Thursday, March 30, 2006

Veterans Finding the Going Rough on the Campaign Trail

By Stuart Rothenberg

We’ve only just begun the primary season, but already there are strong signs that the Democrats’ strategy of recruiting veterans who served in Iraq is a bust.

That’s the unavoidable conclusion that I have come to even after reading the recent press release from the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Political Action Committee (IAVA PAC), which crowed about Congressional candidate Tammy Duckworth’s March 21 primary victory in Illinois’ 6th district.

Duckworth did win the Democratic primary, but she did so unimpressively. Her victory had to be a relief to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, but can’t be seen as anything but a mild embarrassment for the committee.

Duckworth defeated 2004 nominee Christine Cegelos (D) by just three points, 44 percent to 41 percent, even though the Iraq veteran was endorsed by both of the state’s United States senators, raised over $200,000 more than her opponent, received more national media attention than any House candidate in the country and was the personal project of DCCC chairman Rahm Emanuel.

Duckworth, who was endorsed by both of Chicago’s big newspapers, EMILY’s List and the state AFL-CIO, even ran a TV ad including an endorsement by superstar Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.). All of that got her 44 percent of the vote.

But Duckworth’s showing isn’t the only reason to declare the “Iraq veteran” candidate recruitment strategy a failure. There is more compelling evidence.

Two Iraq veterans have already exited their races, apparently shown the door by Democratic insiders.

The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee turned its back on Paul Hackett in the Ohio Senate race (even though party insiders had gone to great lengths to woo Hackett into the Senate contest), while the DCCC seemed relieved when David Ashe dropped out of the race in Virginia’s 2nd district.

In each case, the responsible Democratic campaign committee turned to an experienced, incumbent officeholder – Rep. Sherrod Brown in Ohio and Virginia Beach Commissioner of the Revenue Phil Kellam in Virginia – rather than a never-elected veteran to run for office.

Ashe, who was deployed to Iraq in 2003, the year before he drew 44 percent against Republican Thelma Drake in an open seat House race, never stopped running after his defeat, and Democratic insiders cited him early on as an Iraq veteran who would be a strong contender in ’06.

But early in ’06, newly-elected Governor Tim Kaine (D) offered Ashe a job in his administration, as director of Business Assistance, and Ashe dropped his Congressional bid and grabbed the job.

You have to believe in both the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy to believe that Kaine’s offer was purely coincidental and that DCCC chairman Rahm Emanuel had nothing to do with the series of events that got Ashe out of the race. I don’t.

Then there is the strange case of Tim Dunn, a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and veteran of Iraq.

Dunn became the favorite for the Democratic nomination in North Carolina’s 8th Congressional district almost by default, because Democrats couldn’t find a political heavyweight to take on incumbent Republican Rep. Robin Hayes.

But less than a week after the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America PAC listed Dunn as one of its first seven endorsements, he dropped out of the race, citing family financial obligations. The Iraq veteran had raised less than $100,000 through December.

Other Iraq War veterans being hyped by IAVA PAC also seem headed for political oblivion in November. David Harris (D) is challenging Rep. Joe Barton in a Texas district that gave two-thirds of its vote to President Bush last year and is safely Republican. Harris will lose.

The same fate faces Andrew Duck (D), who has no chance against veteran conservative Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) in a very Republican district in northwest Maryland. Politically, the challenger is a dead Duck.

Andrew Horne (D), a 27-year veteran of the Marines, is taking on Anne Northup (R), but faces a primary and the only reason he has a chance of facing Northup is that party strategists couldn’t recruit a proven vote getter with established fund raising skills.

In district after district, Democratic insiders preferred to recruit established political figures who already demonstrated that they could run effective campaigns, raise money and appeal to voters. Only when they couldn’t did they turn to Iraq War veterans.

After all of these arguments, maybe you think that I don’t believe that any of these veterans can win. If you think that, you are wrong.

Duckworth could win, and lightening could strike one of the other districts where Iraqi veterans running this year. But if they win, it will be because they are the Democratic nominees in a year when a Democratic wave sweeps across the country, not because of their status as Iraqi veterans. This year, it is far better to be a Democratic nominee in a competitive district than an Iraq War veteran running anywhere.

Finally, the national media once again deserves plenty of criticism on the way it has covered the candidacies of Iraq veterans. Too many journalists (some of them from as far away as France and Japan) jumped on the story – how those reporters and television producers love “telling a story” – without considering whether the Democratic spin was true.

This column first appeared on Town Hall on March 27, 2006.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Not Everything Bush Does Is About the Christian Right

By Stuart Rothenberg

This is a true story. The names have been changed to protect the — well, just because I’d rather not name names.

The other day I received a telephone call from a producer at a television network. The caller inquired about whether I might be available to do an interview for a story scheduled to air later in the day. I often do interviews, so the call wasn’t all that unusual.

What was unusual, however, was the story that precipitated the call — or rather the angle that the piece was taking.

The story involved the possible execution of an Afghan Muslim who had converted to Christianity. As far as I know, that story made all of the network news shows that evening, and it was the lead on at least two broadcasts.

I didn’t know anything about the subject, and I said so. But the producer persisted, saying the angle they were hoping I could comment on was what President Bush had to do to respond to the possible execution to “satisfy” Christian conservatives.

Frankly, I was shocked at the question, since the underlying premise was that the president of the United States would respond to the possible execution primarily in the context of domestic political pressures.

I guess the people working on the story had visions of the president, Karl Rove and a couple of other White House staffers sitting around talking about what the president had to say to make Pat Robertson, James Dobson or Gary Bauer happy.

I know that people in Washington, D.C., assume that politics pervades everything, and that politicians don’t make a move without calculating the political costs. But in this case, I argued, that assumption simply was wrong.

“Are you suggesting,” I asked rhetorically, “that the president — or any normal American — would react differently if someone were being executed because he or she had converted to Judaism or to Islam?” Why else bring the Christian right into the story?

I know some journalists are obsessed with the political influence of the religious right, but the idea that the president’s response would, to a considerable extent, be crafted to pacify evangelical Republicans is ridiculous.

When I told that to the caller and added that I was not interested in being interviewed because of the premise of the piece, I heard silence, followed by a polite thank you.

I’ll admit that I wondered how the final piece would look, and I hoped the “Christian right” angle would never make it to air, since it seemed very unlikely to me that the White House would see the issue as how to “deal with” the Christian right.

But it did air and included an interview with Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, apparently questioning American policy in Afghanistan.

The story ultimately included a nationally known political science professor commenting that the incident was a “nightmare” for the president since it “takes his base and divides it.”

The first thing I did was pick up my jaw from the floor. Then I shook my head in disbelief.

How exactly, I wondered, did the possible execution of a Christian convert in Afghanistan “divide” Bush’s base? Was I supposed to believe that there are Republicans who favor the execution and others who don’t?

Or, did the analyst mean that Christians want the president to act tough toward the Afghans, but non-Christian supporters of Bush don’t care or oppose a tough line?

Or am I supposed to assume that the “execution” of a Christian convert in Afghanistan would somehow turn Christians — and only Christians — in the United States against the war, if hundreds of deaths and kidnappings hadn’t done so already?

I suppose it is possible that if an execution takes place, some Americans who have been supporting the war might start to question whether the administration’s entire Iraq-Afghanistan policy is right.

But that view wouldn’t be limited to Christians, and it’s not even certain that the execution would change existing views on the president’s policies. If there is an execution, will Perkins call for the U.S. to leave Afghanistan immediately? Don’t hold your breath.

The entire incident from my phone conversation to the final version of the unfortunate piece drove home a key point: Even in Washington, not everything is a partisan or ideological issue, and not everything the president does or says involves political or electoral concerns. Even more to the point, not all presidential decisions are based on the political clout of the Christian right.

Some things involve simple truths that don’t require over-interpretation. Like the question of whether it’s OK to execute someone because of his or her religious beliefs.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 27, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Florida Senate: Is $10 Million Enough?

By Nathan L. Gonzales

With Rep. Katherine Harris (R-FL) pledging to sell the farm and put $10 million of her own money into the Florida Senate race, it's fair to reevaluate her chances of knocking off Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL).

From the beginning, Republican insiders believed that Harris was simply unelectable statewide. The polarizing nature of the 2000 presidential election and her reputation has made her unacceptable to most independent voters. Ten million dollars is not going to change that.

Also keep in mind that $10 million sounds like a lot of money, but Sen. Nelson was sitting on $8 million through the end of 2005. If Harris actually spends what she says she will spend, Sen. Nelson may have to work harder than he had initially planned. But he is well-positioned and well-financed for his reelection effort.

Quite simply, the fundamentals of this race have not changed and the race remains a clear Democratic advantage. Race-watchers will need hard evidence that independent voters, who have been expressing their dislike of Harris to pollsters, are changing their opinion.

This item first appeared on Politive Wire on March 23, 2006.

Friday, March 24, 2006

New Print Edition: PA Senate, OH13&18

The new March 24, 2006 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report is on its way to subscribers. (Click here for subscription information.)

Pennsylvania Senate: First One to Fall
By Nathan L. Gonzales

There is no presidential race this year, but Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate Race may be the next best thing. Up to this point, the race hasn’t even been close, with state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. (D) leading Sen. Rick Santorum (R) by ten to twelve points in public polling with seven months to go. But nobody is discounting the senator’s tenaciousness or writing him off just yet.

Still, the early shape of the race has created a role reversal. Casey is playing the part of the incumbent, with a relatively sparse schedule of public events, while Santorum attempts to draw him out into a battery of public debates. That’s not a position that most incumbents would relish.

While Santorum is trying to make gains statewide, Casey is trying to shore up his base. Liberal Democrats, concerned about Casey’s pro-life views on abortion, are not enamored with the Democrat’s position on cultural issues, but they have generally seen him as the candidate to defeat Santorum, whom they abhor.

Santorum’s staunch conservative values and leadership position in the Senate would make this a symbolic victory for Democrats nationwide. For now, Santorum is trying to dig himself out of a deep hole. His state is competitive, but the national environment is strongly working against him.

For the rest of the story including the lay of the land and anaylsis of the general election, as well as the Bottom Line..subscribe now.

Ohio 13: Playing Catch-Up

Democratic Cong. Sherrod Brown finally decided to take the Senate plunge, setting up an open seat race in Ohio’s 13th Congressional District. Brown, who was first elected in 1992, is taking on Sen. Mike DeWine (R) in a state where Republicans are reeling.

But Brown’s absence in his district has created a scramble and crowd of candidates. The district leans Democratic, but Republicans are hoping to take advantage of an opportunity if Democrats nominate a candidate with some baggage.

Republicans are lining up behind Lorain Mayor Craig Foltin. On the other side, five Democrats are in the mix for the nomination on May 2: former Cong. Tom Sawyer, former state Rep. Betty Sutton, 2004 14th District nominee Capri Cafaro, Elyria Mayor Bill Grace, and Gary Kucinich (brother of Cleveland-area Cong. Dennis Kucinich).

Sawyer starts with the edge in name identification, while Cafaro holds a financial advantage because of her personal money. But it’s the prospect of a Cafaro nomination that has Republicans eager for the general election.

For the rest of the story including the lay of the land and anaylsis of the Democratic Primary, as well as the Bottom Line..subscribe now.

Ohio 18: Going, Going, Gone?

GOP Cong. Bob Ney is in serious trouble. He has not been indicted like his colleague Tom DeLay, but his reelection prospects are in jeopardy. The ethical questions surrounding Ney and his relationship with lobbyist Jack Abramoff has put the Republican Party at risk of losing Ohio’s 18th Congressional District.

Democrats wanted former state senator Greg DiDonato to run, but he declined. Instead, Chillicothe Mayor Joe Sulzer, Dover Law Director Zack Space, and state board of education member Jennifer Stewart are fighting for the Democratic nomination. The primary is set for May 2.

Filing has past for candidates, and Ney is joined on the primary ballot by financial analyst/farmer James Harris. Ney is expected to win the primary, and if he were to come under indictment or drop out of the race after winning the nomination, filing would re-open and a special primary would take place (only on the GOP side).

By the numbers, this district leans Republican. But with the embattled Ney on the ballot, Democrats have an excellent takeover opportunity.

For the rest of the story including the lay of the land and anaylsis of the Democratic Primary, as well as the Bottom Line..subscribe now.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

An Empire State Headache for Republicans?

By Stuart Rothenberg

Looking for a sign of whether a big Democratic wave is developing? Try New York.

Once a state with genuine political competitiveness where liberal Republicans (including Thomas Dewey, Jacob Javits, Nelson Rockefeller and Ken Keating) prospered, the Empire State has veered toward the Democrats over the past few decades.

Yes, New York Republicans have now held the governorship for three consecutive terms, and they retain their longtime lock on the state Senate. But Democrats hold more than a 2-to-1 advantage in the state’s Congressional delegation as well as both Senate seats and an unassailable majority in the state Assembly. And, of course, no Republican presidential nominee has carried the state since Ronald Reagan’s re-election landslide of 1984.

This cycle, Democrats are making a major effort to flip a handful of Congressional districts in the state, and they hope that strong Democratic showings at the top of the ticket, combined with a favorable national environment, could net them a seat or two in Congress.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) will coast to an easy re-election victory, and state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer is expected to win the Democratic nomination for governor and crush his eventual GOP opponent in November. Democrats also hope to make gains in the state Senate.

By contrast, New York political observers say Republicans have a chance to swipe only a single statewide office — attorney general — and even there, Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro, once thought of as a rising star, is off to another unimpressive start. Her competitiveness in that race stems from the baggage of the two leading Democratic contenders for the office, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo and former New York City Public Advocate Mark Green.

Overall, national Democrats believe that the combination of good candidate recruitment in New York and a favorable political environment has put seven New York House districts “in play” this cycle. But do they really have a chance in any of them?

In many ways, the best Democratic opportunity is in the 20th district (Saratoga Springs to Lake Placid), currently represented by Rep. John Sweeney (R), a four-term Congressman who previously served as New York labor commissioner and executive director of the state party.

His opponent, attorney Kirsten Gillibrand, 39, has good political bloodlines and worked in the Clinton administration. Attractive and personable, Gillibrand raised an impressive $370,000 through the end of December.

Sweeney has been hospitalized with high blood pressure, and he has ruffled some feathers within his own party, including backing candidates in county party races who eventually lost. He also has strained relations with outgoing Gov. George Pataki (R).

Just based on the numbers, Democrats should have their best shot at GOP Rep. Jim Walsh. Unlike the other six districts Democrats are targeting in the state, Walsh’s Syracuse-centered 25th district was carried by Democratic Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) in 2004, 50 percent to 48 percent.

From an incumbency point of view, two GOP-held seats look particularly inviting. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert’s retirement creates an open seat in the 24th district (Utica/Rome), while first-term Rep. Randy Kuhl drew an unimpressive 51 percent in the 29th district against a weak opponent last time, making him an obvious target this time.

Elsewhere, Democrats think they have a shot against GOP Reps. Sue Kelly in the 19th district, Tom Reynolds in the 26th district and Vito Fossella in the 13th district.

Reynolds, as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, would be a particularly sweet trophy for Democrats, though his chairmanship gives him the means to fight back effectively against a strong challenge. Millionaire Jack Davis (D), who drew 44 percent against Reynolds last time, is running again.

As for Fossella’s seat, Democrats hope that New York City Councilman Bill de Blasio will take him on.

Yet while this crop of Democratic opportunities is better than in the past, Democrats remain distinct underdogs in all of these seats.

State political observers argue that upstate voters turn out with clock-like consistency, and that any surge or decline in turnout is likely to occur downstate. And there are plenty of Bush Republicans in these Democratic-targeted districts. In 2004, Bush carried Sweeney’s and Kelly’s districts with 53 percent, Boehlert’s with 52 percent, Kuhl’s with 56 percent, and Reynolds’ and Fossella’s with 55 percent.

The numbers simply are against the Democrats in these districts. “There are too many cows, too many trees and too many Republicans” for Gillibrand to knock off Sweeney, one insider told me.

In Boehlert’s district, Republicans are likely to nominate a popular GOP state Senator, probably Ray Meier, who actually looks to be stronger than Boehlert — who’s repeatedly faced tough primaries with conservatives — would have been in November. And Walsh’s likely opponent doesn’t look strong enough to threaten the relatively popular Congressman.

While I found Kuhl’s main challenger — retired naval officer and former Wesley Clark aide Eric Massa — to have an interesting background and potential appeal, I wasn’t impressed that he ended December with just more than $87,000 in the bank.

The most recent buzz about a de Blasio challenge to Fossella ignores the fact that de Blasio is a Brooklyn-based politician who would have a difficult time in Fossella’s district, which is dominated by Staten Island.

One last comfort for upstate Republicans is that state Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno will pour big money into GOP-held state Senate districts to try to retain the party’s 35-27 majority — a factor that could help Republican efforts to retain the seven Congressional districts Democrats are targeting.

Still, despite all the challenges facing Democrats in the New York Congressional races, the contests are worth watching. Political waves can build bigger and faster than anyone expects, and that fact alone makes the Empire State worth paying attention to. Just don’t lay down money on any of the Democrats just yet.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 20, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

New York 24: Boehlert (R) Retirement Only a Small Opportunity

By Stuart Rothenberg

Another Republican retirement. Another Republican open seat.

But while Democratic strategists will try to make Congressman Sherwood "Sherry" Boehlert's retirement into an opportunity for a takeover, the Upstate New York district is likely to remain in GOP hands in November.

State Sen. Ray Meier (R) has decided to run for Boehlert's seat, and while a crowded GOP primary is possible, the party establishment is already rallying behind Meier. State Senator Jim Seward, who also represents parts of Boehlert's Congressional district, has signaled to friends that he is yielding to Meier.

Boehlert’s district went for George W. Bush by 52% in 2004. That’s not an overwhelming number, but then again Bush was not exactly popular in the Northeast.

The frontrunner for the Democratic nomination has been Oneida County District Attorney Mike Arcuri. Now that the seat is open, however, other Democrats may look.

Meier's candidacy means the Republicans will field a candidate who is at least as strong as Boehlert, who always had a problem solidifying the Republican base. Democrats will need to ride a big partisan wave in November -- certainly a possibility -- to win this open seat.

This piece first appeared on Political Wire on March 17, 2006.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Local vs. National

By Nathan L. Gonzales

House Republicans are embracing former House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s famous line, “All politics is local,” but history suggests they may be taking it to their electoral grave. Midterm elections in 1966, 1974, 1982, and 1994 certainly weren’t local – they were national.

Back-to-back briefings by National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (NY) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (IL) displayed two very different views of this election cycle.

For Emanuel, this is a national election and a referendum on the Bush Administration and the “rubber stamp” Congress. For Reynolds, this isn’t one national election, but 435 local elections across the country, each with a unique set of issues that voters care about and will vote on in November. These are two very different outlooks coupled with two very different strategies. And one of the chairmen will prove to be very wrong come November.

On the GOP side, Reynolds is like a broken record, talking about “building races from the ground up.” To Reynolds, that means focusing on local issues, local candidates, and local dynamics, specific to each congressional district. And the chairman is comfortable with his committee’s fundraising advantage and infrastructure over the DCCC.

It’s really the only strategy Republicans have, and it’s often extremely effective. Republicans have successfully been able to execute the local strategy the last three cycles, but that was in either neutral or favorable political climates. This environment could be downright hostile and by virtually ignoring the environment, Republicans are risking their majority.

When asked about the war in Iraq and people’s growing skepticism of the federal government in general, Reynolds responded, “It doesn’t matter what the [national] issues are, only what matters in those local districts.” It’s almost as if, to the congressman, House districts exist in a vacuum void of any national or world news. Reynolds even brushed off the notion that President Bush’s standing would be an issue in House races this year and refused to compare this election cycle to 1994.

Emanuel paints a much broader picture. “The country is thirsty, hungry for a new direction,” the chairman said. National polling, including President Bush’s job ratings and congressional job ratings, back up Emanuel’s assertion. For Republicans to believe that local and national issues don’t and won’t overlap in voters minds is quite a leap to make.

Between the dueling outlooks, the Democratic roadmap is the better bet this cycle. It’s the only option they have, and it looks good to this point. In recent cycles, Republicans have often held a tactical advantage, but that simply may not matter this cycle when voter attitudes trump strategy.

After November, the line may be, “All politics is local…except when it isn’t.”

This piece first appeared on Town Hall on March 17, 2006.

Monday, March 20, 2006

The Political Environment Isn’t George Allen’s Friend

By Stuart Rothenberg

The brief stay by Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) as my frontrunner in the race for the Republican presidential nomination is over. It was much, much shorter than I expected.

But Allen, a first-term Senator who served as governor of the commonwealth of Virginia, didn’t lose that status because of his third-place showing in the Southern Republican Leadership Council’s straw poll last weekend, or because of his performance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.

The straw vote was an irrelevant event that didn’t measure grass-roots appeal, elite opinion or anything else worth measuring. As a tool for evaluating candidate strength, or even for ranking the field, its results are useless. Fun, maybe, for some, but useless.

And while Allen’s performance on Tim Russert’s Sunday morning program was maddeningly mediocre — he was seriously outshined by Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden (D) — one TV appearance usually doesn’t destroy a presidential bid. Former Sen. John Edwards’ (D-N.C.) disappointing performance on “Meet the Press” a year and a half before the 2004 Iowa caucuses didn’t cost him his party’s presidential nomination.

Allen also didn’t lose his frontrunner status in my book because he failed to recruit a particular fundraiser, or because he didn’t sign up a certain operative from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, or Nashua, N.H.

Remember the “Shrum” primary, named after the “contest” to sign up Democratic consultant Bob Shrum? The hype surrounding that development in 2004 simply wasn’t warranted, and it won’t be warranted again in 2007, when some journalists fawn over a supposedly unmatched political consultant or operative.

No, the Virginia Senator’s White House prospects have been steadily eroding since my first column on this topic one year ago. The reason: President Bush’s reputation has nosedived.

Allen is perfectly positioned as heir to the Ronald Reagan-George W. Bush legacy. The only problem is that the legacy doesn’t look nearly as valuable now as it did as recently as a year ago — even within the GOP.

The national political environment has changed, and even Republicans who like and admire Bush increasingly believe that the party needs to nominate someone with a clear identity as a strong, competent leader, a reformer and a fiscal conservative.

Allen’s greatest strengths as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination are his upbeat, affable personality, his relentless optimism and his unabashed conservatism — qualities that stood Reagan in good stead during his political career.

Like the current occupant of the White House, Allen tends to be straightforward about what he thinks. You get the sense that he’s talking from his gut — that what you see in George Allen the man and George Allen the politician is what you get.

The Virginia Senator often refers back to the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence and major events in American history to define himself and his philosophy, or to make his points. (He regularly invokes the name of Thomas Jefferson when he defines his own views, as he did last weekend on “Meet the Press.”) Those are images that are sure to be met with favor among GOP primary and caucus attendees, and among grass-roots Republicans in general.

If Bush’s numbers today were as strong as they were a year or two ago, these factors would help Allen in his quest for the GOP nomination. But they aren’t even close.

A March 10-12 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found Bush’s job rating at 36 percent, a noticeable drop from a year earlier, when it stood at 52 percent. Among Republicans only, the president’s job approval now stands at 75 percent — high, but down from the 91 percent he had in a March 7-10, 2005, CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey.

A mid-March 2005 ABC News/Washington Post poll found the same trend. The president’s job approval was at 50 percent, well above his 41 percent in the most recent ABC News/Washington Post survey.

Polls also have shown that over the past couple of years, fewer Americans see the president as a “strong leader” or as “honest and trustworthy.”

Voters often look for a different type of person to fill the White House than the man who served immediately prior. They turned to John F. Kennedy after Dwight Eisenhower. They opted for Bill Clinton after George H.W. Bush. They opted for George W. Bush after Clinton.

If Republican voters decide that eight years of George W. Bush is enough, they may well look for a different kind of person to carry their party’s banner in 2008. And that’s why Allen is no longer the man to beat for the GOP presidential nomination.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 16, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Minnesota 5: Martin Sabo (D) to Retire

Fourteen-term Democratic Cong. Martin Sabo is announcing his retirement. His 5th District Minneapolis-based seat went for John Kerry 71%-28% in the 2004 presidential election. The race will only be contested in the Democratic primary.

Early potential candidates mentioned include Sabo's chief of staff Michael Erlandson, Sabo's daughter Julie, a former state legislator and 2002 DFL nominee for lieutenant governor, Democratic activist Keith Ellison (who is African-American), along with a host of others. Click here for more from the Star Tribune.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Reports of Bob Riley’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

By Stuart Rothenberg

Like Rasputin, who refused to die even after he was poisoned, shot three times and beaten with a 2-pound dumbbell, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley (R) is proving to be more resilient than many political observers once assumed.

Riley was pronounced politically dead by many — including me — more than two years ago when a tax increase he proposed and tried to sell to state voters was annihilated at the polls.

But while two-thirds of voters turned down his proposed $1.2 billion tax deal in September 2003, the governor has bounced back and now leads both his major primary challenger and his likely Democratic opponent in polling.

Riley, a wealthy businessman-turned-Congressman before being elected governor in 2002, said he had no choice but to support the package of new taxes to close the state’s budget deficit, improve state schools and make the tax system fairer for the poor.

National and state anti-tax groups blasted Riley, and the governor was attacked by the state Republican Party as well as by many conservatives. But he also failed to get the enthusiastic support of low-income and minority voters, who would have benefited from his proposal but who didn’t trust him generally.

“I want the whole Republican Party to watch this guy fall on his face. He lied to the voters. He’s been a disaster. He’ll never be elected to anything again in his life,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a leading opponent of the governor, shortly before Riley’s tax package went down to defeat.

I looked at the results and told a reporter that “Riley has a better chance of winning ‘American Idol’ than getting re-elected.” It was a good line, and it seemed right at the time. But I may have been dead wrong.

Two months after voters overwhelmingly defeated Riley’s proposed tax package, a Mobile Register/University of Southern Alabama poll of adults found only one in four Alabamans rating the governor’s job performance as good or excellent, while 68 percent described it as only fair or poor.

Riley trailed former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore by 17 points in a hypothetical primary, and he was down by 8 points against former Gov. Don Siegelman (D) in a general election ballot test, even though he had defeated Siegelman (albeit very narrowly) a year earlier.

But in the past couple of years, things have changed in Alabama. Riley looks much stronger as the economy has improved, the state unemployment rate has dropped and memories of his tax package have faded.

Alabama political observers argue that Riley is benefiting from the lack of credible opposition, either within his party or from the Democrats, and they suggest that, unlike some other Gulf Coast politicians, he received a lot of positive exposure responding to hurricanes in the past two years.

“People are fickle,” one Yellowhammer State observer told me. “They don’t have long memories. A faction in the business community is still angry at him, but who else is there for them to go to? Riley has reached out to the business community and worked with them.”

Riley and the chairman of the state House Budget Committee, a Montgomery Democrat, have discussed a potential tax cut, with the governor advocating a higher standard deduction and larger personal exemptions, which would give all state taxpayers a tax cut.

In February, a Republican won a state legislative special election in a seat that had been held by a Democrat. The focus of the race was Riley’s proposed tax cut.

Polling conducted more recently shows the governor with a solid lead over Moore in the GOP primary (though a same-sex marriage ban on the primary ballot could bring out a disproportionate share of Moore voters).

It also shows him with a solid lead over his two most likely Democratic opponents. A February Mobile Register/University of Southern Alabama survey of registered voters found Riley with a 9-point lead over Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley (45 percent to 36 percent) and a whopping 26-point advantage over former Gov. Siegelman (53 percent to 27 percent), who faces corruption charges in a trial expected to start in early May.

Mobile Register/University of Southern Alabama surveys of registered voters conducted four months earlier, in October, showed Riley leading former Justice Moore by 19 points, 44 percent to 25 percent. In the general election, the governor held an 11-point lead over Baxley and a 15-point advantage over Siegelman.

Even worse for the Democrats, insiders say it is not impossible for Siegelman, a former governor who remains popular in the African-American community even though he is under indictment, to nose out Baxley for the nomination.

Riley’s phoenix-like recovery is proof that voters often forgive and forget, and if officeholders are going to anger voters, it is better to do so early in a term, years before they need to stand for re-election, rather than shortly before an election.

Even Norquist seems to have softened in his view of the governor.

“He tried to do the wrong thing and failed,” Norquist said, “and now he’s trying to do the right thing. It’s easier to forgive him [since he failed] than it would have been if he had succeeded in raising taxes.”

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 13, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Georgia 12: Curb Your Enthusiasm

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Georgia's 12th Congressional District was never supposed to elect a Republican. Max Burns didn't win the seat in 2002, Democrats lost it, and after only one term, Burns was voted out of office. Now the former congressman is attempting a comeback in a slightly redrawn district, but Republicans should temper their optimism and understand the realities of the race.

After the 2000 census, the Democratically controlled state legislature drew the 12th District to elect Charles "Champ" Walker, Jr. (D), son of then-state Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker (D). But in the 2002 general election, Walker's multiple arrests (including a disorderly conduct incident at an Applebee's restaurant) became the issue, and Burns was elected to Congress.

Burns also had a significant wind at his back. Peach State voters simultaneously threw out two Democratic incumbents, Gov. Roy Barnes and U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, in a mini-GOP wave that year. Champ's father even lost reelection and is actually in jail until September for tax evasion, mail fraud, and conspiracy. Burns will not have a 2002-esque wave this November, and even more likely, the national mood will be sour toward his party.

Two years later, Max Burns lost reelection when Democrats nominated a candidate without a rap sheet. Former Athens-Clarke County Commissioner John Barrow defeated the Republican 52%-48% in a very competitive contest.

Post-election, the now-Republican controlled state legislature took to "fixing" the congressional lines drawn by Democrats just four years earlier. Barrow's home, and political base, of Athens was removed from the district, but the 12th District continues to lean-Democratic.

George W. Bush's 2000 percentage increased from 45% to 48% in the new district, but he still lost it. Under the new lines, Bush did win the 12th District very narrowly, 50.4%-49.6% in 2004. (John Kerry won the old district 53%-46%.) But the president was considerably more popular then, compared to now.

Also in 2002, Sonny Perdue (R) lost the newly-drawn 12th District in the governors race, garnering 46%, and under-performed his 51% statewide performance. And Saxby Chambliss (R) lost the district with 44% in the Senate race, even though he took almost 53% statewide.

By comparison, in Jim Marshall's (D) re-numbered 8th District, where former Cong. Mac Collins (R) is running, Perdue won with 58%, Chambliss took 56%, and President Bush won it in both 2000 (58%) and 2004 (61%). By the numbers, the 8th District is clearly a better opportunity for Republicans.

A recent Public Opinion Strategies poll, conducted February 20-21 for Burns showed him trailing Barrow by a slim 43%-42% margin. The Democrat's reelect was very low at 28% compared to 35% who "want a new person." The survey also shows Burns with higher name identification (84% to Barrow's 70%) in the district.

But, to describe this race as an incumbent vs. incumbent battle is not entirely accurate. Burns will not have the advantages and access that Barrow now possesses, particularly in fundraising. In 2004, when Burns was the incumbent, he outspent Barrow $2.8 million to $1.8 million. Now, through December 31, the incumbent Barrow had almost twice as much money, with $902,406 on hand compared to Burns' $505,919.

Barrow will have a voting record to defend, but according to new vote ratings released late last month by National Journal, Barrow's liberal composite score was 55.7, placing him near the ideological center of the House of Representatives. (Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was a 90.2.)

Frankly, Republicans don't have a lot of takeover opportunities this cycle. They will be playing a whole lot of defense in November. But in Georgia's 12th District, the outlook for Republicans is much darker than either the rhetoric or Burns's poll suggest.

This column first appeared on Town Hall on March 10, 2006.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

NY Senate: Pardon Me While I Yawn

By Stuart Rothenberg

Once again, the New York Senate race is receiving more attention than it deserves.

The decision by Kathleen Troia McFarland (R) to jump into the Republican Senate race has some GOP insiders smiling, and cable television news hosts jumping for joy.

Republicans hope that McFarland can make Clinton spend money running for reelection. And they’d like to see her find a chink in the Senator’s armor that the party can exploit in 2008. Cable TV networks and talking heads figure that they again have an excuse to blanket Senate Clinton with coverage.

The only problem with all of the attention is that McFarland isn’t any threat to the reelection of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton – or to the Presidential hopes of the state’s junior senator. Clinton was a safe bet for reelection before McFarland’s entry, and she’s a safe bet for reelection after McFarland’s entry. Nothing has changed. Absolutely nothing.

McFarland had already raised over $300,000 when she jumped from a Congressional race (in Manhattan’s 14th Congressional District) to the U.S. Senate race, and as a moderate Republican woman who has media experience, she is not without assets in a race against Clinton.

But let’s get real here. The Senator has over $17 million in the bank, is a popular Democrat in a Democratic state, and is going to cruise to reelection against a second- or third-tier challenger, which is exactly what McFarland and former Yonkers Mayor John Spencer (R) are.

Spencer’s campaign has already started to attack McFarland as a liberal. That’s just what the Republicans need at a time when the party is getting set to lose the governorship, and it’s fighting to hold onto its seats in the state Legislature.

Most TV and newspaper reporters cover Senator Clinton as if she were a Hollywood celebrity. But she is not in a competitive race for reelection, and both K.T. McFarland (and Spencer) and I have the exact same chance of beating the Senator in November. And I won’t even be on the ballot.

There is simply no political reason to talk about this race.

This piece first appeared on Political Wire on March 8, 2006.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The 2008 Race Is on — and the Field Is Smaller Than You Think

By Stuart Rothenberg

If you turned on C-SPAN last Sunday evening, you may have noticed that the network’s “Road to the White House 2008” was broadcasting a Feb. 20 speech by Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) to the Spartanburg County (S.C.) Republican Party.

Huckabee is mentioned as a possible contender for the GOP nomination, so it’s fitting that C-SPAN covers him from time to time, especially when he speaks in an early caucus or primary state such as South Carolina. He did a very good job in that speech, telling the audience what it wanted to hear, and mixing humor into his remarks.

But at the same time that we are all attempting to be fair and giving second- and third-tier presidential hopefuls an opportunity to sell themselves to the American public (and to Republican activists), let’s also be realistic about those nominations. Long shots no longer win presidential nominations. It’s been 30 years since one of the major parties nominated a true long shot for the White House.

Look at the presidential fields a year or so before Iowa and New Hampshire. If the eventual nominee wasn’t the clear frontrunner at that point, he was at least in the top tier of candidates.

Then-Vice President Al Gore and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) were the favorites that far out in 2000 and 2004. Then-President Bill Clinton was unopposed for renomination in 1996. Democrats didn’t have a prohibitive favorite in either 1988 or 1992, but both Clinton and Mike Dukakis belonged to the pool of top-tier contenders. In 1980, when incumbent President Jimmy Carter won a contested renomination, and in 1984, when former Vice President Walter Mondale was the frontrunner, Democrats nominated the early favorites.

On the GOP side, George W. Bush (in 2000 and 2004), former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole (in 1996), George H.W. Bush (in 1988 and 1992), Ronald Reagan (in 1980 and 1984) and Gerald Ford (1976) were all favorites to win their party’s presidential nomination.

The two “recent” asterisks are Howard Dean, who began as a punch line but came close to winning the Democratic nomination in 2004, and Carter, who came from nowhere to win the Democratic nomination in 1976.

But Dean isn’t a true exception, since he didn’t win the nomination. And Carter’s success laid the seeds for why long shots haven’t won a nomination in three decades.

Since 1976, all presidential hopefuls have understood that they have to start early with a pre-campaign. That means raising incredible amounts of money, recruiting supporters, visiting the early primary and caucus states and polishing their speaking skills more than a year before the Iowa caucuses.

Given that, long shots no longer have the advantages that George McGovern (D) had in 1972 and Carter had four years later when they “surprised” their opposition by launching uphill White House bids far earlier than most of their eventual competitors.

If I’m right that the fundamentals of a presidential race have made it more difficult for long shots to pull off surprise victories, then we already have a pretty good idea who the 2008 White House nominees will be.

The GOP will nominate Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) or George Allen (Va.) or Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. The Democrats will nominate Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) or Evan Bayh (Ind.), former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner or former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.). That’s it. The odds are very, very good that two of those seven hopefuls will be on the ballot for president in November 2008. One or two others may be in the No. 2 slot.

The only “out” that I’ll give myself is that if any of these top-tier candidates ends up not running, then that opening could create an opportunity for someone who’s now a long shot to move into the top tier. For example, were McCain to take a pass, Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel (Neb.) could potentially fill his slot.

So, if you really, really like Sens. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) or Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), or Govs. Bill Richardson (D) of New Mexico, George Pataki (R) of New York or Arkansas’ Huckabee, don’t be too disappointed when they fall short of winning their party’s nomination. (OK, I’ll admit to being a little uncomfortable including the very amiable Richardson on this list.)

I’m not exactly sure what to do with Kerry or Gore. Whether you put them into the top tier depends on whether you believe that in 2008 Democrats are likely to turn to someone who has lost in recent history. I don’t.

Even though the next president will come from a group of six or seven people we can now identify, that is no reason to ignore other hopefuls at this point. As a sitting governor, Huckabee surely deserves the opportunity to make his case to the public, and a surprisingly strong effort could credential him as someone’s vice presidential running mate.

Moreover, long shots in one election cycle can become top-tier contenders four years later, as Reagan found out.

But we shouldn’t ignore the fact that long shots have an increasingly miniscule chance of winning a presidential nomination — no matter how much we journalists and political junkies hold onto the romantic notion of a deadlocked convention or a dark horse nipping one of the favorites at the wire.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 9, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Friday, March 10, 2006

New Print Edition: 2006 Gubernatorial Outlook

The new March 10, 2006 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report is on its way to subscribers. (Click here for subscription information.)

2006 Gubernatorial Outlook

The mood nationally is shifting toward change, and Republicans are playing defense in governorships this cycle, along with their majorities in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House. The GOP comes into the year with a 28-22 advantage, but should be happy to walk away from the cycle with a 25-25 split. Democrats still remember 1994 when they went from 29 governorships to 19.

Republicans are not only defending more seats (22-14), but in states like New York, Massachusetts, and Ohio, they have been in power for over a decade and voters appear to be ready to make a change. The Republicans’ only hope is that the Democratic governors in the upper Midwest continue to struggle. But right now, Democrats are positioned to net between 4-6 governorships.

Three GOP-held seats moved to more vulnerable categories while two moved down. Two Democratic incumbents moved to a more vulnerable category and one moved back. For rankings of all 36 governorships this cycle, recent polling, and analysis...subscribe now.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Other Guy Named Brown Now Has Problems, Too

By Stuart Rothenberg

Apparently, there is something about being named Brown. In Ohio, the decision by Rep. Sherrod Brown (D) to enter the U.S. Senate race after first turning down pleas to run has divided Democrats. Party insiders rallied behind Brown, forcing Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett out of the contest, even though those same insiders had initially begged Hackett to run before Brown jumped in.

Now, in Rhode Island, another Brown seems to be in the middle of a major screw-up.

Secretary of State Matt Brown, who has fashioned himself as an outsider and reformer, miraculously received contributions from three state Democratic parties. One of those parties, the Massachusetts party, received a contribution from a Brown donor who had already “maxed out” to the Senate hopeful, raising questions about whether the state party checks constituted “laundering” of illegal contributions.

The news, and the developing controversy, was first revealed by Roll Call, and while Brown’s campaign has denied that it did anything wrong, the whole situation smells like a week-old flounder left in the hot summer sun.

There obviously are a number of concerns here.

First is the issue of money laundering. It sure looks and sounds as if the Brown campaign and the state parties engaged in a quid pro quo by which Brown contributors would send the parties contributions and the state parties would send contributions to Brown. If that indeed is how things happened, Brown is in deep doo-doo.

Second, why would state parties give to a Democratic Senate candidate who’s engaged in a primary? The answer, in part, appears to be that Brown has a staffer who has “friends” in those parties. But that’s no answer. State parties never get involved in primaries in other states, and it is hard to imagine what interest the Hawaii Democratic Party could have in a primary in a state 5,000 miles away. Is this part of Howard Dean’s new strategy of beefing up state Democratic parties?

Someone at each of the three state parties probably should be fired.

Third, how gullible does the spokeswoman from the Massachusetts party think we are — the one who told Roll Call that the Massachusetts party intended to send $5,000 checks to both Brown and Whitehouse but ended up sending two checks (one for the primary and one for the general election) to Brown? Do we look that stupid?

My growing suspicions about the Brown campaign are fueled by an incident that occurred just a few weeks earlier.

Earlier this year, Brown’s campaign launched a TV blitz, spending much of its limited resources to promote the relatively unknown state officeholder. Not surprisingly, a poll conducted after the blitz showed Brown surging and overtaking his primary opponent, former state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse.

There is nothing wrong with any of that. The campaign gambled its early funds to boost Brown’s name and image in the hope that he would “catch fire,” raise more cash and alter the fundamentals of the race, which clearly favored Whitehouse at the outset.

The campaign rolled the dice and, in a sense, won when its poll numbers spiked.

What bothered me was a Brown campaign release, in which press spokesman Matt Burgess was quoted as saying: “This dramatic 20-point movement in poll numbers can’t be explained as just the result of a few weeks of television ads. It’s because Matt Brown stands up for what he believes. That’s the kind of leadership people are hungry for — not the same-old politics as usual.”

Apparently, Burgess, too, figures that we are all brain-dead. Of course, Brown’s dramatic movement in the polls is solely a function of the TV ads. So what? There is nothing wrong with that. Why not just admit it? Why spin it in a way that looks like a lie?

Now comes another controversy — a bigger one that involves possible violations of the law. I’m expected to accept another feeble excuse, even though it sounds just as bogus as Burgess’ interpretation of his campaign’s poll results? Judge for yourselves, but the evidence is mounting about Matt Brown.

Finally, I can’t help but reflect on another political controversy that surfaced in the Ocean State this cycle.

Brown University political science faculty member Jennifer Lawless, who is challenging incumbent Rep. James Langevin in the Democratic primary, found herself in a controversy last year when the Brown Daily Herald reported that she had received $5,500 in contributions from students and their families. At the time, Lawless apparently had a role in evaluating the students’ work at Brown.

After the matter became public, Lawless agreed to return the contributions, though she said she didn’t believe that “giving or receiving these contributions was at all improper.” Not improper? Having taught political science at Bucknell University for three years, I cannot imagine any circumstances under which accepting money from students (and the families of students) with whom I had any academic relationship would have been even close to proper.

At a time when voters are concerned about honesty and integrity, and when Democrats clearly have the advantage nationally on matters of ethics, Democratic candidates ought to make an extra effort to be squeaky-clean. Someone should relay that to Rhode Island and to Democratic state parties around the country.

This column first appered in Roll Call on March 6, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

In a Change Environment, More Bad News for GOP

By Nathan L. Gonzales

If voters are looking for a change this November, the fallout for Republicans could spread beyond the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House. Republicans are defending a number of governorships this cycle in states they have controlled for a number of years.

Voters at the state level have generally shown more of a willingness to switch parties for governor every couple terms or so anyway. That’s one reason why there is a Democratic governor in Wyoming and a Republican governor of Hawaii. And in a state like Pennsylvania, voters switch parties like clockwork, voting the out-party back into office every eight years since World War II (This doesn’t bode well for Lynn Swann’s candidacy).

But in an environment of change, the willingness to throw out the in-party at the gubernatorial level may be even more dramatic.

Republicans have held the governorship in New York since 1994, when George Pataki (R) was first elected. But now, state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and the Democrats are heavily favored to pull the Empire State back into their column. Even if Pataki were seeking a fourth term, he would lose.

The GOP has also held both Massachusetts and Ohio since 1990. The last Democrat elected governor in the Bay State was Michael Dukakis in 1986. Now, Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey (R) is vying to hold Massachusetts in the wake of Gov. Mitt Romney’s (R) exit, but her task is significant based on the politics of the state and the longevity of GOP governors in power there. Three Republicans - Bill Weld, Paul Cellucci, and Jane Swift - all served before Romney.

Gov. Bob Taft’s difficulties in Ohio and the voters desire for change is compounded by the fact that his party has been in power there for 15 years. In fact, it has been over a decade since Democrats won any of the five elected statewide offices. But now, Ohio continues to be a great opportunity for the Democrats in November.

Republicans are also defending in five states (Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and Nebraska) that they have held since 1998. All but Nebraska are currently opportunities for Democrats.

On the other side, the list is considerably shorter. Of the fourteen Democratic governorships up this year, eleven switched from Republican hands in 2002, and a twelfth (New Hampshire) only came under Democratic control in 2004. This makes the Republican opportunities for a change message considerably smaller.

Democrats have held the Oregon governorship since 1986. The last Republican to win in the state was Gov. Victor Atiyeh, who won reelection 61%-36% over Ted Kulongoski. Now, two decades later, Gov. Kulongoski (D) is running for reelection to a second term. He faces a competitive primary, but Republicans have a messy primary of their own to sort out. This is not yet a great GOP opportunity, but a race to watch for now.

Iowa remains the best takeover opportunity for Republicans, where Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) is not seeking reelection and where Democrats have been in control since 1998. Republicans have effectively rallied around Cong. Jim Nussle, and he is in good shape for the general election fight.

But in some states, the change message is less likely to resonate. A Democrat hasn’t won a gubernatorial race in South Dakota since 1974. This year, Gov. Mike Rounds (R) is seeking a second term, but this has never been a serious race and the only Democratic candidate just dropped out. Republicans have controlled Idaho, Rhode Island, and Texas since 1994, but only Rhode Island seems to have the potential to develop out of those three, based on the Democratic nature of the state.

And Democrats haven’t won a gubernatorial race in Connecticut since 1986. But Gov. Jodi Rell’s (R) job approval and favorability ratings remain in the stratosphere, and she is in very good shape to win election to a full-term.

Longevity in power is certainly not the only factor worth evaluating when handicapping races, but in an environment particularly primed for change, Republicans have yet another flank to defend with their governorships.

This column first appeared on Town Hall on March 2, 2006.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Your Link to the Texas Primary

Here is your link for Election Night returns in Texas today. There are two key congressional races to watch and a third to check in on:

Texas 22: Former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R) vs. attorney Tom Campbell (R) and others
Texas 28: Cong. Henry Cuellar (D) vs. former Cong. Ciro Rodriguez (D)
Governor: Former Cong. Chris Bell (D) vs. Bob Gammage (D)

If no candidate reaches 50%+1, the top two vote-getters advance to an April 11 runoff.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Rhode Island Secretary of State Matt Brown (D) has been desperate for media attention. An underdog in the Democratic Senate race for the right to face either Senator Lincoln Chafee (R) or Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey (R) in November, Brown spent heavily on early advertising to boost his name identification and reputation.

Well, the self-described outsider and reformer is now getting plenty of attention in state – and in national – media. But it isn’t exactly the kind of media attention that candidates for high office are looking for.

Brown is in the center of a huge controversy, first reported by Roll Call reporter Lauren Whittington, with political opponents and journalists questioning whether he used Democratic state parties in Massachusetts, Maine, and Hawaii to launder funds that he otherwise would not have been able to accept.

Brown is now trying to redefine the issue. He is attacking Whitehouse and trying to make his campaign’s behavior the issue (for going “negative” with “personal attacks”), much the way that Representative Tom DeLay (R) has tried to make his accuser, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle (D), the issue in DeLay’s money-laundering controversy.

With many national and state party insiders already preferring Whitehouse, Brown may well be forced to spend his time and resources defending himself during an embarrassing Federal Election Commission investigation that will likely ensue. His outsider/reformer message is at least compromised, and much of the good will that he created from his initial wave of ads is likely to dissipate.

The controversy is not likely to help Brown’s fund raising, and, for the near future, the story in the race will be whether Brown broke the law. That’s not a message that an alleged “reformer” wants to deliver, and it can’t help Democrats in their effort to take the Senate seat from the GOP.

By Stuart Rothenberg

This piece first appeared on Political Wire on March 2, 2006.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Rothenberg Touts His Favorite Candidates So Far

By Stuart Rothenberg

I certainly haven’t yet seen all of this cycle’s allegedly strong House candidates, but the beginning of March seems like a good time to list my favorite candidates so far, including both challengers and seekers of open seats but excluding candidates from the previous cycle who are running again. The group that follows is not presented in any particular order.

Ron Klein (D) is taking on Rep. Clay Shaw in Florida’s 22nd district — one of the 10 or 15 most competitive House races of the cycle. I found the state Senator to be poised and polished, without being too slick. He has already raised more than $1 million and is running in a very competitive district.

Having said that, Shaw is constantly underestimated. I’m not sure why. He has demonstrated over the past 30 years — first as mayor of Fort Lauderdale and then as a Member of Congress — that he is an effective politician who can win in a variety of circumstances and against allegedly strong challengers. Still, Klein conveys a sense of maturity and substance, and that makes him an unusually strong contender in the current environment.

After hearing Democrats talk about Wisconsin candidate John Gard (R), I expected a monster to come into my office. Instead, I encountered an accomplished political veteran who is both personable and politically savvy. He seemed smart, likable and down-to-earth.

The Speaker of the state Assembly, Gard, 42, is the favorite to win the GOP nomination for the seat being vacated by Rep. Mark Green (R-Wis.), who’s running for governor. Gard, who has already been endorsed by Green, is also considered the favorite to win the seat in November.

But Gard does face primary opposition from state Rep. Terri McCormick and a competitive general election. His opponents portray him as a political insider with ties to lobbyists and the establishment. But Gard, who entered the state Legislature at 24, is the kind of focused, results-oriented conservative that Democrats will hate if he makes it to Congress.

I wrote about Indiana’s Brad Ellsworth (D) in this space recently, so I don’t need to wax poetic about what a good candidate he is. With a law enforcement background, strong fundraising, a moderate (even conservative) bent and a personal appeal that most hopefuls lack, the Vanderburgh County sheriff has a chance of knocking off Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.).

Republicans have rallied around Illinois state Sen. Peter Roskam (R) in their effort to hold onto the seat of retiring Rep. Henry Hyde (R), which is considered politically competitive. Well-spoken and likable, Roskam sounds like a well-versed, mainstream conservative who fits this district well.

Roskam worked on Capitol Hill years ago for both Hyde and Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), so he understands Congress and Congressional campaigns. He’s one of those rare politicians who one minute sounds like a policy wonk and then next talks like a strategist and campaign consultant. I found him refreshing for his candor and insight.

In the crowded 1st district race in Iowa to succeed gubernatorial hopeful Rep. Jim Nussle (R), I’ve met three top-tier candidates and each was impressive. Democrats Rick Dickinson and lawyer Bruce Braley both looked and sounded like Members of Congress. I started out wondering whether state Rep. Bill Dix (R) might be over his head given his small-town roots and farm boy persona. But Dix is a powerful committee chairman and a political strategist for his party, and his combination of political savvy and rural, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” charm makes him one of my favorites.

In Colorado’s 7th district, I’ve met two hopefuls who have won spots on my list: former state Rep. Peggy Lamm (D) and state Higher Education Commission Chairman Rick O’Donnell (R). O’Donnell conveys a sense of accomplishment, maturity and common sense. Lamm is, quite simply, hard not to like. After talking with her for 10 minutes, you get the feeling that you’ve known her for years. (At least she treats you that way.) This highly competitive seat is open because Rep. Bob Beauprez (R) is running for governor.

Democrat Dan Seals is running against Rep. Mark Kirk (R) in Illinois and has little or no chance of winning. But if state and national Democrats have any sense, they’ll find a way to use the African-American businessman’s obvious skills and appeal. A graduate of Boston University, he holds a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and an MBA from the University of Chicago. He currently works for GE Commercial Finance.

Another young Democrat, Chris Murphy, has a somewhat better shot this fall than Seals does. Though he looks even younger than his 32 years, Murphy is a seven-year veteran of the state Legislature, serves as assistant Majority Leader in the Senate and chairman of the Public Health Committee. Given his electoral track record and personal skills, he looks to have a far better chance of knocking off veteran Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) than I assumed before I interviewed him.

Finally, Sharron Angle (R) of Nevada, isn’t as dynamic as some candidates, but I must admit that I was impressed with her cool confidence and determination, as well as with her understanding of politics. The state Assemblywoman has built her reputation as an opponent of taxes, and she is going to ride that horse are far as it will take her. It may well take her to Capitol Hill, though she is in the middle of a three-way primary for Congress in Nevada’s 3rd district, a seat that Rep. Jim Gibbons (R) is giving up to run for governor.

That’s my list so far. There are still highly touted challengers and open-seat hopefuls I haven’t yet met — and I’m a bit concerned that some of them are being kept away because the hype surrounding them is grossly exaggerated.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 2, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Is the Public’s Mood on Automatic Pilot Until the Fall?

By Stuart Rothenberg

It’s the end of February, still more than eight months before November’s midterm elections. That’s an eternity in politics, and it’s one reason why Republicans remain optimistic that they can turn public opinion more in their favor than it is now.

But on issue after issue, public opinion seems to have solidified against President Bush, and there is shrinking reason to believe that Bush’s standing will improve before November.

That means GOP prospects for holding the House and avoiding an electoral bath depend almost entirely on localizing elections. Given the public’s unambiguous dissatisfaction with the president, Congress and the direction of the country, that, too, seems increasingly unlikely.

Just when you think Bush has an opportunity to turn things around, another issue surfaces to pose a problem for the White House and the GOP. If Vice President Cheney isn’t shooting somebody, a foreign corporation based in the Middle East is taking over management of the nation’s port facilities.

Of course, neither of these events are all that newsworthy: The Cheney incident was a media process story and the port facilities issue is less a story about U.S. security or the war against terrorism and more of a drummed-up controversy created by politicians to score political points and, in turn, mined by cable news networks to draw viewers. But both caught the media’s attention and put the White House on the defensive.

Polling tells a sad story for the GOP. Bush’s job rating is in the low 40s, and the public is equally unhappy about the president’s handling of Iraq, health care, immigration, taxes, the federal budget deficit and the economy — even though the U.S. economy is in relatively good shape.

Even Bush’s handling of the terrorism issue has plunged, despite the fact that we haven’t seen a development so dramatic that it would automatically cause his credibility on the issue to tank.

People aren’t making significant distinctions between Bush’s performance on various issues, which makes it more difficult for the White House to change public attitudes on any single measure of Bush’s job performance.

Americans, or at least many Americans, now assume the worst about the president. They interpret events through the lens of pessimism. Good news, such as the state of the economy, is not appreciated, and bad news is not merely bad, it’s catastrophic.

So, for Bush, this public mood is disastrous since it means that Americans are not in any mood to receive good news or re-evaluate their hardening assumptions about the current administration or the GOP.

All of this has ominous ramifications for the GOP in the fall. While National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) continues to insist that Republicans will do well because they know how to run good campaigns and have demonstrated their ability to localize elections, you need to go back at least to 1982 to find an environment that is close to as bad as the current one for the GOP.

“Blocking and tackling” — a phrase Reynolds likes to use to describe the fundamentals of campaigns — may well produce victories in a neutral political environment or a favorable one, but it can’t stop a wave. That’s what makes waves different from other elections. Candidates win because of their party label, even though they haven’t raised enough money or run good enough campaigns.

Of course, we don’t yet know how big the Democratic wave will be in November. And actually, I’m convinced that current ballot test numbers understate Republican strength at the moment.

For example, while a recent poll in Kentucky’s 4th district by the Democratic firm Cooper & Secrest shows incumbent Geoff Davis (R) trailing former Rep. Ken Lucas (D) by 10 points in a ballot test, I’m betting that when voters start to focus on November, Republican numbers will inch up at least a few points, as partisan juices start to boil.

Still, it looks increasingly unlikely that Republicans can alter the public’s overall mood, barring a dramatic event, such as the capture or death of Osama bin Laden or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist who has become a top American target. Only a truly dramatic event is likely to force Americans to reassess their view of the president and of the nation’s direction.

And remember, not all dramatic events work toward the president’s advantage. Hurricane Katrina was not only a botched government response but a huge missed opportunity for the Bush administration to rally the country around a cause and re-establish some trust with the American people.

The situation in Iraq doesn’t seem likely to improve enough between now and November to help the president’s standing, and Congress isn’t likely to do anything significant enough to change the public mood. Barring a dramatic event that no one can now predict — and unexpected things do seem to happen just when you don’t expect them — what you see now in the way of mood is pretty much what you can expect in the fall.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 27, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.