Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Immigration Reform Legislation Still Faces an Uphill Battle

By Stuart Rothenberg

“This bill would allow 12 million-plus illegal aliens to remain in this country indefinitely and provides them, as well as their immediate families, a path to citizenship. This is amnesty. ...”

No, that’s not the view of Colorado Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo, a leader in the fight against illegal immigration. They are the comments of Randy Pullen, the Republican Party chairman in Arizona, the home state of Sens. John McCain (R) and Jon Kyl (R). McCain is a leading advocate of a comprehensive immigration bill and the co-sponsor with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) of last year’s unsuccessful proposal, and Kyl is one of the lead spokesmen for this year’s compromise plan.

Pullen went on to say he was “very disappointed” in the new proposal, arguing that the compromise would “do more to encourage illegal immigration than to discourage it.”
The initial reaction to the bipartisan compromise on immigration, which was hammered out by a diverse group of Senators including Kennedy, Kyl and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), makes it clear that passage of any bill will be difficult, and the upcoming presidential election is an additional problem for those supporting the compromise.

Hours after the compromise was announced, one Senator told me it already had fallen apart and been Scotch-taped together. That’s not a good sign.

Four months ago in this space, I wrote that Congress and the White House needed to get busy to pass an immigration bill, and they needed to do it quickly. Time is an enemy, especially given the early start of the presidential race.

In early January, immigration seemed to be the one big issue Congress and President Bush could deal with, since everyone agrees that action to stop the flow of illegal immigrants is crucial, and substantial elements of both parties favor a comprehensive approach that involves a greater commitment to border security and a temporary worker program.

But as with everything, the devil is in the details, and while everyone seems to want to address the conundrum of illegal immigration, everyone also seems to have his or her own idea of what must be done and what is unacceptable.

Grass-roots conservatives and their leaders in Congress aren’t merely playing politics when they complain that the compromise is “amnesty.” You don’t have to agree with their use of the term, but that’s how they see any plan that gives workers who are in the U.S. illegally a route for citizenship. (Supporters of the compromise obviously take exception to that characterization, but so far they have been drowned out by the “amnesty” chorus.)

That’s why Republican presidential hopefuls such as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, both of whom temperamentally are more inclined toward compromise than confrontation, have not embraced the compromise on immigration.

The issue of immigration reform, which once seemed so promising for Republicans, has now turned nasty for the party. As Roll Call noted recently (“Immigration Deadline Slips,” May 22), Republican Senators who have had a role in the compromise have been booed at state party events.

Indeed, grass-roots Republicans who oppose anything but a strong security bill are likely to be more incensed at Republican officeholders who compromise with Democrats than they will be at Kennedy, whom they have long believed is a lost cause. After the party’s 2006 losses, some Republicans think purification of the GOP is the answer, not working with a Massachusetts Democrat.

You can easily imagine what the talk-radio hosts are saying as they express their outrage and promise to punish those who are pushing the plan. They know they aren’t going to defeat Kennedy or Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), but you can bet that they’ll declare war on Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

The president, meanwhile, seems totally irrelevant to the immigration debate. The midterm elections, the Iraq War and the administration’s other problems have stripped President Bush of any influence he once had. So instead of uniting Republicans and putting the onus on Democrats for favoring lenient treatment of lawbreakers, Republicans are spending much of their time firing at each other. Democrats, wisely, prefer not to get in the line of fire.

Of course, the Democratic Party is divided over the issue, too, but since Senate Republicans hold the key to any measure, Democrats, including those in the House, have been able to pass the buck, at least for now. While many Democrats would like to see a bill passed by Congress and signed into law, they know that, politically, they are best off if, at the end of the day, they can take credit for dealing with the issue but let Republicans take the blame for the details.

Supporters of the immigration compromise face the same problem that health care reformers faced more than a decade ago. There are so many facets to the bill, so many things to consider and deal with, that changing one part of the bill to add support means losing others who are already on board but can’t swallow proposed changes.

While a Senate compromise could hold together and pass the chamber, this bill has a long, long way to go before being enacted into law. And in Washington, D.C., it’s always better to bet against a big bill making it through the legislative gauntlet and being signed into law than it is to predict passage and enactment.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 24, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Louisiana Senate: Rove Seeks Challenger to Landrieu

By Stuart Rothenberg

Without fanfare or national media attention, White House strategist Karl Rove went to Louisiana the weekend before last to woo State Treasurer John Kennedy (D) to the GOP and into the 2008 Senate race against Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA).

Republican insiders see Landrieu as the most vulnerable Democratic senator up for reelection next year, but with none of the GOP members of the Congressional delegation stepping up to the plate, party strategists are looking elsewhere. Kennedy has good poll numbers statewide and would be a formidable challenger to the Senator.

But it is far from clear that the state Treasurer is all that close to making either jump -- to the Republican Party or into the Senate contest. And some in the state think that, given the President's current standing and the party's showing in the 2006 midterm elections, Rove may no longer be the best person to make the appeal to Kennedy.

This item first appeared on Political Wire on May 23, 2007.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

For Bush, Sticking With His Iraq Policy Now Is the Only Choice

By Stuart Rothenberg

Democrats and even more than a few Republicans seem increasingly frustrated that President Bush hasn’t been persuaded by their arguments or by the midterm election results to change policy in Iraq. They shouldn’t be. The president has little alternative but to dig in, given both his view of the conflict and how history may judge his presidency.

History has a way of turning failed presidencies into well-regarded ex-presidents. Richard Nixon left office in disgrace but came to be viewed as an authority on international and security issues after his resignation. Jimmy Carter’s presidency was widely seen as disastrous, and voters denied him a second term, yet he is now treated as an authority on a range of domestic and international issues and often evaluates Bush’s performance.

Bush’s chances of having his reputation improve years or even decades after he leaves office almost certainly depends on what ultimately happens in Iraq. If things turn out surprisingly well, historians may actually look back and conclude that Bush did the right thing by ignoring public opinion and Democratic critics.

If, on the other hand, Iraq experiences years of civil strife and Iran fills the region’s vacuum, spreading its venom throughout the Middle East and giving sanctuary to terrorism, Bush will be judged as the person most responsible for that outcome.

Given that, and given the way Bush now views the situation in Iraq and the costs of failure, he cannot possibly agree to remove U.S. forces as quickly as his critics would like. Withdrawal would guarantee “defeat,” as the president sees it, thereby establishing the error of his policy and the failure of his administration.

If the president did what his critics (as well as some of his friends within the GOP) want, his reputation would be permanently set. His only legacy would be the mess in Iraq and the United States’ failures. Even if things improved in the region 10 years down the road, Bush would get no credit for it.

And let’s be entirely clear: Bush wouldn’t get any credit for pulling troops out at this point. Nobody really thinks the president’s overall reputation would improve after being forced, kicking and screaming, to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq, do they?

If all of this is even close to correct, it suggests that opponents of current U.S. policy won’t have an effect on Bush administration policy as long as they are merely demanding an exit or talking about U.S. sacrifice.

The only way to influence policy is to demonstrate to Bush that his long-term goal of a peaceful, stable and free Iraq — which would be good both for the Middle East and for his historical reputation — can be achieved only if Republicans hold onto the White House, and that continued Republican control of the White House is impossible, absolutely impossible, without some withdrawal of U.S. forces within the next few months.

This argument isn’t about Republicans regaining the House or avoiding a bloodbath in next year’s Congressional elections. I’m pretty certain the president would prefer Republicans to hold their own in the 2008 House and Senate elections, but if the president sees the choice as between stopping terrorism and re-electing Ohio Rep. Ralph Regula (R) to his House seat, I’m pretty sure we all know which Bush would choose.

If the president was to conclude that a Democratic victory in 2008, including the presidency, would assure a more abrupt exit from Iraq than he thinks is wise — the kind of exit, to the president’s thinking, that would doom Iraq and give “victory” to radicals — then he might see holding the White House in 2008 as part of the Iraq War and the larger war against terror.

The key for critics of Bush’s Iraq policy — at least those who are more interested in changing policy than in scoring political points by beating up on a president who has already demonstrated that he doesn’t much care how many and how often his critics beat up on him — is to get the president to believe that his ultimate goal depends on electing a Republican to succeed him and to believe that a significant change in policy can help accomplish that.

Regardless of how you feel about the president’s Iraq policy, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the president isn’t easily persuaded to change his course. He has his entire presidency and his historical reputation invested in Iraq and regards that war as a fight against terror and for peace. Given that, the loss of a few more House or Senate seats and even the loss of the White House aren’t all that important.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 21, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Webs They Weave: Campaign Committees’ Net Strategies Evolving

By Nathan L. Gonzales

These aren’t your grandparents’ — or even your parents’ — campaign committees.

Howard Dean’s run for president in 2004 uncovered the financial potential of the Internet, but just three years later, the subsequent explosion and popularity of blogs, YouTube, MySpace and Facebook have the campaign committees installing online liaisons as permanent fixtures.

Most of the coverage of technology this cycle has focused on the race for president, including the “1984” YouTube ad promoting Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and the controversy surrounding former Sen. John Edwards’ (D-N.C.) official blogger.

But online activity could be a factor in a number of House and Senate races. As the relationship between bloggers and party strategists becomes more complex, the committees are hoping to harness the energy of the net roots without upsetting an online mob.

This past cycle in Illinois’ 6th district, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee locked horns in a classic battle between bloggers and the establishment. Online activists rallied behind the candidacy of 2004 nominee Christine Cegelis, while then-DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) put every ounce of energy behind Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth in the Democratic primary. (Similar battles, albeit on a smaller scale, also occurred in Florida’s 13th district, California’s 11th and the Ohio Senate race.)

Duckworth narrowly won the nomination but lost an extremely expensive general election race, further upsetting bloggers who believed the money could have been better spent in other districts where Democratic candidates lost narrowly with little national support.

There are often multiple sources of tension in these battles. First, there is the insider-versus-outsider mentality. The bloggers resented Emanuel’s heavy-handed support for a candidate unknown to the district and, worse yet, unknown to the blogging underworld.

Second, many bloggers tend to support the 50-state strategy Dean has developed as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, while the Congressional campaign committees tend to focus their resources on the most competitive races. In the case of Illinois’ 6th, Emanuel supported Duckworth precisely because he was trying to expand the playing field and believed that a Cegelis nomination would have taken the seat off the table.

Eventually, the bloggers and the campaign committees may settle into separate, complementary roles.

“We can’t target every race. It’s just not possible,” explained one Democratic insider. Influential blogger Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of DailyKos agrees. “The DCCC can focus on districts that are the most winnable,” he explained in “The Thumpin’,” Naftali Bendavid’s new book about the 2006 elections. “We can do the others, every district, to spread the Republicans thin and to have a body there in case someone resigns.”

Third, there are bloggers on both sides of the aisle who believe in the purification of their party, with the view that any candidates who stray from the ideological fold must be punished. Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) and then-Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) felt the wrath of their respective blogospheres last year.

At this point, Democratic bloggers are more demanding and require more care from the committees than their Republican counterparts. Democratic bloggers have sought recognition as strategists, particularly on resource allocation and candidate recruitment, rather than just fundraisers.

This distinction is apparent in how the committees are structured. Taryn Rosenkranz, the DCCC’s director of online services, oversees a staff of three people, including Stakeholder blogger Brandon English, and answers to both Executive Director Brian Wolff and Communications Director Jennifer Crider. Jesse Lee, who handled online outreach for the committee for the past two cycles, now blogs for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on The Gavel.

Mike Liddell is beginning his third cycle at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and is the director of online communications. He temporarily is a one-man operation, running the committee’s official blog and reporting to DSCC Executive Director J.B. Poersch.

On the Republican side, online liaisons are more junior positions and are a part of the communications department. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has hired John Randall as the e-press secretary, working under Communications Director Rebecca Fisher.

Josh Shultz is the new media director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, falling under Communications Director Jessica Boulanger. Shultz is filling the position for the only committee that didn’t previously have a dedicated staffer for online activity.

Winning does cover many wounds. This year it’s the Republican committees that have found themselves at odds with bloggers. In January, blogger Hugh Hewitt issued his “NRSC Pledge,” challenging conservatives to withhold their support from the committee unless the NRSC agreed to withhold resources from any GOP incumbent who voted against President Bush’s troop “surge.” NRSC Chairman John Ensign (Nev.) immediately got on the phone with Hewitt and appeared on his radio show to respond.

Now, Erick Erickson of RedState, with the support of prominent conservative blogger Michelle Malkin, is challenging the Republican leadership and the NRCC, calling it a “war for the heart and soul of the Republican Party.” Erickson is concerned with Rep. Ken Calvert’s (R-Calif.) past land deals and personal conduct and is asking supporters to withhold contributions from the NRCC until Calvert is removed from the Appropriations Committee.

“This will be ugly. This will be hard,” Erickson wrote.

Just last week, NRCC Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) posted on RedState in response to a Washington Post article, but he’s not the only chairman to speak directly with the bloggers.

DSCC Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) did a sit-down interview with Jonathan Singer of MyDD in March and has posted twice on DailyKos this year. National Democrats first learned about Alabama Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks (D), now a potential challenger to Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), in a comment thread following his post. DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) did a live blog on Firedoglake and holds periodic conference calls with other bloggers.

Official committee blogs can serve as an outlet for political messages and ads, but it’s often necessary for the online liaisons to develop credibility on outside blogs. “Folks need to feel as if you believe in ‘the movement,’ that you respect them and what they do,” explained one Democratic operative familiar with the online culture.

The medium can lend itself to inflammatory rhetoric, but that’s why personal contact and relationships are critical. “When you talk face to face, there is a lot of agreement,” said one Democratic insider, who noted some bloggers will be against the establishment no matter what.

Along with the national blogs, the committees are making a concerted effort to communicate with state-specific blogs. Because state and local political reporters often read the local blogs, the national committees see an opportunity to affect the media coverage that voters read and watch.

National strategists are also exploring other ways of communicating their message online. Besides developing microsites such as DirtyDickPombo.com and TheRealDemocratStory.com, all four committees have YouTube channels to circulate their Web videos. The NRCC also has a Twitter account and a MySpace profile and will launch a Facebook profile next week. The NRSC has a MySpace account in the works. And the DCCC has asked each of its Frontline incumbents to generate a list of 30,000 e-mails in their district by Election Day.

In the near term, the flow of information will predominantly come from the committees. On the Democratic side, bloggers are gaining a prominent seat at the table, but their ability to influence strategic decisions is still minimal.

This story first appeared in Roll Call on May 17, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Monday, May 21, 2007

New Print Edition: New Mexico 1 & Ohio 18

The new May 21, 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's a brief sample of what's in this edition...

New Mexico 1: Survivor
By Nathan L. Gonzales

Just when Heather Wilson thought she could take a breath, the road to a sixth full term just got tougher.

On one level the Republican congresswoman is a survivor. She won reelection in a Democratic-leaning district in an extremely Democratic year. But her subsequent involvement in the U.S. attorney's controversy this year has renewed Democratic interest in her Albuquerque seat and put her narrow 861 vote margin into serious jeopardy.

Even though some Democrats complain in retrospect about their 2006 nominee, state Attorney General Patricia Madrid, she was once showcased as one of their star recruits and Wilson's toughest challenger, and the Republican still turned her away. Now, Democrats are sorting through a list of potential candidates without a clear frontrunner for the nomination.

Just because Wilson survived the Democratic wave doesn't mean the storm is over. Missouri Cong. Harold Volkmer (D) survived the Republican wave of 1994, only to lose reelection two years later.

For the full five-page story, you must subscribe.

Ohio 18: Looking for a Do-Over

Republicans lost 30 seats last November, and some of them are gone for a very long time. But in that number are a handful of Republican-leaning seats that fell into Democratic hands after a cornucopia of scandals. Ohio's 18th District is one of those seats.

To say that Zack Space had a wind at his back in 2006 would be severely understating the situation. Not only did the Democrat have an unpopular President Bush looming over the election, but also out-going scandal ridden Gov. Bob Taft (R) and Cong. Bob Ney (R) who resigned the seat only days before the election after he pleaded guilty to corruption charges. Even better still, the replacement Republican candidate was easily tied to all of the above.

With Ney and Taft in the rearview mirror, Republicans are optimistic about defeating Cong. Space, who will now enjoy the power of incumbency in a sprawling district. Buckeye State Republicans are still licking their wounds after last year, and initial interest in the race has been surprisingly sparse. But this race is near the top of initial GOP opportunities.

As with many districts in the country, the current fight is whether the 2006 election was an aberration or if President Bush (and Taft in this case) has produced a general swing of the district and the state toward the Democrats.

For the full five-page story, you must subscribe.

For Republicans, Iowa Straw Poll Could Offer Some Answers

By Stuart Rothenberg

You wouldn’t know it from the media coverage — or, rather, the lack of media coverage — but it is less than three months until the Aug. 11 Iowa straw poll in Ames, the GOP’s first major test of candidate strength for the party’s White House hopefuls.

No delegates are at stake and it’s wise to view the event first as a state party fundraiser and only second as a test of the candidates. But the straw poll is worth watching anyway.

It’s true that the results of the first straw polls were a bit misleading — then-Sens. Phil Gramm (Texas) and Bob Dole (Kan.) tied in the straw poll in 1995, but Gramm drew less than 10 percent at the caucuses and was a nonfactor in the race — and they attracted few participants. But the 2000 turnout in excess of 23,000 Iowans (not quite a quarter of the expected caucus turnout) demonstrated that the event has become of considerable interest in the state, and the straw vote often has been an early warning sign of candidate strength or weakness.

In 1987, for example, Pat Robertson finished a shocking first in the straw vote (held in September that year), besting second-place finisher Dole and the sitting vice president, George H.W. Bush. In the caucuses the following January, Dole finished first, ahead of runner-up Robertson and third-place Bush. Bush’s weakness in the straw poll presaged his showing in January.

In the 1996 presidential race, Dole’s relatively weak showing at the straw poll was echoed in the caucuses, which he won only narrowly over Pat Buchanan. Four years later, George W. Bush won the straw poll 31 percent to 21 percent over businessman Steve Forbes, and the then-governor of Texas went on to win the caucuses by an almost identical margin, 41 percent to 30 percent, over Forbes.

The straw poll shows which candidates have put together the best organizations in the state. Given that the January caucuses also put a premium on organization, the Aug. 11 event almost certainly tells observers something about the caucuses.

Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander was so dispirited about his sixth-place showing at the 1999 straw poll that he dropped out of the race just two days after the event. Alexander, who is now finishing his first term in the Senate and is expected to win a second term next year, had finished third in the 1996 Iowa caucuses.

There are so many interesting storylines to this year’s straw poll that it’s hard to know where to begin.

First, who is going to play, and who might well pass? Nine of the 10 Republicans who participated in the Reagan Library debate on May 3 seem certain to participate in the straw poll, with only former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani hedging. In addition, former Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.) hasn’t made a decision about the race, so he’s a question mark for Ames. (The timetable of former Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia for making a decision about running appears to leave him out of the Ames mix, too.)

Giuliani initially signaled he would participate, but aides quickly backed off and indicated the campaign had not made a decision. If Giuliani bypasses the straw poll, it would surely raise questions about his commitment to the caucuses, which would fuel rumors that the former mayor may take a pass on both Iowa and New Hampshire, beginning his bid in Florida on Jan. 29.

If both Thompson and Giuliani take a pass on the straw poll, will it devalue the event? Could Giuliani bypass the straw poll and still compete in the caucuses? And if Giuliani does compete at the straw poll, will any of the three current favorites — Arizona Sen. John McCain, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Giuliani — fail to finish in the top three spots?

Second, there’s the “best of the rest” storyline. While McCain and Romney are widely seen as the cream of the crop in terms of Iowa organization, a flock of second-tier hopefuls will be competing to see whether one of them — and which one — might emerge as the conventional wisdom’s long shot in the race.

An unexpectedly strong showing by Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.) or former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee might well give them some traction into the fall. On the other hand, Brownback seems to be basing his candidacy on a surprise in Iowa, and if he disappoints at the straw poll, he could well be out of the race days later.

Third, there’s the question of whether the second-tier candidates take enough straw votes away from one of the frontrunners to change the outcome of the poll and affect the post-poll assessment.

Since the Ames event is a poll, not a true election, ideologically motivated voters are more likely to make a statement by supporting Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.) or former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, effectively wasting their vote and taking votes away from a candidate they may ultimately support in January. Will one of the also-rans be a spoiler?

The August GOP event certainly doesn’t guarantee anything about who will win the January caucuses or the Republican presidential nomination. But the national media will cover it heavily and the straw poll results could tell us a good deal about the candidates and shape the race as it goes into the fall.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 17, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Is Edwards Following the Dean and Gephardt Models Too Closely?

By Stuart Rothenberg

It wasn’t very long ago that I wrote in this space that, in the argument as to whether the Democratic contest for president is a two-person or a three-person race, I was a member of the “John Edwards is in the Democratic top tier” camp.

I argued his strength in Iowa, clear message and personal appeal make the former North Carolina Senator a serious contender for the Democratic nomination, though not quite the equal of Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) And Barack Obama (Ill.) In the Democratic sweepstakes.

I see no reason to change that view, but I’ll admit I’m scratching my head more often at Edwards’ seemingly insatiable desire to run to the left — far to the left — of everyone in the Democratic race with the possible exception of Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio).

Increasingly, political observers are whispering that Edwards seems to be running much as former Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) Did in 2004, wooing organized labor and recycling a class warfare message. Of course, I’m not suggesting that Edwards’ message is entirely new — in the previous cycle, his “two Americas” theme addressed issues of class and race as well — only that, of the credible candidates, Edwards has filled the “Gephardt slot” in the current race.

While almost everyone has nice things to say about the former Missouri lawmaker personally, and Gephardt has his share of loyalists, he finished a disappointing fourth in Iowa last time, something Edwards presumably hopes to avoid.

Edwards’ campaign strategy and message may well be due to the presence and influence of his campaign manager, former Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.). Bonior, a national co-chairman of Gephardt’s 2004 presidential campaign, always has been close to organized labor, and he was a leader in the fight against free-trade measures during his years in Congress.

When the Edwards campaign announced in April that it had signed consultant Joe Trippi as a “key member of the media team and senior adviser,” it raised plenty of eyebrows. Trippi doesn’t merely like to think outside the box; he prefers to take the box, rip it into little pieces, pour kerosene on it and set it ablaze.

These days, Edwards’ campaign seems unable to pass up an opportunity to throw a political bomb, particularly about Iraq. Trippi’s past presidential client, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D), was about as confrontational as anyone in the 2004 race, which inevitably leads to the question of Trippi’s influence on the former Senator’s message.

Since Edwards switched his position on Iraq long ago, far before Trippi joined the campaign, I’m not suggesting that Edwards is getting his voice on Iraq from Trippi. But the consultant’s hiring at the very least suggests Edwards is seeking to fill the Dean role — the angry, militant conscience of the party who eschews compromise — in this campaign.

Just a couple of days ago, I received an Edwards campaign news release criticizing a proposal to give the president half of the funds he requested and requiring a July vote on the rest of the funds.

“This is not a compromise; it is a concession,” Edwards asserted in the release. “Enough is enough. We don’t need to wait and see how the surge is going to do; we know the surge has failed. It is time to end this war. ... Congress should not back down to the president’s veto. They should pass the same bill they sent him last month, a plan to support our troops, end the war, and bring them home.”

That statement echoed one released a week earlier that demanded Congress not negotiate with President Bush on the end of the war. “Congress should answer the president’s veto by sending him another bill with a timetable for withdrawal. And if he vetoes that one, Congress should send him another and another until we end this war and bring our troops home,” said the former Senator, who was imitating either Jimmy Stewart or Cindy Sheehan.

Edwards received some good ink from Democracy for America, the self-described grass-roots political organization founded by Dean and dedicated to recruiting, training, promoting and funding progressive candidates for office.

A recent DFA e-mail, signed by Executive Director Tom Hughes, informed readers that Edwards was the first candidate “to state his position on Iraq in a video directly to you.” The e-mail, while emphasizing that the kind words about Edwards weren’t an endorsement, also noted Edwards was the first candidate to respond to the group’s challenge asking candidates for their plan to stop global warming.

More troubling for mainstream Democrats may be Edwards’ association with the innocuous-sounding Democrats.com, a shrill, pro-impeachment group that appears to be at the far end of the ideological spectrum.

Democrats.com recently sent out an e-mail including a message from Edwards praising the group and urging its supporters to sign his petition demanding a “binding exit plan for the War in Iraq.”

For the moment, Edwards’ message of confrontation, confrontation, confrontation probably looks pretty good to grass-roots Democrats who are sick of the war, distrustful of the president and once again longing for some of the anger and feistiness that now- Democratic National Committee Chairman Dean demonstrated during the summer of 2003. And unlike Dean (and even Gephardt), Edwards has personal qualities that make him more appealing to voters.

The question is whether, in the long haul, mainstream Democrats — and I’m certainly including liberal Democrats in that category — will find Edwards’ recent rhetoric and style too Dean-like for their liking. As we all saw four years ago, being angry and confrontational, and having the support of blue-collar union voters, isn’t always enough.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 14, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Cornyn and Dole: Two (Vulnerable) Peas in a Pod?

By Stuart Rothenberg

Democrats are not so quietly passing the word: Republican Sens. John Cornyn (Texas) and Elizabeth Dole (N.C.) are vulnerable in 2008. Should we believe them, or are the two GOP incumbents so safe that they aren’t really worth watching?

Cornyn was elected to the Senate a little more than four years ago, obliterating Democrat Ron Kirk by a dozen points, 55 percent to 43 percent. The Republican had been elected twice to the Texas Supreme Court before he was elected the first Republican state attorney general since Reconstruction.

Dole defeated Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles (D) by 9 points, 54 percent to 45 percent in 2002. Dole’s previous bid for elective office had been as a candidate in the 2000 Republican presidential race, which she exited months before the Iowa caucuses.

On the basis of their previous races, neither Dole nor Cornyn automatically seem to be prime targets. In other words, we aren’t talking former Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) here, a veteran who has flirted with defeat in the past and automatically could face a stiff test against a top-tier challenger.

Both Kirk and Bowles were treated as top-tier candidates who could appeal to ticket-splitters and raise the necessary money to compete. Both were running in open seats. The scenario for a Kirk win was enhanced, according to Democratic strategists at the time, by the fact that the party’s “dream ticket” for Texas’ top three races included a mega-wealthy Hispanic businessman for governor (Tony Sanchez), a politically moderate and popular Anglo former state comptroller for lieutenant governor (John Sharp), and a black mayor with strong ties to the Dallas business community for Senate (Kirk).

But this time, the Democratic case in both states is based on polling that undoubtedly was intended to recruit challengers against the two Republicans.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has noted that a recent Survey USA poll showed Cornyn’s job approval rating sitting at 43 percent, while 40 percent disapproved of his performance. Moreover, a Hamilton Beattie & Staff survey conducted in mid-April for the DSCC found Cornyn leading a generic Democratic opponent by only 9 points, 47 percent to 38 percent.

In the North Carolina race, a February Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group survey for the DSCC showed Dole’s job rating at 49 percent excellent or good and 46 percent fair or poor. Only 35 percent of those surveyed said she should be re-elected, while 23 percent said she should be replaced.

So who is vulnerable?

Under the right circumstances, Dole might be at risk, but it’s impossible to take the Cornyn stuff seriously at this point.

Although the two states are similar in that neither one has been carried by a Democratic presidential nominee since Jimmy Carter in 1976, there is a world of difference, politically, between Texas and North Carolina.

While Matt Angle, a savvy political operative and former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee under then-Rep. Martin Frost (Texas), has tried to resuscitate the Texas Democratic Party and lob grenades at the state GOP, Texas Democrats still have a long way to go before they can hope to knock off a sitting Republican Senator.

Saying the party’s bench for a high-profile statewide race is thin is an understatement. In 2006, the Texas Democratic gubernatorial nominee was Chris Bell, a former one-term Congressman who lost a bid for renomination and whose underfunded gubernatorial campaign drew 30 percent of the vote in a four-way race.

The last Democrat to win a statewide federal race in Texas was Lloyd Bentsen, who won his last Senate re-election in 1988. The state’s last Democratic governor was Ann Richards, who was elected in 1990 and was defeated four years later when she sought a second term.

In contrast, Democrats have won the past four gubernatorial elections in North Carolina, and the party last won a Senate seat in 1998. While Republicans hold all of the most high-profile statewide offices in Texas, Democrats hold the top offices in North Carolina. And while Republicans hold both chambers of the Texas state Legislature, Democrats have solid majorities in both chambers of the North Carolina Legislature.

Not surprisingly, there are no top-tier Democratic challengers mentioned as possible opponents for Cornyn. The names being floated include Rep. Nick Lampson, who was elected in 2006 when Republican Tom DeLay resigned his seat late in the election cycle and Republicans were unable to put another name on the ballot. Lampson is mentioned primarily because few insiders believe that he will be able to hold the very Republican seat in next year’s Congressional elections.

Houston state Rep. Rick Noriega and San Antonio trial lawyer Mikal Watts also are mentioned as possible candidates, which gives you a general idea about the Democrats’ chances of knocking off Cornyn.

On the other hand, Rep. Brad Miller and North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper reportedly are considering a challenge to Dole, and Tar Heel State Democrats are in a far stronger position to recruit a candidate against the Republican Senator.

Democrats can huff and puff all they want about giving Cornyn a run for his money, but they don’t have a realistic chance yet of knocking him off. Dole isn’t much more vulnerable until Democrats get a formidable candidate in the race, but if and when they do, the state’s dynamics, at the very least, offer them a scenario for success.

North Carolina, therefore, bears watching. Texas, barring a macaca-like blunder, doesn’t.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 10, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Media Shouldn’t Ignore Organized Labor in the Democratic Race

By Stuart Rothenberg

It’s been a quadrennial happening for decades. Every four years, Democratic presidential hopefuls waddle up to one of the party’s holiest of political shrines, the AFL-CIO, and seek the blessing of organized labor. The national media covers the developments as religiously as it fawns over the newest hot candidate or dissects fundraising figures.

But this year, at least so far, there has been relatively little discussion about labor’s impact in the Democratic race. Democratic hopefuls haven’t been ignoring America’s unions, which are now represented by two umbrella organizations, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, but there is no great anticipation in the media about whom organized labor will go to bat for in the Democratic contest.

Has the 800-pound gorilla of Democratic politics become just another interest group in party politics? Or could labor ultimately flex its muscles between now and the time Democrats pick their nominee?

Four years ago, Democratic presidential hopefuls were battling over labor endorsements, with then-Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) widely regarded as the favorite of many industrial unions.

Gephardt fought hard for an early AFL-CIO endorsement, and while he had a shot of winning it, ultimately he fell short. Still, he regularly was characterized in the media as the potential beneficiary of strong union support in Iowa right up until his weak fourth-place showing finished off his candidacy.

Two other key unions, the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, backed former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, whose rocket also ultimately fizzled in the final weeks before the 2004 Iowa caucuses. Among the national labor unions, only the International Association of Fire Fighters hit the jackpot by endorsing Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) in late September 2003.

Gephardt’s defeat, followed by Dean’s implosion, raised questions about organized labor’s political clout within the Democratic Party, a head-scratching development considering labor’s financial and organizational muscle, which should have been particularly important in Iowa’s low-turnout caucuses.

That experience may explain why some in the union movement are hesitant to get too far ahead of the curve in picking a favorite this time. But political insiders argue there is another more important reason for inaction at this point: All of the Democratic frontrunners seem equally acceptable to labor. “They all have a lot of friends running,” one Democratic veteran noted recently.

Once again, the AFL-CIO is trying to keep its members in line, at least until the executive council decides whether one contender might be able to round up the two-thirds of support necessary for an endorsement at a September general board meeting.

The AFL-CIO’s executive council approved a statement in early March that asked “every affiliate to take no action to endorse any candidate until the General Board of the Federation can make a decision whether or not to endorse a candidate prior to the primaries,” and the council noted the organization will host a candidate forum in Chicago in August as well as a number of other meetings with staff, union leaders and candidates.

Veteran observers currently express doubt that the AFL-CIO will deliver a pre-Iowa endorsement, and the likelihood of an early Change to Win endorsement isn’t much better. However, that doesn’t mean organized labor is staying entirely on the sidelines as the Democratic contest heats up.

The Service Employees International Union, the International Association of Fire Fighters and the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department already have held presidential forums, and Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.) and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) already have attended AFL-CIO town-hall-style forums. Other Democratic hopefuls will be invited to similar events.

Moreover, some union officials clearly have preferences for the nomination. For example, Bruce Raynor, president of UNITE HERE, which endorsed Edwards during his previous bid, reportedly is working hard again for the former North Carolina Senator. (UNITE HERE and the SEIU are two of the seven Change to Win affiliated unions.)

Edwards, who responded to an Associated Press question about what he would want to be doing if he weren’t in politics by answering “mill supervisor,” has spent considerable time wooing labor, and one union insider guessed that if organized labor took a straw poll about which Democrat to support, Edwards would be in the lead, though not close to the two-thirds majority a candidate would need for an AFL-CIO endorsement.

But even assuming that organized labor doesn’t deliver a single endorsement later this year, individual unions could choose to do so sometime after August but before Iowa. And even if few do, locals in key states, and union leaders in those locals, likely will start to choose favorites well before the end of the year.

Organized labor is still active in many ways, including promoting its agenda and giving candidates opportunities to meet with its members. Ultimately, some unions could play an important role on Feb. 5, when a number of large states with a significant union membership, including Illinois, New York, New Jersey and California, will play a role in selecting the party’s nominee.

For now, however, organized labor isn’t quite the hot political ticket to the national media that it was four years ago. That is likely to change as the summer approaches and journalists figure out that labor endorsements, while not guaranteeing victory, still matter and that the campaigns are very much still fighting for them.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 7, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Palmetto Debate: Long Gone and Already Forgotten

By Stuart Rothenberg

While there was a lot of buildup to the Democrats’ presidential debate in South Carolina, it proved what I have been arguing repeatedly for months: Most of the early happenings soon will fade into distant memory and have little impact on the race for the Democratic nomination.

The lack of a decisive development in Orangeburg, S.C., doesn’t mean that political reporters should stop paying attention to events such as the South Carolina Democratic debate, that political commentators should stop writing or speaking about early activities, or that political junkies should cease paying attention to the daily comings and goings of political candidates. Covering a campaign means establishing a record of its daily happenings, and every once in a while, something important actually happens.

While most of the post-debate analysis concluded that former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel and current Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich looked so extreme that they helped the rest of the field look moderate and reasonable, nobody said the obvious: The extremes often can color the public’s perception of the two parties. Viewed this way, having Gravel and Kucinich rant that nobody is threatening the United States and that it is never necessary to use force internationally plays into the longtime stereotype of Democrats as the party of weakness.

Democrats have spent the past few years proving to the American public that the party is tough on terrorism and that Democrats aren’t anti-defense or anti-military, and the party has, finally, succeeded in changing that perception. The last thing Democrats need is a couple of loose cannons on national television who sound as if the world isn’t a dangerous place and everything would be fine if we all simply hugged each other.

Luckily for Democrats, the South Carolina debate was watched primarily by political insiders and activists, most of whom already know which candidate they are supporting for president. So few, if any, opinions were formed or changed, I expect, either by the debate itself or by the mind-numbing, post-debate analysis that filled the airwaves.

The big news out of the debate, as many already have observed, is how the three top candidates handled the hypothetical question of multiple attacks on the United States. Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) responded by emphasizing taking time to make sure who launched the attack and only belatedly (and relatively weakly) got to the point of the U.S. response.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) talked immediately about retaliation, a response that might not endear her to some elements of her party but was an excellent general election answer. She has spent much of the past six years establishing her bona fides on national security, understanding that the first woman president must show a toughness that allows the American public to feel comfortable with her as commander in chief.

It now will be interesting to see how the positions of Obama and Edwards evolve on national security and on responding to a future attack after the responses they gave in Orangeburg.

After hearing what Clinton said, will her main rivals decide that they need to sound tougher than they did in South Carolina or figure that Democratic audiences prefer an answer long on empathy and caution and short on saber-rattling? We will see how their strategists think they did, compared with Clinton, as they respond to future questions.

As a general rule, longer-shot candidates benefit from these early debates by appearing on the same stage with the frontrunners, creating the impression that all of the candidates are somehow equal and deserve to be taken seriously. So, I suppose the debate was good news for hopefuls such as Sens. Joseph Biden (Del.) and Chris Dodd (Conn.) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, elected officials with credentials and at least a chance to move into the top tier. But none of the second-tier debaters distinguished himself in a way that automatically will result in a surge of attention.

Unlike Republicans, who have an event of at least some importance in August in the Iowa Straw Poll, Democrats don’t have a test that is an opportunity to weed out their field. Quarterly fundraising numbers provide a chance for self-examination by each of the candidates, so it’s certainly possible that around June 30 another Democrat or two could follow former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack to the sidelines.

But these debates aren’t likely to weed out also-rans any more than they are to select the nominee. In fact, they encourage candidacies just as long as the debates are open to all. They are useful, primarily, to see how the candidates react to each other and whether they are tinkering with their message and their style.

This column
first appeared in Roll Call on May 3, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Friday, May 04, 2007

New Print Edition: 2007-08 Gubernatorial Outlook

The latest 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.

2007-08 Gubernatorial Outlook
By Nathan L. Gonzales

Republicans took heavy losses in governorships in 2006, giving Democrats a 28-22 advantage nationwide to start this year. Three states will elect governors this year (Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi), and they may turn out to be a patch of sunshine in an incredibly dark environment for the GOP.

Cong. Bobby Jindal (R) is the clear frontrunner in Louisiana, especially now that former Sen. John Breaux (D) decided not to run. That race moves to the Lean Takeover column. With Gov. Haley Barbour (R) heavily favored to win a second term in Mississippi, GOP victories in the two Deep South states would at least maintain the current 28-22 Democratic advantage going into the 2008 elections.

In Kentucky, embattled Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) is looking stronger than previously thought, making it at least a possibility that Republicans could hold there and gain a governorship this year. Still, Kentucky is a good Democratic opportunity, and the single most likely outcome this year is no net change in partisan control of governorships.

At this stage only four 2008 races look to be in play with each seat defending two seats. Gov. Matt Blunt (R) of Missouri is probably the most vulnerable incumbent up for reelection next year, and Democrats will mount a strong challenge to Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) in Indiana. Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) is gearing up for a rematch with Dino Rossi (R) in Washington, and Republicans will take a shot at the open seat in North Carolina.

This cycle is particularly light for governorships, with the big prize coming in 2010 when 36 races are up again. That cycle will also be critical because governors often have a role in the redistricting process to follow.

For the rest of the issue, including a state-by-state analysis of each race and the candidates running, you must subscribe. Our ratings are available here.

2007-08 Gubernatorial Ratings

Here are our latest gubernatorial ratings. We have moved to our pre-election categories. Democrats currently hold 28 governorships compared to 22 for the Republicans. 2007 races are in italics.

  • Open; Blanco (D)
TOSS-UP (2 R, 0 D)
  • Blunt (R-MO)
  • Fletcher, (R-KY)
  • Daniels (R-IN)
  • Gregoire (D-WA)
  • NC Open (Easley, D)
  • Barbour (R-MS)
  • Douglas (R-VT)
  • Hoeven (R-ND)
  • Huntsman (R-UT)
  • Lynch (D-NH)
  • Manchin (D-WV)
  • Schweitzer (D-MT)
  • DE Open (Minner, D)

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Is Fred Thompson Coming to the GOP’s Rescue?

By Stuart Rothenberg

I’ll admit that I have had a hard time warming to the idea that former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), whom I first saw as minority counsel during the Senate Watergate hearings and whose TV and movie credits include “Die Hard 2,” “The Hunt for Red October” and “Law & Order,” would run for president. And it seemed, at least initially, even more difficult to imagine him as the Republican nominee next year.

But try as I might to dismiss the idea of a Thompson candidacy, I no longer can do so. It isn’t that the former Senator from Tennessee is such a good fit for the role of presidential candidate. It’s simply that none of the other cast members is a perfect fit either.

As every political analyst on the planet has observed for months, all of the top-tier GOP hopefuls face serious obstacles on the road to Minneapolis, and there clearly is a vacancy in the race for a mainstream conservative who doesn’t have a reputation as a troublemaker within the party.

Thompson surely has assets both in the race for the Republican nomination and in a general election, the single most important being that he both looks and sounds like the president of the United States of America. Don’t dismiss the “he sure looks like a president” factor. It’s important.

But I’m not certain whether the former Tennessee official truly fills the vacancy in his party’s presidential field that was created when conservative Sen. George Allen’s (R-Va.) political career imploded. For now, at least, many conservatives seem to think that Thompson is acceptable, though I’m not sure how deeply they have looked into his record.

Anyway, Thompson didn’t offend conservatives when he was a Senator and he doesn’t have a pro-choice, pro-gun-control record, which makes him more acceptable to conservatives than either Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) or former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. More recently, he has substituted for longtime radio commentator Paul Harvey, where he has sounded, according to one Republican observer, “like a conservative Southerner.”

Still, Thompson’s appeal is less about who he is and more about who he isn’t.

But whatever the former Senator’s strengths, he isn’t an ideal candidate for Republicans.

Regardless of whether it is deserved, Thompson earned a reputation around the nation’s capital as someone who didn’t like to raise money and who didn’t have a high energy level in the Senate. When he had the chance to be handed a second full term, he turned it down, choosing instead to return to his acting career.

Obviously, there is a world of difference between an executive position such as president and a legislative one, and if he does enter the GOP contest, Thompson could say that he’s a “doer,” not a “talker,” who would feel more comfortable in an executive post.

Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, who now chairs the Virginia GOP, recently told me that criticism of Thompson is not always on the mark, and some of it is reminiscent of criticism aimed at former President Ronald Reagan.

“He is easygoing and amiable,” says Gillespie, who is offering his advice to all candidates and emphasizes that he does not now have a candidate in the Republican race and will stay neutral throughout the contest for his party’s nomination. “And he is kind of laid-back. But Fred has been successful on a number of fronts.”

Thompson’s personal life also could come under scrutiny. The Senator’s second wife, Jeri, whom he married in 2002, is significantly younger than he is. The couple has two children, one age 3 and one less than a year old.

But it is undeniable that whatever the question marks around Thompson, he looks like a serious competitor for the Republican nomination even before he has announced whether he will run.

This is a strange election. Instead of the calendar narrowing the field and making the eventual nominee more apparent, the GOP race is looking more up for grabs, with none of the three hopefuls in the top tier seemingly able to overcome their liabilities. That gives Thompson an opening, and it is likely to remain that way for at least a few more months.

While I once thought that nobody who entered the race after April 15, or certainly Memorial Day, could possibly be nominated next year, I no longer can defend that conclusion, at least when it comes to the GOP race.

Thompson has not yet decided whether to run, though some of his allies have been sounding out consultants about their availability, should he decide to go forward.

A Thompson run would be a serious, possibly fatal, blow to the prospects of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who hopes to emerge (against either McCain or Giuliani) as the “conservative alternative.” Thompson would be a rival for that role, and the announcement of his candidacy would create at least a temporary boomlet that would eclipse Romney if the former governor had not already increased his standing in key polls.

Thompson’s announcement about whether he will make the race could come at any time, though nothing appears to be imminent. He actually may be better off delaying his entry until around the Iowa Straw Poll in August, bypassing an event that maximizes the importance of organization, which he doesn’t have and probably can’t create in a few months.

Anyway, I’m not dismissing Thompson anymore. Nature abhors a vacuum, and Fred Thompson may well have the ability to fill the one that exists in the GOP contest.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on April 30, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

GOP Back to Square One

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Republicans are back to square one with black voters. And they don’t have an aggressive plan to reach out again anytime soon.

As head of the Republican National Committee for the past two years, Ken Mehlman made a concerted and aggressive push to reach out to the black community. While his efforts did not result in immediate results at the ballot box, they served as a foundation to rebuilding credibility and trust between black voters and the GOP.

There was a time when black voters supported Republicans. It was Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans who freed the slaves, after all.

Even into the 1960s, the Democratic Party was home to Southern segregationists, and Democrats filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1966, Ed Brooke (R-Mass.) became the first black elected to the Senate after Reconstruction.

But the country was also on the verge of a seismic electoral shift. Barry Goldwater won the GOP presidential nomination in 1964, highlighting his opposition to the Civil Rights Act and attracting white conservatives in the South and West. At the same time, President Lyndon Johnson (D) supported the legislation, despite opposition from some elements of his party, changing the future image of the Democratic Party.

After a couple of decades, RNC Chairman Lee Atwater started talking about a “big tent party” and his desire to include moderates within the party once again. But for years following his death in 1991, black outreach at the RNC never consisted of much more than a token position.

From 1994 to 2002, then-Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) was the face of black Republicans, although more than a dozen black GOPers have run for federal office over the past three cycles, all without success.

Some candidates, such as Jennifer Carroll (in Florida’s 3rd district), Clinton LeSueur (Mississippi’s 2nd), Winsome Sears (Virginia’s 3rd) and Myrah Kirkwood (Michigan’s 5th), ran in heavily Democratic districts and never really had much of a chance. Other candidate, such as Joe Rogers (Colorado’s 7th), Jackie Winters (Oregon’s 5th), Herman Cain (Georgia Senate), Keith Butler (Michigan Senate) and Winston Wilkinson (Utah’s 2nd), couldn’t get out of the Republican primary to have an opportunity to win a more competitive seat. Still other candidates, such as Vernon Robinson (North Carolina’s 5th and 13th) and Alan Keyes (Illinois Senate), are probably too marginalized to get elected anywhere.

In March 2001, President Bush’s strategist Matthew Dowd said that to win re-election, the president would have to improve his standing with minority voters. Bush received 11 percent of the black vote in 2004, up 2 points from 2000, and it wasn’t by accident. The Bush-Cheney campaign hired Robert Traynham, a high-level black staffer on Capitol Hill, as a senior adviser.

After helping Bush secure his second term, Mehlman moved from campaign manager to chairman of the RNC and continued the party’s outreach by visiting 17 black groups in the first half of 2005, culminating with a July 14 address to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People national convention.

“It’s more than just words, and more than outreach. Republicans are committed to inclusion,” Mehlman told the NAACP. “Outreach is when you show up to ask for the vote four weeks before the election. I’m here four years before the next presidential election asking for your help.”

But a month later, the tenuous relationship between the Republican Party and the black community took a significant hit.

Hurricane “Katrina totally neutralized any ground that was made, if any,” according to GOP consultant Curt Anderson, who worked on the Maryland Senate campaign of then-Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R) in the previous cycle.

Bush tried to make amends with a speech of his own to the NAACP in July 2006.

“For too long my party wrote off the African-American vote, and many African-Americans wrote off the Republican Party,” he said. “That history has prevented us from working together when we agree on great goals. That’s not good for our country.”

But it was the president’s dismal approval rating that contributed to the defeat of three prominent statewide black Republican candidates in 2006.

In Ohio, while Secretary of State Ken Blackwell survived a nasty primary, he faced anti-Republican trends at the state and national levels, as well as concerns that he was too polarizing. The end result was a 60 percent to 37 percent thumping by then-Rep. Ted Strickland (D). Blackwell received 20 percent of the black vote, 5 points better than Sen. Mike DeWine (R), who lost re-election, and 4 points better than Bush did in the Buckeye State in 2004.

In Pennsylvania, incumbent Gov. Ed Rendell (D) handily defeated former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann, 60 percent to 40 percent. Swann received 13 percent of the black vote, 3 points less than Bush received in Pennsylvania in 2004 and only 3 points more than Sen. Rick Santorum (R) received in his losing effort.

And in Maryland, Steele lost his Senate bid, 54 percent to 44 percent, against then-Rep. Benjamin Cardin (D). Steele ran a good campaign under the circumstances and took 25 percent of the black vote. His former running mate, then-Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R), received 15 percent of the black vote while losing re-election last year, and Bush took only 11 percent in Maryland in 2004.

Even in a “normal” election cycle, there is certainly no guarantee that Steele, Swann or Blackwell would have won. But, except for Steele, their inability to significantly improve their standing among black voters proves that the race of a candidate is secondary. Bush’s appointment of blacks to significant posts in his administration (including Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice) hasn’t done much to persuade black voters, either. And while many black voters line up with the Republican Party on conservative social issues, the two groups couldn’t be further apart culturally.

Republicans could have a handful of black candidates once again in 2008. Attorney Erwin Roberts is seriously considering a run in Kentucky’s 3rd district, and Swann has been asked to consider a run in Pennsylvania’s 4th. Both districts are represented by potentially vulnerable Democratic freshmen. Former Senate staffer Erik Underwood, 27, is an underdog in the June 19 special election in Georgia’s 10th district.

“We’re looking for good candidates everywhere,” said NRCC Political Director Terry Carmack. “If they are African-American, it’s a bonus.”

Just last week, the RNC appointed Shannon Reeves, past president of the Oakland NAACP, to head up its minority outreach. But the African-American Advisory Committee, founded under Mehlman, has yet to meet under the new RNC leadership.

“It becomes a question of consistency and commitment,” said Steele, who replaced Watts as chairman of GOPAC earlier this year. “My attitude is that [African-Americans] won’t vote for you, because you won’t bother.”

On a philosophical level, most Republican operatives do believe that outreach to the black community is a worthy cause. “Of course it doesn’t make sense right now,” according to one GOP operative in favor of an aggressive outreach effort. “It will take at least a generation, if not longer.” But still other Republicans are struggling with the lack of immediate results and are simultaneously enticed by Hispanic outreach that could yield a higher gain.

“The Republican Party will not be whole again until more African-Americans come back home,” Mehlman told the NAACP two years ago.

At the current pace, the GOP will be incomplete for some time. Republicans may benefit in the long term as the voting behavior of the black population evolves, but any increase in the black vote for Republicans will not be a result of any effort from the party.

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