Friday, June 30, 2006

New Print Edition: Maryland Senate & Vermont At-Large

The new June 30, 2006 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report is on its way to subscribers. (Click here for subscription information.)

Maryland Senate: Race Matters
By Nathan L. Gonzales

If national Republicans are looking at reliably Democratic Maryland for one of their best Senate takeover opportunities, you can bet that the national landscape is pretty sparse. But a competitive Democratic primary and an appealing African-American GOP nominee have Republicans holding onto a sliver of hope.

Paul Sarbanes (D) is retiring after almost thirty years in the Senate, and his actions leave a rare open seat opportunity for candidates on both sides of the aisle. Democrats have a crowded primary field, led by Cong. Ben Cardin and including former Cong. Kweisi Mfume, businessman Joshua Rales, and college professor Allan Lichtman.

State Democrats attempted to move up the September primary to June to allow more time for the party to heal from both the Senate and gubernatorial races, but they were unsuccessful. And while the race for governor has cleared up, Democrats will battle it out all summer for the right to take on GOP Lt. Gov. Michael Steele.

The Republican opportunity depends on a fairly simple scenario: Mfume comes out of a brutal primary with the nomination, while Steele is able to capture a larger-than-normal share of the African-American vote along with voters turned off by the Democrat’s personal and political baggage.

But if Democrats nominate Cardin, the GOP opportunity fades quickly and Steele becomes only a long-shot.

For the rest of the story including the lay of the land, candidate bios, analysis of both the Democratic Primary and the general election, and The Bottom Line ..subscribe now.

Vermont At-Large: The Scarlet Letter

A little over a year ago, no one in Vermont knew which political party Martha Rainville belonged to. Now, after announcing that she would run for Congress as a Republican, she is fighting to distance herself from the national GOP.

The former National Guard Adjutant General is vying for the open seat being vacated by Cong. Bernie Sanders (I), who is running for the U.S. Senate. Rainville will face state Senate President Pro Tem Peter Welch (D) in a rare Republican takeover opportunity.

President George W. Bush’s job approval in Green Mountain State is in the low 20s and the overall Democratic nature of Vermont certainly works against Rainville’s candidacy. But GOP Gov. Jim Douglas remains popular and is expected to win a third two-year term, and Rainville’s unique profile makes her formidable.

A mid-June Republican survey showed the race tied, but the contest is far from over. Both Rainville and Welch will spend the summer and fall campaigning across a state small enough for retail politics to still matter.

For the rest of the story including the lay of the land, candidate bios, how it plays out, and The Bottom Line ..subscribe now.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Who Created the Phony Al Gore Boomlet?

By Stuart Rothenberg

I’m just now recovering from the most recent frenzy about a possible Al Gore presidential bid in 2008, and I’m hopeful that we’ll still have another few months before we get our next “Is Al Gore changing his mind and running for president in 2008?” boomlet.

But another round of Gore presidential speculation is about as likely as the next “Inside Edition” piece on Britney Spears or the next Larry King interview with Bob Woodward. In other words, it’s inevitable.

The question for today is not whether the former vice president will run, or whether he should run, or whether he might actually win if he were to run. I don’t know if he will run, but if he does, it would be a bonanza for columnists and comedians.

People who know Gore, or know people who know Gore, all tell me that the former vice president would like the Democratic nomination handed to him, but that he isn’t prepared to commit himself to do the things over the next 17 months that he would have to do to win it.

That leaves me wondering about how and why we had to suffer through another round of stories about Gore possibly running for president without an explicit sign from Gore himself that he was considering a 2008 bid, or even that he was open to considering another campaign.

Democratic insiders suggest that some of the buzz came from Gore’s allies — from Hollywood liberals who were turned on by the Gore they saw in the movie “An Inconvenient Truth” and from people with a financial interest in it.

Talk of a White House run by Gore generated publicity for his movie, and that surely boosted the audience for the film. Given that, it figures that some public relations genius concluded that marketing a Gore presidential bid would be an effective way of marketing Gore’s movie.

But most veterans of Democratic politics who know Gore strongly doubt that he masterminded an effort to get people buzzing about another White House bid.

“Al Gore has been very disciplined about not making news beyond the movie. He has passed up opportunities to make news about himself,” insisted one veteran Democrat who’s close to Gore.

When I’ve seen Gore on talk shows recently (and he seems to have hit almost every one), he seems genuinely interested in promoting his film and talking about global warming, not in talking about himself or national or Democratic politics.

So if the Gore drumbeat didn’t come from the former vice president, who started it and kept it going? The answer is the liberal Web logs, some of which already have embraced him as their preferred candidate for ’08, as well as many in the national media.

There is and, and there is an “Al Gore for President Petition” at On Daily Kos, one of the premier liberal Democratic Web sites, a straw poll of 11,000 voters showed 68 percent of respondents saying they would support Gore — far, far ahead of the runner-ups, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) at 15 percent and retired Gen. Wesley Clark at 4 percent.

Democratic liberals suddenly are in love with Gore. And so is the media, which always falls in love with whomever and whatever it can’t have.

One veteran Democrat called the Gore presidential flurry an example of “the Joe DiMaggio syndrome.”

“I’ve seen it for 25 years: It’s always the person who isn’t in the race who people long for. It’s why people are also talking about [Sen.] Barack Obama (D-Ill.) for president. And the Gore-for-president scenario is the precursor to the ‘brokered convention scenario’ that we will hear about soon,” said the astute observer.

Journalists, talking heads and sympathetic bloggers simply are finding the Gore scenarios too good to pass up.

There is the “Gore was really right” storyline, and the “Gore is the one Democrat who can stop Hillary [Rodham] Clinton (D-N.Y.) from winning the nomination” storyline. Then there is the “Al Gore and Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton” storyline (not to mention the “Al Gore and Tipper Gore and Hillary Clinton” storyline).

“The media anointed Hillary the frontrunner and now they want a story and a fight, and Gore is the easiest thing for them to imagine,” one media-savvy Democratic operative argued.

Of course, ultimately, there is the “comeback kid” storyline. No matter how embattled, discredited and even disgraced a person is — from former Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter to one-time junk bond king Michael Milken — journalists and readers seem enamored with stories of people who have rebounded from defeats. A Gore ’08 bid would be a perfect made-for-TV script.

We probably won’t ever know how Gore would have done in 2008, since he is unlikely to become a candidate. But that won’t stop liberals from romanticizing about how much better off we all would be if he were to be inaugurated, or how a Gore victory in ’08 would be a wonderful payback to President Bush. And journalists are unlikely to cross off Gore permanently from their presidential lists, if only because a Gore run would have so many entertaining storylines.

The former vice president has become a celebrity, and in the current celebrity-obsessed culture, that means he’ll continue to receive plenty of media attention — regardless of whether he wants it and whether his plans and prospects merit it.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on June 26, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Connecticut Senate: Lieberman Faces Serious Test From Lamont

By Stuart Rothenberg

National Democratic insiders aren’t pulling many punches when it comes to Sen. Joe Lieberman’s (D-CT) primary in Connecticut against businessman Ned Lamont. They are saying that Lieberman could lose.

The senator is having considerable problems with older white men, and his allies are counting on strong support in the minority community and from women to squeeze out a victory over the anti-war challenger.

But Republicans did Lieberman no favor this week with recent floor votes on Iraq, and the senator stayed true to his principles by voting against both Democratic resolutions. That undoubtedly gave Lamont and the anti-Lieberman crowd more ammunition to make their "he’s out of touch with us" argument.

Lieberman’s refusal to say that he will abide by the results of the primary and rule out an Independent bid is also giving Lamont’s folks just what they want -- evidence that Lieberman isn’t a "real" Democrat.

In fact, many observers believe that Lieberman could win a three-way general election more easily than a two-way Democratic primary, and the senator apparently is trying to keep his options open. Given the uncertainty of the primary, that’s a wise course, even if it also hurts him in the Democratic race, since his ultimate goal is winning another six-year term to represent Connecticut in the Senate.

As in many contests, turnout will be critical. Nobody is certain whether the timing of the primary, August 8, when many people are on vacation and out of the state, will help one candidate or the other.

Many insiders seem to believe that allies of Lieberman will begin a petition drive to get him on the ballot as an Independent sooner rather than later, just in case that’s the only way for him to appear on the ballot in the fall. So even though the Democratic left could score a victory in the primary in August, Lieberman might still have the last laugh in November.

This item first appeared on Political Wire on June 23, 2006.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Montana Senate: Is Conrad Burns Headed for Defeat This Fall?

By Stuart Rothenberg

Once burned, twice shy: That’s simply another way of saying that I’m more cautious about handicapping the Montana Senate race than I am other Senate contests.

Just days before the 2000 elections, my newsletter moved GOP Sen. Conrad Burns from “Toss-up” to “Lean Takeover.” That rating change was based on information I had gathered about late polling data showing Burns well under 50 percent in his bid for a third term and Democratic challenger Brian Schweitzer pulling even with Burns.

From that evidence, I concluded that the Senator was likely to lose to Schweitzer, a likable, energetic Democrat who had run an effective campaign that took advantage of the Republican’s gaffes and used the issue of prescription drugs effectively.

Burns won that race with 50.6 percent of the vote (to Schweitzer’s 47.2 percent) at the same time that four GOP Senators — Bill Roth (Del.), Rod Grams (Minn.), Slade Gorton (Wash.) and Spencer Abraham (Mich.) — were defeated.

I haven’t forgotten Burns’ victory that cycle. It taught me something about the Senator’s appeal and the state’s political bent, and I have kept it in mind ever since when I have been asked about Burns’ standing back home.

Burns is clearly in trouble once again, and even Republican operatives worry that he may not be able to swim against the strong Democratic tide this November. The Senator’s easy 1994 victory is misleading given the GOP wave that year. His 1988 and 2000 victories were narrow, and polling this cycle strongly suggests that he is now fighting for his political life.

Part of Burns’ problem is his opponent, state Sen. Jon Tester (D), 49, who took over the family farm and converted it to organic farming in 1987.

Tester is a large, burly man with a flattop haircut and a big, engaging personality. In other words, he has the same down-to-earth quality as Burns, and the same knowledge of and background in agriculture.

Tester demolished state Auditor John Morrison, a more polished attorney who once worked on Capitol Hill, in the June Democratic Senate primary, even though Morrison had more money and was regarded by insiders as the favorite. Tester’s fundraising was mediocre, but he made a media splash with an August 2005 fundraiser with the ’90s rock band Pearl Jam.

If Tester has momentum from his primary win, he also has a problem. The Democrat is far more liberal than Burns. Unlike the incumbent, Tester supports abortion rights, would have opposed the Supreme Court nomination of now-Justice Samuel Alito and generally agrees with Democratic Rep. John Murtha’s (Pa.) Iraq withdrawal proposal.

Stylistically, Tester is a good fit for the state. The question is whether Montana voters will see the election as a referendum on Burns and President Bush, or whether Burns can make the election a test of the Democrat’s record and agenda.

Polling shows that Burns is already in a hole. An April poll by Ayres, McHenry & Associates for Burns’ unsuccessful primary opponent had the Senator trailing Tester 49 percent to 42 percent, and a May Mason-Dixon survey for Lee Newspapers also had Burns down, 45 percent to 42 percent.

The Senator’s name identification ratings in both polls also must trouble Republican strategists. The Ayres survey found Burns’ name ID at 41 percent favorable and 48 percent unfavorable, while Mason-Dixon had the Senator’s ID at 35 percent favorable and 41 percent unfavorable.

Democrats already have run TV ads against Burns, portraying him as ethically challenged. Burns has fired back with his own spots, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee recently ran humorous ads portraying Tester as a liberal with a conservative-looking haircut. The Montana Democratic Party is answering those GOP ads with TV and radio spots paid for by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Still, ethics is an obvious problem for the Senator no matter how hard Republicans huff and puff that Democratic attacks are unfair. After all, the April issue of Vanity Fair quoted disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff as saying that his staff members were “as close as they could be” with Burns’ Senate subcommittee staff and that the lobbyist got “everything we wanted” from the subcommittee. Those quotes surely will appear in a Democratic TV spot later in the campaign.

While Montana is often viewed as a conservative Rocky Mountain state in the vein of its neighbors Idaho and Wyoming, the state actually has a history of being more politically competitive.

Democrats won 13 straight Senate elections from 1948 to 1984, and Burns remains the only Montana Republican elected to the Senate since the end of World War II.

Currently the governor, Schweitzer, is a Democrat, and Democrats hold a 27-23 majority in the state Senate. The state House is evenly split between the two major parties. Four of the state’s six statewide officeholders are Democrats, and one of the Republicans, Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, was selected by Schweitzer as his running mate.

In presidential races, the state clearly favors the GOP. Only three Democratic nominees have carried the state since the end of World War II: Harry Truman in 1948, Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Bill Clinton in 1992. And Clinton won a plurality of only 37.6 percent; he carried the state when Independent Ross Perot siphoned off more than 107,000 votes.

Clearly, Burns needs to turn the Senate race into an ideological contest, as most presidential contests have become. But Tester won’t make that easy, and the national environment will be a problem for Burns even in Montana.

Burns probably is the second-most vulnerable Republican Senator up this year, after Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and he will need to pull another upset to keep his seat in the Republican column. He’s done it before, but he may not be able to do it again.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on June 22, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Michigan Governor: Falling Star- What Ever Happened to Jennifer Granholm?

By Stuart Rothenberg

If only Canadian-born Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) had been born in the United States, many state and national political commentators said a couple of years ago, she might well have become the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2008 or the party’s White House candidate in 2012.

More than a few observers cited Granholm alongside California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) as poster children for a constitutional amendment that would allow naturalized American citizens the right to hold the presidency.

Granholm eventually may regain her status as a star of the Democratic Party. But right now, she is more concerned with her political survival in November.

Granholm, the only sitting governor in the nation to be a contestant on “The Dating Game,” faces a formidable challenge from wealthy Republican businessman Dick DeVos, whose father was a co-founder of Amway and whose wife previously chaired the state Republican Party.

An early June EPIC/MRA survey of 600 likely voters conducted for the Detroit News and WXYZ-TV showed the extent of the governor’s problems.

Granholm’s job approval in the poll stood at 40 percent, while 59 percent said they disapproved of her performance. Not surprisingly given those numbers, only 30 percent of respondents said they would vote to re-elect her, while 33 percent said they would vote to replace her.

DeVos held a 48 percent to 40 percent lead over Granholm in the poll, with almost one in five Democrats selecting DeVos over the governor. Ominously, independents preferred DeVos over Granholm 46 percent to 30 percent.

Not everyone believes DeVos’ lead is that large. Some private polling suggests the race is closer, though it confirms that the Republican has the edge and that Granholm has serious electoral problems across the board.

Everyone agrees that Granholm’s greatest problem, and potential downfall, is the state’s economy. The American automobile industry’s illness has become acute, and it has spread to companies that survive off the auto sector.

“I’ve never seen an issue pop as consistently and to the exclusion of other issues as the economy in Michigan,” one veteran insider told me recently. “It has been building for two years.”

DeVos went up on television with paid advertising in March, with help from his own checkbook, and he has been on the air ever since. And he is likely to continue the air assault all the way to November, without a major break.

Democrats who know the state and are watching the race closely blame Granholm for spending too much time “listening” and for not being nearly aggressive enough in dealing with the state’s economic problems.

One Democratic political veteran, who says DeVos “isn’t a great candidate,” admiringly adds that the Republican has performed well in his own ads and that he has successfully “presented himself as someone who understands [the state’s economic problems] and is going to do something.” Voters want action, and they see DeVos as someone who will act.

Of course, Democrats have yet to launch an all-out assault on the GOP candidate, and Republicans already say they know what will be coming. They predict that Granholm will attack DeVos for allegedly “outsourcing” U.S. jobs and therefore for being part of the state’s problem, not its solution.

Granholm already has tried to blame President Bush for the state’s economic condition, and she is sure to return to that argument. But she is also likely to emphasize her proposals to deal with creating more jobs in the state.

Republicans are expecting a strong counterattack. As one DeVos ally joked, “We’d be happy to have the election next week.”

But Republicans have to feel that they are fortunate to be in the position that they are, with a one-time star of the Democratic Party now scrambling to survive past November.

Given the state’s fundamental partisan alignment, Granholm surely has the ability to recover and re-establish herself as the frontrunner in the race. But for now, it’s up to the governor to attack DeVos, and he has the resources to answer her attacks and launch new ones of his own.

Finally, Granholm’s problems should serve as a warning to those in the media who become enamored with a new political face and immediately turn that person into a political icon. Officeholders must prove themselves every day, and true political stardom, if there is such a thing, takes years to develop.

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

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Webb Victory Poses Dilemma for Warner

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Former Secretary of the Navy James Webb (D) won the Democratic nomination in Virginia and will take on Sen. George Allen (R-VA) in the general election. But former Gov. Mark Warner (D) may have a tough decision to make in the coming months.

Webb rode to victory on the backs of Democratic voters in Northern Virginia and with the help of Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Chuck Schumer, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (NV), and a handful of other senators from all over the country. But Warner wisely maintained his neutrality in the race between Webb and Democratic activist Harris Miller.

Now that a nominee has been chosen, Warner must decide how much of his own political capital he is willing to put on the line in the face of a potential 2008 presidential bid. Warner effectively used his popularity after one term in the governor's mansion to pull fellow Democrat Tim Kaine across the line in last November's gubernatorial election. But Allen will be a much tougher foe than Jerry Kilgore (R) was.

While a majority of Democrats in the Commonwealth believe Webb is their best hope to unseat Allen in November, Webb's task is still decidedly uphill against the Republican incumbent.

Of course Warner will endorse and back Webb in the race, even though the Senate nominee opted to withhold a potential 2008 endorsement for his fellow Virginian on NBC's Hardball. But if Warner invests significant time and energy into the race and helps Webb defeat one of the Republicans' top 2008 presidential contenders, it could vault the former governor ahead of his rivals going into 2007. But if Webb is viewed as "Warner's candidate" and loses to Allen, he would remain with the rest of the pack.

This item first appeared on Political Wire on June 16, 2006.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Bill Richardson: Looking Like a Go for 2008

By Stuart Rothenberg

Officially, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) is focused on his November re-election race, even though it’s expected to be relatively easy. And as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, Richardson also hopes to lead his party to a gain of at least a few more governorships.

But some Democratic insiders insist that Richardson has more on his mind than that. They say he is telling friends and political allies that he has decided to run for president in 2008.

When I spoke with the governor recently, he would only say, “After November, I will reassess my plan.” But Richardson, 58, has long been mentioned for higher office as part of a Democratic national ticket, and I’d be flabbergasted if he didn’t take the presidential plunge for 2008.

In 1984, less than two years after he was elected to a new Congressional district created by reapportionment and redistricting, Richardson already was being touted as a possible Senate candidate against Republican Sen. Pete Domenici.

Richardson never made that run, but he subsequently built an unusually impressive political résumé that includes everything from New Mexico Democratic Party executive director, Member of Congress, secretary of Energy, ambassador to the United Nations and chairman of the 2004 Democratic National Convention. He even has served as a hostage-release negotiator.

Then, in 2002, he was elected governor of New Mexico.

More than 20 years ago, observers tagged Richardson as a political up-and-comer, and they were right.

The 1984 edition of the Almanac of American Politics said he “is obviously a young man in a hurry, and one with a well-developed sense of political strategy.” Only 10 years later, Congressional Quarterly’s Politics in America referred to him as “one of the nation’s top Hispanic politicians.”

Now, savvy political insiders in the state give Richardson high marks as governor, praising his “bold initiatives,” his willingness to take on challenging issues and his ability to sell his agenda. “He is a huge salesman, and a very good one,” said one observer.

As governor, he has supported a state income tax cut for most New Mexico residents and has taken steps to cut the state’s considerable driving-while-intoxicated rate. He has declared 2006 the “Year of the Child” in the state and offered an agenda that promotes children’s health, education and safety — not a bad platform from which to launch a national campaign.

Whether because of Richardson’s policies or just plain good luck, New Mexico’s economy has been strong, another considerable asset if he makes a White House run.

The governor’s greatest asset as a presidential candidate is the breadth of his political experience. He has been in the political trenches as a political operative and as an aide to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; served as a legislator; had executive experience as governor; and has been involved in formulating and articulating U.S. foreign policy. Few other Democratic contenders are likely to have such experience.

What sets Richardson apart from other potential presidential hopefuls, however, is the fact that he is a Hispanic. Richardson’s mother was Mexican, and he was raised in Mexico City. He is fluent in Spanish and is very popular in the Hispanic community.

Richardson’s ethnicity could be a powerful asset in states such as New Mexico, Arizona, Florida and even Texas — all states with significant Hispanic populations, and all states carried by President Bush in 2004.

Richardson is also widely regarded as an extremely likable, down-to-earth guy. Unlike some recent (unsuccessful) Democratic presidential nominees who proved to be cold, distant and even artificial, the New Mexico Democrat connects with people.

But Richardson is not without his vulnerabilities.

He had to admit that he had misled people into believing that he was drafted by a Major League Baseball organization (the Kansas City Athletics) in 1966. When an investigation by the Albuquerque Journal found no evidence the he had been drafted by anyone, Richardson acknowledged that he might have been mistaken and was told that he could or would be drafted. Richardson pitched for Tufts University, a Division III school that is better known for its academics than its sports program.

More importantly, Washington, D.C., insiders who have observed Richardson for years raise questions about his self-discipline. They say he overextends himself and often loses focus. And they whisper that he hasn’t always carried himself in a style befitting a high elected official.

In December 2005, the Albuquerque Journal carried a front-page article on Richardson’s penchant for touching people.

“He hugs, pokes, jabs and tickles. If he sees a man with a bald pate, he rubs it,” wrote staff writer Leslie Linthicum.

The piece quoted Lt. Gov. Diane Denish (D) as saying that his touching and poking is “irritating and annoying,” and that she tries to avoid the physical contact by “trying not to stand or sit next to him.”

“It’s my way of connecting to people,” the governor told the newspaper when asked about his tendency to touch people. “I guess that’s what I get for being friendly,” he added.

But Richardson’s physicality is part of a potentially larger problem. Even admirers acknowledge that he can sometimes be “sophomoric” and overly informal.

But Richardson’s informality also reflects his “regular guy” persona that many voters and reporters will likely find so appealing. (Some state lawmakers, no doubt, would add that the nice-guy governor can be an overpowering bully when he wants to get his way.)

The New Mexico governor is a man of considerable talent. Measured by commitments, money and organization in the early states, Richardson starts behind many of the other contenders for the Democratic nomination. But his résumé and charisma have the potential to carry him a long way in the race. He’s worth keeping an eye on.

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

Friday, June 16, 2006

New Print Edition: Missouri Senate, Connecticut 5, & Governors Ratings

The new June 16, 2006 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report is on its way to subscribers. (Click here for subscription information.)

Missouri Senate: Guilt By Association?
By Nathan L. Gonzales

If you look up “bellwether” in the dictionary, you might see the state of Missouri in the definition. The Show Me State has received plenty of attention over the years for voting for the winning presidential candidate in every election, except for one, since World War II. But in 2006, Missouri may be a good indicator for Republican prospects nationwide in the U.S. Senate.

Sen. Jim Talent (R) is running virtually even with state Auditor Claire McCaskill (D) in a race that is unlikely to see much daylight between the two candidates between now and Election Day. Talent’s chief problem appears to be that he is from the same party as President Bush, so if the GOP senator is defeated, plenty of other House and Senate Republicans are likely to be defeated as well.

McCaskill is a credible challenger, but she would be a clear underdog in a neutral national political environment in a state that his been moving into the GOP column. She still has a 2004 gubernatorial loss on her resume, and must now make the difficult jump from a down ballot statewide office to federal office, where the issue set is much different.

But if this fall’s election is a referendum on George W. Bush, it is Talent who has significant trouble.

Missouri is on the back end of the top-tier races in the country. A victory here would likely have Democrats knocking on the door of a majority.

For the rest of the story including the lay of the land, candidate bios, how it plays out, and The Bottom Line ..subscribe now.

Connecticut 5: The Loudest Sneak Attack

Republican incumbents across the country are on alert for a potential Democratic wave this November. And on Election Night, the East Coast will be the place to watch to see whether a wave is hitting – or how big it is.

Cong. Nancy Johnson (R) is well aware that the national political environment is a difficult one for Republicans, and she knows that Democrats are targeting her and believe that state Sen. Chris Murphy (D) will be a formidable opponent for her in Connecticut’s 5th District.

Democrats are already trying to rough up Johnson, but the Republican isn’t backing down. Not one inch. In fact, she is known for her toughness, and her willingness to counter-attack.

First elected to Congress in 1982, Johnson hasn’t been a perennial Democratic target. But she has faced some tough reelection fights, and she has proven to be one of the most prolific fundraisers in the House. Democratic hopes are riding on Murphy, who is half Johnson’s age but has a history of defeating GOP opponents in tough districts.

Johnson is just one of three vulnerable Republican incumbents in Connecticut. But her loss would be both a numerical and symbolic defeat based on the strong campaign she is putting together. And Murphy win would almost surely presage a Democratic takeover of the House in November.

For the rest of the story including the lay of the land, candidate bios, how it plays out, and The Bottom Line ..subscribe now.

2006 Governor Ratings

Three Democratic governors, in Michigan, Wisconsin and Oregon, look increasingly vulnerable, but the GOP continues to have greater overall vulnerability in state capitols in the 2006 elections.

Republican open seats are a particular problem for the party, which could well lose three big state governors. New York already is lost, and Ohio and Massachusetts don’t seem to be far behind. Former Gov. Tony Knowles (D) is favored to oust Gov. Frank Murkowski (R) in Alaska.

Democratic governors currently sit in 22 state capitols, but after November, there are likely to be more Democratic than Republican governors. We currently project Democratic gains in the 4 to 6 governors range.

For our chart and rankings of all 36 races this cycle ..subscribe now.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Good News Finds the Republicans. But for How Long?

By Stuart Rothenberg

California’s 50th district special election. The death of terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq. The foiling of a major terrorist plot in Canada. A cooling of tensions over Iran. The unemployment rate down to 4.6 percent.

After a 17-month string of virtually unbroken bad news, Republicans suddenly find themselves confronting something they could not have expected, and may now no longer recognize: good news. How will they handle it?

First, Republican partisans should not kid themselves about the political environment. It was only a few days ago that news reports surfaced of a possible massacre by U.S. military personnel in Iraq and the re-emergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. If history is any guide, more bad news from the region is probably around the corner (if it hasn’t already happened).

Second, the public’s mood already is sour, so many Americans may discount good news, just the way they have ignored the strength of the economy. A succession of bad news, whether about Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, illegal aliens or job layoffs, would make many Americans forget the recent good news very quickly.

Third, Republicans need to understand that while they dodged a bullet in California’s 50th district, that result guarantees nothing about November.

Democrat Francine Busby has been described as a “mediocre” candidate so often that it might as well be her middle name. But Democratic nominees in Connecticut’s 2nd and 4th districts, Indiana’s 8th and 9th districts and Florida’s 22nd district— just to mention a handful of contests — are much stronger than Busby and much more likely to have appeal to general election voters.

Busby’s showing does indeed raise questions about Democratic prospects in a handful of districts where Republicans generally get about 55 percent of the vote, including in Rep. Mark Green’s open seat in Wisconsin’s 8th district, Rep. Mark Kennedy’s open seat in Minnesota’s 6th and Rep. Jim Gibbons’ open seat in Nevada’s 2nd.

Districts such as those, which mirror the partisanship of California’s 50th, could be at risk for Republicans in a Democratic wave, but Rep.-elect Brian Bilbray’s (R) showing, despite his failure to get a majority of the total vote, isn’t encouraging for Democrats.

Democratic strategists will argue that they have stronger nominees in those districts than they did in California’s 50th (a dubious assertion in Kennedy’s Minnesota seat, where Patty Wetterling will carry the Democratic banner). But the Republican nominees in those districts won’t have the baggage that Bilbray was carrying in the special election.

Remember, Bilbray was under attack from the right both in the special election and in the primary for the full term that was occurring simultaneously. That, plus his lobbyist tag and ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham’s (R) criminal behavior, all aided Busby’s chances.

But in Democratic-leaning or even tossup districts, the California results have little predictive value about what will happen in November. In those districts, Democratic candidates merely need Democratic voters to abandon their past support of Republican Members of Congress to turn the districts over to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Co.

In the meantime, while immigration aided Bilbray’s return to Congress, the issue remains a thorn in the side of Republicans and is likely to remain an irritant from now to the election.

While House Republicans may now assume that they need the issue more than a compromise with the Senate and the White House, there is significant danger for the GOP if, as now seems likely, the party fails to find a compromise on the issue.

If voters remain generally dissatisfied with the direction of the nation, Democrats will use Republican inaction on immigration as further evidence of the GOP’s incompetence and inability to come up with solutions to critical problems.

But what if the good news is the start of a trend? What if Osama bin Laden is killed or captured? What if Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke signals that interest rate hikes have come to an end and that the economy looks solid, resulting in a surge in the stock market? What if there is more news about and coverage of successful U.S. efforts to foil terrorists, causing Americans to see the Bush White House as successful in the war against terror?

And, most importantly, what if Americans start to become more optimistic about the future, leading to an overall uptick — I didn’t say surge — in optimism and to an improvement in President Bush’s poll numbers?

Gravity teaches that what goes up must also go down. But in politics, what goes down often ends up going back up. It’s all a question of timing.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on June 12, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

California 50: Neither Party Should be Too Comfortable with the Results

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Republicans held the levees in San Diego County, but nationally the storm is far from over.

Former Congressman Brian Bilbray's victory in Tuesday's special election was a costly but necessary victory for a Republican Party searching for any sliver of good news. And conversely, Democrat Francine Busby's loss showed that a Democratic wave and new Democratic majority is far from a certainty this November.

There are a handful of lessons to be learned from the special election in California's 50th Congressional District, but it would be inaccurate to label it simply as a bellwether or a sure indicator of the rest of the election cycle.

Both Busby and Bilbray received the focused time, energy and resources from their national parties and activists from across the country. But come November, their rematch will be just one of four dozen or more competitive races from Southern California to Connecticut.

Read the rest of the column in the North County Times from June 11, 2006.

Monday, June 12, 2006

California Blues: A Bit of a Downer for the Democrats

By Stuart Rothenberg

That sigh you heard Wednesday morning coming from national Democrats wasn’t the roar of approval and satisfaction that they hoped for. The results are in from California, and the news was surprisingly good for Republicans.

Former and future Rep. Brian Bilbray drew just under 50 percent of the vote in the special election in the 50th district, holding the open seat for the GOP. Democrat Francine Busby’s 45 percent showing was right in line with past Democratic efforts in the district — and therefore was disappointing.

Given the national political environment, the “lobbyist” line of attack that Democrats used against Bilbray and the nature of the vacancy — GOP ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham took bribes and went to jail — Democrats had every reason to believe that Busby could increase her percentage of the vote by at least a couple of points. But she didn’t.

Don’t get me wrong: Republicans shouldn’t misinterpret the results as evidence that everything is fine and dandy as they head into the November elections. In fact, Bilbray polled under the normal Republican vote on Election Day. A similar 5-point drop-off in the GOP vote in other districts would cost them plenty of seats and possibly control of the House itself.

Moreover, Busby was a mediocre candidate, and the National Republican Congressional Committee had to open its checkbook to save the seat. So it was a win, but a very costly one, for the Republicans.

Even so, Busby’s inability to expand her vote — and Republican voters’ apparent unwillingness to vote Democratic — does raise questions about the prospects for Democratic challengers and open-seat candidates in Republican-leaning, but now seemingly competitive, districts such as Minnesota’s 6th, Wisconsin’s 8th and Nevada’s 2nd.

Possibly even worse for the Democrats was the news out of California’s 11th Congressional district primary and the Democratic nomination for the gubernatorial race.

In the 11th district, Democrats nominated Jerry McNerney over the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s preferred candidate, airline pilot Steve Filson.

McNerney is a nice man, and he deserves a lot of credit for defeating Filson, who had the backing of powerful state and national Democratic insiders. But Rep. Richard Pombo (R) pummeled McNerney 61.2 percent to 38.8 percent in 2004, and there is absolutely no reason to believe Pombo won’t win again this year.

Pombo’s 62 percent showing in his own primary certainly was nothing to write home about. Any incumbent who loses more than one-third of the vote in a primary has problems in his own party and has reason to be concerned about his political future.

But McNerney is simply too far to the left to knock off Pombo in this district, and he doesn’t project the kind of persona that a challenger needs to win against an incumbent. That’s the very reason why Democratic insiders lined up behind Filson, who seemed more polished and formidable.

The big question for the DCCC is whether it will throw its firepower behind McNerney, a favorite of liberals and the netroots.

If DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) decides to take a pass on the race, liberal Web loggers within his party will scream. If he invests significantly in McNerney, he will take resources away from other races that offer the DCCC much better opportunities for victory.

In any case, Republicans now have reason to believe that Pombo won’t have the kind of nail-biter he could have had if Bilbray had lost and the Democrats nominated Filson.

Also in California, Democratic voters nominated state Treasurer Phil Angelides for governor. Angelides had support from virtually all of the party’s big hitters in his competitive primary against state Controller Steve Westly.

Angelides’ win probably improves the prospects of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), who now finds himself facing a veteran liberal politician rather than a wealthy businessman with moderate leanings. Angelides’ 48 percent to 43 percent primary victory suggests he has plenty of work to do if he is going to unite Democrats for the general election.

Democrats did receive one bit of good news on Tuesday, but it came from Montana, not California.

Despite polls showing a neck-and-neck race, state Senate President Jon Tester routed state Auditor John Morrison for the Democratic Senate nomination and the right to take on Sen. Conrad Burns (R) in the fall.

Tester has Burns’ homey appeal and lacks Morrison’s personal baggage. And while Republicans surely will attack the Democratic nominee as a liberal, Democrats have to like their chances of picking up this Senate seat with Tester as their nominee.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on June 8, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Vote Likely to Strain Falwell-McCain Marriage

By Nathan L. Gonzales

The recent marriage of two former political foes may already be over. Or at least the relationship got a bit more complicated with Wednesday's Senate vote on the Marriage Protection Amendment.

Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) received plenty of attention when he accepted the Rev. Jerry Falwell's invitation and spoke at Liberty University's commencement ceremonies on May 13. McCain's appearance seemed to signal a new relationship between the former adversaries and at least showed a willingness by Falwell to support the senator in the 2008 presidential contest. (He said the invitation was not an endorsement.)

But on Tuesday, before the vote, Falwell gave his thoughts on the potential fallout from the Marriage Protection Amendment fight. "I want to see where everyone stands. It's my opinion that anyone in the Senate running on the national level will be committing political suicide by voting against it," he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

As expected, the amendment failed, by a 49-48 vote, with three senators not voting.

Senator John McCain was among the senators voting against the amendment.

Falwell's strong statement has obvious implications for McCain. Either Falwell will continue to speak positively about McCain and project an openness to supporting him for president. Or, Falwell will back away from the Senator, work actively to make sure he does not win in 2008, and match his actions with his statement about the importance of the marriage vote.

Overall for McCain, this vote will likely stall, if not hinder his recent outreach to the socially conservative Republicans he needs to win the Republican presidential nomination.

This item first appeared on Political Wire on June 7, 2006.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

California’s 50th: Worst Nightmare or a Bit of Relief for the GOP?

By Stuart Rothenberg

[Editor's Note: This column was originally published on Monday, before the election.]

Campaign strategists in both parties are holding their breath as the special election in California’s 50th district comes down to the wire. Neither party is expressing confidence in a race that increasingly looks like a test of Democratic efforts to ride a wave of voter dissatisfaction and of Republican efforts to energize the party’s conservative base.

Republican insiders are hoping that a late surge in GOP voter turnout and partisan voting will prevent a possible Democratic upset to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R).

Democratic partisan intensity “is much higher than ours,” one knowledgeable Republican told me, adding, “We are trying to get Republicans to perform at anything close to the same rate that they have in the past.”

But even if former Rep. Brian Bilbray (R) ends up squeaking out a narrow victory against Democrat Francine Busby — a scenario that is still far from certain in the final hours of the campaign — a strong Busby showing (say, near 50 percent) would be evidence that the Democratic Deluge of ’06 has begun.

Independent voters are behaving like Democrats, giving Busby a chance to trounce Bilbray by as much as 2-to-1 among that pivotal group. Even worse for Republicans, too many GOP voters are defecting to a third-party candidate.

Private polling shows that voters in the district strongly disapprove of the job President Bush is doing, and they believe the country is on the wrong track. For Bilbray, who already faces obstacles of his own, that is a big albatross.

The former Congressman’s work as a lobbyist has made it easier for Democrats to demonize him, and Democratic strategists have done an effective job attacking Bilbray for once missing votes to go on a junket to Australia.

Bilbray also has been hurt by attacks from anti-immigration conservative William Griffith, who is on the special-election ballot as an Independent, and from businessman Bill Hauf, a conservative who is not running in the special election but who is competing in the regular GOP primary, which, in an unusual circumstance, is occurring the same day as the special election. Hauf has described Bilbray as a “Clinton liberal” in a direct-mail piece.

GOP insiders also complain that the timing of the special-election — coinciding as it does with the date of a hotly contested Democratic primary for governor, but none on the Republican side — has aided Busby’s prospects by giving Democrats a strong reason to go to the polls.

Still, while Republican observers now speculate that special election GOP runner-up Eric Roach, who finished just behind Bilbray in the open primary, almost certainly would have been a stronger special-election nominee because he lacked Bilbray’s baggage, it also has become clear that the GOP’s national problems — including the president’s horrible ratings in the district and his weakness among conservatives — are Busby’s greatest asset.

Busby is widely regarded by dispassionate observers as a “mediocre” candidate who would not have much of a chance of winning the district in anything approaching a normal election environment.

“Her profile is not the perfect fit for that district,” one Democrat acknowledged privately about the “liberal women’s studies lecturer.”

But Busby deserves credit for staying “on message” — attacking Bilbray as a lobbyist and portraying the special election as a choice between change and reform on one hand, and politics as usual on the other. And she has raised more than $2 million for the race.

Still, while some private polling shows Busby with a narrow edge over Bilbray, the Democrat appears to be stuck in the mid-40s in most surveys, suggesting that she has hit precisely the same ceiling that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) did in the district in 2004 and that she herself hit in the April 11 open primary when she drew 43.7 percent of the vote.

And even though the race includes third-party candidates, that showing may not be enough to win the special election since independents rarely draw much more than 8 percent of the vote.

Republican strategists are trying to salvage a win by turning the special election into a referendum on illegal immigration. If they succeed, it could give them an important road map to November.

Bilbray has been an outspoken opponent of illegal immigration — in fact, he lobbied for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that takes a hard line on that issue — while Busby has supported the more moderate McCain-Kennedy approach. Republicans are attacking Busby heavily on the issue, portraying her as a supporter of “amnesty” and as an advocate of welfare and Social Security for illegal immigrants.

But while Republicans bash Busby on immigration, Griffith, the Independent, has been endorsed by the San Diego Minutemen, and he’s attacking Bilbray as insufficiently tough on illegal immigration.

Still, if immigration helps energize GOP voters who are disgruntled with Bush, that formula could prove useful in the fall to Republican candidates in some other districts.

The National Republican Congressional Committee is pouring resources into this race at an astonishing rate in hopes of saving the seat. But the NRCC will not be able to put $5 million into every contest this fall, so a Bilbray victory, if it happens, should not mislead observers into thinking that Democratic prospects in the fall have been exaggerated.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on June 5, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Alaska Governor: Good News for Democrats

Two major announcements out of Alaska regarding the gubernatorial race, and both of them help the Democrats' prospects in November. First, Gov. Frank Murkowski (R) announced he would seek reelection to a second term. And second, former Gov. Tony Knowles (D) announced he would seek his third term.

Murkowski is one of the most unpopular governors in the country and Republicans probably would have been better off if he hadn't sought another term. Since the governor is politically weak and put off his decision for months, other potential GOP candidates started exploring bids of their own. Now, Lt. Gov. Loren Leman (R) is retiring from politics altogether, but former state senator/businessman John Binkley (R) and former Wasilla Mayor Sarah Palin will challenge the governor in the August 22 primary. It is unclear how deep Murkowski's woes have spread into his Republican base.

On the other side, Knowles' candidacy completes the Democrats' best-case scenario. Knowles served two terms as governor, was prohibited from seeking a third consecutive term, and ran for the U.S. Senate. He lost that 2004 race to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), who was appointed by her father through an unnecessarily messy and controversial process.

State House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz (D) dropped his gubernatorial bid and will run for lieutenant governor under Knowles instead. State Rep. Eric Croft (D) is still in the race, but Knowles will be the nominee.

Knowles never won his gubernatorial races convincingly and he lost his only statewide head-to-head match-up without a major third party candidate. But Gov. Murkowski is simply ripe for the picking. Move the race from Toss-Up to Lean Takeover.

This item first appeared on Political Wire on June 2, 2006.

Friday, June 02, 2006

New Print Edition: Senate Overview

The new June 2, 2006 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report is on its way to subscribers. (Click here for subscription information.)

Senate Overview – The Lay of the Land

Democrats need a net gain of six seats to get to 51 seats in the next Senate, a daunting task since only 15 Republican seats are up in November. However, given the national environment – President Bush’s terrible poll numbers, the desire for change and potentially feeble GOP turnout – Democrats could win most or all of the close races. That often happens (as it did in 1980, 1986 and 1994), and if it happens this year, Democrats could add at least four or five senators.

Right now, Democrats must hold all of their seats and win their five top opportunities to have any chance of winning a Senate majority. Even then, they would also need to win in Arizona, Tennessee or Virginia to get a sixth seat. About the only good news for Republicans is that expectations are very, very low for them.

For the entire Senate Overview including rankings of all 33 races and the Bottom Line prediction of control of the Senate..subscribe now.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

The Jefferson Raid: Are Republicans Blowing Another One?

By Stuart Rothenberg

Whatever you think of the constitutional issues surrounding the FBI raid on the Capitol Hill office of embattled Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), there is little doubt that, politically, Republicans are blowing another opportunity.

To most Americans, Jefferson appears to have taken a bribe. Prosecutors say they have it on videotape. Obviously, until the Congressman is tried, we won’t know whether a jury will find him guilty. But at this point, there appears to be plenty of incriminating evidence.

Instead of taking advantage of the Democrats’ trouble and keeping the limelight on Jefferson’s alleged illegalities, Republicans in Washington, D.C., are turning an act of public corruption into a constitutional Separation of Powers controversy, putting them in the position of defending Congress’ rights and privileges against encroachment from the executive branch.

Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), for example, said the FBI raid is “incredibly outrageous.” House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said he has “serious concerns” about the raid, while Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said that he, too, is “very concerned” about it.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), never known for understatement, called the FBI’s action “the most blatant violation of the constitutional Separation of Powers in my lifetime.” And current Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) complained that the Justice Department crossed “the Separation of Powers line.”

Democrats expressed some concern as well, but they were far more restrained in their criticism of the FBI or in asserting that agents of the executive branch had trampled on the Constitution.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said, “The executive branch must tread very carefully when using such aggressive tactics against members of the legislative branch.”

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was even more temperate, saying only, “I will be happy to take a look at this. From the little bit that I know about it now, I’m not going to beat up on the FBI.”

Americans already think Congress is doing a poor job: Congress’ job approval is down to about 25 percent in most polls. Jefferson’s legal jeopardy is likely to add to the perception that Congress is, at best, inept and, at worst, full of crooks.

So what are Members of Congress — particularly high-profile current and former Republican leaders in Congress — doing? They are defending the institution and, by extension, somebody who appears to have broken the law and violated the public trust.

Talk about taking lemonade and turning it back into a lemon. What next, will House Republicans defend bird flu?

I am aware that Roll Call published an editorial (“Congress Invaded,” May 26) arguing that the raid was unprecedented and implying that it should not have been authorized by the Justice Department or a federal judge. I just don’t agree with it.

If there are constitutional issues involved in the FBI raid, Jefferson and other Members of Congress are free to raise them in court. But it is politically incomprehensible for Republicans to be rushing out to beat up on the Justice Department, the FBI and, by implication, their own president.

I’m not an expert in constitutional law — a couple of law courses in college and graduate school don’t qualify me as a legal authority — so I’ll leave it to the experts to make the legal arguments. But the principle of Separation of Powers seeks to limit governmental power, not shield people who break the law.

Congress has established a campaign finance system that benefits incumbents. Many Members of Congress participated in drawing their own districts, either as state legislators or as politicians able to influence state legislators. Now we are told by those same Members of Congress, and by others, that Congressional offices are off limits to FBI investigators, even if the FBI obtains a search warrant from a judge.

Sorry, but I expect that most Americans would agree with Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), who said, “Congress should not set itself apart from citizens. We should be treated alike when it comes to criminal codes.”

Given that until recently the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct couldn’t even get its act together enough to meet, it isn’t likely that many Americans will have much confidence in Congress’ ability to police itself.

It’s particularly amusing that Republicans, who often rail against legal technicalities that let criminals go free — and who had no trouble accepting domestic surveillance that was not authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — are now defending Congress’ constitutional “prerogatives” and demanding that any evidence gathered from the FBI raid of Jefferson’s office be returned.

Members of Congress, and the media, who rush to defend Jefferson can insist until they turn blue that they are defending constitutional principle. But most Americans will see their comments as Members — and especially Republican Members — trying to protect themselves from the same scrutiny that average Americans face.

I’d be willing to bet that most Americans think it’s more outrageous for a Member of Congress to take a $100,000 bribe than for the FBI to raid his office looking for evidence. I sure do.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 30, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.