Thursday, November 29, 2007

Ron Paul, Politics and the Internet in the ’08 Campaign

By Stuart Rothenberg

Thank goodness for Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and his campaign for president.

Single-handedly, the quirky libertarian Republican from Texas has unintentionally exposed the over-hype that accompanies much of the talk about politics and the Internet.

Paul has been doing well in post-debate call-ins and Internet “polls” for months, and his Web site has been scoring more hits than a bong at a Grateful Dead concert. Recently, he received a wave of publicity because of a single day of fundraising, when some 35,000 contributors gave more than $4 million to the Congressman’s presidential bid.

But big-sounding numbers can be deceiving, and politics is more about breadth of support than depth. Ultimately, elections are about winning votes, not Web visitors or even campaign dollars.

Yes, $4 million is a lot of money to raise in a single day. But it pales in comparison to the overall fundraising of Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who didn’t need a one-day fundraising event to get media attention.

Still, let’s give the Texan credit for his fundraising. But what does that mean if he also has no chance of becoming the GOP presidential nominee, or even of winning a single primary contest?

Yes, I know. This statement alone is enough to generate far too many e-mails and telephone calls from Paul supporters accusing me of being anti-democratic and of violating the Constitution. When I wrote months ago in this space that it was time for Paul and other third-tier candidates to be excluded from televised debates, more than a couple of reporters made it clear that although they agreed with my view, they didn’t want to be swamped by angry e-mails and phone calls.

The result is that many in the national media have treated Paul casually. Some media types surely find him interesting, especially given his views on Iraq. And people who cover “new technologies,” including the Internet, have a self-interest to hype Paul’s Web hits and Internet fundraising. But you hear very little about his kooky votes.

Hardly anyone is bothering to talk about his votes against resolutions calling on the government of Vietnam to release political prisoners and on the Arab League to help stop the killing in Darfur. Nor do they note that he said during his 1988 Libertarian bid for president that he would do away with the FBI and CIA, abolish the public schools, eliminate Social Security and all farm subsidies, and withdraw from NATO.

Reporters don’t talk about his views and philosophy because they know he isn’t a credible contender, but at the same time they refer to his fundraising and Web presence as if he’s relevant.

Recently, a reporter for a major national newspaper wrote a piece about former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s movement in the Republican presidential race by comparing him to Paul. (Huckabee’s momentum in Iowa is real, though it is still unclear if he’ll develop into a top-tier hopeful.)

The reporter wrote the following: “[Huckabee’s] campaign saw Web site traffic jump to levels second among Republicans only to that of Mr. Paul, who has a strong base of Internet supporters, forcing it to upgrade its server three times.”

The comparison was interesting but totally meaningless. Yes, Paul gets lots of Web site traffic. And yet, has zero chance of being nominated. Given that, who cares about Paul’s Web traffic (or Huckabee’s, for that matter), unless you are a technology reporter who is personally invested in your beat?

Anyway, I’ll offer a guess as to why Paul is raising all that cash and generating those Web hits. He received 423,000 votes when he ran as the Libertarian Party’s nominee for president in 1988, raising a little more than $2 million. Anyone who knows libertarians knows that they are a committed bunch, certain that the country has lost its way and in need of immediate repair.

I’ll bet that many who voted for and contributed to Paul in the past (he raised more than $2 million for his House races in 1998 and 2000) are investing in his presidential campaign this time, and he almost certainly is drawing support from liberals who connect with his views on the war in Iraq, from frustrated Americans who simply don’t like “the system,” and from some Republicans who are at the libertarian extreme of their party.

Check out Paul’s Web site. He is openly appealing to voters who aren’t registered Republicans by including, on the lower left hand corner of his Web site, a box listing “party affiliation change deadlines.” “You must be registered with the correct party to vote for Ron Paul in closed primaries,” says the site.

Sorry, but you can’t win a Republican presidential nomination by relying on the support of non-Republicans. Nor can you win if you finish fifth in the Iowa straw poll (in which three credible candidates didn’t participate) and third in your home state’s straw poll behind Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.).

How can we explain Ron Paul? This is a big country with hundreds of millions of people, some of whom are attracted to quirky, anti-establishment candidates. And some of those people are angry, looking for an outspoken leader and searching for an easy answer to the nation’s problems. But there simply are not all that many of them.

The Internet undoubtedly has made it easier for Paul supporters to connect with the campaign and with each other, and it’s become a terrific way to raise cash for a candidate with emotional followers. But Web chatter, declarations of undying support on Facebook and even surprising fundraising totals don’t make a serious contender out of a candidate from the political fringe. Ultimately, it’s about votes.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on November 27, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Mississippi Senate: Musgrove “Seriously Considering”

By Stuart Rothenberg

Former Mississippi Governor Ronnie Musgrove (D) told the Rothenberg Political Report this morning that he “is seriously considering running” for Senator Trent Lott’s soon-to-be-open United States Senate seat.

Musgrove, who was defeated for reelection in 2003 by Republican Haley Barbour, is one of a few Democrats with statewide name recognition who have been mentioned as prospective candidates for an open seat.

The Democrat acknowledges that he would have to make a decision about the race quickly if Lott resigns before the end of the year, since that timing would require Barbour to call a special election within 90 days to fill the vacancy.

Democrats insist that the state faces the same problems that have hurt Republicans nationally – including high gas prices, the mortgage crisis and the war in Iraq – and argue that state voters simply want a candidate who can address issues and come up with solutions.

Former state Attorney General Michael Moore (D) reportedly was interested in Senator Thad Cochran’s seat before Cochran announced he would seek reelection.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Nebraska Senate: Don’t Gas Up the Scott Kleeb Senate Bandwagon Just Yet

By Stuart Rothenberg

To hear some of the early Democratic buzz (and even media hype) about Scott Kleeb’s chances in the Nebraska Senate race, you’d think the Cornhusker State’s 2008 Senate race might be worth watching, even without former Sen. Bob Kerrey or Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey carrying the Democratic banner.

Well, at this point, the state’s Senate race is worth watching, but only through the Republican primary. If a Democratic victory in the state is not impossible, it is certainly implausible.

Much has been made by those encouraging Kleeb to run that Democrats have had their share of victories in the state. That’s true. Democrats have won nine of the past 11 Senate races in Nebraska, including a stretch of seven in a row from 1976 to 1994. They’ve also won nine of the state’s past 15 gubernatorial elections.

But if you’ve been watching Nebraska politics for the past 25 or 30 years, as I have, you know those numbers are misleading and probably irrelevant in 2008.

Too often, a vitally important tidbit about Democratic successes in the state is left out: All of those 18 races were won by one of only four Democrats: J.J. Exon, Ed Zorinsky, Bob Kerrey and Ben Nelson. Exon, Kerrey and Nelson were elected as and served as governor before winning election to the Senate. Their records as governor credentialed them to run for federal office.

Zorinsky, of course, was the Republican mayor of Omaha who switched parties to run for the Senate as a Democrat only when the state GOP handed the party’s Senate nomination to the Republican Congressman from Omaha. During his years in the Senate, Zorinsky was a favorite of Washington, D.C., conservatives because he voted like a Republican. Indeed, every two years rumors circulated that Zorinsky would switch back to his old party if it needed his vote to organize the Senate.

So Democrats don’t simply drop out of the sky to win statewide races in Nebraska. Kerrey would have been very competitive next year. Fahey would have been an interesting nominee. Nobody else comes close.

This brings us to Kleeb, whose major asset seems to be his rugged good looks, especially when he is atop a horse or wearing his cowboy hat. He has been praised by one liberal activist as a “solid progressive,” hardly an asset in Nebraska.

Kleeb, who currently is a program officer in the Center for Student Leadership at Hastings College (which is located in the south-central part of the state), drew 45 percent of the vote in an open-seat House race last year in Nebraska’s very Republican 3rd district. On the strength of that showing, some Democrats are making the case that he would be a formidable candidate for the Senate.

Kleeb’s showing was good, considering that he parachuted into the state (from Colorado and then graduate school at Yale) shortly before he began his Congressional bid. In one of the most creative efforts I’ve ever seen to connect a candidate to a state with which he had little or no personal connection, Kleeb’s Congressional campaign distributed a sheet that said that he “was raised on Nebraska stories” and “was raised on a U.S. Army installation in Italy, but he grew up knowing his home was in Nebraska.”

So what about Kleeb’s 45 percent showing in a district that went 75 percent for George W. Bush two years earlier? Doesn’t that demonstrate Kleeb’s appeal and potential statewide strength?

First, 2006 and 2008 are very different years, with last year being the worst political environment for Republicans since Watergate and next year being a presidential year. Second, those who point to Kleeb’s showing either don’t know to look at the district’s history or ignored important facts that put his showing into context.

Nebraska’s 3rd district was open in 2000, when football coach icon Tom Osborne (R) was easily elected to fill it. But the previous time it was open was 1990, when veteran Rep. Virginia Smith (R) retired.

The election to fill Smith’s open seat was close — far closer than Kleeb’s 10-point miss last time. Republican Bill Barrett beat Democrat Sandra Scofield by just 4,373 votes, 51 percent to 49 percent. The race was that close even though George H.W. Bush carried the district with 67 percent in 1988 and Ronald Reagan took 78 percent there in the 1984 White House election.

In 1992, Barrett won re-election with 72 percent of the vote as Bush was carrying the district in a three-way race with 49 percent and Democrat Bill Clinton was finishing third (behind Ross Perot) with 23 percent of the vote.

Want further evidence that Kleeb’s showing in last year’s open seat wasn’t all that shocking? When the untouchable Virginia Smith first won the 3rd district House seat during the 1974 midterms, her margin was 737 votes (50.2 percent to 49.8 percent) over Democrat Wayne Ziebarth. Two years later, she won re-election with 75 percent as Gerald Ford (R) was carrying the district with 63 percent of the vote in the presidential contest.

Apparently, close open-seat races in the 3rd district are the rule, not the exception, at least when they occur during midterms. And two of the past three were closer than 2006.

Republicans have two strong, conservative candidates for the Senate. Unless the Republican primary produces an absolute bloodbath — and the May primary date gives time for wounds to heal — the party will have a well-known current or former statewide officeholder running for the Senate in a presidential year. The national Democratic ticket is not likely to have much appeal in central and western Nebraska. [Editor's Note: Since the article was first written, Attorney General Jon Bruning (R) dropped out of the race, eliminating the chance of a competitive primary.]

You need to believe the unbelievable to think that Kleeb or any Democrat not named Kerrey (or, possibly, Fahey) would have any chance of winning the state’s Senate seat next year. Kleeb apparently is mulling a Senate bid or another run for the House, which would be almost as uphill. If he’s serious about a political career, he ought to look at another route to federal office.

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

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

New York 19: Saul Dropping Out

In a stunning development, wealthy businessman Andrew Saul (R) is making calls to inform supporters and GOP insiders that he is dropping his candidacy in New York’s 19th District. Saul was widely regarded as a strong Republican recruit to take on freshman Democratic Cong. John Hall (D). Saul’s ability to self-finance and the Republican-tilt of the district made it a top GOP target. But now, his exit from the race leaves Republicans looking for a credible challenger.

Two Networks Flop in Reporting on New Poll

By Stuart Rothenberg

If there is something surprising about the new ABC News/Washington Post survey of likely Iowa Democratic caucus attendees, it isn’t the fact that Sen. Barack Obama (30 percent) holds a narrow lead over New York Sen. Hillary Clinton (26 percent) and John Edwards (22 percent). It’s the curious way ABC and rival NBC reported on and interpreted the results during their Monday night national news programs.

For years, Independent political analysts have been warning about reporters’ tendencies to compare polls conducted by different polling firms, to over-interpret small changes in poll results and to treat the results of the most recent survey as if they are etched into stone. And yet that’s what the two networks seemed to do.

Interestingly (though probably not surprisingly), ABC News’s partner in the Iowa survey, the Washington Post, played the story in a much more measured and thoughtful way.

ABC’s World News opened with the network’s new survey, treating it with a breathless quality deserving of momentous breaking news. In fact, the ballot test in the new poll wasn’t all that different from the previous ABC News/Washington Post poll, conducted in late July, which had Obama leading with 27 percent, to 26 percent each for both Clinton and Edwards. Obama’s lead both in July and in the most recent survey are statistically insignificant.

Oddly, ABC’s Kate Snow commented that one of the interesting things about the new survey is that likely caucus goers have “come to a different conclusion than what national polls say.” That’s a strange comment since the difference between the Iowa numbers and the national numbers has existed for many months, and many observers have questioned the networks’ focus on national survey data.

A minute or two later in the show, anchor Charles Gibson told chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos that he was struck by “what retail politics this all is.” This is news? Gibson didn’t know that Iowa (and New Hampshire) are famous for being retail politics states?

NBC also botched its report of the new survey. First, Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, referring to the Iowa race and the new poll, said “It’s tightening among the Democrats,” and then NBC Chief White House Correspondent David Gregory compounded the error by telling viewers that “For the first time, [Obama] has a lead in the state.” Given the results of the previous ABC News/Washington Post poll, “tightening” is not an apt description. And of course, Obama held a “lead” in the July survey.

It’s worth noting, though nobody did, that the July ABC News/Washington Post survey was dramatically different than other surveys taken at the time. This does not mean that the July ABC News survey was wrong or that the current one is incorrect. It is a reminder, however, that it’s better to be cautious about reading too much into this, or any, poll – even if you are paying for the survey.

In fact, some campaign operatives with the Presidential campaigns are skeptical about many of the polls being conducted in Iowa because of the difficulty in predicting exactly who will participate in the January caucuses.

This item also appeared on Political Wire on November 20, 2007.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Republican Campaign Still Includes Many Possible Storylines

By Stuart Rothenberg

For months, I’ve been urging caution about assessing and overanalyzing the two presidential races too early, and now we see why.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), who has no money and no standing in national public opinion polls, is making a strong run in Iowa, and if he continues to get traction in the Hawkeye State’s January caucuses, he’ll change the Republican race dramatically.

That’s because Iowa and New Hampshire continue to be crucially important in the contest for the GOP and Democratic nominations, and a wild card development in one party’s Iowa caucuses could impact the subsequent, yet still unscheduled, New Hampshire primary and change the fundamental nature of that race.

Huckabee’s long-term viability within the Republican race without a surprisingly strong showing in Iowa is nil, and his lack of resources and campaign organization in other states still make it difficult for him to take advantage of a stronger-than-expected showing in the caucuses, even with an approving national media in his corner.

But a strong second-place Huckabee showing in the contest (to say nothing of a win over heavy spending, well-organized frontrunner Mitt Romney) would be the story of the night — unless of course Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) were to lose in the Democratic contest that evening.

And that’s worth emphasizing. With each party having a contest on the evening of Jan. 3, they will both be fighting for media attention. A surprise in one could overshadow a less surprising outcome in the other.

Huckabee’s move in Iowa appears to be documented in a number of places, but polling the caucuses isn’t easy and conclusions should always be tentative because of turnout questions.

But if Huckabee were to pass Romney, it likely would be lights out for the former Massachusetts governor, who has spent heavily on TV, organized the state better than any other Republican in the presidential race and staked out a momentum strategy of winning Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan. Romney’s goal is to establish the inevitability of his nomination and short-circuit former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s campaign even before it has really begun.

If Romney doesn’t win in Iowa, it’s difficult to imagine him holding his ground in New Hampshire. After all, if he flops in the place where all of the knowledgeable insiders from both parties say that he is invincible, how could he possibly withstand the media frenzy after finishing second, especially to another conservative?

And a Romney loss in the state probably would put a stake through the heart of the argument that “organization” always is the name of the game in Iowa.

A top three finish of Romney, Huckabee and Giuliani could create an interesting scenario, with Romney and Huckabee seeking to emerge as the conservative favorite and Giuliani enjoying the battle on the right.

Even a poor showing by a second-tier GOP hopeful in Iowa could affect the Republican race.

Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson didn’t exactly bolt out of the gate when he entered the Republican contest in September. Yes, his national poll numbers were good, and he showed quick strength in some state polls, but his actual campaign never reached the standard set by those polls.

More recently, Thompson has been something of a bust, if we are all to believe the surveys that show his support dropping. Still, Thompson somehow just won the endorsement of the National Right to Life Committee, and he has been running around the country presenting himself as a true-blue conservative.

The longer Thompson stays in the race, the better for Giuliani, who can only benefit from a number of GOPers wooing the right’s votes. Conversely, a fourth- or fifth-place finish in Iowa by Thompson, behind a couple of conservatives (including Huckabee) probably would make the former Tennessee Senator irrelevant in New Hampshire, reducing the number of candidates who would divide the conservative vote.

Under normal circumstances, Giuliani’s strategy of jump-starting his campaign in Florida, in late January, would be political lunacy, and many seasoned observers rightly remain skeptical of it. It’s a strategy based on weakness, not strength, and it makes the former mayor prisoner to the outcomes of races in which he is participating half-heartedly. Giuliani advisers are only fooling themselves if they believe that unbroken early momentum doesn’t matter.

But this GOP race isn’t like most presidential contests, and as dubious a strategy as Giuliani’s is, it could still work because of the peculiarities of this Republican contest.

Ultimately, the Republican race still could boil down to a fight between a moderate, such as Giuliani, and the winner of the race within a race to become the preferred candidate of conservatives. Under that scenario, the former New York mayor would still have problems in a one-on-one with a conservative, and a momentum candidate like Huckabee could be more formidable than his campaign bank account now suggests.

So if you’ve tired of the early coverage or already suffered burnout, have no fear. You can now happily forget all of brouhaha about some summer debate or first-quarter fundraising. Finally, real voters in Iowa are starting to examine the candidates with an eye to picking a president — or at least a presidential nominee. Just keep at least one eye on Huckabee.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on November 15, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

New Print Edition: Ohio 16 & Virginia Senate

The November 16, 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...

Ohio 16: From Generation to Generation

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Not surprisingly, Republicans have a real problem on their hands in Ohio. Powerful Cong. Ralph Regula (R) is retiring after 18 terms, leaving a competitive open seat behind. The 16th District would be a tough hold anyway for Republicans, but Democrats have recruited an excellent candidate in Iraq War veteran/state Sen. John Boccieri.

Republicans will likely nominate either state Sen. Kirk Schuring or Ashland County Commissioner Matt Miller. But with the state and national environment running against them, either man will have a difficult general election fight. Print subscribers get the whole story.

Virginia Senate: Closer Than You Think?

It’s hard to find anything comparable in this country to the coronation that is going on with Mark Warner (D) and the open Virginia Senate seat. Veteran Senator John Warner (R) is stepping down at the end of his term, leaving the seat wide open for the man he defeated back in 1996.

But since that first race over a decade ago, Mark Warner has served a successful four-year term as governor of the Commonwealth, Democrats knocked off Virginia’s other senator, George Allen (R), last cycle, and the party recaptured the state Senate just a couple weeks ago. Print subscribers get the whole story.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Reruns for Senate

By Nathan L. Gonzales

It may sound crazy, but the best way to go about winning a seat in the Senate may well be to lose a Senate race.

Thirteen current Senators lost their initial bids for the Senate, only to be elected later in their political careers. Now, Democrats Mark Warner (Va.) and Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.) are looking to follow that same journey.

“You never get into a race thinking you’re going to lose,” said former Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine (R), who lost to incumbent Sen. John Glenn (D) in 1992 in a state where a Senate loss is almost a credential.

“We don’t elect anyone to the Senate until they run statewide and lose,” added DeWine, who won an open seat in 1994.

In 1988, now-Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D), losing by 14 points. Voinovich went on to serve eight years as governor, and when Glenn retired in 1998, Voinovich won the open seat with 56 percent. (Glenn and Metzenbaum both lost Senate primaries — to each other — and Metzenbaum had also lost a general election.)

The stories and timelines vary from candidate to candidate and state to state, but a Senate loss, in general, can result in valuable name recognition and invaluable campaign experience. Sometimes it takes a competitive statewide run to adjust to the intense media scrutiny of a high-profile campaign.

“You learn more in defeat than in victory,” said Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith (R), who narrowly lost a January 1996 special election to now-Sen. Ron Wyden (D) in the race to replace GOP Sen. Bob Packwood.

Later that year, Oregon’s other Senator, Mark Hatfield (R), announced his retirement. Smith was hesitant to make another run, in part because he recalled campaigning the first time as a “very painful and inhumane process.” But Smith entered the race and won, and he now believes his initial run helped him.

“You make a better candidate and Senator [after a loss],” he said.

Smith is just one of four Senators currently serving with the man who defeated him the first time.

In Nevada, John Ensign (R) lost his 1998 challenge to Sen. Harry Reid (D) by 428 votes but came back two years later to win the open seat created by retiring Sen. Richard H. Bryan (D). Reid himself overcame an initial Senate loss, a 1974 defeat at the hands of Sen. Paul Laxalt (R), with his election in 1986.

In Nebraska, then-Gov. Ben Nelson (D) lost to Chuck Hagel (R) in 1996. Four years later, Nelson won the open seat of retiring Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) in the closest Senate race in state history.

“Losing is the best teacher of all,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who lost to Sen. Tim Johnson (D) in 2002 by only 524 votes. Two years later, Thune knocked off Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D) in another extremely competitive and close race.

After his loss, Thune was enjoying his life outside of elected office (since he had given up his House seat to run against Johnson) and did not want to run again. “Running against incumbents back-to-back, you’d have to have a screw loose to do it,” Thune said. But he was eventually persuaded and ultimately successful.

Thune is one of two current Senators to avenge his initial Senate loss by defeating an incumbent. In 1974, Dick Lugar (R) lost his challenge to Sen. Birch Bayh (D) in Indiana, but he defeated the state’s other incumbent Senator, Vance Hartke (D), two years later. Shaheen is trying to follow in their footsteps in New Hampshire.

In 1996, Shaheen was elected the first female governor of New Hampshire, winning her first of three two-year terms. In 2002, Shaheen left her post to run for the Senate against Sen. Bob Smith (R). But then-Rep. John Sununu (R) unseated Smith in the primary, and Shaheen went on to lose to the Congressman 51 percent to 46 percent.

After her loss, Shaheen essentially retired from politics and took a job as the director of Harvard University’s Institute of Politics. She showed no interest in running for office again, but after numerous recruiting entreaties from Democrats in Washington, D.C., Shaheen decided to challenge Sununu in 2008.

But unlike Thune or the other dozen Members of the Senate who overcame their losses, Shaheen will have to defeat the same person who beat her the first time.

“Timing is everything,” Thune said, comparing his own two Senate runs. The same might be said for the Democrats and Shaheen in New Hampshire, where the national environment is considerably better for their party than it was six years ago.

Like Shaheen, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) also had six years between his Senate runs, but his story is more complicated. Stevens ran unsuccessfully in 1962, drawing 41 percent against Ernest Gruening (D). Six years later, Stevens ran again and lost in the Republican primary. But when Sen. E.L. Bartlett (D) died later that year, Stevens was appointed to the seat. He won the subsequent special election and six more full terms.

In 1976, now-Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) couldn’t get out of the Republican primary against John Heinz in an open-seat race, but was elected to the Senate four years later.

Other Senators had much longer spans of time between Senate bids.

Bob Corker first ran for the Senate in Tennessee in 1994, but he lost in the Republican primary to Bill Frist. When Frist retired in 2006 after two terms, Corker ran again. He won the competitive primary this time and went on to defeat then-Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D) in the general election, more than a decade after his initial loss.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) had eight years between his initial loss in the 1996 Republican Senate primary and his election in 2004. And Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) had a whopping 34 years between a Senate loss and his election last fall. Sanders ran unsuccessfully in both 1972 and 1974 under the Liberty Union Party banner.

In Maryland, Barbara Mikulski (D), then a Baltimore city councilwoman, took 43 percent against incumbent Sen. Charles Mathias (R) in 1974. A dozen years later when Mathias retired, Mikulski won his open seat after serving a decade in the House.

Similarly, Mark Warner lost his 1996 challenge to Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), 53 percent to 47 percent, and he is now the leading candidate for the Republican’s open seat 12 years later. Instead of gaining some House experience in the meantime, Mark Warner served a term as the commonwealth’s governor (2001-2005) and is hoping to ride his popularity into the Senate.

Of course, losing a Senate race does not guarantee victory. Erskine Bowles (D) lost races in both 2002 and 2004 in North Carolina. Colorado Democrat Tom Strickland lost in 1996 and 2002. Former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt (D) went home empty-handed in North Carolina in 1990 and 1996. Former Rep. Ed Bryant (Tenn.) couldn’t get out of Republican primaries in 2002 or 2006.

And then there is Alan Keyes (R), who has managed to lose two Senate races in Maryland (1988 and 1992) as well as one in Illinois (2004).

This story first appeared in Roll Call on November 13, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Fate of ’06 House Takeovers May Mirror ’08 Party Prospects

By Stuart Rothenberg

One of the reasons that some National Republican Congressional Committee strategists are hopeful of gaining seats next year, or at least minimizing further losses, is that they expect to win back some of the House seats that the party lost in last year’s Democratic wave.

In any wave election, some of the victorious Members carried to victory are swept back out two years later. So how are the prospects of the 30 Democrats who took over Republican House seats in 2006?

Of the 30 seats taken over by Democrats a year ago, 12 seats appear not to be in play in 2008 — those now held by Reps. Michael Arcuri (New York’s 24th district), Bruce Braley (Iowa’s 1st), Joe Courtney (Connecticut’s 2nd), Joe Donnelly (Indiana’s 2nd), Paul Hodes (New Hampshire’s 2nd), Ron Klein (Florida’s 22nd), Dave Loebsack (Iowa’s 2nd), Patrick Murphy (Pennsylvania’s 8th), Ed Perlmutter (Colorado’s 7th), Joe Sestak (Pennsylvania’s 7th), Heath Shuler (North Carolina’s 11th) and John Yarmuth (Kentucky’s 3rd).

Some of these freshmen hold seats in clearly Democratic-leaning districts that were held by popular Republicans, such as the two Iowa districts. Without a strong wind at their backs, Republicans aren’t going to win back these districts.

Others are tossup districts where politically savvy Democrats will be hard to wrestle from office, such as Klein’s Florida district, Perlmutter’s Colorado district and Arcuri’s upstate New York seat. Similar to these are districts that tilt Democratic and could be ripe for a strong Republican challenge in a neutral or Republican-leaning political environment, such as Yarmuth’s district and Courtney’s.

Only a couple of those dozen seats are in Republican-leaning or conservative districts (Shuler’s and Donnelly’s).

Could Republicans eventually put one or more of those seats in play before November? Certainly. But at this point, none of the dozen looks highly vulnerable.

That means at the most 18 seats have any chance of returning back to the GOP column two years after Democrats took them over.

Of them, a handful stand out because of their fundamentally Republican nature. Rep. Nick Lampson’s Texas district is horrible for Democrats, and that’s why he probably is the single most endangered Democrat who won in 2006. Yes, the Republican field has evolved in such a way that it now lacks big-name local officeholders, but that doesn’t change Lampson’s dubious prospects.

Reps. Nancy Boyda (Kan.), Christopher Carney (Pa.), Tim Mahoney (Fla.) and Jerry McNerney (Calif.) probably round out the top five ‘06 Democratic takeovers who are now vulnerable to a snapback.

Republicans have competitive primaries in three of those four districts (all but McNerney’s), a sure sign of the value of the GOP nomination, even in an election year that could be challenging for the party.

But those primary fields are very different across the districts. In the Kansas district, the ousted Congressman and the sitting state treasurer are competing for the Republican nomination, while in Pennsylvania, two businessmen without much political experience are among the leaders in the battle for the Republican nomination. In the Florida district, the top-tier hopefuls cut across the board in experience, and include a state legislator, a local officeholder and someone who hasn’t held elective office.

If Republicans get shut out in their efforts to win back these five seats, they better head to the storm cellar. If they can’t win any of these back, they are going to have a horrible cycle. Even winning only one or two of the five would be disappointing for them.

A Republican sweep of the five would be encouraging news for the GOP, but it wouldn’t guarantee that Democrats were having a rough cycle. The key to the elections could well be how well Republicans do in the rest of the 30 districts they lost in 2006.

The remaining 13 seats are, for one reason or another, Republican opportunities, but they will not fall easily.

Rep. Brad Ellsworth’s Indiana district gave President Bush 62 percent of the vote in 2004, but the freshman Democrat fits it well. The likely GOP challenger to Rep. Christopher Murphy in Connecticut, state Sen. David Cappiello, is a very strong recruit, but the year, and the district’s fundamentals, suggest the challenger will have a distinctly uphill battle.

Rep. Zack Space (Ohio) was elected only because Republican ethics problems gave the seat away, but the GOP doesn’t have the proven vote-getter in 2006 that party operatives would have wanted. John Gard was a strong Republican nominee in 2006 and he should be one again in 2008. But Rep. Steve Kagen (Wis.) beat him last time and now has the advantages of incumbency.

New York Democratic Reps. Kirsten Gillibrand and John Hall are in Republican- leaning districts, and the likely GOP nominees should have the resources to run strong races against them. But will voters fire them so quickly, especially if Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) is at the top of the state’s ballot?

If you are looking to see how the cycle is going for the Republicans, start with the most likely snapback candidates and then proceed to the longer shots. That should give you an idea whether the Republicans are playing any offense, or whether the party is completely back on its heels.

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

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Bush Factor in the Upcoming Presidential Election

By Stuart Rothenberg

If there is one question that, when answered, should help us anticipate the 2008 results, it is likely to be this one: How much of an impact will President Bush have on voters’ decisions next year?

Unfortunately, history isn’t much of a guide, since there is just a single case in the post-war era when the party of a retiring president did not nominate his vice president to succeed him. That happened in 1952, when Democrats chose Adlai Stevenson for president over Vice President Alben Barkley (Stevenson actually was outgoing President Harry Truman’s choice).

In 1928, the sitting vice president, Charles Dawes, joined President Calvin Coolidge in deciding not to seek another term, thereby creating the situation that exists this election cycle. But the nature of our politics (and technology) has changed so much since 1928, and even 1952, that those two cases are of limited value in trying to understand 2008.

The recent cases where a sitting vice president has tried to move up to the White House show mixed results. George H.W. Bush won election to succeed Ronald Reagan in 1988, while history shows that both Al Gore (2000) and Richard Nixon (1960) lost close, disputed races.

Bush clearly benefited from Reagan’s presidency, since he portrayed his election essentially as a third Reagan term. But while Reagan left office with a job approval of more than 50 percent, polls taken during the summer of 1988, and even after the conventions, consistently showed Democrat Michael Dukakis with the lead. Bush ended up winning comfortably because he ran the far better campaign and only after Dukakis flopped as a candidate.

Nixon lost in 1960 even though President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s popularity at the end of his second term stood at 60 percent, according to Gallup. Obviously, the candidates, their campaigns and their messages mattered a great deal.

Hubert Humphrey was saddled with a divided Democratic Party and an unpopular president when he failed to win the White House in 1968. But the vice president almost pulled off a remarkable come-from-behind victory even though he was hurt by George Wallace’s third-party bid that siphoned off the electoral votes of five historically Democratic Southern states.

Gore’s 2000 loss is the hardest to assess. Outgoing President Bill Clinton’s popularity was similar to Eisenhower’s in 1960, yet it’s a matter of intense dispute whether Gore lost because of voters’ disgust with Clinton (and their desire to “turn the page” on his scandal) or because Gore did not embrace the successes of the Clinton years more enthusiastically.

Of all the cases, 1952 may be the best analogy to 2008, though there are important differences with it and 2008.

Both elections took place in the shadow of widely unpopular wars (Korea and Iraq), with the out-party running on change and cleaning up Washington, D.C. Truman, like Bush, exercised executive power over the objection of Congress, such as seizing control of the nation’s steel mills, and his administration was beset by controversy.

It’s true that Democrats had controlled the White House for 20 years when 1952 rolled around, but the past eight years seem like at least 20 years to Bush’s critics.

The greatest difference between 1952 and 2008 is likely to be the nominees. In ’52, the non-incumbent party, the Republicans, nominated a popular war hero who was above partisan politics — a far cry from any of the top three Democrats competing for their party’s nomination this time. Democrats, in turn, nominated a liberal reformer who couldn’t compete with Ike’s reputation or experience.

Those cases demonstrate that a popular outgoing president can’t automatically pass the White House on to his party’s next nominee. But there are too few cases to draw any conclusions about an unpopular president. In 1952, Truman clearly was a problem for Stevenson. But the two parties’ particular nominees in that race contributed to the Democrats’ problem.

This cycle, many Republicans are making the argument that in the 2008 election, George W. Bush will be irrelevant. Voters will have “turned the page” on him and will be looking toward the future rather than the past, they insist.

Some Republican strategists assert confidently that voters will be evaluating the party’s presidential nominee, not Bush, and that the party’s image will be repaired once Bush is perceived as part of the past, not the future.

Democrats counter that while Bush will not be on the ballot, his war will still be going on and Republicans will not be able to run from his record or from their support for him during his presidency. They insist that the election will allow voters to choose between change and continuity, and that the Republicans will represent continuity and Democrats will represent change.

Who is more likely to be correct?

In midterms, many Americans vote retrospectively. That is, they base their decisions on past performance. In presidential elections, they tend to look forward, to evaluate the nominees on the basis of how they will perform in office.

But is it reasonable to believe that voters completely disregard past performance — a party’s past performance — when an unpopular president leaves office? Probably not.

After all, Democrats have plenty of tape of Bush making promises that were not kept and asserting truths that turned out not to be true. And they’ll be running against a party that has been defined for the past few years by its leader, the president of the United States. That means the Republican nominee for president will inevitably be the candidate of continuity rather than dramatic change, no matter how passionately he delivers a message of change.

It’s also true, however, that once the GOP has a presidential nominee, he will start to redefine the public’s image of the Republican Party. George W. Bush will seem less relevant, less important. But he will never disappear. That doesn’t doom the Republican nominee, but it puts him in a hole even before the race has begun.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on November 8, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Friday, November 09, 2007

2008 House Ratings

Here are our latest House ratings, reflecting changes in New Jersey 3 and Wyoming. Any seats not listed are currently considered to be at limited risk for the incumbent party. Democrats currently hold a 233-202 majority in the House. For race-by-race analysis, you must subscribe to the print edition of the Report.

  • FL 16 (Mahoney, D)
  • KS 2 (Boyda, D)
  • PA 10 (Carney, D)
  • TX 22 (Lampson, D)
  • AZ 1 (Open; Renzi, R)
  • IL 11 (Open; Weller, R)
  • MN 3 (Open; Ramstad, R)
  • NJ 3 (Open; Saxton, R)
  • NM1 (Open; Wilson, R)
  • VA 11 (Open; Davis, R)
  • FL 13 (Buchanan, R)
  • NC 8 (Hayes, R)
  • WA 8 (Reichert, R)
  • CA 11 (McNerney, D)
  • GA 8 (Marshall, D)
  • IL 8 (Bean, D)
  • NH 1 (Shea-Porter, D)
  • OH 15 (Open; Pryce, R)
  • CT 4 (Shays, R)
  • IL 10 (Kirk, R)
  • MI 9 (Knollenberg, R)
  • NV 3 (Porter, R)
  • NJ 7 (Ferguson, R)
  • NY 25 (Walsh, R)
  • NY 29 (Kuhl, R)
  • OH 1 (Chabot, R)
  • OH 2 (Schmidt, R)
  • OH 16 (Regula, R)
  • PA 6 (Gerlach, R)
  • AZ 5 (Mitchell, D)
  • GA 12 (Barrow, D)
  • IN 9 (Hill, D)
  • MN 1 (Walz, D)
  • NY 19 (Hall, D)
  • NY 20 (Gillibrand, D)
  • OH 18 (Space, D)
  • PA 4 (Altmire, D)
  • WI 8 (Kagen, D)
  • AK A-L (Young, R)
  • CA 4 (Doolittle, R)
  • CO 4 (Musgrave, R)
  • FL 8 (Keller, R)
  • IL 6 (Roskam, R)
  • IL 14 (Open; Hastert, R)
  • MI 7 (Walberg, R)
  • MN 6 (Bachmann, R)
  • MO 6 (Graves, R)
  • NY 13 (Fosella, R)
  • PA 14 (Murphy, R)
  • VA 2 (Drake, R)
  • WV 2 (Capito, R)
  • WY AL (Open, Cubin, R)
  • AZ 8 (Giffords, D)
  • CT 5 (Murphy, D)
  • IN 2 (Donnelly, D)
  • IN 8 (Ellsworth, D)
  • KS 3 (Moore, D)
  • KY 3 (Yarmuth, D)
  • ME 1 (Open; Allen, D)
  • PA 7 (Sestak, D)
  • PA 8 (Murphy, D)
  • TX 23 (Rodriguez, D)

Thursday, November 08, 2007

GOP’s Race Problem Doesn’t Always Include Debates

By Stuart Rothenberg

A shot was recently fired across the GOP’s bow about the cancellation of the scheduled Nov. 4 presidential debate co-sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute and Fox News, and you can bet more shots will be fired over the next few months.

Writing less than a week ago, Huffington Post political reporter Michael Roston commented that “it appears that some GOP frontrunners are once again letting an opportunity to appear before African-American voters lapse, just as they decided to sit out a black voter forum hosted last month by Tavis Smiley.”

Roston was referring to a September debate in Maryland that leading GOP contenders skipped, citing schedule conflicts.

But why would Republicans even consider participating in a debate sponsored by the CBC Institute, an arm of the Congressional Black Caucus, which includes 43 Democratic Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and which has been consistently critical of President Bush and Republican policies?

The CBC is essentially a Democratic group — when he was in the House, Oklahoma Republican J.C. Watts refused to join it because of its agenda. Given that, it isn’t surprising that less than a week before Roston’s column appeared on the Internet, the CBC issued a news release announcing that the group was “outraged” by the confirmation of Leslie Southwick to the 5th Circuit Court, a nomination supported unanimously by Republican Senators.

There is no doubt that Republicans need to increase their support in the minority community, including among black voters. That’s not a new observation. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp made that point many years ago, and Ken Mehlman reiterated it during his term as chairman of the Republican National Committee.

The problem, however, is more obvious than the solution. While Republicans have recently nominated black candidates for governor in Ohio and Pennsylvania and for the Senate in Maryland, the party has had only limited success wooing black voters.

Part of the GOP’s problem is that the national black political leadership is both generally liberal and joined to the Democratic Party at the hip. That’s good for Democrats and bad for Republicans, since it invariably sets up black political leaders against the GOP when controversies emerge.

To the extent that the CBC (or Al Sharpton) represents African-American opinion, it’s unlikely that Republicans will get much of a break, at least as long as the party holds to its generally conservative views.

Conservative (i.e. Republican) African-Americans have tried to set up corresponding organizations to well-established black groups, as conservatives have tried to do to represent and speak for women and seniors. But any honest appraisal of those groups is that they’ve generally met with only minimal success. And in some cases, that’s giving them more credit than they are due.

It’s difficult to “create” a corresponding conservative leadership in the black community when most African-Americans share the general outlook of existing leaders. And that too is a problem for GOP strategists: The existing black leadership both reflects grass-roots opinion and reinforces existing preferences and assumptions by continually pounding on Republican policies and political personalities.

On certain social issues, black voters (and Hispanics, for that matter) are more conservative than their white, liberal allies. But that really doesn’t matter, since they don’t vote on those issues.

Though it admittedly is a generalization and there are exceptions, the GOP’s fundamental problem is that African-Americans think of the government as a protector and benefactor, while most Republicans (and all conservatives) see government as a problem. As long as that is the case, and specifically as long as affirmative action is an issue, Republican opportunities in the black community are extremely limited.

But isn’t there still reason for Republican presidential candidates to attend a debate where much of the audience is black or where an African-American group is a sponsor? Of course.

Both parties need to reach out to constituencies where they have traditionally been weak (as Democrats have been doing with religious voters), even if their chances of growing support among those voters are modest. But on the other hand, they should not waste their time and resources on voters who are unalterably hostile to them, and they need not further empower leaders who are political opponents.

Republican presidential candidates appearing at a CBC Institute-sponsored event would be a little like Democratic presidential hopefuls appearing at an event sponsored by the Heritage Foundation. Remember, it was Democrats who earlier this year killed a debate that was sponsored by the CBC Institute because it was to be aired on Fox News.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on November 5, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Illinois 14: New Lauzen Poll Shows Dead Heat

Chris Lauzen (R) is pushing back against some conventional wisdom, and has numbers to make his case. The state senator is running to replace former House Speaker Dennis Hastert in Illinois 14, but faces a very competitive primary with wealthy businessman Jim Oberweis (R).

An October 22-23 Public Opinion Strategies poll of 300 likely primary voters for the Lauzen campaign showed Lauzen and Oberweis even at 38% on the ballot, with Geneva Mayor Kevin Burns at 4%.

According to the memo, Oberweis has higher name identification in the district, due to multiple recent statewide runs for office. Many observers believe the name ID factor gives him the early edge, particularly if a special election were to occur.

But the survey shows that despite not being as well-known, Lauzen is competitive. He starts the race with 74% name ID, including 55% favorable/5% unfavorable ratings. In comparison, Oberweis had 97% name ID, and 63% favorable/20% unfavorable ratings.

It’s still unclear whether Hastert will finish his term. If he decides to resign, it’s unclear when he will officially step down. And according to insiders, there is no love lost between Hastert and Lauzen.

2008 Senate Ratings

Here are our latest Senate ratings.

Lean Takeover (1 R, 0 D)
  • VA Open (Warner, R)
Toss-Up (3 R, 1 D)
  • CO Open (Allard, R)
  • NM Open (Domenici, R)
  • Sununu (R-NH)
  • Landrieu (D-LA)
Narrow Advantage for Incumbent Party (3 R, 0 D)
  • Coleman (R-MN)
  • Collins (R-ME)
  • Smith (R-OR)
Clear Advantage for Incumbent Party (4 R, 0 D)
  • NE Open (Hagel, R)
  • Dole (R-NC)
  • McConnell (R-KY)
  • Stevens (R-AK)
Currently Safe (12 R, 11 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)
  • Wicker (R-MS)
  • Baucus (D-MT)
  • Biden (D-DE)
  • Durbin (D-IL)
  • Harkin (D-IA)
  • Johnson (D-SD)
  • Kerry (D-MA)
  • Lautenberg (D-NJ)
  • Levin (D-MI)
  • Pryor (D-AR)
  • Reed (D-RI)
  • Rockefeller (D-WV)

Monday, November 05, 2007

Memo to Merkley: Be Careful How You Criticize Sen. Smith

By Stuart Rothenberg

The newspaper headlines could well read “Democrat Merkley Blasts Feinstein, Dorgan and Johnson,” or possibly “Democrat Attacks Leading Democrats.”

That’s because Oregon Senate candidate Jeff Merkley (D) apparently was more concerned with scoring political points than thinking through the circumstances when he attacked incumbent GOP Sen. Gordon Smith’s vote to confirm Court of Appeals nominee Leslie Southwick.

Merkley, the Speaker of the Oregon House and Smith’s likely Democratic opponent (attorney/activist Steve Novick also is seeking the Democratic nomination), distributed a news release shortly after Southwick’s confirmation blasting the Republican Senator’s vote for confirmation.

“Gordon Smith showed his true allegiance to George Bush’s far right agenda today. Smith had a chance to take a stand for fair treatment of all Americans. Instead, he stood up for the kind of divisive politics that is tearing America apart,” Merkley said in the Oct. 24 release.

The only problem is that nine Democratic Senators also voted to confirm Southwick, including the chairman of the party’s Senate Policy Committee, North Dakota’s Byron Dorgan. Dorgan, no doubt, would be surprised to learn that he too was voting for the president’s “far right agenda” by casting a vote to confirm Southwick.

I can’t wait to see Merkley tell California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, South Dakota’s Tim Johnson, North Dakota’s Kent Conrad and West Virginia’s Robert Byrd, the President Pro Tem, that in casting their votes to confirm Southwick, those veteran Democratic Senators “stood up for the kind of divisive politics that is tearing America apart.”

Imagine what it will be like when Merkley, who was 2 years old when Byrd was first elected to the Senate, strolls up to the West Virginia Democrat and criticizes him for voting to confirm a judge “who sees no serious problem with racial slurs against employees and who puts his narrow-minded values ahead of providing a nurturing home for children.” Byrd certainly will take that criticism good-naturedly.

Merkley is a serious threat to Smith given the national political environment and the damage that the Republican brand has experienced during the Bush presidency. But the Senate challenger isn’t helping himself with a campaign filled with overheated rhetoric.

Smith, 55, is a likable, low-key Senator who isn’t as easy to classify as the Merkley news releases suggest.

While he started off supporting the Bush policy in Iraq, Smith was one of the first Senate Republicans to break publicly with the president, taking to the Senate floor in December to say, “I, for one, am at the end of my rope when it comes to supporting a policy that has our soldiers patrolling the same streets in the same way, being blown up by the same bombs day after day. That is absurd. It may even be criminal.” Not surprisingly, Smith supported Democratic efforts to set a date by which U.S. forces would be withdrawn from Iraq.

While he supported a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage and is undeniably an opponent of abortion rights, Smith has been an outspoken supporter of hate crimes legislation that includes attacks against gays, and he supported expanded federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research.

And while Smith sided with his GOP colleagues and against most Democrats to cut off a filibuster preventing a final vote on allowing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, he opposed most of his Republican colleagues and voted with 38 Democrats in favor of a bill overhauling the nation’s immigration policy and establishing a guest- worker program.

Obviously, Smith has a lengthy record in politics, first in the Oregon Senate and then, during the past decade, in the United States Senate. That record will give Merkley plenty of ammunition, and the Democrat will likely have the resources to deliver an impressive barrage against Smith. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee will be sure of that.

Merkley is helped by the fact that Oregon has leaned Democratic of late. The Democratic presidential nominee has won the past five races, and Democrats represent four of the state’s five House seats. Democrats also control both chambers of the Oregon Legislature.

But Oregon isn’t as liberal as some assume. The GOP controlled the state House in Oregon before the 2006 elections, and even now the Democratic majority in that chamber is a reed-thin 31-29. And though George W. Bush lost the state in each of his White House runs, Al Gore carried Oregon by only 6,765 votes in 2000, and John Kerry won it by only 4 points in 2004.

Recent polling by SurveyUSA, which conducts automated polls but appears to have a track record no worse than many traditional surveys, shows the problem that Merkley faces in the race.

An October SurveyUSA statewide survey found Bush’s job approval at 35 percent (compared with 63 percent disapproving), while Smith’s job approval was at a considerably higher 49 percent (with 42 percent disapproving). Oregonians, unlike voters in some other states, are distinguishing between the two Republicans, a good sign for the Senator.

Interestingly, Smith’s job approval among Republicans and Democrats was almost identical, at around 50 percent, as was his disapproval (at around 40 percent for both). He appears to have found the single best niche for an Oregon Republican — his best job approval ratings are among moderates (57 percent), not among conservatives (50 percent).

Merkley must redefine Smith in the eyes of Oregon voters if the challenger is going to remain one of national Democrats’ best hopes of beating a GOP incumbent. But the Democrat must be careful not to appear too negative in a state where voters are sensitive to too much negativity.

Yes, Gordon Smith is likely to be vulnerable because of the national environment. Yes, his re-election is very much in doubt. But if Jeff Merkley isn’t careful, he could turn out to be another Bill Bradbury (D) — an over-hyped, overly negative challenger whose bark is much worse than his bite.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on November 1, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Friday, November 02, 2007

New Print Edition: 2008 Senate Outlook

The November 2, 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

By Stuart Rothenberg

GOP retirements over the past three months have added considerably to Republican woes. Now, party insiders are hoping that another retirement doesn’t add to the party’s problems.

At least seven Republican seats are at considerable risk a year out from the 2008 elections – three opens and four held by incumbents in states carried by John Kerry (D) in 2004. Seven is a huge number this early in the cycle. Only one Democratic seat is at considerable risk – Mary Landrieu’s in Louisiana.

Democrats can play offense almost entirely, and they have the advantage on message and money. But Republicans hope that voter frustration with both parties and the end of the Bush administration will allow their endangered incumbents to localize their races and win reelection.

At this point, a net Democratic gain looks extremely likely. But for Congress-watchers, it makes a huge difference if Democrats gain a seat or two – or six or seven. Right now, 3-5 seems like the most likely guess, with Virginia, New Hampshire, Colorado and Louisiana currently the most likely seats to turn.

For state-by-state analysis and recent polling information for each race, you must subscribe to the print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Here We Go Again: An Anti-Incumbent Wave Next Year?

By Stuart Rothenberg

Some story lines never go away.

This year, once again, there is buzz that 2008 might be an anti-incumbent election that will sweep out sitting House Members of both parties. National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) has been making that case for months, and more than a few journalists and talking heads have picked it up as well.

A little more than a year ago in this space (“An Anti-Incumbent Election? This Year? Of Course Not,” Sept. 14, 2006), I argued that 2006 would be an anti-Republican, not an anti-incumbent, year. I never thought that we’d be hearing the same anti-incumbent argument so soon. It’s like a bad penny that keeps turning up.

According to “Vital Statistics on American Politics, 2007-2008,” over the past 27 elections, dating back to 1954, there have been 11 or 12 partisan blowouts (depending on how you classify 1984), where one party or the other has suffered big losses and the other party had few or no incumbent defeats.

Last year’s election, when 22 GOP House incumbents were defeated without a single Democratic casualty, is a perfect example. The 1960, 1964 and 1996 elections, to cite three cases, produced similar partisan waves.

In eight elections since 1954, there were small, single-digit incumbent losses. They certainly were not “anti-incumbent” elections. In 2000, for example, six incumbents were defeated in November. By any definition, that was a status-quo election, not an anti-incumbent anything.

That leaves seven of the 27 elections that were neither blowouts nor status-quo contests. Were any of them “anti-incumbent” elections? Maybe, but probably not.

Of those, the worst year for incumbents was in 1992, when a total of 24 House incumbents — 16 Democrats and eight Republicans — lost to challengers. Cole, who served as NRCC executive director back then, has cited the ’92 elections as an example of a year when voters directed their anger at incumbents of both parties (and ousted a sitting president).

Twenty-four House incumbents going down to defeat may well qualify as an anti- incumbent election in the abstract, but, alas, it’s more complicated than that. The devil is in the details.

Large numbers of incumbents lost that year because of scandals and redistricting, not because voters across the country were so angry with Capitol Hill or with politicians in general that they simply voted against incumbents, regardless of party. The 1992 CQ Almanac did a wonderful job documenting this in its end-of-the-year rehashing of the election results.

“Voter discontent and redistricting did take a toll on members who sought re-election, but the much-discussed possibility of an Election Day cyclone of anti-incumbent sentiment failed to materialize Nov. 3,” the almanac’s authors wrote.

Some incumbents lost because their districts had been redrawn to include more opposition partisans who voted primarily because of party. Others lost because they bounced checks on the House bank or were under indictment. Some lost because of the top of the ticket. Few, if any, lost merely because they were incumbent officeholders.

So classifying1992 as an “anti-incumbent” election is committing a classic mistake: focusing only on the aggregate numbers and ignoring the individual results.

This isn’t to say that in 1992 incumbents weren’t at all affected by the public’s mood, which held politicians in particularly low repute. Some incumbents saw their numbers slip, and the percentage of House elections won with 60 percent of the major-party vote, according to “Vital Statistics on Congress, 2001-2002,” slid from 88.5 percent in 1988 to 65.6 percent in 1992.

The election with the next largest number of incumbent defeats was 1978, when 19 total incumbents lost in November. That election, however, had even a stronger partisan hue, since 14 Democratic incumbents lost in November to just five Republicans. It was a midterm, anti-Democratic election.

Total incumbent losses in the remaining five cases — the elections of 1956, 1962, 1970, 1976 and 1990 — were neither small nor huge. They were in the low to middle double digits, ranging from 11 to 15 incumbents. Those levels of losses seem below a “wave” to me, but some may disagree.

So how does 2008 fit in to this analysis? Those who believe that an anti-incumbent wave is in the works surely have an argument to make, and they should not be dismissed out of hand.

The past nine major national polls measuring the public’s attitude toward Congress have all produced scary results for Democrats. Each of those surveys found Congress’ job-approval to be below 30 percent, and in each lower than President Bush’s job-approval rating.

Given these poll numbers, and Congress’ inability to deal with big issues, including Iraq and immigration reform, it’s theoretically possible — but extremely unlikely — that some voters will decide that the current Congressional membership is to blame for the nation’s problems and will vote against all incumbents, Republicans and Democrats alike, a year from now.

When voters are confused about whom to blame, they either support incumbents (blaming the other Representatives, not their own) or they fall back on their fundamental partisanship and vote their party. In either case, they don’t vote “against incumbents” merely because of their incumbency.

Democratic voters are angry with Congress now for not taking Bush on strongly enough over the war in Iraq. That explains why Congress’ job ratings are so low. But that anger is likely to dissipate, and it is difficult to imagine Democrats (or even independents) voting against Democratic House incumbents merely to make a point.

That doesn’t mean that incumbency, to some voters and in some districts, won’t be a liability. Unconventional candidates and messages of change could attract voter attention. But a rabidly anti-incumbent election is not as likely as some hope.

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