey gubernatorial contest doubt that a flurry of unflattering summer news stories about the nominees, Sen. Jon Corzine (D) and Republican Doug Forrester, has changed the likely outcome of the election.

Corzine’s "reform" reputation took an embarrassing hit in the Garden State over the summer as reports surfaced that the now-divorced Senator had a romantic relationship with the president of the Communications Workers of America Local 1034 and that a company Corzine owns loaned her $470,000 to help her buy her home from her ex-husband.

Carla Katz’s union includes approximately 9,000 state employees, and the CWA’s current contract expires in less than two years.

That controversy, along with reports of other eyebrow-raising Corzine loans and contributions, did give New Jersey Republicans an opening at a time when the state’s Democrats have had far more than their fair share of ethics issues (including the resignation of then-Gov. Jim McGreevey).

But Republican gubernatorial nominee Forrester has been unable to take advantage of the opening, in part because Democrats immediately counterattacked him and charged that he violated a state law that prohibits owners of insurance companies in the state from making political contributions.

The state’s Department of Banking and Insurance recently issued a less-than-clear ruling about Forrester’s business dealings in the state, and while both parties claimed victory, the issue isn’t likely to disappear entirely. That’s a problem for Forrester, who can’t afford to spend any time defending his own ethics.

Republicans have two big problems in the race. First, since New Jersey is now a "blue" state, any statewide GOP candidate begins with a partisan hurdle to overcome. And second, Forrester, who seemed poised to upset then-Sen. Robert Torricelli (D) in the 2002 Senate race before Torricelli withdrew and his replacement, Frank Lautenberg, won by 10 points, simply hasn’t connected with state voters.

Polling conducted during the summer showed Forrester trailing Corzine by 10 points.

Another Republican, such as U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie, might have been able to take advantage of Corzine’s new ethics vulnerability by running a reform-oriented campaign pledging to "clean up" the state. But Forrester probably has had enough of his own problems to make running on such a platform very difficult, if not impossible.

If the New Jersey race has shown few signs of evolving, Virginia’s gubernatorial contest has shown even less.

Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine (D) and former state Attorney General Jerry Kilgore (R) have been locked in a tight race in the Old Dominion for many months, and there are no signs that is about to change.

A late-July Mason-Dixon survey for the Richmond Times-Dispatch showed Kaine leading Kilgore 38 percent to 37 percent, with Independent Russ Potts, a GOP state legislator from the socially moderate wing of his party, at 9 percent.

Kaine has better candidate skills, but Kilgore has the Republican label, which gives him a considerable advantage in the race.

Kaine continues to run as the heir to the legacy of outgoing Gov. Mark Warner (D), who remains popular in the state as he is about to leave office. The lieutenant governor portrays himself as a business-friendly, socially moderate Democrat who earned a reputation for effectiveness as mayor of Richmond.

Predictably, Kilgore portrays Kaine as a liberal masquerading as a moderate, both on social issues (including the death penalty) and on economic issues. Democrats counter by painting Kilgore as a lightweight.

While the candidates have argued over taxes, debates - Kilgore won’t appear with Independent Potts unless he draws 15 percent of the vote in two public polls - and social issues, most Virginians seem uninterested.

The Kaine campaign sent out a silly polling memo in June asserting that Kaine had made "steady progress" between November of last year and June. But the memo documented change that was so statistically insignificant that it was laughable.

It showed Kaine increasing his percentage of the vote among independents from 23 percent to 25 percent, while Kilgore’s support among the same voters fell from 27 percent to 26 percent. Statistically, that’s no movement at all.

Virginia remains a tossup, with the outcome turning on whether the election is a referendum on Mark Warner or a choice between a conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat. Kilgore’s GOP label could be the difference.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on September 6, 2005. Copyright 2005 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Learning the Wrong Lessons From Ohio 2nd?

By Stuart Rothenberg

My dictionary defines "hubris" as "overweening pride or self-confidence" and "arrogance."

Usually, those accused of hubris have been successful - so successful that they inflate their own importance and ability. But some Democratic activists, notably too many armchair political strategists on the Internet, are acting like winners when they haven’t won much of anything.

The self-congratulations have been flowing ever since Democrat Paul Hackett drew an impressive and surprising 48 percent of the vote in the Aug. 2 special election in Ohio’s 2nd district.

Democratic Web loggers have been trumpeting their successes in that special election, claiming credit for injecting money into Hackett’s race, for getting the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to take Hackett’s bid seriously and for proving that a 50-state, 435-seat strategy is essential and can be successful.

To many of these self-appointed strategists, Hackett’s showing proves that Democratic nominees can compete in previously ignored districts.

"Things have changed dramatically since Tuesday," one prominent Democratic blogger said only a couple of days after Hackett’s near miss.

Well, let’s all take a deep breath and see exactly where things stand after the Ohio 2nd special election.

First, the Democratic blogs deserve credit for raising funds for Hackett, who probably could not have raised enough money from the "usual suspects" (which include political action committees) to run a respectable campaign in a solidly Republican district.

Anybody who follows politics knows how important money is, and the Democratic blogs’ ability to direct campaign cash to their pet candidates makes them relevant for 2006. Democratic candidates and party leaders certainly will want to take advantage of the bloggers’ enthusiasm and cash (but mostly their cash).

Second, Hackett’s race may well be an aberration rather than a model for the future.

While bloggers see the race as an indication that dozens of previously ignored districts can be competitive next year, Ohio offered Democrats an unusual opportunity to ambush the Republicans - a situation that isn’t likely to exist in a large number of districts for the rest of the decade.

While Democrats are trying to create a national ethics message about Republicans, the situation in Ohio is like nowhere else in the country.

Every day, newspaper stories in the Buckeye State raise questions about Gov. Bob Taft’s judgment and Republican ethics. The governor’s job ratings are so low that he probably couldn’t be elected to another statewide office, which is one reason why the DCCC’s late TV spot in the special election tried to tie Republican Congressional nominee Jean Schmidt to Taft.

Whatever President Bush’s problems, he doesn’t have a 19 percent job approval rating, which is what Taft had in one recent poll. And while ethics charges have been aimed at some Republicans in Congress, including House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas), Rep. Bob Ney (Ohio) and retiring Rep. Duke Cunningham (Calif.), the national ethics environment simply doesn’t bear a strong resemblance to what we are now witnessing in Ohio.

Third, Republicans in Ohio’s 2nd district were unusually divided after a bitter primary to choose a nominee for the special election - a situation that is not likely to occur in many places next fall.

Anti-tax, "pro-growth" Republicans didn’t like Schmidt at all - the Club for Growth preferred any of the three other major GOP contenders and ran a last-minute television spot hammering Schmidt - and one conservative group even ran ads after Schmidt won the primary that urged fiscal conservatives to sit out the special election rather than back her in the general.

Fourth, Hackett was a particularly strong candidate, especially for someone who had never run for office. But while his strong showing now has party operatives and armchair quarterbacks searching high and low for veterans to run in other districts, it is far from clear that Hackett’s military service in Iraq was crucial in his showing.

Democrats recently ran another candidate with an extensive military record - Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) - and he fell short when Republicans raised questions about his military service and, more importantly, forced voters to line up along partisan lines.

Finally, Schmidt ran a poor campaign that lacked a message and that relied on a campaign team short on experienced, proven strategists. She also made the crucial error of not attacking her opponent, or at least not defining him. Few serious GOP candidates next year will run efforts as inept as Schmidt’s.

Some bloggers are talking about "bleeding the Republicans dry" by investing in dozens of Democratic challengers, forcing the National Republican Congressional Committee to spend money on races they could otherwise ignore.

There are two problems with that strategy. First, it is based on a faulty conclusion drawn from the Ohio special election. Republicans won’t need to spend money in most of those contests, because those challengers won’t seriously threaten most of the GOP nominees. And second, Democrats simply won’t have the money to invest in a hundred or more races around the country.

Hackett’s showing in the special election may help woo a few strong candidates into Congressional races who otherwise wouldn’t have run, and may convince some contributors to writer bigger checks for more candidates than they ordinarily would have. It may also help generate more enthusiasm among Democratic activists nationwide. But unless the national circumstances come to resemble what happened in Ohio 2, the lessons of the special election will have limited application in 2006.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on August 11, 2005. Copyright 2005 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.