Monday, April 30, 2007

The Sounds of Silence From Democrats on the Hot-Button Issues

By Stuart Rothenberg

If you really want to see how times have changed across the nation in general, and on Capitol Hill in particular, all you need to do is consider both the way high-profile Democrats have reacted to recent events and how the Democrats are proceeding in Congress. It’s stunning, and that’s not mere hyperbole.

Thirty-two students and faculty members gunned down at Virginia Tech, and, except for New York Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy (D), there is hardly a word from gun control enthusiasts and liberal officeholders arguing that guns are a problem or insisting on new gun control legislation.

It wasn’t that long ago that you couldn’t have kept top Democratic Congressional leaders, or gun control activists, from getting in front of a television camera to demand limits on gun ownership and to hyperventilate about the threat that guns pose to children and families.

Yet after the Virginia Tech shootings, calls for major new gun control legislation from the likes of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) have been nonexistent.

One could attribute this result to the success of the National Rifle Association, which has utterly demolished its opponents and fundamentally changed the gun debate in this country, except for the fact that gun control is not the only issue where Democrats and their liberal allies appear to have backed off confrontation.

The same undoubtedly can be said about abortion. Ten years ago, a Supreme Court decision that upheld any kind of restriction on abortion rights would have been met with a frenzy of anger and protestation from pro-choice forces both in and out of Congress. There would have been threats directed at judges and politicians, and predictions of the demise of Roe v. Wade.

Instead, while Democratic presidential candidates (and other Democratic elected officials) expressed their disappointment with the decision, the general reaction from the pro-choice community has been muted, if not inaudible.

“I am disappointed,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), adding, “Criminalizing doctors for performing medically necessary procedures to save a woman’s life or protect her health is wrong. The court’s decision is a significant step backwards.”

Disappointed? Wow, them there are fightin’ words, Madam Speaker. I can only imagine what language Congresswoman Pelosi might have used 10 or 15 years ago if the Supreme Court had issued the same opinion back then.

It’s pretty much the same tune on taxes and the minimum wage.

Yes, on gaining their majorities in Congress, Democrats immediately pushed for an increase in the minimum wage, a time-honored Democratic tradition. But the Senate (and some key Democratic Senators) resisted the House’s approach, and after a little huffing and puffing on the House side, it looks as if Democrats have agreed on a package that also includes $4.8 billion in tax cuts for small businesses over 10 years.

Initially, House Democrats, including Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (N.Y.), insisted on a “clean bill” that excluded anything but the minimum-wage hike. But at the end of the day, and with surprisingly little kicking and screaming, House liberals caved to the inevitability of a compromise approach with the Senate.

Even the Democratic approach on the alternative minimum tax smells more cautious than in the past, as Democrats talk of eliminating the tax for families making less than $250,000 and cutting the AMT tax bite for families with incomes of $250,000 to $500,000.

So far, in other words, there is little or no evidence that Democratic leaders are being dragged away from their post-election strategy of keeping toward the political center and demonstrating their moderation.

In the fall, well before the November elections, an influential Democrat told me that Congressional Democrats would keep the party’s more ideological faithful happy through a series of hearings during which they would excoriate the Bush administration, while at the same time pushing a legislative agenda with broad appeal. So far, that’s happening just as scripted.

Will it continue? I’m betting it will.

The closer we move toward the presidential election, the more the incentive for Democrats to keep to the script, especially as long as national polls show their party strong, President Bush unpopular and voters still itching for political change.

Sure, the presidential race will get more partisan and ideological juices flowing over the next few months, and we likely will hear more inflammatory comments as presidential hopefuls play to the base (and as Ohio Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich tries to impeach people he doesn’t like), but even the most liberal activists seem more intent on getting back the White House than on pushing a legislative agenda that might threaten the party’s advantage next fall.

Speaker Pelosi’s trip to Syria and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) comment that “we are losing the war” notwithstanding, Democrats have made few mistakes since they won control of both chambers of Congress in November, and they have done nothing to diminish their standing or their prospects.

If Democrats stay on their current path, I am already itching to see how they will address guns, abortion, gay rights and taxes, to mention just a few hot-button issues, if they win the White House and increase their Congressional majorities even slightly next year. Now that would be fascinating to watch.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on April 26, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Waiting for Godot ... or Hagel, Warner, Cochran and Craig

By Stuart Rothenberg

While the clock ticks on the 2008 election cycle, Republicans are holding their collective breath about the political futures of four veteran GOP Senators.

Nebraska’s Chuck Hagel, Virginia’s John Warner, Mississippi’s Thad Cochran and Idaho’s Larry Craig all have been coy — and that’s an understatement — about their re-election plans, and at least three of those seats could be at risk if the incumbents retire at the end of their current terms.

That’s right, four states that have each voted for a Democratic presidential nominee just once since the 1960 Richard Nixon-John F. Kennedy election — Idaho, Nebraska and Virginia in 1964, and Mississippi in 1976 — could see competitive Senate contests if things fall apart for the GOP and into place for Democrats.

The Democrats’ opportunities stem from the presence in at least three of the states of formidable potential Democratic candidates who already have proved their appeal and seem to have the ability to run credible campaigns.

No, we aren’t talking about fundamental partisan shifts (Virginia is the only one of the four where one could plausibly argue that partisan allegiances are shifting), but that would be of little comfort to the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) if any of those Senate seats were to be won by Democrats.

Of the four states, the only one where Democrats lack a strong bench and a top-tier challenger-in-waiting is Idaho. If Craig, who has so far been tight-lipped about his political future, decides not to seek a fourth term, Democratic prospects would improve, but only slightly.

Only three Democrats have been victorious in the 36 gubernatorial and Senatorial elections held in Idaho since 1950. Frank Church was elected four times to the Senate (the last time in 1974), while Cecil Andrus won four gubernatorial contests and John Evans won two. The party did not even have a nominee against Sen. Mike Crapo (R) in the 2004 Senate race.

Former Rep. Larry LaRocco (D) has declared his candidacy for the Senate next year, and businessman Larry Grant (D), who drew 45 percent of the vote in a losing Congressional bid last year, is thought to have some statewide interest. But no Democrat in the state seems to have anything close to the advantages of five-term Rep. Mike Simpson, who represents half of the state and would be an obvious Republican replacement for Craig, were he to retire.

Of the three other states, Virginia appears to be the GOP’s worst nightmare. While the state still leans Republican, recent elections demonstrate increasing Democratic strength, particularly when Democrats nominate a moderate statewide candidate.

If John Warner retires, popular former Democratic Gov. Mark Warner would be a clear favorite to win the seat. Republicans certainly would have formidable candidates in an open-seat race, including Rep. Tom Davis and, possibly, former Gov. Jim Gilmore, who currently is running for president (of the United States of America, that is). But Mark Warner’s success as governor, fundraising ability and overall appeal would, at the very least, put Republican control of the seat at great risk.

Nebraska certainly has a reputation as a Republican state, but unlike Idaho it has a history of electing Democrats as governor or to the Senate. In fact, Democrats have won nine of the state’s past 11 Senate races and half of the state’s past 10 gubernatorial elections. Clearly, a strong Democrat in Nebraska can be formidable in any statewide election except president.

If Hagel doesn’t seek re-election, or if Republicans have a divisive primary, Democrats could well turn to Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey. Fahey, 63, is serving his second term as mayor of the state’s largest city. Before he entered government, Fahey was a small-business man, having founded and run a title insurance company. (Even former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey might choose to consider an open-seat bid.)

Finally, Mississippi could be at least a bit of a problem for the GOP if Cochran were to retire.

While the state GOP has a deep bench of potential Senate candidates that includes at least two Members of Congress, Reps. Chip Pickering and Roger Wicker, and a popular governor, Haley Barbour, Democrats might be able to recruit former state Attorney General Mike Moore for an open seat. Moore was the first attorney general to file a lawsuit against the tobacco companies, and he is often mentioned as a possible candidate for the Senate if and when a seat becomes open.

Moore would have a difficult time winning a federal race because of the state’s conservatism and strong Republican bent, but he would give Democrats a credible candidate whom Republicans would have to take very seriously.

The reason that these four races are of considerable concern for Republicans is that the party already is guaranteed to be on the defensive this cycle even without any further retirements. And GOP strategists certainly don’t need to be worrying about Senate seats that are locks if incumbents run for re-election, especially when they are in normally reliably Republican states.

Democrats are watching closely for opportunities to “expand the playing field” in next year’s elections. These four states with potential open Senate seats could be just what they are looking for.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on April 23, 3007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Who’ll Be GOP’s ‘Next Ronald Reagan’ in ‘08 Presidential Race?

By Stuart Rothenberg

“We are looking for the next Ronald Reagan,” said Gary Bauer recently about his party’s search for a 2008 presidential nominee. And Bauer, who is president of American Values and a leading voice of social conservatives, isn’t alone.

Conservatives pine for an heir to the legacy of Reagan, hoping to find a presidential hopeful to rally around in their effort to stop former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) from being nominated.

Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback and three former governors — Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin and Jim Gilmore of Virginia — are all trying to become the successor to Reagan, though, at best, they are second-tier hopefuls. Reps. Tom Tancredo (Colo.) and Duncan Hunter (Calif.), who also would like to carry the conservative banner, aren’t credible.

Former Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.) and former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) are still mulling bids, and each could have some appeal to conservatives. Thompson, in particular, seems to have caught the fancy of those conservatives wishing for “another Reagan.”

But that list is putting the cart before the horse. What exactly are those Republicans looking for in the “next Reagan”?

Certainly, they are looking for someone who is suspicious of government, supports lower taxes and fiscal responsibility, is a “hawk” on defense spending and national security, is tough on criminals, generally advocates “traditional values” and favors economic deregulation.

But conservatives have romanticized Reagan, preferring to ignore some things about his record as they measure current hopefuls against their idea of him.

For example, Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which gave amnesty to illegal immigrants. That cannot please conservative Tancredo, for whom amnesty is a red flag. On the other hand, it puts Reagan closer to McCain.

The former president is often identified as a cultural conservative, since he was pro-life. But of course, Reagan didn’t make cultural issues a legislative priority. As Bill Keller pointed out in a 2003 New York Times piece, when Reagan’s domestic policy adviser Martin Anderson went through more than 1,000 Reagan radio scripts, “he found exactly one speech” on abortion. And, noted Keller, Reagan signed “one of the most liberal state abortion laws” as governor of California.

That would appear to be comforting news for Fred Thompson and McCain, who seem to reflect their party’s pro-life position but who never really push cultural issues.

Republicans talk a lot these days about fiscal responsibility, even complaining that President Bush and the previous Republican Congress approved too much spending and a ballooning deficit. But Reagan didn’t have a huge problem with deficits, since he presided over some whoppers. Maybe that’s not such good news for McCain, who has been a consistent deficit hawk over the years.

One of the reasons why many “Reagan conservatives” really dislike McCain is his strong and vocal support for campaign finance reform, including restrictions on “soft money.” Interestingly, Fred Thompson, the guy social conservatives are flirting with these days, also has been a strong supporter of campaign finance reform. In fact, Thompson supported McCain for president in 2000 and even went around the country on McCain’s behalf.

Even more than their romanticizing of Reagan, conservatives ought to remember that times and circumstances have changed.

Reagan ran for the presidency and served when the Cold War was still around and after Democrats had run Congress for 25 years. In 1980, the country hadn’t had the Reagan and Bush tax cuts, and Democrats were still offering an agenda that was part warmed-over New Deal, part early ’70s anti-military.

The Democrats have changed as well, at least when it comes to rhetoric and positioning on key issues. They stress national security and have avoided gun control since Al Gore’s defeat in 2000. And the GOP has changed, too, not necessarily for the better, after more than six years of Bush and a dozen years of Republican control of Congress.

Surely the voters have changed. They no longer give Republicans the benefit of the doubt on a slew of economic and national security issues that helped the GOP paint Democrats as fiscally irresponsible, high-tax, weak-kneed, anti-military liberals.

Ironically, conservatives who call for the “next Reagan” have already had him. His name is George W. Bush.

Like Reagan, Bush talks tough about foreign enemies, has advocated lower taxes and talks like a social conservative. It was former Reagan aide Michael Deaver who called Bush “the most Reagan-like politician we have seen.” The major difference is that Reagan was a political success.

Yet “another Ronald Reagan” probably would easily be demonized by Democrats as “another George W. Bush,” and that’s pretty much the absolutely last thing Republicans should want next year.

Instead of looking back, Republicans might try looking ahead. Conservatives may not be thrilled with any of the current top-tier GOP hopefuls, but anyone who is “another Reagan” on issues may not be electable in ’08 anyway.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on April 19, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Friday, April 20, 2007

New Print Edition: 2008 Senate Outlook

The new April 20, 2007 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report is on its way to subscribers. The print edition comes out every two weeks and the content is not available online. Subscribers get in-depth analysis of the most competitive races in the country, as well as quarterly House and Senate ratings, and coverage of the gubernatorial races nationwide. To subscribe, simply click on the Google checkout button on the website or send a check.

Here is a sampling of this week's print edition:

Senate Overview - The Lay of the Land

Republicans started off the 2008 election cycle on the defensive, and the last three months haven't done anything to change that. In fact, controversies over care at Walter Reed Hospital and the removal of U.S. attorneys by the White House have added to the GOP's problems.

Not only did Republicans lose their majority in the Democratic sweep of '06, but now they find themselves defending 21 of the 33 Senate seats up for election in '08. More importantly, there are few Republican opportunities and a number of states where Democrats could make gains.

For the bottom line on control of the Senate and a state-by-state breakdown of all the races, you must subscribe. Our current ratings are available here.

2008 Senate Ratings

Here are our latest Senate ratings. This early in the cycle, we only use three broad categories. Later, we will move to our more specific categories such as Clear Advantage, Narrow Advantage, Toss-Up, etc.

  • Coleman (R-MN)
  • Collins (R-ME)
  • CO Open (Allard, R)
  • Johnson (D-SD)
  • Landrieu (D-LA)
  • Smith (R-OR)
  • Sununu (R-NH)
  • Alexander (R-TN)
  • Chambliss (R-GA)
  • Cochran (R-MS)
  • Cornyn (R-TX)
  • Craig (R-ID)
  • Dole (R-NC)
  • Domenici (R-NM)
  • Enzi (R-WY)
  • Graham (R-SC)
  • Hagel (R-NE)
  • Inhofe (R-OK)
  • McConnell (R-KY)
  • Roberts (R-KS)
  • Sessions (R-AL)
  • Stevens (R-AK)
  • Warner (R-VA)
  • Baucus (D-MT)
  • Biden (D-DE)
  • Durbin (D-IL)
  • Harkin (D-IA)
  • Kerry (D-MA)
  • Lautenberg (D-NJ)
  • Levin (D-MI)
  • Pryor (D-AR)
  • Reed (D-RI)
  • Rockefeller (D-WV)

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Kerry ’04 Campaign Holds Lesson for McCain and Clinton

By Stuart Rothenberg

I know why former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) wants to be president and how he’d like to change the country. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s (R) message of strong leadership, especially in the war against terror, is clear enough. The same goes for Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) message of change and of bringing people together. I see former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) is running as an outsider who can “fix” Washington, D.C., with his message of conservative change.

But why are Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) running for president? I’m not sure, except that McCain seemed to be next in line for the GOP nomination and Clinton is, well, Clinton.

Actually, if you think about it, we’ve all seen the McCain and Clinton campaigns before. Each is an updated version of the ’04 Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) campaign, when the candidate’s message was his biography and résumé.

A friend recently suggested that I go back and reread a column that I wrote back in May 2003 about Kerry, and I was struck by how well one paragraph in particular now fits both the Clinton and McCain campaigns:

“The Senator has talked a great deal about national security and military strength, but he still has based his campaign more on his perceived electability and the high quality of his campaign team and field operation, rather than on issues, themes or the ‘vision thing.’”

I’m obviously not suggesting that both Senators have avoided issues entirely. As he did again last week, McCain talks passionately about Iraq and the war against terror, and he’s built up a considerable record when it comes to fiscal responsibility and campaign finance reform, among other things. Clinton talks about Iraq, health care and energy policy on the campaign trail, and she widely is viewed on Capitol Hill as smart and well-versed on issues.

Still, whether it’s mostly the national media’s fault or it’s the fault of the two campaigns, McCain and Clinton seem to have spent more time building organizations rather than building rationales for their candidacies. (If the problem is the media’s, it’s up to the Clinton and McCain campaigns to correct that impression.)

A strong résumé isn’t enough, though it obviously can be a tremendous asset, particularly when it is paired with a strong message.

Admittedly, it’s easier in many respects to run as a political outsider whose major message is “change” than to run as a seasoned political insider who has the backing of much of the political establishment. But at some point (and now sounds like a good time), both Clinton and McCain need to talk passionately about why they are running for president and what they would do in the Oval Office.

McCain’s inability to rerun his 2000 campaign has become painfully evident to everyone. Now running as the heir to President Bush’s legacy, McCain isn’t the exciting, nonconformist candidate that he once was. He appears to be just another politician to an electorate that is extremely suspicious of politicians.

McCain’s campaign needs to address that problem somehow if the candidate is going to reignite true interest and excitement in his campaign.

Twelve months ago, the Arizona Senator’s “electability” looked to be an important asset, because he was widely seen as the one Republican who could defeat Clinton in a general election. But Giuliani’s candidacy has changed that, eliminating McCain’s appeal among those Republicans whose main concern was holding the White House.

Clinton’s best message may well be competence, but that is a message that is about exciting as a week-old halibut. And she often is so scripted that she, like McCain, looks like merely another politician looking for a new job.

Her problem actually is compounded by endorsements, such as New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine’s (D) decision to back Clinton. While endorsements can be an asset, they often aren’t as important as they are cracked up to be. Will Corzine deliver the Feb. 5 primary state to his neighbor, or will Corzine have the clout of former Michigan Gov. John Engler (R), whose firewall for Bush in 2000 burst into flames?

At this point in a campaign, and in this environment, being just another politician is a considerable problem for a presidential hopeful. But that doesn’t mean that it is necessarily fatal for McCain and Clinton.

After all, Kerry ultimately won the Democratic nomination in 2004, though only after he “borrowed” some of the “message” being delivered by Edwards, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) and even former Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.). It’s up to McCain and Clinton to do the same thing this time — to find a message that excites voters and makes them more than professional politicians. They still have time to do so.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on April 16, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Another Day Brings Another Dose of Bad News for the GOP

By Stuart Rothenberg

Spring has sprung in Washington, D.C., but not for Republicans. With the first quarter of 2007 now history, there is no evidence that President Bush has started to turn things around — or even that there are any reasonable prospects of him doing so.

Democrats have found two new issues to use against the White House: conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the firing of several U.S. attorneys. Even some Republicans are grumbling privately that their party failed to protect its prerogative of legislative oversight during the past few years, preferring instead to assume that the Bush administration had everything under control.

Some of that probably follows from a strongly partisan environment in the nation’s capital, which caused Republicans in Congress to see their major goals as enacting a legislative agenda and scoring points against Democrats. Given that mentality, aggressive oversight of a GOP administration would have appeared to Republican Congressional leaders only to have been playing into Democrats’ hands.

As it turns out, of course, the administration would have been better off in the long term if Congress — the Republican Congress — had been more aggressive in looking for errors of omission and of commission by the White House, instead of protecting the president by ignoring his administration’s performance.

That is a lesson Democrats might do well to consider, if they win the White House next year.

Democrats also should benefit from a likely expected presidential veto of the supplemental appropriations spending bill, assuming the parties don’t iron out their differences soon. Refusing to set a specific date to exit an unpopular war may well be the right thing to do, but politically it’s not a winner for the president or his party, since Democrats can portray him as intransigent.

National polling has not shown anything approaching a dramatic rebound in public opinion for Bush. His job ratings are about where they were before the midterm elections, even slightly lower, and voters aren’t more optimistic about the direction of the country. Congress’ job approval ratings have inched up, but, again, there is no evidence of a significant shift in opinion.

But isn’t this an equally serious problem for Democrats, since they control both branches of Congress? If voters still are dissatisfied with the direction of the country in October 2008, aren’t Democrats equally at risk as Republicans? No and no.

Bad news still falls primarily on Republicans, since the president remains the symbol of the government. Unless and until Republicans can find something to blame Democrats for, it’s hard to see how bad news hurts them very much.

Some political strategists argue that Democrats need to accomplish something between now and the next election to prove to voters that they can handle power and deserve their place in government. I’m skeptical of that view, as long as Democrats can demonstrate to voters’ satisfaction that they have tried to pass legislation only to be stymied either by Senate Republicans or the president.

In this regard, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her loyal followers can pass measures through the House, enabling Democrats to take credit for action even if legislation doesn’t make it into law.

In fact, Democrats might be better off trying to pass legislation but failing to do so because of Republican opposition. Yes, Republicans, at some point, would be able to talk about Democrats’ failings and their alleged inability to compromise with Republicans, but given Bush’s standing and the GOP’s current reputation, that’s a gamble Democrats should be willing to take.

Of course, House Democrats have to be able to push an inclusive agenda, and that means continuing to rein in their more ideological elements while still keeping their Blue Dogs in control. That won’t be easy, but it should be doable as the 2008 elections approach and Democrats of all stripes focus on retaining Congress and winning the White House.

If that happens, it may be difficult for party leaders to keep their more ambitious colleagues in line. As the vote on the supplemental spending bill in the House showed, 2008 is a very strong motivator for Democrats right now.

Moreover, Democrats still have the interesting immigration arrow in their quiver.

As a political issue, immigration continues to be a more contentious and divisive issue for Republicans than for Democrats. With the White House favoring a comprehensive approach and most GOP House Members (and many in the conservative grass roots) seeing such an approach as akin to amnesty, Democrats can use the issue later this year to divide Republicans.

A divided political party isn’t an appealing one to voters, and it’s easy to imagine the Republicans doing their imitation of a circular firing squad as they wrestle with immigration legislation.

With foreign policy, taxes and government spending no longer the winning issues they once were for Republicans, GOP strategists can’t count on a quick jujitsu move to turn the national agenda against Democrats. And that means more trouble ahead for Republicans, both this year and, quite possibly, into 2008.

Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Louisiana Governor: Jindal Looking Like Money in the Bank

By Stuart Rothenberg

Throwing another wrinkle into the ever-evolving Louisiana landscape, Rep. Bobby Jindal (R) announced that he has raised $5 million for his 2007 race for governor.

Jindal's strong early fundraising, combined with what appears to be a growing doubt among insiders that former Senator John Breaux (D-La.) will enter the contest for governor, suggests that Democrats won’t have an easy time holding the state’s top office in November. Governor Kathleen Blanco (D) has announced that she will not seek reelection.

Breaux has clearly been toying with a bid, but Republican efforts to raise questions about his eligibility to run may have added to some of his concerns.

If Breaux takes a pass, Democratic strategists will have to turn to “Plan B,” which probably means Lt. Gov Mitch Landrieu, who most recently lost a bid for mayor of New Orleans. But while Landrieu has a good political name and could well be a formidable candidate, timing may not be ideal for his candidacy.

His sister, Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA), is up for reelection next year, and running two Landrieus in a row might not appeal to some party insiders, or, for that matter, to the senator. Mary Landrieu probably will be the GOP’s top Senate target next year.

Jindal came close to winning the governor’s office four years ago. His bankroll is certain to get plenty of attention, and supporters are euphoric about developments in the race over the past few months. Still, this is a race to watch.

This item first appeared on Political Wire on April 12, 2007.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Pennsylvania 10: Eckel Takes a Pass

Updating our story in the April 4 print edition of the Report, Lackawanna businessman Keith Eckel (R) has accepted a position as vice-chairman of Nationwide and will not run for Congress in 2008. U.S. Attorney Tom Marino (R) remains the early favorite for the GOP nomination in Pennsylvania's 10th District, even though he has yet to announce his intentions.

Republicans in the area are scrambling after GOP incumbent Cong. Don Sherwood's loss to Chris Carney (D) last fall in the Republican-leaning district. This will be a top GOP target in 2008.

What Does Presidential Fundraising Mean at This Early Stage?

By Stuart Rothenberg

With all of the hubbub about the first-quarter fundraising numbers, there has been remarkably little attention to what those numbers mean, aside from the usual sports and classroom analogies about where each campaign “finished.”

“The winners of the first presidential fund-raising race are Mitt Romney and the Democratic Party,” wrote Bloomberg News shortly after the first flurry of first-quarter fundraising announcements.

Wrong. Fundraising is only part of the 2008 presidential campaign, and viewing fundraising as a track meet, where the winner is the person who raises the most money, is misleading and undeniably wrong.

In a recent column, a journalist friend of mine wisely avoided the track metaphor but unfortunately decided to “grade” campaigns on a kind of expectations curve.

He gave New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) a B for raising $6 million, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) a C for raising $1.9 million (about a quarter of which was transferred from his Senate account) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) a D for raising $12.5 million.

That may be the way they grade at some of America’s supposedly prestigious universities, but if I had graded that way when I was teaching political science, I could have counted on dozens of complaints each semester from students who, quite reasonably, would have argued that grades should reflect a certain standard of performance, not my expectations.

If a student writes a B paper, he deserves a B, even if he probably should have been able to write an A paper. Unfortunately, giving Brownback a C and McCain a D says more about the person setting the expectations than about the candidates’ fundraising.

The first-quarter fundraising numbers certainly don’t mean that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) is now the frontrunner for the Republican nomination or that McCain ought to pack it in. Nor do they mean that none of the second-tier candidates in either race has a chance of catching fire sometime over the next nine months.

The fundraising figures measure only the campaigns’ initial fundraising strength, which may or may not reflect anything about the candidates’ appeal in Iowa, New Hampshire and everywhere else on the campaign trail. It is simply too early to know.

Those numbers certainly had no predictive value in 1995, when Texas Republican Phil Gramm led the GOP fundraising pack in the first quarter of the year, only to flop as a candidate once voters actually met and evaluated him.

That’s not to say the numbers are irrelevant. They reflect, at least to some extent, each candidate’s contacts, fundraising organization and name recognition. And they often both reflect and contribute to the conventional wisdom about who is a serious contender in the contest.

What’s critical is not who has the most money, but who has “enough” to put together strong ground games, as well as the necessary media, in Iowa, New Hampshire and, possibly, Nevada and South Carolina.

If you don’t have enough money to impress voters and reporters, you aren’t going to be treated as a serious candidate. That means you won’t be able to raise money or get the amount of “earned media” that you need to pump life into your campaign. But ultimately, the race for the two nominations is not some arbitrary media game about expectations. It’s about getting the support of caucus attendees and primary voters.

Looking at first-quarter fundraising this way, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), Romney, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) and McCain seem to have crossed the financial threshold.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who raised $9 million, and Richardson, who raised $6 million, may well have “enough” cash at the end of the year to compete in a number of the early key states, though each likely will have to rely on a slingshot scenario of performing surprisingly well in Iowa to help them raise cash for the Feb. 5 contests, if the Democratic nomination still is up for grabs then.

For the rest of the field, money remains a problem and in most cases a big question mark. If one of the longer-shot hopefuls can stand out, he may have a chance to boost fundraising during the second or third quarter, enhancing his chances of being a serious competitor in the early tests.

For McCain, his first-quarter showing undoubtedly eliminated any last impressions of the “inevitability” of his nomination, an important quality that he probably had six months or a year ago. That doesn’t mean he won’t be nominated, only that his campaign can’t rely on that impression to line up supporters and raise future dollars.

Is it fair to call McCain’s numbers disappointing? Absolutely. I’m not suggesting that expectations are irrelevant, or that they won’t affect his campaign or how it is treated. But let’s not forget that, when it comes to campaign cash, it’s all about sufficiency, not who “wins” an imaginary money primary.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on April 9, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Dean's Empty Definition of Easter

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Two recent press releases from the Democratic National Committee reflect the party's continuous struggle to understand evangelicals in America.

A March 30 press release entitled "DNC Offers Passover Greetings" included a joint statement by Chairman Howard Dean and DNC Vice Chair Susan Turnbull. The release was appropriate and timely and included their definition of the event, though it ignored the religious aspect. "On Monday night, Jews around the world will begin celebrating Passover, a week-long holiday that commemorates the Israelites' freedom from persecution and slavery."

Then, a week later, the DNC celebrated Easter with another statement from Dean, including his definition of the holiday. "Easter Sunday is a joyful celebration. The holiday represents peace, redemption and renewal, a theme which brings hope to people of all faiths."

Dean's Easter statement seems to bend over backwards not to mention Jesus and demonstrates either a misunderstanding of the evangelical community or a fear of alienating other voting blocs with religious talk.

"This press release, absent any reference to Jesus, without whom the Easter resurrection story is meaningless, is apparently a sad reflection of a 'lowest common denominator' religious outreach of the Democratic party," said Richard Cizik, Vice President of Government Affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, "Wake up and smell the Easter lilies! This kind of outreach will not pass the smell test of any evangelical."

Frankly, Webster's New World Dictionary, which is not regarded as a particularly spiritual or political source, has a better definition of Easter: "an annual Christian festival celebrating the resurrection of Jesus."

The DNC statement is striking, particularly since Democratic outreach to evangelicals is on-going (including Dean's speech at Eastern University just last week) and the importance Democratic strategists have put on using the right language to appeal to evangelicals. Democrats like to point to recent conservative evangelical leaders' attacks on Cizik as evidence that they are making progress, but based on Cizik's comments, evangelicals aren't moving en masse toward the Democratic Party anytime soon.

Dean and the DNC simply missed the target this Easter. The press release was astonishing because it's sole purpose was to acknowledge a religious holiday, yet it was painfully-worded to avoid being religious. If this press release was part of the Democratic Party's outreach to evangelicals, they probably would have been better off just skipping it altogether.

This item first appeared on Political Wire on April 10, 2007.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Already, Too Much of the ’08 Coverage Is Quite Misleading

By Stuart Rothenberg

Unfortunately, too many of us who cover politics are treating the 2008 presidential race as if it were the National Football League — where virtually every game is critical in the hunt for the playoffs.

Sorry, but that’s not exactly the way the presidential race works, at least not now that the campaign starts more than a year before Iowa.

The presidential race more closely resembles the Major League Baseball season. It’s very long. And unless a candidate makes a major, macaca-like blunder, the daily ups and downs of a 12-month campaign won’t be all that important until late 2007, or even early ’08.

Iowa voters have only now started to meet and consider the candidates, and it will be many months before they start evaluating the presidential hopefuls with an eye to their caucus participation.

“We’ve seen in prior presidential elections that voters’ criteria change as they move from what they like — or who they are meeting for the first time — to who they think ought to be president,” Democratic strategist Diane Feldman, who polled for Bill Bradley in 2000, told me recently.

History, after all, is replete with summer boomlets for presidential candidates who, when Iowa activists finally attend the state’s caucuses on a cold and often snowy night in January, do surprisingly poorly.

In November 2003, few reporters or political insiders figured that Howard Dean would finish a weak third (with 18 percent) or Richard Gephardt a stunning fourth (11 percent) in Iowa, far behind winner John Kerry (38 percent) or runner-up John Edwards (32 percent). In fact, all of the evidence was to the contrary, even just six weeks before the caucuses.

The Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll, conducted by Selzer & Co., showed Gephardt (27 percent) and Dean (20 percent) leading in a Nov. 2-5, 2003, survey of 501 likely caucus attendees.

A late November-early December 2003 Princeton Survey Research Associates poll of “likely Democratic caucus voters statewide” for the Pew Research Center found Dean surging ahead (29 percent), with Gephardt running second (21 percent), Kerry third (18 percent) and Edwards fourth, at 5 percent, a single point ahead of Dennis Kucinich.

Two other surveys of “likely” or “probable” Democratic caucus attendees, an Iowa State University poll in mid-November and a Zogby International survey in early December, showed similar numbers.

Moreover, we all heard talk back then about Dean’s fundraising surge and about the army of Deaniacs who were going to descend on Iowa from around the country to deliver the caucuses for the former Vermont governor.

The only problem is that early on, Iowans weren’t telling pollsters and reporters how they eventually would vote because they didn’t know — and wouldn’t know — until they made a serious assessment of the candidates and had to make an actual choice about their party’s nominee for president.

One savvy political consultant told me a number of years ago that 90 percent of what goes on in a campaign doesn’t matter. The only problem is that nobody knows which 10 percent does.

In much the same way, most of the early focus on tactics and polling by reporters and talking heads doesn’t do much to help us know who the Democratic nominee will be. The anti-Hillary Rodham Clinton YouTube video, appearances by Clinton and Barack Obama in Selma, Ala., the early flap over Edwards’ bloggers and the early sniping over David Geffen’s comments are not likely to have much effect when Iowa (or New Hampshire) voters pick their candidates.

The early coverage is entertaining, and it keeps some people employed, but it creates a mistaken impression about what is important and who will be nominated.

Similarly, these early national polls are an incredible waste of money and energy. They, too, tell us remarkably little about the nominees. The Republican and Democratic nominations aren’t determined by a national vote, yet media organizations and polling companies continue to take national surveys. It’s incredible.

I went back to the Dec. 8, 2003, issue of The Polling Report and found that at least five organizations — CNN/USA Today/Gallup, Ipsos Public Affairs for The Associated Press, Princeton Survey Research for Pew, Harris Interactive for CNN/Time, and Opinion Dynamics for Fox News — did national polls of the Democratic race from mid-November to early December 2003.

Each pollster drew a slightly different sample, but the results were nearly identical. Dean generally ran first, while Wesley Clark was second. Gephardt and Joe Lieberman followed. (The Pew survey had Edwards tied with Al Sharpton, at 5 percent, with Kerry just a single point ahead of them.)

Obviously, those national numbers weren’t predictive. But more than that, they were misleading. That is one reason why a very smart political operative told me in no uncertain terms that “public polling [in the presidential race] is total trash.” Not only are national numbers irrelevant, but polling in a low-turnout caucus isn’t likely to be much better.

It’s fun to talk about the race and to look for strengths and weaknesses of candidates. We can all chatter about fundraising totals, smile knowingly about the most recent confrontation that most likely will be soon forgotten and speculate about the future. But anyone who figures that the early developments that we’ve been watching, including the national polls, are really telling you who will win the two nominations for president is somebody with no sense of history and no understanding of politics.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on April 2, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

New Print Edition: Pennsylvania 10 & Illinois 10

The new April 4, 2007 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report is on its way to subscribers. The print edition comes out every two weeks and the content is not available online. Subscribers get in-depth analysis of the most competitive races in the country, as well as quarterly House and Senate ratings, and coverage of the gubernatorial races nationwide. To subscribe, simply click on the Google checkout button on the website or send a check.

Here is a sampling of this week's print edition:

Pennsylvania 10: Unproven
By Nathan L. Gonzales

Republican Don Sherwood probably would rather forget the past couple of years. First, he admitted to an extramarital affair - though he denied allegations that he had choked his mistress - and then he lost his bid for reelection in the worst Republican year in almost a half-century. College professor Chris Carney (D) rode the wave and the circumstances to victory in 2006 in the Northeast Pennsylvania district.

The 10th District certainly leans Republican at the federal level, and NRCC Chairman Tom Cole has alluded to a potential stellar candidate that could help pull the seat back into their column.

That potential candidate is U.S. Attorney Tom Marino. But unlike some of his colleagues, Marino still has a job and would have to resign immediately were he to become a congressional candidate. So for now, Republicans are left waiting and wondering what Marino will decide.

Because the district is so heavily Republican, and the circumstances in which Sherwood lost so personal, other Republican candidates are considering the race and could well jump in, regardless of Marino's decision.

But until Republicans decide on a candidate, Carney will continue his work in Congress and attempt to prove himself to district voters as more than a fluke. The battle for the Keystone State in the next presidential race will serve as the backstop for a top tier race in the 10th District.

Subscribe for the rest of the story.

Illinois 10: Captain Suburbia

Democrats are committed to proving that suburban America is moving in their direction. But Republican Cong. Mark Kirk's reelection in the 10th District of Illinois in the worst GOP environment in decades stands in stark contrast to the Democrats' claim.

Democrat Dan Seals ran a spirited and well-funded race in 2006, albeit in the shadows of two higher profile congressional races in the Chicago area and without much support from the national party. Now, Seals is very likely to seek a rematch, and looking to stand out as a challenger in a district John Kerry carried in 2004.

Kirk has proven to be a tough candidate to defeat. But Seals is young and impressive and starting very early this time around. And he wouldn't mind his race being positively affected by Sen. Barack Obama's presence somewhere at the top of the 2008 ballot.

The question is whether Democrats missed their opportunity here in 2006, choosing instead to put resources into Democrat Tammy Duckworth's 6th District effort.

Subscribe for the rest of the story.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Say What? Ken Lucas Endorses John Edwards

By Stuart Rothenberg

I've been observing recently how much supposedly big news about the Presidential race will ultimately have little or no impact on the outcome of the 2008 Presidential contest, even for the Democratic and Republican nominations.

That fact, of course, doesn't make these developments in the Presidential race any less newsworthy or fun. It just means that they are unimportant in terms of the contests for the two nominations.

This week, we all got a perfect example of how even the most meaningless development can get treated as if it were important when the John Edwards campaign sent out a press release informing all of the world that former Kentucky Congressman Ken Lucas has endorsed Edwards for President. Of course, the Edwards campaign isn't alone in doing this kind of thing. ALL campaigns do it. Edwards is just a convenient example.

The release included the required quote from the person offering the endorsement about how wonderful the person receiving the endorsement is and what a great President he will be, as well as a quote from the person receiving the endorsement thanking the person making the endorsement.

There was nothing unusual here. And more than that, there is no reason to believe the endorsement - or the press release - will have the slightest affect on the Democratic contest. In fact, it would be significantly more important if three elderly ladies in Iowa had decided to support the former North Carolina senator at next year's caucuses.

But instead, we have a campaign bragging about an endorsement from a former congressman - who, by the way, comes from a Republican district in a Republican-leaning state that will have no impact on the race for the Democratic nomination - who can't vote for Edwards in one of the key early contests and is pretty close to irrelevant in the '08 nomination process.

So why would a campaign put out a press release about an endorsement? Obviously, the campaign hopes to create a bandwagon by sending out a release or two about endorsements each and every day. And somewhere, you can bet that someone is printing the release, and maybe they are even thinking that it's significant.

It isn't. But that's what happens in campaigns - especially Presidential campaigns where people have too much time on their hands, and where molehills get turned into mountains on a daily basis.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Can Democrats Keep The Wave Alive in ’07 Gubernatorial Races?

By Stuart Rothenberg

I’ve often yammered that off-off-year gubernatorial races don’t necessarily predict what will happen the following year, when the entire nation goes to the polls in a national election that includes federal races. And I see no reason to change that conclusion.

That said, 2007 is not without national implications. Primarily, those implications are psychological, but that doesn’t make them any less important.

The GOP was routed last year, and Democrats rightly feel enthusiastic about their prospects in 2008. The Bush administration turns out to be the Democrats’ best friend, since the White House seems to botch most of what it touches these days.

Maybe all of the news over the past few weeks hasn’t been the president’s (and his party’s) fault, but plenty of it has. The Valerie Plame Wilson controversy and the mess following efforts to remove U.S. attorneys, combined with the news about conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, have Republicans reeling again.

While it’s true that the ’08 Republican ticket will try to turn the page on the Bush administration, the past few years will color perceptions of the parties, and that’s likely to be a substantial asset for the Democratic ticket.

The only true test of the parties and candidates over the next year (aside from the multitude of polls that we all will be forced to digest) will occur in three states holding gubernatorial elections this fall. While these races will be determined by local factors, most importantly the quality of the candidates, the results could either add to the sense of a Democratic wave or give Republicans a chance to crow about at least a couple of victories.

The GOP’s first problem is that Republican governors now sit in two of the three states that will hold elections later this year. That means Republicans are defending more governorships this year, much as they will be defending more Senate seats both in 2008 and 2010.

If Democrats can win two of the three governorships, it will give them another boost and, I expect, add to a growing Republican sense of gloom and doom. The problem is even worse for Republicans since two of the three states are in the South (Mississippi and Louisiana) and all three (including Kentucky) are “red states,” making potential losses harder to swallow.

Mississippi looks like the easiest race to handicap, since Gov. Haley Barbour (R) remains popular and is a figure of considerable stature.

Democrats once hoped to recruit a well-known candidate, such as former state Attorney General Mike Moore, but when the filing deadline passed on March 1, they were left with little more than a Jackson, Miss., attorney, John Arthur Eaves Jr., and two ex-legislators, former state Rep. Elmer Fondren and former state Sen. Bill Renick (who also was chief of staff to former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D), whom Barbour defeated in 2003).

Barbour isn’t expected to have any problems winning a second term.

Kentucky, however, looks like a major GOP headache. Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) has been a disaster — and that’s what Republican insiders say — and he has drawn two primary opponents. Former Rep. Anne Northup is by far the most serious threat, but some observers believe that she came out of the gate too aggressively.

GOP strategists doubt that Fletcher can win a general election, so the primary (which may well include a runoff) could be crucial to Republican hopes of holding the state’s top office. Nobody is writing off Fletcher just yet in his bid for renomination. Meanwhile, the Democratic race has drawn a crowd, which is not always a good thing for a party seeking to win a governorship it doesn’t hold.

Louisiana remains a huge question mark. Rep. Bobby Jindal (R), who nearly won the governorship in his 2003 race against Democrat Kathleen Blanco, has been regarded as the strongest Republican in the race and a lock to make a runoff.

Blanco has been looking like a defeat waiting to happen for months, so her announcement on March 20 that she won’t run again enhances Democrats’ chances to recruit a candidate who can win.

A number of Democratic names have made the rounds, including former Sen. John Breaux (who may or may not qualify to run under the state’s residency law), former state Attorney General Richard Ieyoub and Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, brother of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D). Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell already has said he is running.

Republicans close to Jindal insist his polling is incredibly strong, and they insist that he runs very well against all hypothetical Democratic opponents, including Breaux.

Momentum for 2007, then, comes down to two races, an open Democratic governorship in Louisiana and a damaged Republican incumbent seeking renomination and re-election in Kentucky. If Republicans can win just one of them, they can brag that they held their own and won a majority of gubernatorial races this year. Obviously, a GOP sweep would bolster national party morale at a crucial time.

But if Democrats hold the Bayou State and win the governorship of Kentucky, it will confirm the worst fears of Republicans and give Democrats another opportunity to brag that they still are making gains at the GOP’s expense. And that would be a very comfortable message for Democrats heading into 2008.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 29, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.