Friday, December 15, 2006

Happy Holidays!

Just a quick note to say Happy Holidays from the entire staff of the Rothenberg Political Report. We wanted to express our thanks to you for reading and following the election with us. We're looking forward to a break, but we'll be ready to start all over again next year. Happy Holidays!

-Stu & Nathan

New Print Edition: Illinois 6 & Pennsylvania 4

The December 15, 2006 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report is on its way to subscribers. This is our final edition of the year. Our first issue in January will be our 2008 Senate overview. To read the complete analysis of what happened in these two races, you must subscribe.

Illinois 6: Money Pit
By Nathan L. Gonzales

Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth received more attention and media coverage than any House candidate in the country. She spent more money than any Democratic challenger in the country and was running in an open seat in suburban Chicago that was supposedly trending Democratic. And there was that national Democratic wave. Yet on Election Night, she lost.

For virtually the entire year, Illinois's 6th District was locked firmly in the sights of both parties. The seat abuts the 5th District represented by Democratic Congressional Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel and lies in Speaker Dennis Hastert's backyard.

The race evolved into a symbolic fight, with both parties adopting a "whatever it takes" strategy. While it was costly for both parties, Republicans bucked the national trend and state Sen. Peter Roskam (R) was elected to Congress.

Now, strategists can reflect on whether the money spent in this race could have been used to pull candidates in closer races elsewhere to victory.

Pennsylvania 4: To the Beat of Her Own Drum

With the political environment crumbling around her, Republican Cong. Melissa Hart remained steadfast to the end in her belief that she would survive and that her campaign strategy would prevail. The problem is that Hart had never faced a reelection race quite like this one and never experienced an election cycle like the one Republicans encountered in 2006.

She didn't comprehend the seriousness of her situation until very late in the race and ignored the advice of campaign team when they proposed a survival strategy. The congresswoman refused to go negative against her opponent, Jason Altmire, allowing the Democrat to stay in the contention until late in the race, when he could deliver the only knockout blows he could afford.

Now, Pennsylvania's 4th District lies in the Democratic column and other incumbents should take note of what happens when you start late and fail to run a good race.

For the whole issue, just fill out the form and send it along with your check

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Year That Was: A Very, Very, Very Weird One in Politics

By Stuart Rothenberg

Every so often, we have a very odd political year. The year 2006 was one of them.

Here’s a little test. Which one of the following things did you expect to happen 12 months ago? Please, be honest.

• Democrats would win the Senate;

• Republican Reps. Jim Leach (Iowa), Jeb Bradley (N.H.) and Jim Ryun (Kan.) would lose in the same election in which Republican Reps. Christopher Shays (Conn.), Jim Gerlach (Pa.) and Heather Wilson (N.M.) would win;

• Virginia Sen. George Allen (R) would find out that he’s Jewish;

• A former Prince George’s County executive and five sitting County Council members — all of them Democrats and all of them black — would endorse the Republican Senate candidate in Maryland; or

• Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D) would announce that he would not run for president in 2008.

And for good measure, let’s add another development. How many of you figured that a sitting Senator would lose his bid for renomination and yet win his campaign for re-election?

(I’m not even going to factor in the time in February that Vice President Cheney shot his friend in the face or the e-mail scandal of the fall surrounding former Florida Republican Rep. Mark Foley.)

Like I said, it was a very strange year.

The victories of Shays, Gerlach and Wilson, given the Democratic wave that washed over the country and resulted in the defeat of 21 incumbents, still strikes me as incredible. Two of the three were running against the same opponents who almost beat them in 2004, and all three represent precisely the kind of districts likely to swing Democratic in a wave election.

Their victories should prove once and for all that campaigns matter. Sure, district fundamentals are very important, and the national environment explains many of the House outcomes this year. But if Shays, Gerlach and Wilson had not run the types of campaigns they did, each would have lost. Their efforts allowed them to overcome the national trends that sent other Republican candidates down in defeat.

A year ago, we all were talking about the possibility that the 2008 presidential contest could pit two Virginians, Allen and Warner, against each other. (I remember scurrying to the reference books to find out the last time that had happened.) And now, neither man is a candidate for the nation’s top job.

Then there was the fundraising by the Democrats’ campaign committees this cycle, which, frankly, blew my socks off. Both the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee proved their fundraising mettle, with the DSCC outraising the National Republican Senatorial Committee by more than $30 million, $119 million to $88 million through Nov. 27. Wow.

Thinking back to the beginning of the year, nobody in their right mind, and certainly not the folks over at the DSCC, thought that the Democrats would have a chance to net six Senate seats and win control of the Senate. By the beginning of the year, it seemed certain that Democrats would gain seats, maybe even as many as four or five. But the sixth seat wasn’t even a dream. Waves, though, have a way of changing possibilities, since waves come about only when there is considerable voter frustration and anger.

There is one other way in which I found 2006 strange, politically. Normally, after a party sweeps to victory, its leaders (and its rank-and-file members) say their victory was a ratification of their agenda. But most Democrats have been stunningly and unexpectedly realistic about why they won. Over and over, I’ve heard Democratic elected officials comment that the elections were a referendum on the president and his policies.

“The election was largely a rejection of George Bush. Voters are giving us a chance. Our job is to close the deal,” said a Democratic leader days after the results were in. My goodness, how refreshing! Sure, Democrats have an agenda that many Republicans will disagree with, and Democratic Congressional leaders eventually may drive their bus off the cliff. But so far, Democrats are sounding unusually measured.

And of course we all have our favorite

nonpolitical surprises of 2006. Maybe for you it was the break-up of Kid Rock and Pamela Anderson or the wholly unimpressive St. Louis Cardinals winning the World Series or Google spending more than $1.6 billion to buy YouTube or even Bob Barker announcing his retirement (next year) from “The Price is Right.”

For me, it was the performance of New York Yankees outfielder Bernie Williams hitting a surprising .281 this year and playing his 16th year with the same grace, class and dignity that he had back in the early 1990s.

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

Monday, December 11, 2006

Do ’08 Presidential Contenders Need a Great Story?

By Stuart Rothenberg

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) was an orphan before being adopted by a couple in Pittsburgh. His adoptive mother struggled with alcoholism.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) was born in Hawaii to a Kenyan-born economist who was educated at Harvard and a white woman from Kansas. He grew up in Indonesia before returning to the United States and eventually graduated from Columbia University and Harvard Law School.

After graduating from the Naval Academy, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) served in the Navy. He was shot down and endured five years of torture as a prisoner of war in the “Hanoi Hilton” in Vietnam.

Everybody loves a good story, don’t they? Why do you think people pay money to go to the movies? But it is reporters and editors who get particularly excited about a good story (which probably is one reason why Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass got as far as they did with major print organizations).

And media consultants? They get downright misty-eyed when thinking about what they can do with a candidate with a personal story that pulls at the heartstrings. What could be better than being raised in a broken home or coming from a town called Hope, Ark. (as Bill Clinton and likely ’08 GOP presidential hopeful Gov. Mike Huckabee did)?

Writing about Vilsack, who recently announced that he’s running for the Democratic presidential nomination,’s Chris Cillizza wrote that “any argument for Vilsack starts with his life story — perhaps the most compelling of any candidate on either side considering the 2008 race.”

Vilsack does have an interesting story, but if he is counting on that to get him a long, hard look from Democratic activists, donors and the national media, I hope he has a backup plan. While a great story may get you elected mayor of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, or to the Iowa state Senate, count me as skeptical that it’s enough to get you the campaign war chest necessary to make a decent run at the White House.

Many presidential hopefuls have something in their life stories that can paint as a personal test or a hurdle that they overcome. The old “born in a log cabin” chestnut is about as old as the country.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) had his Vietnam service. President George H.W. Bush was shot down over the Pacific in World War II. Even George W. Bush, who didn’t exactly grow up in a log cabin, could talk during his White House bid about how he changed from a hard-drinking, fun-loving guy to a mature adult.

But let’s not go overboard about the value of a personal story. Democratic House candidate Tammy Duckworth, who lost both legs as a helicopter pilot in Iraq, had a great one; Democratic political operatives were so smitten with her candidacy that they told me they were absolutely certain that she would win the Congressional race in Illinois’ 6th district. Yet she lost to Republican Peter Roskam at the same time that Democrats with far less appealing stories were winning contests in New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Iowa and Pennsylvania.

A candidate’s “story” may get voters’ attention, but a story is by its very nature backward-looking, while presidential contests are about the future. Ultimately, a candidate must offer more compelling reasons than a résumé to justify why he or she deserves to be nominated and elected. Remember: No matter his personal history, which included great hardships and great courage, McCain’s incredible personal story didn’t win him the GOP presidential nomination in 2000.

What matters most to voters in selecting a nominee for the White House? Lots of things, of course, but the most important question is whether, after months of campaigning, enough primary voters and caucus attendees in the early states think that a particular hopeful has passed the smell test. Does he or she have the experience, leadership ability and stature to be president and commander in chief? Can you envision so-and-so in the Oval Office, keeping the nation safe and prosperous?

Last time, Iowans decided that the answer was “no” when they were offered then-frontrunner Howard Dean (D).

It’s far too early to rule out anyone from either party’s presidential mix. Obviously, a handful of candidates begin with considerable assets, from name recognition to undisputed fundraising ability to early institutional support. Some already seem to have the stature of a future president of the United States. Having an interesting story to tell is nice, but starting off with real advantages is a whole lot better.

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

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Looking Back at ’06: The Most, the Least, the Best and the Worst

By Stuart Rothenberg

OK, it’s that time of year again when we can all vote for the best and worst candidates and campaigns. Here are my nominees:

Please Don’t Ever Run Again

• Francine Busby (D-Calif.)
• Patty Wetterling (D-Minn.)
• Bill Gluba (D-Iowa)
• Bill Weld (R-N.Y./Mass.)

Analysis: All of these candidates have had their chances, and each has demonstrated that his or her time is past. Of course, Weld could move again and try to win somewhere else.

Earned Another Run for Something

• Tessa Hafen (D-Nev.)
• John Gard (R-Wis.)
• Darcy Burner (D-Wash.)
• Michael Steele (R-Md.)
• Dan Seals (D-Ill.)

Analysis: All of these unsuccessful candidates either exceeded my expectations or demonstrated potential. They shouldn’t give up on politics just yet.

Best Unsuccessful Campaign/Candidate

• Anne Northup (R-Ky.)
• Rob Simmons (R-Conn.)
• Jim Talent (R-Mo.)
• Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.)
• Clay Shaw (R-Fla.)
• Michael Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.)

Analysis: What is there to say about this bunch? They are talented and didn’t deserve to lose.

Most Overhyped Candidate of ’06

• Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.)
• Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.)
• Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.)
• Scott Kleeb (D-Neb.)
• Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.)

Analysis: Media hype. And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee hype. Sorry, Tammy, but a good story doesn’t always result in a winning campaign. Way too much hype.

Worst Showing by a Famous Name

• Tom Osborne (R-Neb.)
• Rod Grams (R-Minn.)
• Jake Ford (I-Tenn.)
• Pat DeWine (R-Ohio)
• George Allen (R-Va.)

Analysis: This is a tough choice. Pat DeWine, who ran in a special election, did worse than anyone imagined, but Allen turned an easy win into a loss. Of course, Grams may have fallen the furthest.

Surprise Loser

• Lois Murphy (D-Pa.)
• Diane Farrell (D-Conn.)
• Jeb Bradley (R-N.H.)
• Patricia Madrid (D-N.M.)
• Jim Leach (R-Iowa)

Analysis: I thought Lois Murphy was sure to win.

Oy Vey! Noteworthy Embarrassing Campaigns/Candidates

• Matt Brown (D-R.I.)
• Katherine Harris (R-Fla.)
• Don Sherwood (R-Pa.)
• Coleen Rowley (D-Minn.)
• Joshua Rales (D-Md.)

Analysis: Let’s see, what was worse, Harris’ strangeness, Rales’ horrendous initial and closing ads or Brown’s questionable fundraising?

Dumbest Press Release of the Year

• Senate Candidate Jerry Zandstra (R-Mich.): “Poll Results: Zandstra Skyrockets, Bouchard Drops Significantly When Racial Preference Position Known”
• Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, on Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.): “Alexander Suffers First Setback of 2008 Campaign”
• House candidate Paul Aronsohn (D-N.J.): “Aronsohn Calls On Garrett to Stop Coddling the Terrorist Government of Iran”
• DCCC: “Pelosi Statement on Busby Victory in California”
• Senate candidate John Spencer (R-N.Y.), who was challenging Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D): “Spencer Gains 10 Points in Latest Poll”

Analysis: I can’t choose between these really, really stupid releases. I’m leaning toward the DCCC and DSCC releases.

Candidates for Hair Club for Men

• Joe Sulzer (D-Ohio)
• Harry Mitchell (D-Ariz.)
• Stuart Rothenberg
• Steve Chabot (R-Ohio)

One-Term Wonder?

• Nick Lampson (D-Texas)
• Nancy Boyda (D-Kan.)
• Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.)
• Tim Mahoney (D-Fla.)

Analysis: Lampson will have his hands full getting re-elected.

Non-Incumbent Candidates I Liked … Who Won!

• Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.)
• Peter Roskam (R-Ill.)
• Jason Altmire (D-Pa.)
• Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.)
• Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.)
• Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.)

Lamest Rothenberg Column of the Year

• “This one.”
• “I’m still looking for one that isn’t total drivel.”
• “Pick one. You can’t go wrong.”
• “Each one reaches new levels of lameness.”

This column first appeared in Roll Call on December 4, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Monday, December 04, 2006

How’d We Do?

How’d we do? Not bad. Not bad at all.

For the Senate, we pretty much hit the nail on the head. In our last issue before the election, we wrote: “While Senate control is in doubt, with anything from a 51-49 Republican Senate to a 52-48 Democratic Senate possible, we do not think the two sides have an even chance of winning a majority in the Senate. Instead, we believe that state and national dynamics favor Democrats netting six seats and winning control of the United States Senate.”

And, of course, astute readers will note that our chart again had it right, with all six seats that turned from GOP to the Democrats at least leaning that way.

For governors, we narrowed our projection in the last issue from 6-10 to 7-9. The final number came in at six. I’ll take it. Don Carcieri squeaked by in Rhode Island, as did Tim Pawlenty in Minnesota.

For the House, our last newsletter projected Democratic gains of 34-40 seats. We lowered that a bit in my last Roll Call column to 30-36 seats. The final outcome appears to be 29 or 30, depending on how you count. Again, I’ll take it, especially given that so many close House races went Republican.

We got the Senate exactly right because we “pushed” close races Democratic, believing that in a wave the tight races would go to the Democrats. That didn’t happen as much as I expected in the House. If it had (and if the machines in Sarasota County had worked properly), Democrats would have netted 34-38 seats.

But forget all of this self-examination. You want to know the truth about picking the final outcomes in the House and Senate? It’s a whole lot of luck. Remember that when you see someone bragging about how great they did.

Why is it luck, you ask? Because there are so many variables and so many close contests that getting the House or the Senate exactly right is simply a matter of chance. Look how close the Allen-Webb race was in Virginia. Look at tight House contests in Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, New York, New Mexico, Connecticut and even Wyoming. Then look at the couple of upsets that nobody could have expected, in Iowa and New Hampshire.

How often have you been in an NCAA basketball pool where the person who knows the least about college basketball wins? Too often, right? It’s the same way with Election Night.

Our job is to cover campaigns 365 days a year, but we think we’re particularly useful early in the cycle, when everyone else is paying attention to other things. For the ‘08 election cycle, we’ll again try to give you an early heads-up about developing races and the candidates to watch. We’ll interview the hopefuls and talk with campaign operatives and strategists. And we’ll try to filter out all of the mindless propaganda. We’ll do it, because that’s what we do.

You’ll get one more issue after this one in ’06. Hope you enjoyed our coverage.

– Stu & Nathan

This Back Page first appeared in the November 29, 2006 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report. To subscribe, click here.