Monday, July 30, 2007

Is Al Franken Laughing All the Way to a Senate Seat?

By Stuart Rothenberg

Often, when comedian-turned-candidate Al Franken’s name comes up these days, Republicans just snicker. Then they say that despite all the national attention paid to his candidacy and notwithstanding his strong early fundraising, Franken can’t beat Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.).

Coleman, after all, is a polished political veteran and rising star who beat liberal icon Walter Mondale (D) five years ago. He is a high-energy political animal who understands issues and voters, insist his friends, and he isn’t likely to lose to a far-left celebrity who sometimes tosses around obscenities as if they were socially acceptable.

Well, I don’t necessarily expect Franken to defeat Coleman next year, but I’m not so sure I would dismiss the former “Saturday Night Live” writer/performer that quickly.

To face Coleman, Franken must first win the Democratic nomination. His chief competitor appears to be Mike Ciresi, 61, a wealthy attorney who has flirted with a number of races and who lost the 2000 Senate primary.

Ciresi has been endorsed by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), as well as a handful of state legislators and current and former officeholders (Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, ex-state Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe and ex-St. Paul Mayor George Latimer).

Franken, in contrast, has been endorsed by 26 state legislators, state Auditor Rebecca Otto and two unions. He is the darling of the left and raised more than $1.9 million in the past quarter, ending June with nearly $2 million banked.

Let’s assume for a moment that Franken becomes the nominee. Can he beat Coleman?

Remember, the question is not whether he is the best candidate to take on the GOP incumbent. Few people, including few Democratic strategists and operatives, think Franken is an ideal challenger. The question is whether he can win, or, as some insist, is he so flawed, so far left, so foulmouthed that he can’t possibly win?

I don’t know if Franken will win, but I definitely think he can win — under the right circumstances. I offer five exhibits:

Exhibit No. 1 is Jesse Ventura, the wrestler/ actor-turned-candidate who was elected governor of Minnesota. Yes, Ventura won with only 37 percent of the vote, but that was as the nominee of the Reform Party, which had no organization and few loyal adherents. The fact that 37 percent of Minnesotans would support someone with such a bizarre background and with such limited government experience suggests that Franken’s background is not disqualifying.

Exhibit No. 2 is the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone (D), a rather far-left college professor with no state or national reputation who upset a relatively uncontroversial incumbent, Rudy Boschwitz (R), by running a quirky, populist campaign. Minnesota voters have moved right since the state’s days of unfettered liberalism in the 1950s and 1960s, but Wellstone’s re-election in 1996 and Democrat Mark Dayton’s Senate win four years later — to say nothing of narrow wins in the state by Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 — show that liberals certainly can still win statewide.

Exhibit No. 3 is California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. When I first heard his name mentioned in 2003, I assumed it was a joke. The guy was an actor who spoke English with a heavy accent, had made an early career out of being a bodybuilder (which in most circles probably was taken to mean that he wasn’t too bright) and was a Republican in a state that was moving dramatically to the left. Yet this easily caricatured celebrity with no campaign experience and relatively little detailed knowledge of government easily won a multicandidate special election.

Exhibit No. 4 is freshman Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.). Yarmuth was the publisher of an “alternative” newspaper in Louisville, Ky., the kind that was supposed to give opponent Anne Northup (R) all of the ammunition she would need to destroy her opponent and make the election a referendum on his liberalism. That didn’t happen.

Exhibit No. 5 is Jim Talent (R), the former Missouri Senator who seemed to fit his state well and was figured to win re-election in 2006. Talent was conservative but had a moderate style, and the combination of the state’s partisan bent, his St. Louis base and the rural part of the state’s general conservatism should have carried him to victory. Instead, he couldn’t overcome the anti-Bush, anti-Republican, pro-change wave that overwhelmed many GOPers.

We could well witness the same kind of anti-Republican wave nationally next year, and if that happens, the Democratic surge could be particularly strong in Minnesota.

But can Franken show that he’s serious enough to win? Can he restrain his instincts to entertain or shock? Can he clean up his language? Can he follow direction? Can he appear likeable? Can he overcome his celebrity image to appeal to outstate Minnesota?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, and I’m not sure we’ll know the answers until much later in the cycle, when he has had time to learn his role as a candidate and find a comfortable style. Yes, Franken could fail as a candidate. But I, for one, think it’s too early to know how he will be on the stump and in live interviews a year from now.

Democrats once hoped to face Ronald Reagan for the White House in 1980. They got their wish and eventually were sorry about it. Politics, you see, is a funny, unpredictable business, which is why I’m not writing off Al Franken just yet.

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

Friday, July 27, 2007

New Print Edition: 2008 Senate Overview

The July 26, 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 brief sample of what's in this edition...

Senate Overview – The Lay of the Land

The death of Senator Craig Thomas (R-WY) changes the arithmetic for 2008 by adding another Senate contest this cycle. Appointed Senator John Barrasso (R) must face voters next year for the right to fill the remaining four years of Thomas’s unexpired term, so Republicans now find themselves defending 22 of the 34 seats up next year.

The national political environment has not improved for Republicans. The war in Iraq remains unpopular, as does the President himself. True, national polling suggests that Congress is even less popular, so the overall landscape suggests problems for incumbents in general. But Republican incumbents are at the greatest risk, by far.

Democratic fundraising at all levels has been nothing short of stupendous, while Republicans are finding money a bit harder to come by. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee had a $10 million advantage over the National Republican Senatorial Committee at the end of June.

Additional retirements remain a huge question mark, particularly for the GOP. Virginia’s John Warner, and Nebraska’s Chuck Hagel are on everyone’s list, and we assume both retirements in our ratings. Idaho Republican Larry Craig is another possible retiree, but an open seat in Idaho would not fundamentally undermine the GOP’s advantage in the race to retain it.

While it is far too early to make meaningful projections about the eventual net change in the Senate, it currently appears that Democrats are well positioned to gain at least a couple of seats, especially if, as we are assuming, former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D) enters the New Hampshire race. And Democrats could have a significantly better year than that depending on the national mood, the dynamic created by the race for President, money and other factors.

For a state-by-state rundown on each race, you must subscribe...

2008 Senate Ratings

Here are our latest Senate ratings. Note- We have moved to our pre-election categories. The chart represents the vulnerability of the seat, and not necessarily the incumbent.

*UPDATE 9/8/07: Change Nebraska to Open. Keep as Clear GOP Advantage for now.

Toss-Up (3 R, 0 D)
  • CO Open (Allard, R)
  • VA Open (Warner, R)
  • Sununu (R-NH)
Narrow Advantage for Incumbent Party (3 R, 1 D)
  • Coleman (R-MN)
  • Collins (R-ME)
  • Landrieu (D-LA)
  • Smith (R-OR)
Clear Advantage for Incumbent Party (5 R, 1 D)
  • Dole (R-NC)
  • NM Open (Domenici, R)
  • NE Open (Hagel, R)
  • Johnson (D-SD)
  • McConnell (R-KY)
  • Stevens (R-AK)
Currently Safe (11 R, 10 D)
  • ID Open (Craig, R)
  • Alexander (R-TN)
  • Barrasso (R-WY)
  • Chambliss (R-GA)
  • Cochran (R-MS)
  • Cornyn (R-TX)
  • Enzi (R-WY)
  • Graham (R-SC)
  • Inhofe (R-OK)
  • Roberts (R-KS)
  • Sessions (R-AL)
  • 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, July 26, 2007

When a Candidate’s Bio Doesn’t Give the Full Picture

By Stuart Rothenberg

I am not entirely sure when I first met Larry LaRocco. It may well have been on June 26, 1990, when my calendar tells me that I interviewed the one-time aide to former Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) during his first run for Congress.

Later that year, LaRocco won a seat in the House, and two years later he was re-elected. But 1994 wasn’t a kind year to Democrats anywhere, and voters in Idaho’s 1st district swept him out in the Republican tsunami.

I remember generally liking LaRocco, and I spoke with him on and off after he left Congress. I found him to be a personable and knowledgeable person who knows a thing or two about Idaho politics.

I happened by chance recently to check out his Web site for his 2008 Senate campaign, and I came across something that raised a question in my own mind. How much should candidates disclose about themselves?

I went to “About Larry” on LaRocco’s Web site and found a photograph and a bio. The bio talks about his “service to the people of Idaho,” including his service as a captain in the Army, his years as North Idaho field representative for Church and his accomplishments in Congress.

He also included references to his private-sector work while in the state: “Larry has a long history of experience in the banking and financial services industry in Idaho. Prior to his work in Congress, Larry served as an Assistant Vice President and Director of Marketing at the Twin Falls Bank and Trust, located in the 2nd district. He also worked as a Vice President at First Idaho Corporation, and later as a financial services consultant at Shearson Lehman Hutton, Inc.”

Toward the end of the bio, he is described as a “businessman, military officer, banker, Congressman, grandfather.” Then we learn that he “will represent all of Idaho’s people, not just the powerful interest groups.”

All of this sounds fine, and regardless of whether it is true, I’m not going to take issue with it. But it’s only a half truth. LaRocco’s bio leaves out something important.

The bio seems to stop with LaRocco’s Congressional service, yet he has lived for more than a dozen years since he left the House. Didn’t he do anything? Was he a hermit?

I expect it ends where it does because LaRocco doesn’t think that his life after Congress will help his candidacy — and possibly because he fears it will hurt him with the net roots he is now wooing with posts on Daily Kos and pleas for contributions on ActBlue.

After Congress, LaRocco worked for the American Bankers Association. He headed the ABA’s Securities Association and was managing director of the ABA’s Insurance Association, which focused on “bank-related insurance activities.”

In 2000, LaRocco and his son, Matthew, opened up their own lobbying firm, LaRocco & Associates. Two years later, the two men joined Fleishman-Hillard’s Government Relations practice, which, according to CQ’s PoliticalMoneyLine, had 33 clients and did more than $1.2 million worth of business in 2005.

Larry LaRocco himself had a number of interesting clients, including Abbott Laboratories, Eastman Chemical, MetLife and 3i Group, a London-based venture capital firm with investments in a variety of fields including energy (oil and gas), technology and health care. And, of course, he also lobbied for the ABA.

Personally, I don’t see a problem with any of this. “Lobbying” is the way we do things here in Washington, D.C., and it is the way interest groups and people talk with government officials about policy. There is nothing wrong with people who know something about an issue trying to persuade policymakers about their views as long as all interests have an opportunity to make their cases.

Anyway, the fact that LaRocco’s Web site bio doesn’t mention his lobbying background probably isn’t merely an oversight. Nor is it an oversight that while he mentions that he is a “banker” and worked for “the modernization of banking and financial services in our country,” he never mentions the ABA, for whom he worked for five years.

Can Larry LaRocco possibly think he can run a Senate race without his complete bio coming out? And if it will come out at some point, as it surely will, why not put it out now? Is it because he is trying to raise money from Democratic bloggers who might be upset to know that he was a lobbyist and that he ran a big-time Washington lobbying shop?

Interestingly, on Feb. 7, 2007, someone added an information box to LaRocco’s Wikipedia entry. It included, under “profession,” a one-word description: lobbyist. Three months later, someone else edited that entry, replacing “lobbyist” with the much more innocuous “public affairs consultant.”

If you are looking for irony, all you need to do is look at Washington Post reporter Jeff Birnbaum’s lead in his June 14, 2004, article about lobbying: “Lobbyist Larry LaRocco knows that the public views his profession as unsavory. But he isn’t ashamed. In fact, he’s made it his family business.”

Well, if LaRocco’s bio on his campaign Web site is any indication, he’s now ashamed of his career. But ashamed or not, it’s part of his life, and not including it in his bio strikes me as a silly attempt to mislead.

It will be interesting to see how the net roots, which seems intent on smashing the establishment, react to LaRocco.

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

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Candidates Often Avoid Party Labels

By Nathan L. Gonzales

With former colleagues being dragged off to jail, an unpopular president, the Iraq War and huge losses in the 2006 elections, it’s no wonder that Republican candidates are shying away from the GOP brand. But why are some Democratic candidates still apprehensive about placing the “D” behind their own name?

A July 6-8 USA Today/Gallup survey showed the Republican Party with 36 percent favorable/56 percent unfavorable ratings and President Bush with an even worse job rating of 29 percent approve/66 percent disapprove.

Even with their recent electoral success, and the demise of the GOP, some Democrats lack faith in the party’s appeal across the aisle. In the Gallup Poll, respondents gave the Democratic Party a 51 percent favorable/41 percent unfavorable rating, but that’s apparently not popular enough for some jittery strategists and candidates.

In Missouri’s 6th district, former Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes is one of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s prize recruits. But you wouldn’t know it at first (or second, or third) glance. She didn’t mention the words “Democrat” or “Democratic Party” in her May 14 announcement. And the only way you would know she is a Democrat from her Web site is if you click on the newspaper clips. The candidate does have “Barnes Enjoys Bi- Partisan Support” on her main page along with various mentions of her work with Republicans.

Barnes’ reluctance can’t be just a function of the district, with a Democratic performance of almost 48 percent, according to the National Committee for an Effective Congress, which specializes in Democratic targeting.

In New Mexico’s Democratic-leaning 1st district, the word “Dems” appears as part of a headline on Albuquerque City Councilor Martin Heinrich’s Web site, but he avoids a direct link to his party, aside from the innocuous ActBlue donation button. Rep. Heather Wilson’s (R) 2006 opponent, state Attorney General Patricia Madrid (D), used a similar tactic of not using her party in paid advertising.

According to one Democratic consultant, even in last year’s anti-Republican environment, there were two different paths to victory for Democratic candidates. For some challengers, in urban or suburban areas, they were able to run a partisan message against Republican incumbents. But for Democrats in more rural and Republican areas, candidates were forced to run against Congress and Washington, D.C., in general, avoiding all partisan labels.

“[Party affiliation] is only motivational to hard-core people in the party,” explained one Republican consultant. But in some cases where candidates need to turn out their base, they seem to be avoiding partisan labels unnecessarily.

Three main candidates are competing for the Democratic nomination to replace Rep. Mark Udall (D) in Colorado’s 2nd district, where Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) took 58 percent in 2004. But you wouldn’t know state Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald or Will Shafroth were Democrats from an initial look at their Web sites, while their opponent, former state Board of Education Chairman Jared Polis, is clearly a “Democratic candidate for Congress.”

On the other side, the word “Republican” doesn’t appear anywhere on former Rep. Jim Ryun’s Web site in Kansas’ 2nd district, where Bush received 59 percent in 2004. And his GOP primary opponent, state Treasurer Lynn Jenkins, offers only a couple of small pachyderms on her site, giving away her party affiliation.

In New York’s 20th district, where Bush won by 8 points in 2004, Sandy Treadwell leaves no indication of his party on his neutral green introductory Web site, even though he is the former chairman of the state Republican Party.

“It’s not worth the risk,” according to one Republican consultant.“Too many people are tired of politics.”

“It’s never helpful to run as part of the establishment,” added one Democratic strategist.

Of course, not everyone is running from their party brand, and some candidates are either naive or embracing the risk in a strategic decision.

Ironically, Eric Eidsness, a candidate in Colorado’s 4th district, has his party affiliation listed at least six times on the main page of his Web site, and he only switched to the Democratic Party earlier this year. Unfortunately for him, he’s running in a very Republican district. That hasn’t stopped Larry Grant, who lost a competitive race in the previous cycle in Idaho’s 1st district, where Bush won by 38 points in 2004. Grant has “Democrat” emblazoned on the masthead of his Web site.

Democratic candidates Dan Maffei (New York’s 25th district) and state Sen. John Boccieri (Ohio’s 16th) aren’t shying away from their party affiliation either, even though they are running in competitive districts. And in Washington’s 8th, Darcy Burner has “Democrat for Congress” in her banner, when in the previous cycle she was criticized by some liberal bloggers for neglecting to mention her party in her initial television ads.

In Connecticut’s 4th district, Jim Himes proudly declares himself a Democrat in a district Kerry won with 52 percent, while incumbent Rep. Christopher Shays waits until his bio to admit he is a “moderate Republican.”

Republican challengers Dean Andal (California’s 11th) and Rick Goddard (Georgia’s 8th) are boldly embracing their party label in their bids against Democratic incumbents in traditional GOP strongholds.

For many campaigns, it’s a strategic decision, but not necessarily intentional.

“We don’t even think about it,” said one GOP consultant, explaining that much more time is spent on issue stances and how a candidate can connect with voters. “If one of your five best qualities is party affiliation, you’re in trouble.”

Each cycle, challengers often talk about the election being a “clear choice,” but apparently that doesn’t mean party affiliation. And when one party tries to blur the line, that can drive the other party crazy, such as when Democrats cried foul in the previous cycle when Maryland GOP Senate nominee Michael Steele’s campaign made up blue signs and stickers that read “Steele Democrat.”

Candidates are always looking to put their best foot forward and define themselves in the best light possible. But in the end, it’s somewhat silly to ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Voters will know the candidates’ party from the ballot itself, opponents’ television advertising or both.

Even though there is significant enthusiasm among Democrats, the country apparently hasn’t shifted too far, fundamentally, with Democratic candidates being cautious in certain regions. The winning formula is slightly different in each district, but there aren’t many areas anymore in which a candidate doesn’t need independent voters, and even voters from the opposite party, to win.

While some party faithful, including bloggers, may complain if candidates avoid party labels, it’s hard to believe more than a few votes would be lost. Candidates are more likely to have significant problems in their base if they directly oppose the party on a specific issue (see Sens. Joe Lieberman and Chuck Hagel).

Right now, party affiliation has negative consequences for both parties.

“Polling says it’s a pox on all your houses,” according to one Republican consultant. “People hate them all.”

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

Monday, July 23, 2007

Looking for the ‘Other’ 30 Percent of American Voters at a Concert

By Stuart Rothenberg

Wish I Didn’t Know Now” — Toby Keith song (1994)

While most people spent Saturday evening reading or watching television at home, chilling out at the movies or partying with friends, Athanasios Genos (yes, that’s his real name) was working.

Marine Cpl. Genos wasn’t dodging bullets on combat duty, though it’s true that he has been in Fallujah, Iraq. Instead he spent his most recent Saturday evening in Bristow, Va., about 35 miles southwest of the nation’s capital, manning a Marines recruiting table at a Toby Keith concert.

Keith, one of the brightest of stars in the world of country music, drew more than 20,000 fans to the Nissan Pavilion, and Genos, a public affairs specialist in the Marines, joined a handful of other Marines posted just inside the venue’s gate as thousands of music fans poured in.

The placement of the Marines’ recruiting tent — which included a pull-up bar for those wanting to test their strength and a few tables on which sign-up sheets sat for those seeking information about joining the Marines — surely tells you something about the crowd.

While I didn’t take a survey of attendees, it was pretty clear that I was surrounded by the “Other America,” the 30 percent of Americans who still say they approve of the job that President Bush is doing.

No, I saw not a single T-shirt supporting the president — or any of the Republican presidential candidates, for that matter. In this political environment, even Bush’s supporters tend to keep quiet, more than a bit disappointed by the war and by his administration’s overall performance. The closest thing I saw to a liberal message at the event was a Ben & Jerry’s “Lick Global Warming Campaign” ad on the giant video screens that flanked the stage.

What was more important, I suspect, is that I didn’t see a single T-shirt that was critical of the president, Vice President Cheney or the war. (I know what you are thinking: Maybe folks at these concerts are too busy wearing T-shirts about getting drunk or with pictures of semi-naked women on them to bother with politics.)

I saw plenty of flags — Confederate and American — in the parking lot as tailgaters, most of whom looked like college kids more interested in partying than making a political statement, warmed up for the event. And when, throughout the show, Keith mentioned his multiple trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, saluted a number of uniformed military in the audience or sang his signature songs “American Soldier” and “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” the crowd went nuts.

Yes, many in this audience were members of the “Silent Minority,” the 30 percent of America that doesn’t always agree with Bush but isn’t calling for his political lynching.

But do people, even these people, really stop at the Marines’ recruiting tent during county music concerts? Don’t they know that joining the Marines now means heading to Iraq?

“If people are interested in the Marines, they already know that we are the fighting force. We are here to recruit, and if you sign up, you are going to be defending the USA,” Genos told me in a straightforward way. He went on to estimate that at least 100 or 200 people fill out information sheets at these concerts. And indeed, as I watched for a moment or two, a couple of young men stopped to fill out forms.

Keith’s show ended with a symphony of red, white and blue lights, fireworks and American flags waving on the video screens. The crowd was delirious.

I don’t know if most of those in attendance took a political message from the event, other than the raw patriotism that the entertainer is famous for offering. But I do imagine that some people, particularly those who dismiss country music (both for its lyrics, music and assumed politics), might be surprised to know that Keith has been a registered Democrat for years, according to an October 2004 article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

While he voted for Bush and is openly critical of his own party’s liberalism, Keith turned down a request to perform at the 2004 Republican National Convention and, according to a January 2007 article in Newsday, he voted twice for former President Bill Clinton. He also says that he doesn’t support the war and “never did.”

But Keith, who joined with veteran singer Willie Nelson, hardly a conservative icon, in 2002 to record “Beer for My Horses,” has been critical of celebrities who urge their fans to back certain candidates.

One of Keith’s big early hits included the lyrics, “I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.” While those words referred to his ex’s behavior, for many Americans, they easily could have referred to Bush’s Iraq policy. But for the vast majority of those attending Keith’s concert, patriotism certainly appears to trump policy.

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

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Do Endorsements Matter in Today’s Presidential Races?

By Stuart Rothenberg

"Score another big name endorsement for Sen. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign,” crowed on July 5, the day the Clinton campaign announced that former House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt (Mo.) would serve as an economic adviser and co-chairman of the presidential hopeful’s campaign.

That was the same day I received an e-mail from the Edwards for President folks, bragging that the former North Carolina Senator had “picked up the support of several prominent Ohio leaders.”

“Fourteen Ohio Democrats are endorsing Edwards as the strongest candidate to put a Democrat back in the White House and the candidate with the boldest plans to build One America, where every person has the chance to work hard and get ahead,” continued the news release.

John Edwards’ Ohio endorsements followed earlier releases about “prominent Latinos” and “African American Leaders” who were endorsing him. Both lists included state and local elected officials, as well as a number of community “activists” and “leaders,” a catch-all that could mean pretty much anything.

A few days earlier, the campaign of Sen. Joseph Biden had sent out a news release about three Iowa state Representatives who were endorsing the Delaware Democrat.

And then there are all those celebrity endorsements, from Susan Sarandon to Paul Newman to Laurie David to a bunch of other public figures who fall under the general heading of “personalities.”

Yes, endorsements are a big deal ... except that 99 percent of them — at least 99 percent — don’t matter.

Thank goodness for Gephardt, who self-deprecatingly joked about his endorsement of Clinton: “I’m a has-been politician, so I don’t know that I can do anything more than bring my own vote, but maybe I can get my family to vote the right way.”

The New York Daily News headlined his comment as “Gep’s gaffe,” proving once again that reporters don’t really want politicians to tell the truth, and when they do say something that resembles reality, those reporters criticize them for it.

But, of course, Gephardt, who is still widely liked in the nation’s capital, is correct. His endorsement will get Clinton exactly one vote. Where he was wrong was implying that the endorsements of current political figures (or celebrities) matter. As a rule, endorsements almost never matter.

Al Gore endorsed Howard Dean on Dec. 9, 2003, a day after New Hampshire’s largest teachers union backed Dean and just about a month after two huge, influential labor unions, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union, jointly endorsed him.

At that time, of course, Dean was far and away the leading Democratic presidential hopeful in fundraising, cash on hand and most polling. If those endorsements had enhanced Dean’s appeal, they should have shut the door on the rest of the Democratic field.

But Dean fell to third in Iowa and second in New Hampshire, so they proved as influential as then-Gov. John Engler’s endorsement of George W. Bush in the 2000 Michigan GOP primary.

Michigan, we were told repeatedly back then, was the Bush campaign’s “firewall,” an absolutely impenetrable barrier that would stop anyone not named Bush from winning the state’s Republican primary. The firewall certainly looked ominous, given the enthusiastic support of Bush by Engler, a politically powerful governor who was both a top strategist and booster of the Texan.

Bush lost Michigan (garnering 43 percent to Sen. John McCain’s [R-Ariz.] 51 percent), in part because some state voters wanted to embarrass Engler, reflecting the limits of an endorsement.

The reason that endorsements don’t matter much is that presidential contests are such high-profile, visible fights that voters can draw their own opinions of the candidates. You either like Clinton or you don’t. You can make your own mind up about it. You don’t need some celebrity or politician telling you what to do.

The endorsements are intended, of course, to create an impression of support, either among key subgroups of the electorate —blacks, evangelicals, Hispanics, party insiders, home-schoolers, environmentalists, conservatives, labor unions, etc. — or in the electorate at large. It’s the classic effort to create a bandwagon, to establish the inevitability of your victory.

But the truth of the matter is that only a few people are persuaded by endorsements in White House contests. And sometimes endorsements can backfire, undercutting a candidate’s core appeal and message, or creating another target for the candidates’ opponents. (Those Thomas Ravenel and Sen. David Vitter [R-La.] endorsements for former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani don’t look quite as good as they once did, huh?)

So let the candidates roll out their list of state legislators, city council officials, dogcatchers and “activists” who support them. Just remember that only those few people who have a campaign treasury under their control or real fundraising clout, a near-unique ability to motivate and mobilize real people, or unusual influence in Iowa are truly important supporters.

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

Monday, July 16, 2007

There’s Still Plenty of Uncertainty After McCain’s Shake-up

By Stuart Rothenberg

First there were four, and now there are three — three top-tier GOP presidential candidates, at least if you count a guy who still isn’t officially a candidate. Sen. John McCain now has the second tier all to himself.

The shake-up at the McCain presidential campaign isn’t as much an answer to the Arizona Senator’s problems as a reflection of the campaign’s multiple difficulties. Let’s be clear: The McCain campaign’s burn rate on funds was too high, but that’s not why the Arizona Republican’s prospects have slipped.

Given McCain’s cash, his poll numbers and the state of his campaign, he has few options, according to one veteran political strategist with whom I talked, except to “park himself in New Hampshire, shut down his operations elsewhere and try to make a comeback in a state that he won eight years ago.”

Regardless of whether you agree with that assessment, it’s quite clear that McCain doesn’t have any appealing options to choose from now. Still, if you are the Arizonan, making your second bid for the GOP nomination and beginning this race as the early favorite, why not hope that Republican voters — much as Democratic voters did in 2004 — reassess the candidates early next year and give the initial frontrunner a second shot?

McCain’s problems should benefit former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who becomes the sole top-tier moderate in the race. McCain, of course, never called himself a moderate or campaigned as one, but he has been viewed that way by many conservative Republicans, primarily because of his work with Democratic Sens. Russ Feingold (Wis.) and Edward Kennedy (Mass.) on high-profile issues.

“Moderates constitute no more than a third of the party, and I’m being generous, but now you have two conservatives [former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson] fighting over two-thirds of the party, and Giuliani all alone with moderates,” one neutral GOP insider told me recently.

Thompson, of course, is not yet officially in the race, and nobody is quite sure what he’s waiting for. He’s raising millions of dollars, and allies of the former Tennessee Senator are reaching out to prospective hires for the campaign.

Yet while other candidates are filing Federal Election Commission reports and responding to media questions, Thompson’s spokesman, Mark Corallo, refuses to discuss the shadow candidate’s fundraising except to say that the campaign’s goal, if Thompson runs, “is to raise enough money to win.”

Well that really clarifies things. At least we can now rule out that Thompson is trying to raise enough money to lose.

Thompson doesn’t have to get in now, but his delay does make one wonder whether he is trying to avoid something. Given the recent criticism of his lobbying efforts on abortion, it isn’t as if he’s avoiding scrutiny by not having announced his candidacy.

Thompson isn’t forced to compete in the Ames, Iowa, straw vote if he doesn’t want to. He could have announced weeks ago that he was entering the race too late to put together the organizational effort needed for a strong showing in the Aug. 11 event. Maybe he’s delaying to see whether a last-minute effort at Ames might vault him to second place in Iowa even though he has little or no organization on the ground.

Anyway, it’s hard not to conclude that Thompson is trying to run out the clock — even before he has suited up and entered the game — so that he doesn’t even have to campaign.

Clearly, Thompson starts off as a major player in the GOP contest. A number of Republican insiders told me they believe he will vault to the front of national GOP polling when he enters the race, and the real question is how quickly and how far his numbers slide after they spike on his entry.

“People don’t know anything about Fred Thompson,” acknowledged one Republican strategist who is at least sympathetic to the Tennessean, adding, “Conservatives are seeing in him what they want to see in him. They are projecting their views onto him.”

“Can he hold the strength that he now has? It’s a close call,” noted the thoughtful observer, adding that “while he’s obviously a skilled performer, outside of a formal setting, like when he is made up for ‘Meet the Press,’ he doesn’t look that good, and he isn’t that sharp on policy.”

Thompson could either turn out to be just what conservative Republicans are looking for, in which case he could well end up being the GOP nominee, or an absolute dud who disappoints grass-roots Republicans looking to him to save the party.

The McCain fall from the top tier creates an interesting calendar dynamic, since after Romney, McCain had invested most heavily in the Iowa caucuses. With Giuliani not doing much in Iowa — rival campaigns go so far as to say that he apparently is conceding the state — and Thompson still not in the race or organized in the Hawkeye State, the burden is on Romney to blow away the field in state contests, both in Ames and in January.

If McCain downsizes in Iowa, will the Giuliani campaign seek to upgrade its effort in the state, hoping to take advantage of a crowd of conservative candidates who fracture the right-of-center electorate?

If Romney is able to win the caucuses decisively, he would have a chance at a one-two punch with a win in New Hampshire, a quirky open primary where Romney’s Mormonism isn’t regarded as nearly as big a problem as in the South and rural Midwest.

And will Giuliani really be able to wait until Florida, in late January, to compete full throttle in a GOP contest, as some think he hopes to do?

McCain’s slide answers some questions but raises others. Meanwhile, many GOPers are waiting for Fred ... which, increasingly, seems a bit like waiting for Godot.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on July 12, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Friday, July 13, 2007

New Print Edition: Oregon Senate & Wisconsin 8

The July 13, 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 brief sample of what's in this edition...

Oregon Senate: The Meaning of the Letter “R”
By Nathan L. Gonzales

It all comes down to one letter – R. In fifteen months, Oregonians will decide whether the letter behind Sen. Gordon Smith’s name ties him to the national party led by President George W. Bush or, rather, to the maverick style of former Oregon GOP senators Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood.

By the time the campaign is over, voters in the Beaver State may be wondering if each party is talking about the same Gordon Smith, who is the only Republican elected statewide in Oregon and the only Republican U.S. Senator on the West Coast.

In similar fashion to 2006, Democrats are attempting to portray Smith as just another national Republican, out-of-step with the state. The senator will rely on twelve years in statewide office, and he points to the war in Iraq and hate crimes legislation as key differences with his party.

With all of the energy and message surrounding the campaign to oust Smith, Democrats have struggled to find a candidate. Attorney/activist Steve Novick (D) is in the race, but national Democrats won’t give him the time of day. According to Democratic insiders, the party should have a stronger candidate soon – very soon.

Of course, party insiders really wanted former Gov. John Kitzhaber or Cong. Peter DeFazio, but they’re most likely to get new state House Speaker Jeff Merkley. He won’t necessarily have the field to himself, but he should enjoy the support from party insiders, possibly even the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Based on recent polling numbers, national Democrats view Smith as a top target, even above some of his vulnerable colleagues such as Norm Coleman (R-MN) and Susan Collins (R-ME). But the numbers may not be the whole story, and it’s going to be difficult to beat the Oregon Republican. For the whole story, you must subscribe...

Wisconsin 8: From Green to Blue to Red?

While suffering heavy losses nationally last year, Republicans came up one seat short of holding a trio of competitive open seats in the upper Midwest. Peter Roskam (IL 6) and Michelle Bachmann (MN 6) successfully kept open seats in the GOP column, but Wisconsin Assembly Speaker John Gard couldn’t follow suit in Wisconsin’s 8th CD.

Now, Republicans have their sights set on freshman Cong. Steve Kagen (D), a wealthy doctor who won the hard fought, bitter and expensive race. Within just a few days of winning, Kagen started to ruffle feathers in D.C., which resulted in some unflattering stories back home. And it further fueled Republican efforts to target the seat in 2008.

Gard has kept an extremely low profile after his loss, but GOP insiders believe he will run again, and is most likely to get in sometime this fall. While the race was very close, Gard’s campaign performance won’t automatically deter other Republicans. Subscribe now for the rest of the story...

In the next issue: 2008 Senate Overview.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Historical Perspective on Second-Quarter Fundraising Numbers

By Stuart Rothenberg

I can’t understand why so many political observers, including those who do observing for a living, seem to ignore history, even recent history, as they offer quick analysis and assessments of presidential candidate fundraising numbers.

One political blogger recently cited Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) impressive second-quarter fundraising numbers (including his number of contributors) and asserted, “we need to figure out why the ‘national’ frontrunner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), isn’t generating as much excitement as her chief competitor.”

Has everyone simply decided to forget 2003-2004? Is there someone out there who really thinks second-quarter fundraising numbers — or even third-quarter numbers — have a great predictive value in guessing which candidates will win the presidential nomination?

Second-quarter presidential fundraising in 2003 showed Howard Dean hauling in $7.6 million, besting Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) $5.9 million, then-Sen. John Edwards’ (D-N.C.) $4.5 million and Rep. Richard Gephardt’s (D-Mo.) $3.8 million.

True, Kerry held a cash-on-hand advantage ($10.8 million to Edwards’ $8.1 million and Dean’s $6.4 million), but by the end of the third quarter that too would disappear, as the once and future Democratic favorite was easily overtaken by the surging Dean.

In the third quarter of 2003, just a bit more than three months before the actual delegate selection process was to begin in Iowa, Dean ($14.8 million) raised more money than Kerry ($4 million), Gephardt ($3.8 million), Edwards ($2.1 million) and Gen. Wesley Clark ($3.5 million) combined.

And in the last quarter of 2003, just days before Iowa, Dean outraised Kerry $14 million to $2.5 million. If those fundraising numbers also reflected excitement, then the Democratic race should have been over, with Dean coronated in Iowa, New Hampshire and, ultimately, in Boston, and Kerry kicked to the political curb even before the first caucuses.

That’s right. Even fourth-quarter fundraising numbers in 2003 proved to be a lousy indicator of who would win in Iowa and who would win the Democratic nomination.

But back to the question we all apparently are expected to answer: Why isn’t Clinton generating as much excitement as Obama?

This is a difficult question? He’s generating excitement because he is a fresh face; he’s got a great smile; he’s a poised, smart, articulate, personally appealing African-American in a political party that would love to make a statement about equality, opportunity and diversity. He’s playing to the hopes and dreams of Democrats, and he never has to apologize for Iraq. That’s why.

But as for measuring excitement, is excitement six months before the first caucus suddenly the standard we are now expected to use to figure out who will win the Democratic nomination? If it were, then Bill Bradley would have been nominated in 2000 and Dean would have been the Democratic standard-bearer in 2004. Neither happened.

And second, is candidate strength or “excitement” measured primarily by cash receipts or number of donors? Fundraising was a poor predictor in 2004 for the Democrats, and a late June CBS News poll found more Democratic primary voters “enthusiastic” about Clinton (28 percent) than about Obama (22 percent).

It’s true that Clinton raised “only” $21 million in primary funds compared with Obama’s $31 million. But all that means is both candidates will have enough resources to mount top-shelf campaigns in the early caucus and primary states.

It’s amusing that many of those who write about the race noted with apparent approval that Edwards “met” his $9 million goal for the quarter at the same time that they were pronouncing Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) quarter a “disappointment” because he raised only $11 million. But then again, they did the same thing when the first-quarter numbers came out.

Second-quarter fundraising numbers haven’t done anything to clarify the GOP contest.

Yes, McCain’s fundraising is far weaker than expected, and his $2 million in the bank is both a problem and a reflection of his surprisingly limited appeal to Republican givers. But it isn’t as if anyone is blowing the rest of the field away with cash, and this is still a field where everyone has appeal and everyone also has big liabilities.

You know a race is up for grabs when the hottest candidate is a guy who isn’t in the race.

Anyway, where do the races now stand?

Clinton and Obama constitute the Democrats’ top tier, with Edwards still worth watching and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson showing a spark. Sens. Chris Dodd (Conn.) and Joseph Biden (Del.) are serious people, which means they deserve serious attention.

On the GOP side, McCain seems to have fallen back to about where Edwards is now, worth monitoring but definitely a step behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the noncandidacy of former Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.). Thompson has been doing so well as a noncandidate that he just might consider never entering the race officially, or at least until after he wraps up the Republican nomination.

But much of this is of little importance. Frankly, I’ve had enough of arbitrary expectations, including my own. The voters of Iowa — or at least those who participate in the caucuses — will decide who’s real and who isn’t.

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

Friday, July 06, 2007

New Print Edition: Georgia 8 & Ohio 1

The July 3, 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 brief sample of what's in this edition...

Georgia 8: Marshall’s Plan
By Nathan L. Gonzales

Plenty of Democrats had close races in 2006. But the bulk of them were challenging Republican incumbents and not trying to hang onto their own seats, as Cong. Jim Marshall (D) in Georgia’s 8th District was doing.

Bucking the nationwide trend, Republicans actually did fairly well in the Peach State last cycle and came within a few thousand votes of knocking off Marshall and his colleague John Barrow (D) in the 12th District. Now, Democrats call Marshall “battle-tested,” while Republicans label him as an opportunity. Marshall’s 2006 opponent, former Cong. Mac Collins, hasn’t completely ruled out a bid, but Republicans are excited about their newest recruit: retired Air Force Major Rick Goddard.

With Goddard, Republicans have a candidate who can go toe-to-toe with Marshall on military service in a district dominated by Warner Robins Air Logistics Center. But with two more years to establish himself as the incumbent in the newly drawn 8th District, Marshall will be a formidable incumbent. For the rest of the story, you must subscribe...

Ohio 1: Leave No District Behind

The 2006 results in Ohio were bittersweet for Democrats. Nationwide, they took over the U.S. House and U.S. Senate. In the Buckeye State, Democrats took over the governorship, knocked off a sitting Republican senator and made gains in the state Legislature. Yet Democrats picked up a measly one seat in the House, the seat formerly held by Cong. Bob Ney (R), out of five targeted opportunities.

But in 2008, Democrats are setting their sights on Ohio again, including Cong. Steve Chabot (R) and his Cincinnati-based 1st District. He won narrowly last cycle over Cincinnati City Councilman John Cranley (D) and will likely face state House Minority Whip Steve Driehaus (D) this time around. There won’t be as many races at the top of the ticket, but the presidential nominees are likely to spend plenty of time in the district throughout the year. For the rest of the story, you must subscribe...

This issue also includes the 2008 Primary Calendar for House and Senate races.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Cranky Grass-Roots Democrats Send a Message to Capitol Hill

By Stuart Rothenberg

Democratic insiders agree that their party rank and file’s reaction to the passage of the supplemental appropriations bill, which was signed by President Bush a few weeks ago and included money to fund the Iraq War for three more months, was one of anger and frustration.

Possibly more importantly, they also now privately acknowledge that some small-dollar contributors turned away from party fundraising appeals after the bill passed and was signed by the president.

“We saw some hit to online donations,” one knowledgeable Democrat told me recently, adding quickly that contributions already have started to bounce back.

But while party leaders are never happy to hear that Congress’ reputation is slipping — and the drop in Congressional approval a couple of weeks ago almost certainly was because of Democrats expressing dissatisfaction — or that angry base voters have closed up their checkbooks, even temporarily, Democratic House and Senate leaders don’t yet have much reason to fear a grass-roots revolt.

Congressional Democrats apparently were surprised by the base’s reaction to the bill’s passage. They shouldn’t have been. Have they been living under a rock?

We’ve seen grass-roots Democratic anger for the past few years directed at the White House, and the animosity and invective aimed at Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) during his bid for renomination and re-election should have warned House and Senate Democrats that even they are not immune to attacks from left-of-center bloggers who see any cooperation with the White House on Iraq as perfidy.

Increasingly, the Democratic left is acting much the way the Republican right has acted for decades, measuring Capitol Hill behavior against a standard of ideological purity that treats pragmatists as traitors and those who compromise as worse than the enemy.

These voices have always been around, mind you. It is just that they now have a megaphone with the Internet, much as angry conservatives did when talk radio burst on the scene more than a decade ago.

“It makes no sense for our friends in the grass-roots community to hold us responsible when it’s the president’s party that makes change [in Iraq policy] impossible,” one frustrated Democratic Member of Congress said to me recently.

“Our goal,” said the Member, “is still to turn the corner on Iraq. We haven’t changed our position” just because the appropriations bill passed.

Maybe Democratic leaders could have done a better job preparing angry party activists for the passage of the spending bill, possibly sparing Hill Democrats the nasty e-mails and angry comments on liberal blogs, but I doubt it. Democrats have spent so many months cranking up the volume on Iraq — making it a major issue in the 2006 elections and since then increasing their attacks on the president and his policies — that it would have been very difficult to persuade grass-roots anti-war activists to accept a deal with the White House that funded the war for even another week.

Given the bigger picture, it really doesn’t matter that many grass-roots Democrats were very frustrated and angry by Hill Democrats’ behavior (which probably only angers them more).

As we have already learned, Congressional Democrats are planning to take more bites out of the Iraq War apple over the next few months, either in stand-alone bills or as amendments to appropriations bills. A de-authorization vote, for example, seems likely.

Even though it is inevitable that those Democratic initiatives will be blocked by Republicans in the Senate, or vetoed by the president (if any get to his desk), Hill Democrats will be able to crow about their efforts to end the war and blame Bush for the daily doses of bad news from Iraq. That should mollify Democratic confrontationalists, redirecting attention back toward the Republicans and calming the mood of the now-angry crowd on stage left toward Democrats.

The next question for Congressional Democrats is what to do in September, when the president will need Congress to commit additional spending for the war. But their choices depend on the various reports about the so-called surge that are due then and on Republican decisions on the war. If the recent public statements of Sens. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio) are any indication, Democrats will have plenty of company when they try to tighten the noose on the president’s Iraq policy near the end of the summer.

Increasingly, the Democratic left resembles the Republican right. That’s likely to be a long-term problem for Democrats, but it isn’t a terribly significant one between now and November 2008.

But as Democrats grow confident about next year, and especially if they win the White House and increase their majorities in both chambers of Congress in 2008, you can expect the party’s liberal wing to become more confrontational against party moderates and pragmatists. Democrats will go after Democrats who stray from the party and ideological line, much as social and anti-tax conservatives have tried to cleanse the GOP of incumbents who fail to meet their litmus tests.

The writing is already on the wall.

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

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

8 for '08: Battleground States to Watch

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Only six months into the election cycle, the universe of 2008 battleground states is already beginning to take shape. But an accurate list of the battlegrounds includes more than just the presidential race and takes into account states where hot House, Senate and even gubernatorial races also will be taking place.

For parties, political action committees, 527s, or even political junkies looking to maximize their time and effort, these eight states should host a significant percentage of the political action this cycle, listed in descending order from most active. Some states such as Iowa, Nevada and Wisconsin could host fierce presidential campaigning, but the action downballot is much more limited.

Ohio: Twenty electoral votes, at least five competitive House races
Many Democrats still think “what if” when they hear the word “Ohio,” after President Bush carried it narrowly 51 percent to 49 percent on his way to defeating Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). Four years earlier, Bush only carried the state 50 percent to 46 percent and the Buckeye State is a lock to be a presidential battleground once again.

The 2006 election results provided a mixed bag for Democrats. While taking over the governorship and knocking off Sen. Mike DeWine (R), they netted only one House seat. Currently, up to five House seats could be in play. Democrats are excited about two recruits: state Rep. Steve Driehaus, against Rep. Steve Chabot in the 1st district, and state Sen. John Boccieri against Rep. Ralph Regula in the 16th district.

In the 15th district, Franklin County Commissioners Paula Brooks and 2006 nominee Mary Jo Kilroy will battle for the Democratic nomination to face Rep. Deborah Pryce (R). And Democrats will target Rep. Jean Schmidt in the 2nd district, but she may not even make it out of the primary.

Ohio’s 18th district, the seat of former Rep. Bob Ney (R) and now held by Rep. Zack Space (D), is a priority target for Republicans.

Pennsylvania: Twenty-one electoral votes, four House races
Although it received more attention in 2000, the Keystone State is likely to play another critical role in the presidential race. Kerry carried Pennsylvania narrowly 51 percent to 48 percent in 2004 while Al Gore carried it 51 percent to 46 percent in 2000.

Four House seats also could be in play. Republicans are particularly interested in the 10th district, formerly held by ex-Rep. Don Sherwood (R), who got into a public debate about how he treated his mistress. Republicans have a host of candidates there looking to take on freshman Rep. Chris Carney (D).

Rep. Jason Altmire (D) also is a target in the 4th district with both former Rep. Melissa Hart (R) and former Pittsburgh Steelers star and 2006 gubernatorial nominee Lynn Swann (R) taking a look at running. And Rep. Joe Sestak (D) is not likely to get a pass either in the 7th district. Democrats will go after Rep. Jim Gerlach (R) again in the 6th district after he was the last man standing amid a heap of Republican rubble.

Colorado: Nine electoral votes, Senate race, one House race
Democrats haven’t carried the state at the presidential level since Bill Clinton in 1992, but the state has been trending Democratic. Bush won the state by 9 points in 2000 but by only 5 points four years later. Democrats took over one of the state’s Senate seats in 2004 and have their sights set on the second seat, being vacated by GOP Sen. Wayne Allard, in 2008. Rep. Mark Udall is the likely Democratic nominee, while Republicans have former Rep. Bob Schaffer.

In 2006, Democrats also took over the governorship and the 7th district House seat, now held by Rep. Ed Perlmutter. They also control both the state House and Senate. By the numbers, the 7th district should be a swing district, but Republicans aren’t likely to make a real push in the current environment. Democrats will take another swing at Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R) in the 4th district, even without star recruit Brandon Schaffer, who took a pass on the race.

Minnesota: Ten electoral votes, Senate race, two House races
Richard Nixon was the last Republican to carry the state for president in 1972, but the White House races are consistently close. Kerry carried the state 51 percent to 48 percent in 2004 and in 2000, Gore won it by a narrower 48 percent to 46 percent.

Norm Coleman (R) is one of the most vulnerable Senators in the country, and has already drawn a crowd of challengers including comedian Al Franken and attorney Mike Ciresi. Democrats may not be through recruiting yet.

Republicans are targeting freshman Rep. Tim Walz (D) in the 1st district after he knocked off then-Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R) and two GOP state legislators already are running. Freshman Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) begins the first, of likely many, re-election races in the 6th district, in which she is targeted for her unabashed conservative views.

Virginia: Thirteen electoral votes, potential Senate race, two House races
This is a state that wouldn’t have been anywhere near this list four years ago, on the eve of Bush’s 9-point victory over Kerry. Democrats haven’t carried Virginia at the presidential level since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and make up only three of the state’s 11-Member Congressional delegation.

But Tim Kaine (D) won the governorship in 2005, and Jim Webb (D) defeated Sen. George Allen (R) last year in one of the closest Senate races in the country. Now, politicos on both sides of the aisle are watching to see whether Sen. John Warner (R) retires (as many insiders expect), setting up an extremely competitive open-seat race. Former Gov. Mark Warner (D) would be heavily recruited and difficult to defeat.

Rep. Tom Davis (R) would run for an open Senate seat as well, but his 10th district House seat in Northern Virginia would be difficult for Republicans to defend. Democrats also will challenge Rep. Thelma Drake (R) in the 2nd district, after her 2-point victory in 2006.

New Hampshire: Four electoral votes, Senate race, House race
Kerry carried the state by 2 points in 2004, and Bush carried it by 1 point in 2000. Sen. John Sununu (R) already has three challengers, but it’s his 2002 foe, former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D), who would give him the toughest test — if she runs. Last year’s GOP massacre in which Republicans lost both the state House and state Senate and both seats in Congress, makes Sununu extremely vulnerable. Former Rep. Jeb Bradley (R) is challenging freshman Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D) for his old 1st district seat.

Florida: Twenty-seven electoral votes, two House races
Even though Bush won the Sunshine State by 5 points in 2004, Florida must still be considered a battleground state with its 27 electoral votes. Rep. Tim Mahoney (D) is a top Republican target in the 16th district after his 49 percent to 48 percent victory with ex-Rep. Mark Foley’s name still on the ballot. Democrats are making an effort in the 8th district against Rep. Ric Keller (R).

Oregon: Seven electoral votes, Senate race
Ronald Reagan was the last Republican presidential contender to carry Oregon, but the state has been surprisingly closer the past two cycles. In 2000, Gore won it narrowly while Kerry won it by 4 points in 2004.

Democrats are still looking for a top-tier candidate against Sen. Gordon Smith (R), after a series of rejections from the Congressional delegation and a former governor, but the Republican incumbent is far from a safe bet for re-election. If Democrats nominate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) for president, Rep. Darlene Hooley (D) could be vulnerable, but she has proved to be a very tough campaigner.

This story first appeared in Roll Call on June 28, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Will Voters Respond to a Message of Unity or of Division?

By Stuart Rothenberg

For months, many commentators have argued that voters are sick and tired of partisanship and division. The years of Clinton-bashing by conservatives and Bush-bashing by liberals have taken a toll on the less polarized American public, and Americans are looking for a true uniter. At least that’s what many observers are saying.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama has gotten plenty of mileage from the message of bringing people together and crossing the deep ideological divide, which he first offered at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America — there’s a United States of America,” he asserted.

OK, for argument’s sake, let’s just say that we all buy that analysis for the moment. If that’s right, how can anyone possibly explain what former Democratic Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) is doing?

“The Washington establishment is trying to write us out of the campaign ... they don’t want people to hear what John Edwards is saying, because it will mean the end of big money’s stranglehold over our government,” wrote Edwards consultant Joe Trippi in a June 23 fundraising e-mail.

Two days later, Edwards’ deputy campaign manager Jonathan Prince wrote in an e-mail “The whole Washington establishment wants our campaign to go away, because they know that John Edwards means the end to business as usual.” The e-mail goes on to assert that everyone from “Washington lobbyists and PACs” to “political mercenaries and the chattering class” oppose Edwards’ presidential bid because he “doesn’t play by their rules.”

The e-mail says that “they don’t want the American people to hear the message,” adding, “They call him a hypocrite because he came from nothing, built a fortune while standing up for regular people ... [and] has the nerve to remember where he came from.”

Edwards is and has been running a classic “us versus them” campaign, built on class differences and economic populism. Candidates of both parties often run against Washington, D.C., but Edwards’ message is bigger than that. It’s far more class-based.

As such, the former Senator is running on an inherently more divisive message, which appears to strongly contradict the notion that America needs someone who can unify it. And that message isn’t new to Edwards, the man who spent almost an entire election cycle talking about “two Americas.”

Sure, I know what you are thinking. It’s direct mail, Stu, you aren’t supposed to take it seriously. Every candidate’s direct mail is over the top. Those messages are intended to get people to reach into their wallets and open their checkbooks, not to discuss things in a measured, thoughtful or even rational way.

Sorry, but Edwards’ campaign is using this “us versus them” approach more than in fundraising e-mails, and language like this, even in e-mails, contributes to the overall tone of our politics.

More than that, in this particular case, it’s intellectually dishonest.

Take another look at the quote from above. Here is the full quotation: “They call him a hypocrite because he came from nothing, built a fortune while standing up for regular people during some of their toughest times, and — heaven forbid! — he has the nerve to remember where he came from and still care passionately about guaranteeing every family the opportunities he had to get ahead.”

That’s not why “they” call Edwards a hypocrite. It’s not because he cares about guaranteeing every family the opportunities to get ahead. No, “they” (whoever they are) call him a hypocrite because he talks about helping people out of poverty but spends $400 of his own money on a haircut and built a 10,400-square-foot main house on 102 acres, with a total value at more than $5 million.

They also may call him a hypocrite because his new TV spot airing in New Hampshire is one of those feel-good “we’re all in it together” ads that offers a very different message from his direct mail. The future of America “depends on all of us,” says Edwards in the ad, titled “The Strength of America.” “It’s the American people,” he says, avoiding any us versus them rhetoric.

Maybe you think it’s unfair to compare the Senator’s e-mails and TV ads.

Sorry, but I don’t. Campaigns ought to be responsible for things they say, especially when we are talking about the written word or ads. While a candidate on the stump can make a slip or fail to consider the full implications of what he or she has said, consultants and responsible staffers have the opportunity to consider what they have written.

While Edwards talks about change, he, more than any other top-tier candidate in either party, uses the same divisive rhetoric and us versus them appeals that we’ve seen over the past decade (and actually, since William Jennings Bryan).

From a strategic point of view (and if he happens to have the resources to continue to deliver his message), Edwards may figure that this kind of message can motivate base Democratic voters. We’ll see if he is right. At the very least, given the apparent conventional wisdom of voter fatigue with partisanship and confrontation, his gamble is an interesting one. Unfortunately, it isn’t helping the tone of this campaign any.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on June 28, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.