Monday, July 31, 2006

Washington Senate: Is Mike McGavick the Republican Party’s Mr. Right?

By Stuart Rothenberg

Chances are, if you are following the midterm elections in general, and the fight for control of the Senate in particular, you’ve heard of Mike McGavick. He’s the former CEO of Safeco, a major insurance company that he turned from a basket case into a profitable business.

I write neither to praise McGavick nor to bury him. I simply want to take a cold-blooded look at his chances. Is all the hype warranted, or is he merely regarded as one of the GOP’s stronger Senate challengers because the party has such a dearth of them?

I met the former insurance company executive a number of months ago, and I’ll admit that I was very impressed. Others have been impressed, too, judging by all the glowing comments I’ve received about him from people who say he is a personal friend or a former colleague.

A chief of staff for then-Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) and the manager of Gorton’s 1988 Senate campaign, McGavick knows Washington, D.C., Capitol Hill and political campaigns. He also has the political trifecta: He is smart, personable and wealthy.

McGavick’s personal wealth is one reason why Republicans salivate when they mention his name. They figure he can pour resources into his challenge to Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, helping him overcome whatever Democratic wave is out there in November.

I also was impressed with J. Vanderstoep, McGavick’s top campaign strategist. Vanderstoep performed the same role two years ago for Dino Rossi, the Republican who won the Washington governorship in 2004 — er, seemed to win the governorship before some additional votes appeared at the last minute to help Christine Gregoire (D) squeeze past Rossi.

In the meantime, GOP optimism stems as much from Cantwell’s alleged liabilities as from McGavick’s personal and political assets.

The Democratic Senator was elected to Congress in 1992, but two years later she was swept out of office by Republican Rick White, who matched her spending dollar for dollar and rode the GOP wave that year.

That’s when Cantwell joined Real Networks, the Internet firm that was hotter than a tamale during the tech boom. She became wealthy and used some of those resources to upset Gorton in 2000. Cantwell, like Gregoire four years later, appeared to lose on Election Day, but after all the votes were counted, she inched past the Republican.

Cantwell often is portrayed as cool and distant (but not so cool and distant that she couldn’t get elected twice), and critics note that she no longer has the personal financial resources she once did. They also argue that some liberals within her own party are less than enthusiastic about her, in part because she has been relatively supportive of the Iraq war.

A series of public polls have shown Cantwell holding only a narrow 4- or 5-point lead over McGavick. My problem with those polls is that I don’t have a lot of confidence in them. One of the surveys is an Internet poll, and readers of this column know what I think of those “surveys.” Another is an automated poll. Again, I’m not a huge fan.

I have reason to believe that Cantwell has a somewhat bigger lead, though not one that is intimidating. Overall, the Senator’s numbers are not impressive, and McGavick has both eroded Cantwell’s standing in the ballot test and improved his position and name identification with what one Republican strategist estimated are “in the neighborhood of 2,500 points” of statewide advertising.

Cantwell’s financial position is good. She showed $6.4 million in the bank to McGavick’s almost $1.1 million in cash on hand as of June 30. The wealthy businessman has not put personal money into his race and insists he wants to raise his campaign funds. So we have an irony: Republicans like McGavick in part because of his deep pockets, but so far he hasn’t reached into those pockets to bankroll his campaign. My guess is that at some point he will write a check.

Washington’s Senate contest isn’t taking place on a neutral battlefield. The state clearly prefers Democrats, the cycle favors Democrats and Cantwell has the advantage of incumbency.

But McGavick has two great assets in the race: himself, and his campaign. And in a way, they are the same thing.

McGavick already has run a number of fast-paced, Kim Alfano Doyle-produced TV ads, introducing himself to voters and presenting himself as a nonpolitician and a vehicle for change. The ads are terrific, with McGavick talking in all of them and criticizing “partisan nonsense,” politics as usual and Washington, D.C. The ads portray him as a problem solver, a leader and an outsider — not a politician.

The Republican is running as an unscripted, what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of candidate — a successful nonpolitician who wants to change Washington. And by implication, Cantwell is a quintessential politician: She’s heavily managed, partisan and unwilling to present herself to voters in a transparent way. (Cantwell does not speak in her first TV spot except to offer the disclaimer at the end of the ad.)

Of course, Cantwell will challenge that characterization, and she can and will make an issue of McGavick’s business background and his CEO compensation. She certainly is not without weapons in the fight.

If the November election is about the two candidates, McGavick definitely can win. If it’s about President Bush, the Iraq war, health care or the Republican Congress, Cantwell is certain to receive another term. We will see which of the two candidates sets the terms of the debate. But in the meantime, this race definitely is worth watching. Yes, McGavick is for real.

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

Friday, July 28, 2006

New Print Edition: Minnesota Senate & National Senate Overview

The new July 28, 2006 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report is on its way to subscribers. (Click here for subscription information.)

Minnesota Senate: A Takeover or a Makeover?
By Barry Casselman

The open U.S. Senate seat contest in Minnesota resembles one of those new super rides at an American amusement park, the ones that go wildly up and down, back and forth, and side to side, all seemingly at the same time.

This is an open seat, being vacated by Democrat Mark Dayton, and it’s too early to predict which party will claim it in November. Still, it remains one of the Republicans’ better chances for picking up a seat in this year’s midterm elections.

Minnesota suddenly is a political battleground, with a heated gubernatorial race that includes an attempt to revive the state’s Independent Party (which elected Jesse Ventura as governor in 1998), the competitive Senate race, too-close-to-call races for control of both houses of the Legislature, and two noteworthy open U.S. House races (one of which could change parties in the fall).

It is the open U.S. Senate seat that is drawing the most attention by far. The Republican nominee will be Congressman Mark Kennedy, who currently represents the conservative 6th District. The DFL nominee will be Hennepin (Minneapolis) County Attorney Amy Klobuchar.

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The Senate: Democratic Gains but Not Yet Control
Stuart Rothenberg

With a little more than three months to go until Election Day, Democrats continue to be headed for a significant gain in the Senate, but not the six seats they need to win control of that body.

Republican prospects in Pennsylvania have been dim for months, and there is no evidence that they are brightening.

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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Rhode Island Senate: Don’t Be Fooled- The Bull’s-Eye Is Still on Lincoln Chafee

By Stuart Rothenberg

While most of the nation’s attention is focused on the Democratic Senate primary in Connecticut and the future of Sen. Joe Lieberman (D), the political career of Rhode Island Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee is no less in doubt.

Not everyone accepts this assessment. Some continue to believe that Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey isn’t a serious threat to Chafee in the Sept. 12 primary. They see Laffey as a volcano ready to blow, an unstable, transparently ambitious politician who’s run a mediocre campaign so far.

Chafee recently won the state GOP endorsement — Laffey, knowing he couldn’t win, announced right before the state convention that he wasn’t seeking the endorsement — and the Senator and his allies, including the National Republican Senatorial Committee, have been carrying the fight to the Cranston mayor.

The NRSC has battered Laffey on the airwaves and in print, portraying him as ethically challenged and unelectable. Most recently, the committee has charged Laffey with distributing a campaign mailing at taxpayer expense.

Yet despite the hits Laffey has taken recently, I remain convinced that he has a very real chance of knocking off Chafee.

No, I didn’t say he will win. Right now, I’m not certain who will win the primary. Chafee has some considerable advantages, but the fundamentals of the race, including Chafee’s liberalism and the normal ideological dynamic in a GOP primary, suggest that Laffey is no worse than even money to beat the Senator.

Recent public polling has shown the race as tight. Other polling, in which I have greater confidence, also shows the race within the margin of error, but with Laffey ahead. Where is the contest now? It all depends on the sample and the screen, which is merely another way of saying that it depends on the assumptions used by the pollster.

Republican observers with very different preferences in the race agree that Laffey leads among registered Republicans. Chafee’s chances of overtaking the challenger depend on a strong showing among unaffiliated voters, which includes securing both a big turnout among them and a big win among those unaffiliateds who do turn out.

Because of that, the April 27 withdrawal of Secretary of State Matt Brown from the Democratic Senate primary was great news for Chafee. Unaffiliated voters now essentially have no reason to participate in the Democratic primary.

Chafee’s campaign already has been widely credited for convincing thousands of Democrats — possibly as many as 13,500 — to re-register as unaffiliated voters, a maneuver that allows them to vote in the GOP primary. And if that were the case, Chafee likely would beat Laffey, since fewer than 50,000 voters may participate in the September Republican primary. (The biggest Republican primary turnout in the state was 45,000 voters, in the 1994 gubernatorial primary.)

But the reality seems to be a bit different.

A number of Republicans with detailed knowledge of the race told me that the changed registration figures generally reflect “normal changes” rather than evidence of Chafee’s success in re-registering Democrats.

So what happened? This spring, for the first time in 23 years, the Rhode Island secretary of state’s office sent a version of the state’s voter registration cards to registered voters in an effort to “clean up” voter rolls. Not surprisingly, some Democrats and Republicans switched to unaffiliated, and some unaffiliated voters switched to one of the major parties.

“I’m sure [Chafee’s campaign] made some efforts in this regard and probably had some success. But it’s nowhere near the case that those 13,500 new unaffiliateds are Chafee primary voters. Most of the 13,500 occurred because of the natural cleanup process, and they are no more likely to vote in the [Republican] primary than other unaffiliated voters,” said one Laffey supporter.

Perhaps surprisingly, a Republican who is pulling for Chafee had a similar perspective, telling me that most of the changes in registration weren’t generated by Chafee’s effort. “The Chafee campaign did bump up the number of switchers [from Democrat to unaffiliated], but the lion’s share of those changes were routine,” the GOP source said.

But how could 13,596 Democrats switching to unaffiliated be “routine”? Why would they have switched except to vote for Chafee in the primary? Unfortunately, I’ll have to offer a few more numbers to explain why Chafee has received too much credit for the switches.

While most of the focus has been on Democrats switching registration to unaffiliated, a total of 3,768 Republicans also switched to unaffiliated. We don’t know why they switched, but nobody is suggesting that they did so to vote in the Democratic primary or because of an orchestrated effort to get them to switch. I suppose that means their switches were “routine” — they simply no longer wanted to identify with the GOP.

Interestingly, the 3,768 Republicans who switched to unaffiliated constituted 5.3 percent of the roughly 71,000 registered Republicans in the state at the June 13 deadline for switching party registration. The 13,596 Democrats who switched to unaffiliated constituted 5.4 percent of the roughly 250,000 Democrats.

In other words, there is little statistical difference between the proportion of Republicans and Democrats who switched to unaffiliated; they switched at the same rate. Given that, it hardly seems logical to read the switches from Democratic to unaffiliated as a dramatic development that will be a huge advantage to Chafee.

Since more than half of Rhode Island’s 660,000 registered voters are unaffiliated, they constitute a large potential voter pool for both Republican primary candidates. The key constituency is more likely to be the voters who were registered as unaffiliated before the new registration figures were released, rather than the relative handful who switched because Laffey or Chafee asked them to do so.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on July 24, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Why It’s Too Early to Predict What May Happen in the House

By Stuart Rothenberg

The Democratic Congressional polls keep rolling in, and almost all of them look very, very good for the party’s House hopefuls.

For example, a Cooper & Secrest survey for Democrat Joe Donnelly showed him leading Republican incumbent Rep. Chris Chocola by 10 points, 48 percent to 38 percent, in Indiana’s 2nd district. Two years ago, Chocola defeated Donnelly by 10 points.

Even more surprising is a Momentum Analysis poll for Victoria Wulsin (D) that showed her tied with GOP Rep. Jean Schmidt at 44 percent in Ohio’s 2nd district. And recently, a Global Strategy Group poll for Patrick Murphy (D) showed him trailing incumbent Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick (R) by only 6 points, 44 percent to 38 percent, in Pennsylvania’s 8th district.

Assuming, for the purpose of argument, that these surveys are accurate, why shouldn’t they lead me (or anyone else) to go out on an early limb and predict a Democratic takeover of the House?

After all, if Donnelly is going to give Chocola a 10-point drubbing and Wulsin — who finished a distant second to Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett in the 2005 special Democratic primary but won her party’s nomination for 2006 — is running even with a Republican incumbent in a very Republican Ohio district, isn’t that compelling evidence of a Democratic tsunami?

Well, I’m not buying just yet. Ask me again in a couple of months.

Democrats have a number of surprisingly good polls that suggest a wide range of Democratic challengers, from top-tier hopefuls to second- and third-tier long shots, have a serious chance of winning this fall.

But that’s the problem. Rather than reflecting the appeal of Democratic candidates, those surveys primarily reflect the national political landscape.

The president is in a deep, deep hole, and Congress is even less popular than President Bush. The GOP is divided over a number of issues. And Americans tell pollsters they want change and that they prefer a Democratic Congress.

Given that, voters are likely to have a less-than-positive view of Republican incumbents, such as Chocola and Schmidt, and their dissatisfaction with the status quo is likely to make them tell pollsters that they prefer Democratic candidates for Congress.

Donnelly’s campaign manager explained her candidate’s strength — and his improved numbers from a November 2005 Cooper & Secrest survey that showed him holding a 6-point lead (46 percent to 40 percent) over Chocola — by saying, “It’s clear that Joe’s message of change is getting out to the voters of the 2nd district.”

There are two problems with that interpretation. First, while and Chocola were up with TV buys between the two polls, it’s hard to believe that a lot of people were focusing on the race. Moreover, Donnelly’s campaign was not on the air.

Second, the ballot test in the July 10-13 Cooper & Secrest poll strongly mirrors the generic ballot in the district. Donnelly leads Chocola by 10 points in the ballot test (48 percent to 38 percent) while a generic Democratic candidate leads a generic Republican by 10 points as well (46 percent to 36 percent). The Democrats’ generic ballot advantage grew from 1 point in November 2005 to 10 points earlier this month, which also helps explain Donnelly’s improved standing in the July survey.

The Momentum Analysis poll also appears to be shaped by general voter attitudes about Republicans. While Wulsin drew 44 percent against Schmidt in the poll, only 13 percent of those surveyed had a favorable opinion of the Democratic challenger. In other words, she largely was unknown and, therefore, irrelevant. To most people in the district, only her party affiliation and the fact that she is not an incumbent mattered.

As I’ve argued over the past six months or so, the midterms already have been nationalized and that’s why so many Democratic candidates are doing so well in ballot tests against GOP incumbents. Unknown Democrats, in many cases, are benefiting from their anonymity.

But the GOP strategy for holding the House is based on localizing the midterms, and that means making Democratic challengers unacceptable alternatives.

Nobody knows yet whether the Republican attacks successfully will discredit their Democratic challengers, or whether voters are so dissatisfied with current political leaders that they will vote for Democrats no matter what Republicans say about them. And we won’t know until September and October, when the strongest Republican attacks will hit and voters start to give serious consideration to their choices. It’s only prudent to wait to see whether Republicans can change the dynamic in enough districts to hold the House.

My point definitely is not that the national dynamics don’t matter. Of course they do. The lay of the land is a huge problem for Republicans, and it makes it more difficult for them to make their opponents unacceptable to voters.

Nor am I saying that Chocola, Schmidt and Fitzpatrick are without their own problems. They have specific issues to deal with in their races, and those problems may make it more difficult for them to shift the focus of their contests to their opponents’ shortcomings.

I have been quite outspoken in arguing that the Democrats have a very good chance of winning the House in November, even with the structural problems they have because of the paucity of competitive districts. National and district polling confirms that conclusion, as does the scarcity of upbeat GOP district polls.

But anyone who buys the early Democratic polls at face value is making a mistake. Many of these surveys measure the landscape, not the combatants, and we won’t know how well Democratic candidates will do until much later in the year, possibly mid-October — after Republicans have spent some of their sizable war chests on demonizing their opponents.

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

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Getting on the Ballot Should Be the Easy Part for Hopefuls

By Stuart Rothenberg

I’ve been writing about House and Senate campaigns and elections for more than 25 years, and I don’t think I can recall an election cycle in which so many candidates failed to qualify for the ballot because they did not submit the requisite number of signatures.

Let’s be brutally honest: You have to be running a pretty inept campaign if you can’t get on most ballots. It’s not brain surgery. Yet this cycle, a number of supposedly credible political candidates did just that.

Ohio Democrat Charlie Wilson became the poster boy for ineptitude when he failed to submit 50 (yes, 50!) qualified signatures to secure a spot on Ohio’s 6th district Democratic primary ballot. Too many of his signatures came from outside the Congressional district, so Wilson had to become the Democratic nominee for Congress through an expensive write-in campaign.

But I’ve beaten up on Wilson enough for that faux pas — and he already has acknowledged his blunder — so let’s cut him some slack and turn to others.

What the heck was Colorado Republican gubernatorial candidate Marc Holtzman thinking?

Holtzman spent almost $2.5 million, including more than $500,000 from his own pocket, but failed to qualify for the primary ballot because he did not submit enough valid signatures from each of the state’s seven Congressional districts.

I remember interviewing Holtzman when he ran for Congress in 1986 in Pennsylvania. He was a 25-year-old kid from a wealthy Northeast Pennsylvania family with an inflated opinion of his accomplishments and political appeal. Apparently, little has changed in that regard.

Holtzman certainly was energetic and politically committed in his bid for the House of Representatives. He spent more than $1.3 million in that race — an enormous sum in 1986, much of it raised from contacts made when he ran the 1980 Pennsylvania campaign for Ronald Reagan, and, later, when he served as executive director of Citizens for America.

Holtzman put $404,000 of his own money into that campaign — not bad for a 25 year old who was just three years out of Lehigh University. The result? He drew 29.4 percent of the vote and lost to then-freshman Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D).

After he moved to Colorado, he was appointed secretary of technology, a new state position, by Gov. Bill Owens (R). Holtzman had his eye on the top post at Colorado State University, but he didn’t make the final cut. Shortly after that he was appointed president of the University of Denver, even though he lacked the academic credentials and professional experience for the job.

So maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that Holtzman didn’t qualify for the ballot in Colorado.

Then there is Dave Loebsack, the Democratic nominee against Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa).

Loebsack announced his candidacy in late August, more than nine months before the June 6 Democratic primary. You might have figured that the Cornell College political science professor would have enough time to put together an organization that could collect the required signatures.

But no, Loebsack’s nominating petitions came up short in two counties. State Democratic Party leaders eventually nominated him to take on Leach at the April district convention.

The Associated Press quoted Loebsack as saying, “I am encouraged by the overwhelming response I am getting to my message of new priorities and real leadership.”

I understand that politicians say really stupid things all the time, but this guy is also a college professor. He’s supposed to teach students about government and politics, both in class and, I would hope, through his campaign. Instead, he fails to get enough signatures and then sounds like he’s out of touch with reality. If you are a parent who is thinking of sending your kid to Cornell College, are you going to put him or her in the hands of this guy?

Moving back over to the GOP side, we have Jerry Zandstra, a minister and program director at a conservative think tank who ran for Michigan’s Republican Senate nomination.

Every few days, my office was bombarded by another over-the-top, completely unbelievable press release from Zandstra’s campaign, hyping another questionable poll or quoting someone about Zandstra’s alleged “move” in the polls.

Through March, Zandstra had raised almost $240,000 from individuals for his campaign, plus another $215,000 of his own money. In late May, however, the Michigan secretary of state’s office announced that Zandstra’s campaign appeared to turn in fewer than the 15,000 valid signatures required to qualify for the primary ballot.

In early June, Michigan’s Board of State Canvassers ruled the hopeful had come up 712 valid signatures short of the mark.

I won’t even go into the strange case of Steve Stockman, the former one-term Republican Congressman from Texas who sought to run as an Independent this year in Texas’ 22nd district. Let’s just say that Stockman did not submit the 500 valid signatures needed for him to make the ballot.

I can’t be sure that we’ve had more allegedly serious candidates thrown off the ballot this cycle than in the past, but it sure feels that way to me. I’m not sure why it’s happening. But I do know this: There is no reason to have any sympathy for political hopefuls who enter races months before filing deadlines yet don’t collect the required number of signatures to make the ballot. It’s their contributors and volunteers who deserve our sympathy.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on July 17, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The DSCC's Glass House

By Nathan L. Gonzales

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee fired off an indignant press release Thursday on the heels of a Philadelphia Inquirer story detailing the work history of Christopher Lyon, a opposition researcher for New Jersey Senate nominee Tom Kean, Jr. (R).

Lyon's work experience includes research for the 1988 Willie Horton ad, which effectively demonized Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, and some anonymous mailings in a 2000 New Hampshire gubernatorial race which claimed that the wife of an opponent was involved in a strange sex cult. But Democrats are most upset about Lyon's involvement in an upcoming documentary about Sen. Bob Menendez's (D) political past.

"It's ironic that the Party that is supposedly good on values is so quick to violate the ninth commandment," DSCC spokesman Phil Singer said in the release, "The only way this environment is going to change is by voting for Democrats come November."

While Lyon's reputation and resume is certainly colorful, it is not criminal, and the DSCC is hardly the messenger to preach about standards in campaign research.

Last summer, two DSCC researchers, Lauren Weiner and Katie Barge, illegally obtained Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele's (R) credit report in their effort to dig up information on the future Senate candidate. Weiner used Steele's personal information, including his social security number, to impersonate the candidate, obtained his credit report, and used Barge's DSCC credit card to pay for it. The two staffers resigned soon after the incident.

In March, Weiner pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of fraud in connection with computers, but Barge was never charged. Until Lyon is convicted of a criminal charge, it might be wise for the DSCC to refrain from judging the GOP's research methods.

And even if you don't view the DSCC's rhetoric as hypocritical, you have to question the committee's political strategy. No candidate has lost a race because of a consultant's record. It's a waste of time and energy to take issue with a consultant and only meant to drum up anger within the party faithful. The average voter doesn't have any idea who the consultants are and won't be thinking about them on Election Day.

This item first appeared on Political Wire on July 13, 2006.

Monday, July 17, 2006

U.S. Politics Through an Israeli Looking Glass

By Stuart Rothenberg

A recent trip to Israel got me thinking about a question that I can safely say I had never considered before: If it plays well in Petah Tikva, a Tel Aviv suburb, can it also play in Peoria, Ill.?

The Israeli political system is very different from ours, since it is a parliamentary system. But the dramatic change in that nation’s politics following years of partisan polarization — especially a growing consensus among Israelis in favor of a barrier to separate Israel from its neighbors — immediately raises the question of whether the centrist consensus that has developed in Israel eventually could surface in the United States as well.

After decades of two major parties — the left-of-center Labor Party and the right-of-center Likud — battling for control of Israeli politics, a new, centrist third party, Kadima, placed first in the country’s parliamentary elections earlier this year.

Although Kadima won only 29 seats out of 120 in the Knesset, it quickly formed a broad-based governing coalition government along with runner-up Labor (19 seats) and smaller parties, making Kadima’s Ehud Olmert the prime minister.

The creation of Kadima was the brainchild of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who announced his intention to leave Likud and form the new party in November 2005. But early in January, Sharon suffered a massive stroke that effectively removed him from Israeli political life. That’s when Kadima turned to Sharon’s No. 2, Olmert, a one-time mayor of Jerusalem and former Likud member of the Knesset.

Kadima primarily was established by Likud moderates, as well as some high-profile Laborites, such as Shimon Peres, the former prime minister and current vice prime minister, and current Justice Minister Haim Ramon.

The new party came together because conservatives finally accepted the inevitability of an independent Palestinian state, while those on the left, finally tired of suicide bombings and rocket attacks from Gaza and the West Bank, concluded that Palestinian political leaders either couldn’t or wouldn’t deliver on a negotiated peace.

While it isn’t clear that Kadima will remain a strong player in Israeli politics for years to come — parties have a tendency to appear and disappear quickly in Israel — the party’s victory last year was a stunning development in Israeli politics. Suddenly, the country had a strong centrist party.

Given that political sentiment in Israel has been polarized over security issues for some time, much like the polarization that has occurred over the past dozen years in this country, is there any chance that a similar political realignment could take place in the U.S.? Could America have its own Sharon-Peres combination waiting in the wings?

The answer appears to be a resounding “no,” even though Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) would be exactly the kind of commanding political figure who could rally a wide spectrum of voters behind a center or center-right political movement.

America’s system of single-member districts makes third parties largely irrelevant. Ross Perot’s Reform Party flopped, and no recent state third party — from A Connecticut Party to the Alaska Independence Party to Minnesota’s Independence Party — even made much of an effort to coalesce into a multistate movement.

Sure, in rare cases, a third party or an Independent nominee can win a race. But those results are aberrations, and no third party has ever shown enough staying power to threaten the two-party system.

Israel’s system of proportional representation, in which parties receive seats in the Knesset based on the percentage of the popular vote they receive, encourages a multiplicity of parties. And given the country’s history of parties appearing, disappearing and consolidating, the formation of a new party, such as Kadima, doesn’t seem all that unusual. In fact, another party formed just weeks before the November election, the Pensioners’ List, picked up seven seats in the Knesset.

Given state election laws in the U.S., as well as fundraising needs, the predominant method of drawing Congressional districts and the nature of the two-party system, a third party formed at the last minute in the U.S. would have no chance of becoming relevant in an election.

In other words, the problem for third parties in the U.S. is structural, not a lack of room on the ideological spectrum.

If you’re looking for a final twist to the Israeli politics/U.S. politics story, consider this: The Israeli politician most often mentioned as Olmert’s successor is a woman: Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Livni, who was described to me by Israeli political strategists and insiders as smart, politically savvy and charismatic, joined Kadima from Likud, where she was one of the party’s less hawkish members.

Livni is the second woman to hold the job of foreign minister. The other is Golda Meir, and she rose to be prime minister.

Could both the U.S. and Israel have women leading their countries in a few years? Let’s wait and see.

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

Friday, July 14, 2006

New Print Edition: New Jersey Senate & Ohio 15

The new July 14, 2006 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report is on its way to subscribers. (Click here for subscription information.)

New Jersey Senate: It Depends on Your Definition of Change
By Nathan L. Gonzales

In the New Jersey Senate race, both candidates are claiming to be the candidate for change. The winner of that argument could well be the winner in November, as well.

Appointed-Senator Bob Menendez is running for a full-term and looking to keep the Garden State seat in the Democratic column. With only one-third of the state approving of the job President George W. Bush is doing, and the war in Iraq widely unpopular in the state, Menendez is making the case that a Democratic Senate majority is a necessary balance.

Republicans nominated state Sen. Tom Kean, Jr., the son of highly regarded former Gov. Tom Kean Sr., who also co-chaired the 9/11 Commission. Kean could benefit from Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine’s mistakes during his first year in office, including a recent government shutdown, and a tax hike that Corzine advocated shortly after taking office. Fewer than half of New Jerseyans approve of the job the new governor is doing.

From Corzine’s appointment of Menendez to Gov. Jim McGreevey’s (D) embarrassing departure from office, Kean is banking that voters are ready to take their local frustration out at the federal level.

National Republicans simply don’t have many Senate takeover opportunities. And with the current political landscape strongly favoring Democrats, it is going to take a race with local dynamics for Republicans to have any chance to win a Democratic seat. New Jersey may be that race. Appointed senators often stumble in their first elections and Kean benefits from his father’s good name and goodwill throughout the state.

But Kean must run a terrific campaign, and maybe catch a couple breaks along the way, to buck the national tide rolling against the GOP.

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Ohio 15: Is Pryce Right for the District?

Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D) don’t have a lot in common. Over the years both women have successfully climbed the ladder of party leadership, but with four months to go before the November elections, Pryce’s climb may be in jeopardy.

With President Bush’s sagging poll numbers, Republicans are at risk of losing their majority in the House, and Cong. Pryce is at risk of losing reelection to her Columbus-based 5th District seat. Franklin County Commissioner Mary Jo Kilroy, the Democratic nominee, hopes to take advantage of Bush’s problems, as well as those of unpopular Gov. Bob Taft (R).

Pryce has a reputation as a moderate Republican but her leadership post often calls for her to defend some of the President’s controversial proposals. The landscape nationally, and in the state, favors the Democrats, but Pryce will be well funded in a district that is very competitive.

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Thursday, July 13, 2006

Where’s Newt: Is He or Isn’t He Running for President?

By Stuart Rothenberg

Newt Gingrich is running for president. Well, sort of running.

He’ll run if it looks like he has a chance to win. But he won’t really start running — if he runs at all — until later next year. But in the meantime, he is doing what needs to get done in case he does decide to run. Got that?

Gingrich, a one-time Republican House Member from Georgia, isn’t merely being coy about his intentions. He just figures that he’ll have to take an unusual path to the GOP nomination, and he is waiting to see whether a path eventually appears.

The former Speaker of the House clearly likes the idea of being president, and he is proceeding with his busy schedule in the hope that lightning will strike late next year and rank-and-file Republicans will turn to him to lead the party in 2008.

“I want to do everything I can in Iowa and New Hampshire to shape the debate,” he told the Des Moines Register in late April, adding, “If enough people think those solutions work, I’ll probably run” for the Republican presidential nomination.

But while Gingrich certainly sees a scenario for his nomination, it’s about as unconventional as you can imagine. And few veteran operatives would call it realistic. I certainly wouldn’t.

Gingrich is a fixture these days at trade association meetings and on the airwaves. He gives dozens, even hundreds, of speeches a year and is regularly on TV, whether on Fox News Channel or on prestigious programs such as NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

If there is one thing that the former Congressman likes to do — and is very good at — it is talking. Give Gingrich a microphone and stand back for as long as you want. He has plenty to say.

He can talk about his party or about Democrats. And he has plenty of ideas about policy and the future.

The former Speaker has two big things going for him if he becomes a presidential candidate. First, he isn’t an incumbent, and he hasn’t been in office since George W. Bush became president. That means that he isn’t automatically joined at the hip with the president or the rest of the Bush administration, and that’s a good thing given Bush’s current standing.

And second, Gingrich always has had the reputation of a reformer, as somebody who wants to shake up things. That, too, is an asset in an environment in which people aren’t content and are looking for new leadership.

When my friend and fellow political analyst Charlie Cook travels around the country, he asks party activists and officeholders which of the potential presidential candidates has impressed people and excited crowds.

“Invariably, Newt’s name comes up,” Charlie recently told me, adding, “His shtick is pretty impressive, very smooth. He really wows them.”

While Gingrich doesn’t have anything close to Virginia Sen. George Allen’s likability, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s polish and telegenic appeal, or Arizona Sen. John McCain’s reformer, straight-shooter persona, the Georgian could be a second choice for a lot of Republicans.

For example, Gingrich’s reformer reputation could make him an alternative to McCain for some conservatives who are unhappy with the Arizona Senator.

The Georgian apparently maintains some of the name identification and positive reputation he had among Republicans when he led the House GOP from 1995 to 1998. A mid-March Opinion Dynamics poll of registered voters for Fox News found Gingrich running third for the GOP nomination behind former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and McCain, but ahead of Allen, Romney and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.).

Of course, there would be plenty of questions to ask about a possible Gingrich candidacy. How do grass-roots Republicans remember Gingrich — as the political firebrand who helped the party take over the House, or the guy who was so controversial and so politically deaf that he went too far, too fast? Do social conservatives see him as one of them, especially given his personal life? Do Republicans want to relive 1994 or forget it?

Gingrich isn’t actively seeking his party’s nomination, at least not the way a number of other Republicans are. He did not, for example, attend the March Republican Leadership Council meeting and straw vote in Memphis, and he hasn’t put together even the early elements of a national political effort. More importantly, he isn’t likely to for another year.

And that’s why it’s so difficult to take Gingrich seriously as a GOP contender in 2008.

He seems ready to become his party’s nominee if it falls into his lap, but he isn’t prepared to make a decision about a presidential run until early in the second half of 2007. That is simply too late to begin putting together the kind of fundraising and political campaign that he would need to compete in Iowa, New Hampshire and other early primary and caucus states.

In this day and age, a presidential wannabe can’t count on a deadlocked convention or a true draft. Gingrich’s scenario might make a good novel — and it was a serious strategy 60 years ago — but it’s simply unrealistic today.

If the former Speaker really wants to be president, to test his ideas and his vision, he’ll have to run for the job. That means putting together a campaign. Simply being Newt Gingrich isn’t nearly enough.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on July 10, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Texas 22: Two Scenarios Provide Different Prospects

By Nathan L. Gonzales

The recent news in Texas 22 doesn't change the outlook for the seat in November…yet.

With former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) on the ballot, the race would immediately move to at least a toss-up race, if not closer to Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH) in the lean takeover category. Ney is in all sorts of trouble, but hasn't been charged with a crime. DeLay has been indicted and his underwhelming primary showing indicates some problems within his electoral base.

Without Tom DeLay on the ballot, it's an open seat race in a district that went for President Bush 64% to 35% in the 2004 presidential election. As much as Democrats don't want it to be so, we learned from the special election in California 50 that it is very difficult to transfer the sins of a former member of Congress to another candidate. Duke Cunningham (R-CA) was incarcerated and Republican Brian Bilbray still won. An open seat race in Texas 22, at a minimum, leans Republican, and open seats like Illinois 6, Minnesota 6, Wisconsin 8, and even Nevada 2 all appear to be better Demcoratic takeover opportunities.

Republicans are appealing the court's decision in an effort to make the latter scenario a reality. The drawn out legal battle is not ideal for Republicans, but it doesn't change the partisanship of the district. Many voters are not engaged in the race right now anyway, but if the legal fight spills over past Labor Day, then Republicans should be more concerned.

Texas 22 is not a must-win for Democrats on their roadmap to a majority, but every seat helps. And for many Democrats, defeating Tom DeLay, while he is on the ballot, would simply be a dream come true.

This item first appeared on Political Wire on July 10, 2006.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Dog Days of Summer

By Nathan L. Gonzales

School’s out for summer and families are headed for vacation, and the average American is more likely to contemplate the acceptable number of daily sunscreen applications rather than getting into the weeds of the immigration policy and stances of two congressional candidates. But even though people’s attention will be largely diverted away from politics in the next couple months, there are a handful of political events worth keeping an eye on between now and Labor Day.

July 18. In Georgia, Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor and Secretary of State Cathy Cox are locked in a competitive race for the Democratic nomination for governor. Either candidate will start the general election as the underdog against Gov. Sonny Perdue (R), but the race is still worth watching.

August 3. Republican primary voters go to the polls in Tennessee to choose a Senate nominee who will face Memphis Cong. Harold Ford (D) in November. Former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker’s early and heavy television campaign appears to be boosting his poll number as expected. But the real test will be when his under-funded competitors, former Cong. Van Hilleary and former Cong. Ed Bryant, finally get on television with ads of their own. With both Bryant and Hilleary fighting over conservative voters, Corker still has the advantage, but with three credible contenders, the race is still volatile.

Ridiculously crowded open seat races in Tennessee 1, retiring GOP Rep. Bill Jenkins’s seat, and in Tennessee 9, Ford’s open seat, are also on August 3. The primary outcomes are virtually impossible to predict, but both seats will remain in their party’s hands in November.

August 8. Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (D) faces a serious primary challenge from wealthy businessman Ned Lamont (D). Lieberman is being criticized by the liberal wing of his party (including both state activists and liberal bloggers hundreds of miles away) for being too close to President Bush. Lieberman could run as an Independent in the general election, but he would need to start gathering signatures at least a couple weeks before the primary in order to meet the August 9 deadline.

In the Michigan Senate race, Republicans will choose between Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard and the Rev. Keith Butler, a former Detroit City councilor. Bouchard has the edge, but Butler’s profile as an African-American Republican has given him some national attention. Either man would start as the underdog against Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D), but GOP insiders certainly believe Bouchard gives them their best chance.

August 15. In Nevada, competitive primaries for governor on both sides will shape the general election race. Cong. Jim Gibbons is the likely Republican nominee, but he faces two credible opponents. And Democrats will choose between Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson and state Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus. Gibson is regarded as the more formidable general election candidate, but Titus currently has the edge for the nomination. The GOP primary in the open 2rd District between Gibbons’s wife, Dawn, Secretary of State Dean Heller, and state Assemblywoman Sharron Angle is also worth watching.

This column first appeared in the July 7, 2006 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report.

Friday, July 07, 2006

New Print Edition: Handicapping the State Legislatures

The new July 7, 2006 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report is on its way to subscribers. (Click here for subscription information.)

Handicapping the State Legislatures: A 50-State Status Report
By Louis Jacobson

Both Democrats and Republicans agree: Despite the possibility of a wave at the national level, the fight to control the state legislatures will boil down to Tip O’Neill’s dictum: “All politics is local.”

In part, this is because in most states, legislators draw their own district lines, based on local rather than national factors. And the issue looming over the 2006 legislative elections is the fight to control the state Houses and Senates after 2010, when the next legislative and Congressional lines are drawn.

This became even more urgent with the June 28 Supreme Court ruling that upheld Texas’s mid-decade redistricting.

Of the thirty-six states in which state legislatures control redistricting, twenty are within four seats of switching party control.

Indeed, even now, party strategists are assembling two- and three-cycle plans to retake one chamber of another. This is especially true for Democrats in New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Another factor this year is the big shadow cast by legislative term limits. Say what you will about the wisdom of limiting legislators’ terms: They have opened up at least the hope of intra-party competition.

Another factor this cycle will be the gubernatorial landscape, in which well over a dozen incumbents are considered vulnerable. Gubernatorial troubles in Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin could influence legislative races, while a two-year-itch for unpopular first-term governors could hurt the legislative colleagues of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt, both Republicans. That said, the link between governors’ races and legislative contests is not always direct; much of the time, voting patterns may have more to do with how good a party’s overall get-out-the-vote operation is rather than the level of satisfaction with the incumbent.

By the numbers, we see ten vulnerable Democratic-held chambers, compared to only eight vulnerable Republican-held chambers. But don’t let that fool you. Republicans acknowledge that President Bush’s problems are being felt at the local level, and they know that if Democratic voters want to send a message this fall, state legislatures could be a key venue for that message.

“Voting based on the president matters as much as voting based on the governor,” said Tim Storey, a political analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “If there are megatrends that drive turnout, it can spell trouble for party in power.”

History bears this out. According to the NCSL, the party occupying the White House has lost legislative seats in every midterm election back to 1938, except in 2002, when President Bush gained 177 seats. Even the swing four years ago was small compared to some others in the past half-century: 514 Democratic seats lost in 1994, 628 Republican seats lost in 1974, 762 Democratic seats lost in 1966 and 812 Republican seats lost in 1958.

Even if the Republicans were to lose just a small fraction of those seats this fall, a big swing in partisan control could result, because so many chambers today are closely divided, and because Republicans hold many of the chambers where a Democratic wave could make gains possible.

On average, twelve chambers flip control in every two-year cycle. In the 2004 cycle, thirteen chambers flipped.

The Democrats are on something of a roll legislatively. Since Bush broke with history in 2002, they have picked up legislative seats in 2003, 2004, and 2005, according to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. On the last major Election Day for legislators, 2004, Democrats gained forty-five seats nationally.

And Democrats can take heart that the recent special elections for legislative seats have mostly gone their way. In eleven of twelve special elections in which a seat changed partisan hands, the seat switched from the GOP to the Democrats; only two went the other way, according to the NCSL. And in no fewer than nine special elections, Democratic candidates won state House or Senate seats with vote shares between six and twenty percentage points above normal Democratic performance in those districts, according to the DLCC. These included three races each in Pennsylvania and Virginia and one each in Kentucky, Missouri and Texas.

Another notable trend is that several of long-serving legislative leaders have been knocked out in primaries this year, including political giants in Indiana, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. This has been mostly a Republican problem, emblematic of a base divided between die-hard conservatives and more pragmatic politicians. That, too, cannot be a good sign for the GOP as it enters an election season that will almost certainly be a battle between the two parties’ bases.

All of this comes in a context of almost perfect parity nationally. The two parties control the same number of state Senates, and the GOP has a mere two-chamber lead in state Houses. Looked at a different way, Republicans control twenty legislatures outright, the Democrats control nineteen outright and ten are split. And seats? All told, just twenty-one seats separate the two parties — 3,663 for the Democrats, 3,642 for the Republicans, a difference of less than three-tenths of one percent.

For ratings and analysis of the battle for control of the state House and state Senate in all 50 states ..subscribe now.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

In Political Waves, Tide Doesn’t Rise to Same Level in Every State

By Stuart Rothenberg

The last major national political wave, in 1994, didn’t sweep over all areas of the country with equal force. In some states, Congressional Democrats suffered minimal losses, while in others Democratic House seats fell in bunches.

For Democrats to take the House this year, they may need one or two states to deliver a significant number of wins, not just an isolated victory. Which states give Democrats the best chance to score victories in bunches?

The best examples of how the impact of the ’94 Republican wave differed from state to state are four states on three coasts: Washington, Virginia, North Carolina and Alabama.

In Washington, Democrats went into Election Day holding eight of the state’s nine House seats. Jennifer Dunn was the only Republican member of the House delegation (though Republican Slade Gorton held one of the state’s Senate seats).

On Nov. 9, Republican candidates emerged with seven of the nine districts, leaving only Democrats Norm Dicks and Jim McDermott standing. Five incumbent Democrats were defeated, and one open Democratic seat went to the GOP, a net gain of six seats.

In North Carolina, Republicans also made major gains, turning an 8-4 Democratic-majority delegation before the election into an 8-4 Republican majority after the votes were counted, for a net GOP gain of four seats.

Together, Washington and North Carolina combined to produce a 10-seat gain for the Republicans, almost one-fifth of the party’s 52-seat gain nationwide.

But just to the Tar Heel State’s north, in Virginia, the wave was little more than a ripple.

In the Old Dominion, Democrats headed into Election Day with a 7-4 majority in the commonwealth’s delegation. But unlike their neighbors in North Carolina, Virginia Republicans picked up only a single additional district. Democrats came out of the election still holding six of 11 Congressional districts.

And further into the Deep South, in conservative (and increasingly Republican) Alabama, Republicans failed to pick up even a single new House seat. Democrats went into the election holding four of the state’s seven districts, and they retained that margin and all of their seats after the election. Three white and one African-American Democrats were re-elected.

What states deserve special attention as possible candidates for a wave within a wave?

Democratic operatives have been suggesting that at least a handful of states are ripe for a Democratic wave: New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Indiana.

In Connecticut, where Republicans represent three of the state’s five Congressional districts, a wave conceivably could sweep Reps. Rob Simmons, Christopher Shays and Nancy Johnson out. But a true partisan wave would inundate Republican lawmakers at all levels, and Republican Gov. Jodi Rell appears headed for a thundering victory.

In New York, Democrats are aggressively competing in at least four Upstate districts (against incumbent Reps. John Sweeney, Randy Kuhl and Jim Walsh, and in retiring Rep. Sherwood Boehlert’s open seat) and, possibly, in Rep. Sue Kelly’s Westchester to Poughkeepsie district just north of New York City.

Democratic strategists reason that party strength in the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races should produce a big Democratic turnout that could also deliver a number of Congressional seats. That’s possible, but all of the districts being targeted by Democrats have a Republican bent, and easy victories by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and all-but-certain gubernatorial nominee Eliot Spitzer could easily make voters bored rather than energized. The Democrats, in other words, are more likely to get shut out than sweep the seats.

Ohio, Pennsylvania and, to a lesser extent, Indiana appear to be better candidates for state-specific waves.

Republicans hold seven of Indiana’s nine Congressional districts, and Democrats have an excellent chance of seizing districts, specifically Rep. John Hostettler’s 8th district and Rep. Mike Sodrel’s 9th district. But they also have a longer-shot opportunity against Rep. Chris Chocola in the 2nd district, and a sweep of all three would give Democrats a majority of the House delegation.

Indiana holds some promise for Democrats because Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) is having a tough time, and that increases the possibility that voters will send a collective message to the GOP.

Pennsylvania and Ohio seem to have the requisite voter anger and slate of competitive races that provide the ingredients for a wave election that could deliver a considerable number of seats to Democrats.

Incumbents struggled during Pennsylvania’s April primary, confirming voter dissatisfaction with a legislative pay raise, something that at the very least ought to raise Republican concerns. GOP House incumbents in the eastern third of the state, including Reps. Don Sherwood, Curt Weldon, Jim Gerlach and Michael Fitzpatrick, are all at some risk, and Republican nominees for the Senate (incumbent Rick Santorum) and governor (neophyte Lynn Swann) are not currently doing well enough to help downballot Republican nominees.

Ohio, of course, is made-to-order for a local wave, given Republican Gov. Bob Taft’s horrendous poll numbers, state government scandals and credible Democratic challengers to Reps. Deborah Pryce, Bob Ney and Steve Chabot.

The point is that even national waves can be fickle. Not all states have a tsunami even if one appears nationally. Of course, Democrats don’t really care where they get their 15-seat gain as long as they get it. But it certainly would be easier for them to get to 218 seats with big gains in at least a couple of states.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on July 3, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Utah 3: Not So fast, Congressman Tancredo!

By Stuart Rothenberg

Congressman Chris Cannon, Republican of Utah’s 3rd District, was staggered, but he didn’t go down for the count. Instead, it was businessman John Jacob, whose anti-immigration campaign was backed by Colorado GOP Congressman Tom Tancredo, who was knocked out by Republican primary voters on June 27.

Cannon must be getting used to primary challenges. Two years ago, another conservative, Matt Throckmorton, challenged him as insufficiently tough on illegal immigrants. Cannon, whose brother, Joe, is state GOP chairman, beat Throckmorton 58.4% to 41.6%. This time, Cannon had a narrower 11-point victory, 55.8% to 44.1%.

Jacob, who at one point suggested that he was fighting Satan as well as Cannon, improved on Throckmorton's showing by cutting Cannon's margin in Salt Lake County, which includes the southern and western suburbs of Salt Lake City.

As he did in 2004, Cannon carried every one of the seven counties in the district (the district includes five full counties and parts of two others). But the congressman’s percentage of the vote dropped in five counties, held steady in one (populous Utah County) and increased in only one.

Cannon's victory doesn’t demonstrate that anti-immigration forces are without muscle. A sitting Republican congressman who supports President George W. Bush’s position on the need for a comprehensive immigration bill (and who had Bush’s vocal support) could garner only 55 percent of the vote. The wealthy congressman has now had to spend heavily two primaries in a row to win renomination.

But Cannon did win, in spite of Tancredo’s bluster and an independent expenditure by Team America PAC attacking the Utah congressman in TV ads. Tancredo’s pre-primary assessment that "we've already won" because Cannon had to fight for his political survival ignores political reality. Everyone knows that immigration is a highly charged emotional issue that divides the GOP. Given that, losing doesn’t have much symbolic value.

Cannon's victory and the closeness of the primary in Utah demonstrate the extent to which Republicans are divided. The division remains a substantial problem for the party heading into the fall elections, since it means Republicans are likely to spend some of their time attacking each other instead of figuring out a way to defeat Democrats.

This column first appeared on Political Wire on June 29, 2006.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Presidential Races Taking on Chess Match Quality

By Stuart Rothenberg

As in chess, where a competitor decides what to do based on his or her opponent’s moves, Republican and Democratic primary voters and caucus attendees are likely to spend as much time in 2007 and early 2008 watching their opponents as thinking about their own choices.

Since both parties are placing an unusually high priority on nominating candidates who can beat the other’s nominee, activists in each party are likely to base their decisions to an unusual degree on what the other party seems to be doing.

Each Democratic activist has his or her own favorite for the Democratic nomination in 2008, but almost universally, politically sophisticated Democrats have become so frustrated with their losses in 2000 and 2004 and so angry after six years of George W. Bush as president that they aren’t willing to nominate someone they see as destined to lose in ’08, even if they like that candidate’s message or the symbolism of his or her election.

Many Republicans feel the same way. Even conservatives seem willing to support a nominee with whom they don’t entirely agree, such as Arizona Sen. John McCain, if that is the only way to guarantee that New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton — and her husband, former President Bill Clinton — don’t return to the White House.

“Electability” apparently played a significant role in the race for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, especially in Iowa, where Democrats concluded that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) would make a more formidable nominee than former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. But it’s likely to be an even bigger factor in 2008.

This circumstance is possible only because neither party has a president seeking re-election or a sitting vice president seeking the White House. The heightened level of partisanship and bitterness also increases the likelihood of strategic voting by Democrats and Republicans during their processes of selecting nominees, since the stakes are seen as so high in ’08.

On the surface, the electability argument should help McCain, who is widely regarded as the GOP hopeful with the broadest general election appeal, even if elements of his own party find him unreliable.

And it has: Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a strong critic of the Arizona Republican when Lott was his party’s Senate Majority Leader, says quite openly that he’s backing McCain because he believes the Arizonan has the best chance of keeping the White House in GOP hands.

For the Democrats, former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.) should be helped by the electability argument, since each has won in a red state and since both men are regarded as more moderate (and therefore have broader appeal) than other likely Democratic contenders.

But neither party can be entirely sure of what the other one will do since both parties will be making decisions at the same time.

This circumstance makes for a Rube Goldberg-like flow chart of possibilities.

Most Republicans in Iowa and other early primary and caucus states probably would be more comfortable with the views and style of Sen. George Allen (Va.) than with that of McCain. But when electability becomes a factor, Allen’s appeal is diluted. That could change, however, if Democrats select a nominee whom Republicans consider unelectable. In that case, conservative Republicans might be more willing to stand with Allen, believing that he could win the general election.

Similarly, if electability were not an issue, Sen. Clinton would be the clear (though not necessarily prohibitive) favorite to win her party’s nomination. But if they conclude she cannot win a general election in 2008, it’s difficult to see Democrats nominating her.

And if Clinton doesn’t appear to be headed for the Democratic nomination in early January 2008 — and especially if Democrats seem likely to nominate a true moderate — Republicans might not feel compelled to nominate McCain, who now is widely viewed as able to “save” the country from the New York Democrat.

This interdependence — with each party looking at the other and trying to figure out who will win its caucuses and primaries — creates the possibility that the two races could take unpredictable and dramatic turns in a very short period of time.

A Des Moines Register poll of likely caucus attendees or a Manchester Union-Leader survey of likely primary voters could turn not merely one contest on its head, but two.

A poll showing Clinton doing poorly in the Iowa Democratic caucuses, for example, could create a bounce for Allen or even for Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney among Republicans, since it would appear to lessen the possibility that Democrats would nominate the New York Senator, the candidate Republicans most distaste.

But an Allen surge in polling could, in turn, boost Clinton’s prospects, since she certainly would run stronger against the Virginia Senator (in the sense that she’d be viewed as more electable by Democrats) than she would against McCain.

Similarly, the Democratic caucus results in Iowa could affect GOP primaries down the road, boosting some candidates and undermining others.

Then there is the whole issue of who will get the votes of New Hampshire’s independents, an important group in that state. Since those voters can choose which party primary to vote in, there could be a fight among both Republican and Democratic moderates (McCain and Warner, for example) for that vote — a fight that could well depend on electability within each party.

At this point, predictions about who will be nominated by both parties are premature, even silly. But it seems likely that electability will play a greater role in both parties’ decisions than in the past, and that development could create some unusual twists and turns during the last few months of 2007 and the first couple of 2008.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on June 29, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.