Friday, September 29, 2006

New Print Edition: Senate, Governor, & House Updates and Ratings

The new September 29, 2006 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report is on its way to subscribers. For subscription information- click here. This issues contains updated news and ratings on the Senate, the House, and races for Governor.

In the Senate, we moved two races (click here for our ratings):
-Pennsylvania from Lean Takeover to Likely Takeover
-Tennessee (Open) from Clear Advantage for Corker to Narrow Advantage for Corker

In the House, we moved seven races and dropped two seats (click here for our ratings):
-Florida 16 (Open) added to the list as a Pure Toss-Up (pending additional news)
-Arizona 8 from Lean Democrat to Democrat Favored
-Georgia 8 from Democrat Favored to Lean Democrat
-Wisconsin 8 (Open) from Lean Republican to Toss-Up/Tilt Republican
-New York 24 (Open) from Lean Republican to Toss-Up/Tilt Republican
-Pennsylvania 10 from Toss-Up/Tilt Republican to Pure Toss-Up
-Ohio 1 from Toss-Up/Tilt Republican to Pure Toss-Up
-Dropped from the list: Lousiana 3 and Ohio 6

For the full analysis, ratings, and current polling, you must be a subscriber.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Don’t Make Me Say I Told You So: It’s a Bump, Not a Surge

By Stuart Rothenberg,

The ink on my Sept. 18 column warning against overreaction to new polling and alleged “surges” had not yet dried when USA Today released its newest Gallup Poll, predictably asserting the existence of an alleged Republican surge. Others quickly joined the chorus.

First, let’s stipulate that recent polling has shown some improvement in Republican numbers, whether it’s in the president’s standing or the generic ballot. President Bush’s job approval numbers bottomed out earlier this year and have been inching up for a couple of months.

That’s the good news for Republicans, and any good news is better than bad news. But if you look at presidential job approval and the generic ballot, it is awfully difficult — no, actually, it is impossible — to conclude a dramatic surge has occured or is under way. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen, only that it hasn’t occurred so far.

The USA Today/Gallup poll found Bush’s job ratings among all adults at 44 percent approve/51 percent disapprove. That’s an improvement from an Aug. 18-20 USA Today/Gallup survey that showed the president’s ratings at 42 percent approve/54 percent disapprove. So, Bush’s approval is up 2 points and his disapproval is down 3. Clear enough.

A Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll showed the same thing, and it’s a development worth noting. But remember, Bush’s disapproval was still at 51 percent in the USA Today poll and 52 percent in the Bloomberg/L.A. Times survey, and the improvement in Bush’s numbers is still modest. It’s not as if the public has suddenly changed its evaluation of the president. A majority of Americans still disapprove of his performance, and that’s not a good place to be for the Republicans going into a second midterm election.

In evaluating presidential job approval ratings, Gallup actually reports two additional sets of numbers, one based on three-poll rolling averages and a “smoothed approval” estimate, based on work done with a consultant, Yale professor Don Green.

Both reports show a slow but steady increase in Bush’s job approval from a stretch in May, when it bottomed out in the low 30 percent range, to now, when it is around 40 percent. They show no surge, however, and Gallup Poll Editor in Chief Frank Newport wisely notes that after years of doing polling, he pays less attention to the results of a single survey and more to trends and patterns.

Now we get to an even bigger problem for those who want to see a surge in the USA Today/Gallup numbers — the generic ballot.

Far too much has been made of the USA Today/Gallup poll’s finding that the generic Congressional ballot is tied at 48 percent among “likely voters.” Unfortunately, some observers have compared that number to previous Gallup generic ballot numbers, proclaiming incontrovertible evidence of a surge.

However, Newport told me recently that the Sept. 15-17 USA Today/Gallup survey is the first one this year that screened for “likely voters.” Previously, Gallup reported either on registered voters or “regular voters.” Regular voters and likely voters are not identical, Newport said, since different questions are used to identify both subsamples.

So, if you must compare apples to oranges, go right ahead and compare “regular voters” to “likely voters.” Just remember that it’s not kosher.

If you look at Gallup’s registered voters going back almost three months, you will find that the current 51 percent Democratic/42 percent Republican generic ballot in mid-September is almost identical with Gallup results from Aug. 10, July 30 and July 9. So the only “surge” among registered voters appeared in a dramatic narrowing of the generic in a single Aug. 18-20 poll. But that single survey is an outlier, and the USA Today/Gallup generic hasn’t really moved in months.

Interestingly, less than 48 hours after the USA Today/Gallup poll became public, a CBS News/New York Times survey was released. While it reported on the opinions of adults, rather than registered or likely voters (who usually are more Republican), the CBS News/New York Times survey found the president’s job approval at 37 percent, “virtually unchanged” from August. Moreover, the poll found Democrats with a 15-point advantage in the generic ballot, 50 percent to 35 percent.

Does all of this mean terrible news for Republicans, since they have been hoping for a surge? Not necessarily.

It’s odd that there hasn’t been more comment about the difference between the USA Today/Gallup registered voters and likely voters generic ballot results. While the poll showed Democrats with a 9-point advantage among registered voters, the generic ballot was even among likely voters.

With all of the talk about Democratic enthusiasm and Republican division, I would not have thought there would be such a large gap between the two samples.

Elections are won and lost by actual voters, not by hypothetical voters. So, if Democrats don’t beat the GOP on turnout on Election Day, the generic ballot among all adults won’t matter at all.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on September 25, 2006 Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Growing Undecided?

By Stuart Rothenberg & Nathan L. Gonzales

We're only a couple weeks into the post-Labor Day sprint to November, and many voters are only now taking the time to see who is running in November.

As a whole, Republican congressional incumbents are starting off in a weaker position this cycle compared to previous cycles, and even unknown Democratic challengers have already solidified their base. That's good news for Democrats.

But we are starting to wonder about some Democratic polling. Do the numbers tell us not only where a race is now but also where it is likely to be in a few weeks? Sure, polls are snapshots. But are they presenting the whole picture? Or are some Democratic polls showing Republican candidates with artificially low numbers by not forcing respondents to choose a candidate, thereby boosting the percentage of undecided voters?

For example, in NY-20, an August 29-30 McLaughlin & Associates poll for Rep. John Sweeney (R-NY) showed him leading attorney Kirsten Gillibrand (D) 53% to 36%, with 11% undecided. An independent August 21-23 Siena Research Institute poll had Sweeney leading Gillibrand 53% to 34%, and 13% undecided. And finally, an August 29-31 Global Strategy Group survey for Gillibrand showed her trailing 47% to 39%, with 14% undecided.

Yet, the DCCC released a September 5-7 poll by Grove Insight that showed Sweeney leading Gillibrand 43% to 31%, with 26% undecided.

In this extremely polarized environment, how could one-quarter of the electorate be undecided? And why is the undecided in the Grove Insight poll almost double the other three polls taken earlier in the race?

We aren't suggesting the numbers are made up, only that the poll's methodology may have produced a result that overstates the percentage of voters in play and understates Sweeney's true standing in the district.

In FL-22, an August 20-24 Benenson Strategy Group survey for the DCCC had Rep. Clay Shaw (R-NY) leading state Sen. Ron Klein 42% to 38%. But 20% undecided seems surprisingly large in a race in which both candidates, and even outside groups, have been spending heavily on media for almost a year.

In contrast, a Democratic poll in Pennsylvania's 4th district, which has been a slow-developing contest, showed the total undecided at eight points, with Rep. Melissa Hart (R-PA) leading Jason Altmire (D) 48% to 44%, with only 8% undecided.

The lesson is to be cautious about believing everything that you are seeing. In some cases, large numbers of voters truly are undecided. But in other instances, a huge undecided may well reflect a poll that seeks to understate the fundamental partisanship of a district.

A great example is in NE-3, where a September 20-21 Penn, Schoen & Berland survey for Scott Kleeb (D) shows him trailing state Sen. Adrian Smith (R) 40% to 31% with a whopping 29% undecided. President Bush won the district 75% to 24% in 2004, so you can bet most of those undecideds won't be voting for Kleeb.

This column first appeared on Political Wire on September 22, 2006.

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Fight for the Senate: More GOP Headaches, and One for Democrats

By Stuart Rothenberg

Recent developments have improved Democrats’ prospects in their fight to take the Senate, with the Republican hold on the chamber looking more tenuous than even a month ago.

While the renomination of Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee has improved GOP chances of holding onto his seat, Virginia Sen. George Allen’s ongoing problems have put a previously safe Republican seat at growing risk. The development in Virginia has a far greater impact on the fight for control, since it means a sixth GOP seat — the magic number for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — is now in play.

Chafee’s victory over Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey was impressive, particularly because Republican turnout efforts proved to be so effective. Chafee is about even money to hold his seat, not exactly a comfortable position for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, but a far better one than if Laffey had won the party’s nomination.

But whatever benefits the Republicans have derived from developments in Rhode Island have been more than erased by Allen’s problems in the Old Dominion.

Leaving aside all of the questions about whether the media exaggerated the controversial nature of Allen’s “macaca” comment (they did), whether the media’s portrayal of the demeaned Jim Webb (D) staff member was ridiculously naive (no argument here), whether Allen’s grandmother’s religion is relevant (it isn’t) or whether The Washington Post is out to defeat the Senator (a lot of Republicans think it is pretty obvious), Allen hasn’t stood the light of day very well.

Anyone who watched the Allen-Webb joint appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday with any degree of disinterest had to conclude that Webb looked relatively poised, thoughtful and smart. He thoroughly outpointed the Republican Senator.

Moreover, there now have been enough polls in Virginia to conclude that its Senate race is a single-digit contest, and Northern Virginia’s growing importance in the state ought to have Republican strategists worrying about its nominee.

Some Republicans clearly are concerned, while others continue to insist, regardless of the polls, that Allen can’t lose and is guaranteed 53 percent of the vote no matter what he says or does. Given how the race has developed and how little ammunition the Allen folks have against Webb, I think those Republicans who are worried have reason for concern.

Additionally, Republican seats in Pennsylvania and Montana now look very, very vulnerable, with a third, Ohio, only slightly better. Rhode Island and Missouri look like tossups, with neither party having a distinct advantage. Add Virginia to those and you have six seats, and at least a scenario for a Democratic takeover.

Two other Senate seats that Democrats have been competing in strongly, Arizona and Tennessee, still look to me to be more difficult for them, though their nominees still have six weeks to change that.

While there has been some "normal" closing in Arizona, the Tennessee contest could get very interesting in the next month if Republican Bob Corker doesn’t start to put some room between himself and Democratic Rep. Harold Ford Jr. For the moment, I’m still expecting that to happen.

The other development in recent weeks has been in New Jersey, where, as I have believed all along, the Democrats’ hold on the Senate seat is far from secure, even with the GOP’s obvious weakness in the state.

Appointed Sen. Bob Menendez’s (D) problems look very real, including a new federal investigation into a landlord/rental agreement with a community group over a building Menendez owns.

Menendez has, for months, flicked off suggestions that ethics could be a problem for him by asserting that he has been a reformer fighting against the establishment throughout his career. Well, Garden State voters - at least so far - haven’t bought Menendez’s storyline, and even if Republican challenger Tom Kean Jr. sometimes looks too green, voters in the state are giving him a long, long look.

The more Menendez is distracted by questions about himself and the more he is on the defensive, the better Kean’s chances of making the contest a referendum on Menendez.

I still am not certain that Kean can beat Menendez, but this contest increasingly looks like a Democratic problem and the GOP’s best opportunity to win a seat held by the minority.

Elsewhere, except for Maryland, there aren’t a lot of reasons to be terribly excited about Republican prospects. Sure, that could change, but West Virginia never developed at all, and Michigan still looks like a snoozer (especially compared to the state’s gubernatorial race). That leaves Minnesota and Washington, both of which seem to be going in the wrong direction for the GOP.

Republicans still have the advantage in the fight for the Senate. While I rate Missouri as a tossup, I still give Sen. Jim Talent (R) an edge. That means Democrats have the advantage in only three states with GOP incumbents: Pennsylvania, Montana and Ohio. They’ll need to add at least three more races to that list to win the Senate, and, of course, they cannot afford to lose New Jersey. It still looks very hard, but with the addition of Virginia, it finally looks at least possible.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on September 21, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Friday, September 22, 2006

New Print Edition: Senate, Governor, & House Updates and Ratings

The new September 22, 2006 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report is on its way to subscribers. For subscription information- click here. This issues contains updated news and ratings on the Senate, the House, and races for Governor.

In the Senate, we moved three races (click here for our ratings):
-Virginia from Clear Advantage to Narrow Advantage for George Allen (R)
-Washington from Narrow Advantage to Clear Advantage for Maria Cantwell (D)
-Minnesota from Narrow Advantage to Clear Advantage for the Democrats

In the House, we moved three races and added two seats (click here for our ratings):
-Arizona 8 from Toss-Up/Tilt Democratic to Lean Democratic for the Democrats
-West Virginia 1 from Lean Democratic to Democrat Favored for Alan Mollohan (D)
-Florida 13 from Lean Republican to Toss-Up/Tilt Republican toward the Democrats
-California 11 (Pombo) and California 4 (Doolittle) were added to the list

In Gubernatorial races, we moved four races (click here for our ratings):
-Colorado open from Toss-Up to Lean Takeover for the Democrats
-Minnesota (Pawlenty) from Narrow Advantage to Toss-Up
-Alaska open from Toss-Up to Narrow Advantage Incumbent Party for the Republicans
-Pennsylvania from Clear Advantage to Currently Safe for Ed Rendell (D)

For the full analysis, ratings, and current polling, you must be a subscriber.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

What to Expect Over the Next Seven Weeks

By Stuart Rothenberg

It’s a good idea to try to anticipate the ups and downs of this election cycle’s stretch run, so when the inevitable stories about a Republican “surge” hit the newspapers, you won’t be taken completely by surprise.

First, this is the kind of cycle when long-shot challengers suddenly appear, even as late as mid-October. If the national environment doesn’t change, Republican seats previously taken for granted could show up as vulnerable in late polling, as the Democrats experienced with then-Rep. Dan Rostenkowski’s Illinois district in 1994.

But since polling across the country shows that Democratic voters already have rallied to Democratic candidates, some of these surprisingly close polls simply may reflect the Democratic generic vote in the district rather than a Democratic challenger’s strength.

Democrat Charlie Brown, for example, who is challenging Rep. John Doolittle in California’s 4th district, has a poll showing him running virtually even with the GOP incumbent. But while Doolittle has loads of personal problems, his district is heavily Republican.

More important, Brown, a career military man, has the warmth of a second-degree frostbite. And that’s before you get to the contradictory and confusing way he talks about issues and his personal philosophy. So once Doolittle starts to spend his substantial resources on beating up Brown, the challenger’s prospects are likely to dim.

I’m certainly not suggesting that all of the late-developing races will be mirages, only that it’s wise not to overreact to news of “surprises.” Take a deep breath, check them out and look for reasons not to take them at face value (especially if you want them to be true). If, after being as skeptical as you can be, you still think a “surprise” looks interesting, then you can start getting excited.

Second, beware of all national surges. And remember: Journalists always want a horse race, not a blowout.

I’ve been doing this long enough to know that in pretty much every election cycle, there is talk, invariably sometime in October, that one party or the other is “surging.” In 1994, for example, the last time a truly significant partisan wave hit, there were reports in October of a Democratic surge.

Back then, Democrats expected to hold control of the House of Representatives until the Earth fell into the sun, so they waited throughout the summer and fall for the inevitable point at which Democratic candidates strengthened in the polls. That point never came, but it didn’t stop a flurry of media reports in October that a Democratic surge was under way.

An article in the Oct. 28, 1994, Los Angeles Times, for example, asserted that “there are signs of subtle shifts in public sentiment and political strategy that suggest Democratic Party loss[es] on Nov. 8 might not be as severe as many experts predicted.”

The reports of a Democratic rebound were so widespread that the lead in my own pre-election newsletter that year asserted that I could find no surge in my reporting. I wouldn’t have done that if I hadn’t been forced to address the “surge” hysteria.

The likeliest culprit for starting a premature, or totally incorrect, surge panic this year is a national poll that reports on a dramatic closing of the generic ballot or a spike in the president’s job ratings. That’s likely to lead the Republican National Committee and the two federal campaign committees to send out a flurry of buoyant e-mails.

Mind you, I’m not ruling out improved prospects for Republicans. Maybe the White House’s efforts to redefine the elections as a choice on national security will prove at least partially successful, or maybe an event or a news story will change the political discussion. But I’d be wary about buying talk of a “surge” until I saw multiple national polls showing a fundamental shift in opinion or until district-level and state-level polls in competitive contests show Republican candidates doing better.

I know this will be hard to believe, but some of the people who talk about politics or conduct polls want to grab as many headlines as they can, and they may create a surge frenzy, or jump on a surge bandwagon, merely to promote themselves and get quoted.

Third — and this doesn’t contradict my last warning — don’t be surprised if there is some normal “firming” of the GOP base in the next six weeks that helps GOP candidates in Republican-leaning districts. In fact, I’m expecting it.

I’ve been struck by the unusually early firming of the Democratic vote, which has resulted in some Democratic candidates for Congress exceeding their name identification in the ballot test by 10 points or even 20 points.

Early polls showed independent voters so disproportionately Democratic that it’s likely some of them, who usually vote Republican, will slide back into the GOP column. And some Republican and conservative voters remain undecided, as in the Tennessee Senate race I wrote about recently. Certainly some of those voters are likely to rally behind Republican candidates as Election Day nears and the prospects of dramatic Democratic gains seem more real.

No, I don’t really expect most in the national media or the blogs to heed these warnings. Overreaction is a way of life for many of them. But now is exactly the time to be cautious about rumors and news. It’s better to get it right than to get it first.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on September 18, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Can Republicans Fear What They Don't Know?

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Many Republicans this cycle are heading into uncharted waters. Members of Congress like Curt Weldon (PA-7) are facing their first reelection challenge in a couple of decades. But Weldon may have one piece of inspiration that many of his colleagues don't possess -- he knows what its like to be a member of the minority party in Congress.

Weldon and a few dozen other GOP members are aware of the hostile environment and the stakes of the election because they are fighting for their own seats. But a large number of the caucus simply may not know what they're headed for. Nearly two-thirds of the 213 Republicans looking to come back for the 110th Congress have never experienced life as the minority party in the House of Representatives.

Only seventy Republicans were elected before the 1994 GOP takeover, and three others, Rodney Alexander (LA-5), Ralph Hall (TX-4), and Virgil Goode (VA-5), spent time in the minority as Democrats.

If Republicans are looking for advice about life in the minority, there are handful of long-time GOP incumbents making their exit this year, including Jim Kolbe (AZ-8, elected 1984), Mike Bilirakis (FL-9 1982), Henry Hyde (IL-6 1974), Mike Oxley (OH-4 1981), and Sherwood Boehlert (NY-24 1982), who could shed some light on what may lie ahead.

This column first appeared on Political Wire on September 15, 2006.

Monday, September 18, 2006

An Anti-Incumbent Election? This Year? Of Course Not

By Stuart Rothenberg

Over the past year or so, I’ve heard more than a few people talking about 2006 as an anti-incumbent election. Well, those people are wrong. We are not going to have an anti-incumbent election in November. We are going to have an anti-Bush election.

First, let’s get our terms straight. If “anti-incumbent election” means anything, it is that voters are so dissatisfied with the status quo that they vote against all incumbents, regardless of party. The term highlights one, and only one, quality of embattled candidates: their incumbency.

This kind of election is not about party or ideology or how Members voted on a particular piece of legislation. If it were about any of those things, it wouldn’t simply be an “anti-incumbent” election. An anti-incumbent election is a referendum on the “ins,” and voters, for whatever reasons, are so unhappy with the performance of those “ins” — all the “ins” — that they throw them out. All of them.

I’m sure 2006 won’t be an anti-incumbent election, for two very different reasons.

First, history strongly suggests — and “suggests” actually is far too mild a word — that we don’t have anti-incumbent elections in this country. I’m not saying that we’ve never had one or that we never will have one, but I’m hard-pressed to identify one during the past 50 years.

Over the past 26 Congressional elections, going back to 1954, there have been only three elections when at least a half-dozen incumbents of both parties were defeated — 1956, 1990 and 1992, according to “Vital Statistics on Congress, 2001-02,” edited by Norman Ornstein, Thomas Mann and Michael Malbin.

By contrast, we have had eight elections in which one party knocked off at least 20 of the opponent’s incumbents and lost fewer than a half-dozen of its own.

Virtually all midterm elections are a referendum on the party of the president, so it isn’t surprising that when a political wave hits, it damages one party much more heavily than it does the other.

The worst bipartisan election since the mid-1950s was in 1992, when a total of 24 sitting House Members — 16 Republicans and eight Democrats — were defeated. While there was a strong anti-Washington, D.C., mood developing in this country at that time, that year also was a redistricting election in which some incumbents didn’t possess the normal advantages of incumbency. That fact undoubtedly explains so many incumbent losses.

Otherwise, over the past 50 years, the closest we’ve come to an anti-incumbent election was in 1990, when six Democrats and nine Republicans lost in the general election, and in 1978, when 14 Democrats and five Republicans were defeated that November.

Second, there is very little evidence that the environment in the current cycle is heavily stacked against incumbents in general, even though a handful have been defeated for renomination.

Looking toward November, there is no indication that the two major parties both are facing significant incumbent losses. I suppose Democrats could lose an incumbent or two if things go poorly for them, but right now there isn’t a single Democratic seat that ranks in the 25 most vulnerable House seats in the country.

Not one. Not a single one. The vulnerability is entirely on one side of the partisan aisle.

How could we possibly be having an anti-incumbent election if one party loses 10, 15 or even 20 incumbents and the other party loses none, or one or two?

Instead, what is developing is a classic political wave of voter dissatisfaction about the direction of the nation and the performance of the president. Congressional candidates from the president’s party are about to bear the brunt of voter dissatisfaction, because President Bush isn’t on the ballot.

Republican incumbents are in trouble not because they are incumbents, but because they are Republicans.

This election isn’t really about agendas. Sure, Democrats have something called their “New Direction,” but most voters aren’t regarding November primarily as a choice between two visions or two ideologies. No, it’s about sending a message to the president and to Congress that they aren’t happy — specifically with the Iraq War, but more generally as well.

Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman is quite correct when he says Republicans will do better when the election is a choice rather than a referendum. Unfortunately for him, that’s not likely to happen until 2008.

So what about the defeats of Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), Reps. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) and Joe Schwarz (R-Mich.), and even Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski (R)? The answer is simple. Each lost for specific reasons, not because of a trend. It isn’t their incumbency that unites them. They lost because of their own voting records and style.

While it is true that voters are not particularly impressed with Congress in general or either of the two major parties, the midterm elections have developed into a referendum on the president. Republicans may well succeed in minimizing the damage in November by localizing elections and re-electing incumbents, but there is no indication that voters will send a message of dissatisfaction with all incumbents in the fall.

That means that all but a handful of Democratic House incumbents can rest easy.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on September 14, 2006. Copyright 2006 Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Gubernatorial Races: Another Big Democratic Gain

By Stuart Rothenberg

It is now clear that when the dust settles on Nov. 8, Democrats will find themselves holding a majority of governorships for the first time since the 1994 midterm elections, when Democratic ranks across the nation were decimated.

While Republicans currently hold 28 of the nation’s 50 governorships, Democrats are likely to gain from four to six. If they net as many as four, they should hold a majority of governorships for at least the next two years.

Governorships become particularly important toward the end of a decade, of course, because of the role some governors play in redistricting, as well as in the presidential nominating process.

One big-state GOP governorship, New York, already seems to have slipped away, and another, Ohio, is in serious danger of doing so. I’d be surprised if Republicans win either race.

Republican Govs. George Pataki of New York and Bob Taft of Ohio are widely unpopular at home, and voters in those states appear inclined to vote for change by electing Democrats — state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer in New York and Rep. Ted Strickland in Ohio.

While Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell is trying to run as a candidate of change, he is still the GOP nominee and represents continuity with the Taft administration and with President Bush more than he stands as a vehicle for change.

Four other states that currently have Republican governors now seem more likely than not to elect Democratic governors.

Gov. Bob Ehrlich has an uphill, though not impossible, battle for re-election in very Democratic Maryland, while three other states with GOP governors — Arkansas, Massachusetts and Colorado — are more likely to elect Democratic than Republican governors.

Four other races — Alaska, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan — fall into a broad “too close to call” category.

While Republicans once appeared likely to lose the top job in Alaska, the primary victory of former Wasilla Mayor Sarah Palin gives Republicans a chance to hold the state’s top job against Democrat Tony Knowles, a former two-term governor. Knowles lost his bid for the Senate in 2004, and his two victories for governor occurred under unusual circumstances.

In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration has had ethics issues to deal with, and the governor’s leadership skills are being questioned. As a result, Doyle’s job ratings are poor. Rep. Mark Green (R), who is giving up a safe Congressional seat to run for his state’s top job, is running about even with Doyle in polls and delivering the same successful “change” message that is being delivered by Democrats nationwide.

Another Republican Member of Congress who’s giving up his seat to run for governor, Rep. Jim Nussle, finds himself in a tight race against Iowa Secretary of State Chet Culver (D). Nussle earned a reputation as a tough campaigner while in the House, but he’s finding the going a bit rougher than expected this year.

Essentially all of the GOP House Members who ran for governor this cycle have found their years on Capitol Hill at best a mixed blessing in their runs for state office. In addition to Nussle and Green, famed former football coach Tom Osborne lost a GOP gubernatorial primary in Nebraska; Colorado’s Bob Beauprez is having a tough time against Democrat Bill Ritter; Oklahoma’s Ernest Istook is an underdog in his race against an incumbent Democrat; and Nevada’s Jim Gibbons has stumbled even though he retains an edge. Even Idaho’s Butch Otter, while favored, is facing a surprisingly aggressive Democratic challenge in his solidly Republican state.

Michigan remains one of the more interesting contests in the nation, as businessman Dick DeVos (R) has opened his checkbook against Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm. DeVos and Granholm have generally been locked in a tight contest, with neither one ahead by more than 2 or 3 points. Granholm now has launched a major attack on DeVos, charging him with exporting jobs to Asia. He’s answering the ads, and if he can withstand the attacks, he’ll have a chance to overtake her in the last month of the race.

Democratic prospects in three of the nation’s biggest states now look increasingly poor. In Texas and California, GOP governors appear headed for re-election. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in particular, has rallied in the polls and looks headed for a comfortable win over state Treasurer Phil Angelides (D).

And in Florida, Democratic hopes of electing a Democrat to succeed outgoing Gov. Jeb Bush (R) seem to be fading. State Attorney General Charlie Crist (R) is a favorite over his Democratic opponent, Rep. Jim Davis.

While voters will likely elect more Democratic governors, they will also confirm the recent pattern of voters being willing to elect candidates from the minority party to a state’s top job. Even with horrible national and state political environments for Republicans, GOP governors in Connecticut, Hawaii and Vermont are likely to win re-election, just as Democrats in heavily Republican states such as Kansas, Oklahoma and Wyoming are headed for another term.

Still, as in the fight for House and Senate seats, gubernatorial races are likely to result in significant gains for Democrats nationally. And that will only add to the GOP’s problems heading into the crucial 2008 elections.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on September 11, 2006. Copyright 2006 Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Texas 23:Democratic Strategy is the Only Constant

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Former Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D-TX) is as decisive as a kid in a candy store when it comes to his congressional bids. The former congressman bowed out of the race in Texas 23 early last week, citing family reasons and the inability to raise the necessary funds. Then, through a spokesman, Rodriguez reconsidered the race, and promptly jumped back into the race just hours after he got out.

The scramble in south Texas ensued when the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the congressional lines in a handful of Texas districts because they violated the Voting Rights Act. A three-judge panel redrew the district at the beginning of August and filing re-opened for the race.

Now, Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-TX) is left to run in a redrawn district that went from a 62% GOP performance in 2004 statewide races, to a more competitive 54% Republican performance. Not all of those races are very competitive, but in the 2002 race for lieutenant governor (widely regarded as a fairer fight), Democrat John Sharp carried the new district with 55%, even though he lost 52%-46% statewide. Overall, Democrats average 50.7% in statewide races, according to the Lone Star Project, a Democratic PAC.

Even though Rodriguez is a former member of Congress, there is no guarantee he would be the strongest Democratic candidate. He has never been known as a strong fundraiser or candidate. He lost renomination 50.2% to 49.8% to Rep. Henry Cuellar in the 28th District in 2004. And he lost a primary rematch with Cuellar earlier this year, 53%-40%.

While Rodriguez was second guessing his decision to run, some local labor groups rallied behind retired San Antonio Fire Department district chief Albert Uresti (D). Uresti's brother Carlos is a state representative, but Albert has never run for office and is expected to run a good, local, and under-funded campaign. Community activist Augie Beltran (D) of San Antonio and truck stop owner Adrian DeLeon (D) of Carrizo Springs are also in the race along with original 23rd District nominee Rick Bolanos of El Paso.

Businessman Lukin Gilliland Jr. of Alamo Heights may be the Democrats' best hope. He put in $500,000 of his own money as he entered the race and his family is well known with Democratic insiders in the state, even though the first time candidate starts with little real name identification. But Gilliland, an attorney and rancher, could help close that I.D. gap with Rodriguez with help from his own wallet.

An August 10-15 Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research (D) survey showed Bonilla getting 44% in the multi-candidate race with Rodriguez at 24%, state legislator Pete Gallego 11%, Uresti 7%, Richard Perez 3%, and Bolanos 1%. Gallego could not run in the special election, even though multiple Democratic insiders considered him the best candidate. Even though Rodriguez was down by 20 points, Democrats were encouraged by Bonilla falling short of 50 percent.

Because of the court decision, November 7 will actually be an open special election. If no candidate receives 50 percent, then a runoff will be scheduled between the top two vote getters approximately 30 days later. Very simply, Democrats must hold Bonilla below the threshold and push it to a runoff in order to have any chance this year in the district.

In a one-on-one situation with Bonilla, the Lone Star Project laid out the Democratic strategy: 1) get at least 30% in northwest Bexar County (Bonilla's base), 2) get at least 55% in the areas outside of Bexar County (Kerry only got 44% in 2004), and 3) make sure that South San Antonio makes up at least 30% of the total district vote.

It's a winning scenario, but it may not play out until 2008, when Democrats have more time to cultivate a candidate and a campaign. But if Election Night ends with the House deadlocked 217-217 and Bonilla below 50%, both national parties will swoop into the district and South Texas will never be the same again.

This column first appeared on Political Wire on September 7, 2006.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Tennessee Senate: How Important Is a Poll in Rating a Race?

By Stuart Rothenberg

I began this year rating the Tennessee Senate race between Democrat Harold Ford Jr. and Republican Bob Corker as “Clear Advantage” for the GOP, primarily because of the state’s recent political trends, concerns about how Ford’s race and family might affect his prospects, and assumptions about the appeal of a mainstream conservative such as Corker.

Ford is an appealing guy and an excellent campaigner who never seems to run out of energy. His family and race seem less important to me now than they did a year ago, and if any Democrat can win this race, it’s Harold Ford. Do I need to reassess my evaluation of the contest? To steal from William Shakespeare, “To change the rating of the race or not to change the rating of the race — that is the question.”

Late in August, the Ford campaign released a poll conducted by Peter Brodnitz of Benenson Strategy Group. Brodnitz conducted polling for Tim Kaine’s successful gubernatorial race in Virginia, as well as Rhode Island Secretary of State Matt Brown’s less successful bid for the Democratic Senate nomination in the Ocean State.

In other words, Brodnitz is no slouch. He’s a credible pollster with experience and savvy. It’s always a good idea to be suspicious of polling, but these numbers don’t look cooked to me. One Republican operative familiar with the race thought the survey numbers definitely seemed believable.

And the numbers? Ford’s poll showed him leading Corker by a couple of points, 44 percent to 42 percent. Corker’s negatives had risen considerably since Brodnitz’s February poll, while Ford’s favorable ratings had moved higher since then.

On one level, the approaching national Democratic wave, the Tennessee Senate ballot test and many of the poll’s internals suggest that Ford certainly has a chance to win this race. His own ratings are pretty good, and he has more than $5 million in advertising headed for the airwaves.

As I’ve already noted, Ford is an excellent candidate, and he’s running in a year when voters are unhappy with the president and the direction of the nation. They seem ready for something — and someone — different. Ford, an African-American Democrat who aggressively presents himself as a moderate, certainly fills that bill.

But does the poll offer evidence that my initial assumptions and analysis were wrong? Do the poll’s numbers indicate that Ford has a significantly better chance of winning — not of getting close, but of winning — than my initial analysis concluded? Do I need to move the race to “Narrow Advantage” for Corker or even “Tossup”?

Ford leads in the ballot test by 2 points. If the poll is accurate, that’s not much of a margin, but it does mean that he starts out even or a bit ahead rather than behind, unlike his standing in Brodnitz’s June survey, when Ford trailed, 46 percent to 39 percent.

Ford’s favorability ratings have improved dramatically, from 42 percent favorable/31 percent unfavorable in February 2006 to 47 percent favorable/31 percent unfavorable in June and 55 percent favorable/29 percent unfavorable in August.

By contrast, Corker’s ratings have gone from 16 percent favorable/8 percent unfavorable in February to 43 percent favorable/16 percent unfavorable in June and 48 percent favorable/26 percent unfavorable last month.

Democrats see the name identification ratings as evidence of Ford’s growing strength and Corker’s weakness because the Republican’s unfavorable rating has moved up. But it doesn’t seem that simple to me.

Corker’s negatives have grown because he was attacked by his two primary opponents during the GOP primary, while Ford’s favorable ratings have grown and his unfavorables have stayed unchanged because he did not have a primary and instead has been able to run positive ads about himself and his views statewide.

So while the snapshot presented in the Ford poll seems accurate, I’m skeptical about its predictive value.

Brodnitz’s survey shows Corker trailing Ford among moderates by 2-to-1 and getting less than two-thirds of the vote of self-described conservatives. Is that the likely situation in November, after Corker has pummeled Ford in millions of dollars of TV ads? Remember, those ads only need to rally the GOP base, not convert Democrats into Corker voters.

True, Ford will spend millions of his own dollars building himself up and tearing down Corker, and he may well keep the Republican on the defensive. But Corker already has been attacked in the primary, for his performance as mayor of Chattanooga and for his work for unpopular former Gov. Don Sundquist (R).

Remember, Corker is only now starting to paint Ford as too liberal for the state, and the Democrat can expect that some of his decade’s worth of votes on Capitol Hill will become problematic for him this fall.

Republicans have won the past five Senate races in Tennessee, with the Democrats’ best showing in those five outcomes at 44.3 percent of the total vote (by Bob Clement in the 2002 open-seat race). Democrats carried the state in the 1992 and 1996 presidential races, when Tennessean Al Gore was in the vice presidential slot, but the Democratic ticket couldn’t crack 48 percent of the vote either time. And of course Gore lost his home state as the presidential nominee in 2000.

The fact that Ford is getting 44 percent of the vote now — and 90 percent of the black vote — isn’t hard to believe. Democratic candidates seem to be getting their votes early this cycle, and since I all along have expected the Congressman to get 47 percent or 48 percent of the vote, his poll doesn’t shake my initial assessment of the contest. But if Corker’s ads don’t start to move numbers his way by the beginning of October, I’ll certainly take another long look at this race.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on September 7, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Friday, September 08, 2006

New Print Edition: 2006 Senate Outlook

The new September 7, 2006 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report is on its way to subscribers. For subscription information- click here.

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 difficult task since only 15 Republican seats are up this year. However, given the national environment – President Bush’s terrible poll numbers, the desire for change and potentially weak 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. The DSCC strong financial position relative to the NRSC adds to Democratic prospects.

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. In a big partisan wave, anything can happen, but so far, Democrats still seem short of the magical sixth Senate seat.

At this point, Democrats still seem headed for a strong showing in 2006 Senate races, most likely gaining 3-5 Senate seats. Four seats seem to be the single most likely outcome.

Our Senate Ratings are available on-line, but the state-by-state analysis and compilation of current polling is only available if you subscribe to the print edition.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Democrats Poised to Take Control of the House

By Stuart Rothenberg

In a recent edition of my newsletter, I dissected, analyzed and evaluated dozens of districts in the fight for the House of Representatives and concluded what many of us have been assuming for weeks — Democrats are poised to gain 15 to 20 seats, giving them control of the House.

The 15- to 20-seat range, of course, could change — in either direction — as voters focus on the upcoming elections and district or national polling shifts. Campaigns matter, as do national events. Because of that, some Democrats who today seem positioned to win GOP seats could lose, just as some currently safe Republican seats could fall.

In 1994, nobody thought Democratic Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (Ill.) was at all vulnerable until Republican polling in October found challenger Michael Flanagan leading the veteran Ways and Means chairman. And Democratic incumbents such as Kansan Dan Glickman and North Carolinian David Price didn’t seem all that vulnerable until the ballots were counted and they had been defeated.

But all of those caveats shouldn’t obscure the fact that Democrats clearly are favored in seven seats currently held by Republicans — four open seats (including the Texas district of former Rep. Tom DeLay) and three seats in Indiana — and that 10 other Republican seats, including two each in Pennsylvania and Ohio, are no better than tossups.

Another seven Republican seats are only slightly tilting toward the GOP. Adding up the Democrats’ best opportunities, the party has a good shot at 24 Republican seats, and that number doesn’t include long-shot races that likely will develop in a big Democratic wave — the Rostenkowski/Glickman seats of 2006.

In previous “wave” years, the party benefiting from the partisan wave took the overwhelming percentage of tossup contests, and I expect that to happen again this year. In other words, don’t expect tossups to break evenly between the parties.

The Republican outlook in Indiana, a generally red state in presidential elections but much more competitive downballot, is horrible. Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) appears to be about as popular as bird flu, and he isn’t making it any easier for his party’s Congressional incumbents.

Democrats have three credible opponents for GOP Reps. Chris Chocola, John Hostettler and Mike Sodrel, and all three Republicans currently are running behind their Democratic opponents. Freshman Sodrel may have the best chance of surviving, given the Republican nature of his district and the fact that his opponent, former Rep. Baron Hill, already has been voted out of office once.

As expected, Ohio is looking very attractive for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Rep. Deborah Pryce, the chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, is in very serious trouble, and Rep. Steve Chabot (R) is in only slightly better shape. Republican prospects in retiring Rep. Bob Ney’s district seem uncertain at least until the special mid-September primary, but at least the GOP now has a fighting chance to hang on to that district.

Pennsylvania also looks like a potential windfall for Democrats.

Three Republican Keystone State incumbents from the southeast — Reps. Jim Gerlach, Curt Weldon and Michael Fitzpatrick — and one from the northeast — Rep. Don Sherwood — are in serious trouble. Democratic efforts to capture a number of Western Pennsylvania GOP-held districts seem not to have born fruit, but that’s little succor to national Republican strategists.

Connecticut remains a place where Republicans are on the defensive, but it’s also a good place to see if the party’s three incumbents can localize their contests enough to hold off strong Democratic challengers.

Given where other allegedly vulnerable Republican incumbents are, Rep. Christopher Shays looks surprisingly strong in his re-match against former Westport Selectwoman Diane Farrell (D). And while GOP Reps. Nancy Johnson and Rob Simmons are in very difficult races, each has earned a reputation as a very strong campaigner. Both fit their districts well, and in a normal year both would win. But 2006 isn’t a normal year.

Elsewhere, Republican Reps. Clay Shaw (Fla.), Heather Wilson (N.M.), Charles Taylor (N.C.), Geoff Davis (Ky.) and Thelma Drake (Va.) face extremely tough challenges. Some of them may win, but the odds of all of them surviving are small. Shaw and Wilson have survived tough tests before, but their previously demonstrated skills and appeal could be overwhelmed in a Democratic wave.

Veteran Rep. Anne Northup (R-Ky.) ordinarily might fall into the same category, and early polling suggests that she is only even or slightly behind challenger John Yarmuth (D). But Yarmuth, a publisher and columnist, is an opposition researcher’s dream, and Northup normally runs one of the best campaigns every cycle.

Are there any places where Democrats may not catch a wave that they once expected to build? Try upstate New York.

So far, there is precious little evidence that the Democrats’ “perfect storm” — which is based on Democratic landslides in the state’s races for governor and the Senate, as well as President Bush’s low poll numbers in New York — is helping many Democrats in upstate New York.

The 24th district remains a bit of an oddity, a place where each party insists its candidate is ahead. Incumbent Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R) is retiring, and both District Attorney Michael Arcuri (D) and state Sen. Ray Meier (R) are appealing. The district leans Republican, and Democrats seem a bit too optimistic for my taste.

Elsewhere in the state, Republican Reps. John Sweeney, Jim Walsh, Tom Reynolds and Randy Kuhl all deserve to be favorites for reelection until district-level polling shows their Democratic challengers have a chance to overtake them. So far, there is no evidence of that.

And in Washington’s 8th district, freshman Rep. Dave Reichert (R), who narrowly won two years ago and faces a well-funded Democrat this year, looks unexpectedly formidable this late in the cycle. Voters still remember him in his role as King County sheriff and so far seem disinclined to free him because of the sins of the Bush administration.

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

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

NRCC Spin Goes Into Overdrive

By Stuart Rothenberg

It’s an old strategy: If you don’t like the news, shoot the messenger.

In this case, the strategy has been employed by National Republican Congressional Committee Communications Director Carl Forti, who chose to try to discredit me (and Charlie Cook) in a September 5 press release. Why? Because I have concluded that Democrats are likely to make significant House gains, including potentially winning at least the 15 seats that they need to win a majority.

Forti selectively picked out quotes from my September 9, 2002 Roll Call column in his effort to discredit me. Of course, he didn’t reproduce that entire column (linked here), because it would not have had the effect he sought, since it referred to two different scenarios (a “heavy damage” one and a “minimal damage” one for the GOP). And, it noted that – unlike this cycle – district-level polling was not showing that Republican incumbents were in serious trouble. In fact, the column ended by suggesting that voters might ultimately “not blame Bush before November.”

Nor did Forti say that the September 13, 2002 issue of the Rothenberg Political Report stated, “…we are unable to identify additional compelling evidence…that voters are turning or inevitably will turn against Republican House candidates.” And he didn’t cite that issue’s assessment of “a small net change, with anything from a GOP gain of a couple of seats to a Democratic gain of a seat most likely.”

Nor did Forti refer to my newsletters of October 4, 2002, October 11, 2002 and October 31, 2002, in which I rejected talk of a Democratic surge and continued to predict only minor changes in the House, with a slight bias toward minimal Republican gains.

My point here is not that I’m always right. In fact, I’m usually off by a couple of seats, because it is so hard to predict exactly what will happen when there are even a handful of toss-ups. But – and here’s a problem for Forti this cycle – when I err, I usually err by slightly underestimating the size of the change.

So, in 1994, I projected GOP gains of 36-40 seats, when Republicans won 52. In 2002, I projected small House Republican gains, when they actually gained five seats.

Carl, here’s a bulletin for you. I’m not the enemy. I’m not running against your candidates. I’m simply trying to handicap individual races and the overall fight for the House. You are wasting your time and energy attacking me the way you attack one of your opponents. Interestingly, you didn’t attack me during previous cycles, when I argued that you would hold the House.

Barring a dramatic reversal of national public opinion, Republicans have two months to localize enough races to retain control of the House. The Democrats don’t yet have a lock on control of the House after November, but they now are well positioned to net the 15 seats that they need to do so.

Forti knows that control of the House is in jeopardy just as well as I do. He has the polling right in front of him. If I’m wrong in my general portrayal of the cycle or in my handicapping of individual contests, I’d certainly like to know about it. Obviously, it would affect my ratings and projections. But the differences between 2006 and 2002 are many, and bashing the messenger is a petty way to deny the facts.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Facing a Wave, Republicans Could Still Win at Least One Dem Seat

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Democrats need to net fifteen seats on November 7 in order to win a majority in the House. And that's not an unreasonable goal, give that in the most recent edition of the Rothenberg Political Report, we predicted Democrats to gain between 15 and 20 seats.

But everyone (party strategists, journalists, and handicappers alike) should stress the word "net," rather than merely talking about takeovers. Because every seat that Democrats lose to Republicans in November is another seat that they need to take over from the GOP in their quest to reach 218 seats in the next House.

Even though Republicans only have a handful of long-shot opportunities of taking over a seat currently held by the Democrats, part of history is on their side. Over the last 50 years, no party has been completely shutout in the takeover column in the House. So, even if GOP incumbents are dropping like flies on Election Day, there could still be at least one Republican challenger being sworn in next January.

In 1994, Democrats lost 56 seats to the Republicans, including 34 incumbents and 22 open seats, but they still managed to takeover four GOP-held open seats.

In 1980, Democrats lost 37 seats to the Republicans, including 27 incumbents and 10 open seats, but still defeated three GOP incumbents and took one Republican open seat.

In 1966, Democrats lost 43 seats to the Republicans, including 39 incumbents and 4 open seats, and simultaneously won four GOP-held seats.

And in 1958, Republicans lost 49 seats, including 35 incumbents and 14 open seats, but still managed to defeat one Democratic incumbent.

Publicly, Democrats are confident they will keep all of their seats and add to their number in November, but there is a good chance they will lose at least one. The most vulnerable seats, to this point, appear to be John Barrow (GA-12), Melissa Bean (IL-8), Alan Mollohan (WV-1), and Leonard Boswell (IA-3). Even longer-shot GOP opportunities include Chet Edwards (TX-17), Jim Marshall (GA-8), Charlie Melancon (LA-3), John Spratt (SC-5), and open seats in Vermont (At-Large), Illinois (17th District), Hawaii (2nd District), and Ohio (6th District).

Right now, a Republican victory in those races would be viewed as a surprise. But using history as a guide, it shouldn't be.

This item first appeared on Political Wire on August 30, 2006.