Thursday, March 27, 2008

Would Obama Be Leading the Democratic Race if He Were White?

By Stuart Rothenberg

When former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (D-N.Y.) asserted that “if Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position,” she caused a mini media frenzy and was forced to step down from the Clinton campaign’s finance committee.

I found the comment slightly unsettling but not for the same reason that most did. Since Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is half white and half black, calling him black reminded me of those Nazi-era Nuremberg laws that classified Germans on the percentage of their Jewish blood, as well as of America’s Jim Crow laws, which distinguished between blacks, whites and often those of mixed ancestry.

Given his parentage, Obama is neither entirely black nor white. But since his skin color is closer to most African-Americans, it isn’t surprising that he’s generally classified as a black American. Indeed, that’s what he calls himself.

Actually, the question of whether Obama’s skin color has helped or hurt him during his presidential bid is an interesting one. (How his skin color affected his entire life is a very different question, and certainly one far beyond my own expertise.)

Assume, for argument’s sake, that the white Obama still graduated from Columbia and Harvard Law School, served six years in the Illinois state Senate, lost a Congressional bid but won a U.S. Senate seat. Also assume that he’s a terrific orator and has run the same high-quality campaign with the same consultants that he has.

Under that scenario, would he likely be even with or ahead of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.)? I’m inclined to believe not. That means Ferraro probably was correct that, all things being equal (though they rarely are), Obama would not now be leading the Democratic contest if he were white.

Part of the excitement about Obama flows from his story, and the candidacy of a white politician from Chicago isn’t nearly as interesting a story. What makes him unique are his mixed-race background and the uplifting narrative of black kid who succeeded and who promises to bring Americans together. In a time when voters want change, Obama doesn’t look like your average politician.

Any candidate can promise change and try to tap Americans’ desire for a better country, but Obama’s race is very much part of his appeal. That’s especially the case in the Democratic Party, which is filled with idealists looking for a new messenger of hope.

For Democrats, many of whom celebrate diversity and multiculturalism and would feel good about making a statement about their values and their wishes for America, Obama’s race and background are clear assets.

But if Obama’s race is an important part of who he is as a candidate, it has been an even bigger tactical advantage for him in his fight for the Democratic nomination.

As a white candidate, Obama would have had a difficult time, if not an impossible one, corralling the African-American vote, which has become such a crucial part of his coalition. Instead, Clinton would have been the overwhelming favorite of black voters (as indeed she was), and they almost certainly would have remained in her corner without an African-American candidate in the race.

While the African-American community would not have turned out as heavily for Clinton as they have for Obama, black voters, combined with the New York Senator’s appeal among women, Hispanics and older voters, might well have made her unbeatable.

But let’s assume that Clinton is so polarizing that she would have inevitably generated a serious threat for the Democratic nomination. In that case, it’s unclear whether Obama or former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (or even someone else) would have been that candidate.

Edwards, after all, also was a “change” candidate, and he started with the single strongest base of support in Iowa.

With his Southern roots and style, Edwards had appeal in the African-American community. He, not Obama, would have been Clinton’s main opponent in South Carolina on Jan. 26 and in Alabama and Georgia on Feb. 5, had the fight for the nomination lasted that long. And Edwards’ message might have been more upbeat and less demagogic had his campaign been able to position the former North Carolina Senator as the “change” alternative to Clinton.

But wouldn’t Obama’s oratorical skills have made him a serious contender for the nomination anyway? Maybe. But there is no guarantee that he would have caught fire. Again, what made him so noteworthy early in the campaign — and so difficult to attack throughout the Democratic contest — was that he stood out from other candidates, past and present.

Observing that Obama benefited during the contest from his skin color doesn’t mean it’s always a benefit to be black, that the Illinois Democrat’s race doesn’t have a downside politically, or that he doesn’t deserve to be where he is. And it certainly doesn’t mean he is defined solely by his skin color.

Clinton also has benefited from certain attributes, including her gender and her husband. And is anyone certain that she would be the United States Senator from New York, and a contender for the presidency, if she had not married Bill Clinton?

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 24, 2008. Copyright 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Monday, March 24, 2008

New Print Edition: Louisiana 6 & Pennsylvania 11

The March 21, 2008 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...

Louisiana 6: Democrats Geauxing for More

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Democrats aren’t waiting until November to expand their majority. Buoyed by a special election win in Illinois 14, Democrats are hoping to add Louisiana’s 6th District to their column in a May special election.

But first, both parties will have to sort through April runoffs to determine their nominees. State Reps. Don Cazayoux and Michael Jackson are running for the Democratic nomination, while former state Rep. Woody Jenkins and health care lobbyists Laurinda Calongne are vying for the GOP nomination.

Cazayoux and Jenkins are regarded as the initial frontrunners, but neither is a shoo-in. Jenkins is a local political icon to some but is widely regarded as a very polarizing figure. Cazayoux defines himself as a conservative Democrat, and privately shoulders the hopes of a Democratic takeover. The rest of the story is in the print edition of the Report.

Pennsylvania 11: Perfect Strangers

Congressional rematches are becoming commonplace, just not six years apart. Back in 2002, a young mayor named Lou Barletta (R) took on long-time Cong. Paul Kanjorski (D) in northeast Pennsylvania’s 11th District.

The GOP mayor lost that race, but subsequently raised his profile to national levels with anti-illegal immigration measures in his city. This year, Barletta is challenging the Democratic incumbent once again, but the contours of the contest look very different.

Barletta will have more money and more experience this time around, and the political environment has changed dramatically from the way it was immediately after September 11th. The nature of the district also favors Kanjorski, but the incumbent’s lack of experience in competitive races gives some Democrats pause. The rest of the story is in the print edition.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

New York 26: Reynolds Won't Run Again

By Stuart Rothenberg

WKBW-TV in Buffalo, N.Y. is reporting that Cong. Tom Reynolds (R-NY) will not seek reelection and that the official announcement will be made on Thursday.

Reynolds’ exit means that the last two NRCC chairmen, Reynolds and Virginia Republican Tom Davis, will not seek reelection this year. The news could well lead to other GOP retirements, as rank-and-file members become further depressed about the party’s prospects and head for the exits.

While Reynolds’ district leans Republican, Democrats made a strong run at it in 2006 and were intent on giving him a stiff challenge again this time. A number of possible names are circulating on New York political blogs, including state Sen. George Maziarz and Erie County Executive Chris Collins.

UPDATE: Former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly is also mentioned as a potential Republican candidate in the district. According to one GOP source, Kelly was mentioned when Cong. Jack Quinn (R) retired in the neighboring 27th District a few years ago, but his children were too young.

Poll Warning: Be on the Lookout for Bad Numbers, Analysis

By Stuart Rothenberg

This looks like another excellent cycle for Democratic Congressional prospects, as the party benefits from strong fundraising, an impressive crop of recruits and a wind at its back that stems from a damaged GOP brand and voters’ desire for change.

Maybe that’s why two polls stand out like sore thumbs.

The first is a Feb. 9-10 Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates poll for Beth Hafer (D), the daughter of former Pennsylvania state Treasurer Barbara Hafer (D). The younger Hafer is running in Pennsylvania’s 18th district for the right to take on Rep. Tim Murphy (R) in the general election.

The survey showed Hafer at 22 percent of the vote in the primary, with the rest of the field in the low and middle single digits. Her “favorability” stood at 35 percent, while the candidate with the next highest favorables was businessman Steve O’Donnell (11 percent favorable).

I’ve seen plenty of polls like this released on both sides of the aisle, and I almost always think they are meaningless. In the case of Hafer, that’s especially true.

Like the early national presidential polls that showed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) way ahead in the contest for their parties’ presidential nominations, the Hafer poll measures little more than name recognition.

But in this case, the name recognition almost certainly isn’t Beth Hafer’s — it’s her mother’s. Barbara Hafer ran for statewide office (and was elected) a number of times, and Western Pennsylvania voters certainly know her or her name. No wonder someone with the name Hafer was leading a field full of other candidates who had little or no name recognition.

The Hafer campaign (and the polling firm) can argue, of course, that the snapshot nevertheless says something significant about the state of the race: that Beth Hafer starts off with the advantage, and the other candidates need to increase their name recognition just to have a chance of overtaking her. That is undeniably true.

But if any of Hafer’s primary opponents run well-funded, serious campaigns for the nomination, this Hafer poll is almost meaningless. The state of the race will change quickly, making this mid-February poll quickly obsolete.

A far greater problem is a late February/ early March poll in Michigan’s 7th district. Actually, it isn’t the EPIC-MRA poll for the Detroit News and WXYZ-Action News that was the problem as much as it was the story about it that appeared in the News and bears at least some responsibility for a rash of misleading e-mails about the survey.

The newspaper story began with the very reasonable observation that Republican Rep. Tim Walberg could have a tough re-election race this year. The trouble came in the next paragraph, which noted that Walberg is in a “statistical dead heat when voters are read biographical information about him and challenger Mark Schauer.”

Three paragraphs later, the article quotes an EPIC-MRA pollster saying that he’d have “grave concerns” if he were the Congressman that an “unknown Democrat ... could match up so competitively.” The statement is particularly odd because one of the reasons Democratic insiders are excited about Schauer’s bid is that they note he already represents one-third of the Congressional district in the state Senate and is popular among those voters.

Two paragraphs after that, the article notes that when “voters had no other information than the two candidates’ names and party,” Walberg held a 51 percent to 40 percent lead.

In other words, in the initial ballot test, Walberg was over 50 percent and held a double-digit lead. This is the ballot test that really matters, and it is always reported as how the race stands.

So-called second ballots, which involve a retest of the candidates after additional information is provided to respondents, are much poorer measures of candidate strength and much less reliable predictors of the future. That’s because they introduce information into the survey that voters don’t necessarily have — and may never have.

Yet the Detroit News story led with the second ballot, creating a misimpression about the state of the race, at least as the poll found it exists today.

Interestingly, the Schauer campaign sent out a news release crowing “Schauer Leads Walberg in New Independent Poll,” even though that is demonstrably untrue. Walberg held an 11-point lead in the survey. I’d hope the folks at the Schauer campaign know the difference between a first ballot and a second ballot.

One of Schauer’s consultants distributed the article by way of an e-mail titled “Detroit News poll shows Schauer, Walberg in dead heat.” Sorry, but the race isn’t a “dead heat,” and anyone in the business should know that. All that anyone can say about the second ballot is that if and when voters get more information on the two candidates, they may find the Democrat appealing.

Actually, Walberg’s numbers in the race are far from terrible, given the problems the GOP is facing these days and given the numbers that some other Republicans are getting. He isn’t safe, of course. Not by a long shot. This is definitely a competitive race.

The bottom line here is that nobody involved in the story looks good. The Detroit News article did a terrible job of presenting the numbers and drawing implications from the survey. The EPIC-MRA pollster, assuming he was quoted correctly, failed to put the poll into context. And the Schauer campaign intentionally misled observers.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 17, 2008. Copyright 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Minnesota Senate: New Group Airs Pro-Coleman Issue Ad

By Stuart Rothenberg

American Future Fund, a 501 (c) (4) group based in Iowa, will begin airing a 30-second TV ad on Wednesday March 19 praising the efforts of Senator Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and urging viewers to call him to “thank him for his agenda for Minnesota.”

The ad opens by asserting that Coleman, who faces a difficult reelection race later this year, “teamed with Amy Klobuchar to secure $250 million in funding to rebuild the 35W bridge.”

It goes on to say that “Coleman has worked with Republicans and Democrats to make college more affordable, expand opportunities for our soldiers and National Guard returning home, and crack down on predatory lenders.”

The ad ends by calling the Republican Senator “an independent voice for Minnesota.”

The spot never identifies Klobuchar as a Democrat or Coleman as a Republican.

The ad was produced by highly regarded GOP media consultant Larry McCarthy of McCarthy Marcus Hennings for American Future Fund, which is “a multi-state issues advocacy group designed to effectively communicate conservative and free market ideals,” according to information provided by someone close to the group.

The group has not yet identified other states where it will run ads.

Among others associated with the group are pollster Jan Van Lohuizen of Voter Consumer Research (whose past and present clients have included President George W. Bush, Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell), veteran GOP legal advisor Ben Ginsberg of Patton Boggs and former Republican Governors Association (RGA) executive director Ed Tobin.

Ginsberg, at one time or another, has been counsel to the Bush-Cheney campaign, the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee, and the RGA.

The Coleman spot will run in the Minneapolis and Mankato markets. According to knowledgeable sources, the ad will run “at very significant levels” in both markets for about three weeks.

Monday, March 17, 2008

All the Handicapping That’s Fit to Print on the ’08 Senate Races

By Stuart Rothenberg

Thirteen months ago in this space (“For Democrats, Time to Pad Senate Majority and Think 60 Seats,” Feb. 12, 2007), I suggested that Democrats had the opportunity to make significant Senate gains this cycle that would position them for a shot at 60 seats in 2010, when once again more Republican than Democratic seats will be up for election.

Following that column, though certainly not necessarily because of it, others also cited the chance that Democrats could reach 60 seats. Surprisingly to me, they often treated the magic number as if it were attainable in the November 2008 elections, not in 2010 as I argued.

Earlier this year, political writer Chris Cillizza wisely tamped down the suggestion that 60 seats was in reach this cycle, while reiterating his view (and, I might add, mine as well) that Democrats could make significant gains in the Senate in November.

This history is necessary because last week the influential New York Times published an article on the 2008 fight for the Senate that was so wrong on so many counts that it cannot be allowed to stand as any kind of marker about this cycle’s Senate races. The March 7 article was nothing short of an embarrassment.

The Times article started off with the premise that Democrats could well gain as many as nine Senate seats this year, which would put them right at the 60-seat mark. Further, the author of that piece wrote that Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) is “still a heavy favorite,” and he repeatedly treated Oklahoma as if it were in play.

The reality is very different. Landrieu is not only vulnerable, she is very vulnerable. The Rothenberg Political Report rates her race as a tossup, and everyone who knows anything about Senate races understands that at the very least, her seat is in play. I certainly wouldn’t quibble with someone who calls her a narrow favorite, since she is an incumbent. But calling her “a heavy favorite” is absurd and says a great deal about the reporting that went into the piece.

The Times article also treated Oklahoma state Sen. Andrew Rice (D) as a serious threat to Sen. James Inhofe (R), and quoted Rice as saying, “[Oklahoma voters] don’t care whether I am a Democrat or a Republican.” Oh, brother. And the moon is made of green cheese.

Inhofe certainly isn’t beloved, but Rice offers an unappealing left-of-center contrast for Inhofe in a very conservative state that strongly prefers Republicans in federal races, particularly in presidential years.

In citing observers about the Democrats’ chances of netting nine seats, the Times reporter quotes Paul Starr, whom the article describes as “a public affairs professor at Princeton University and a liberal commentator.” Starr is a serious and thoughtful observer who can speak authoritatively about a number of matters, including health care and liberalism, but asking his opinion about Senate races is a bit like asking Roger Clemens about the philosophy of early 20th-century Russian poet Nikolai Gumilev.

After mentioning the Democrats’ strong turnout in primaries as a possible factor in Democratic Senate gains this cycle — surely a reasonable point — the Times article offers the following pearl of wisdom: “The need of Senator John McCain ... to run as a centrist may undermine his ability to help Congressional candidates.”

The article doesn’t explain this (though many readers could figure out that the reporter was alluding to widespread questions about base Republican turnout), and it ignores the possibility that McCain’s relatively centrist approach might actually help the GOP’s overall image and be an asset for moderate Republican Senators such as Maine’s Susan Collins and Oregon’s Gordon Smith, who can align themselves with McCain’s message and overall persona.

Finally, in the chart accompanying the article, the reporter asserts that “if voters start to take comedian Al Franken seriously,” incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) could be in trouble. If? Polling shows the race tight, with some surveys having Franken ahead.

So where does the fight for the Senate really stand?

Republicans are certain to lose the Virginia open seat and could well lose opens in New Mexico and Colorado. New Hampshire Republican John Sununu is the most endangered Senate incumbent in his party, as is Landrieu in hers. Both are in serious trouble.

Coleman obviously has a fight on his hands, as does Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who is damaged by a scandal that has touched him and already enveloped a number of current and former state Republican officials.

Two Republicans who are potentially vulnerable appear better off at the moment, though that could change.

Maine’s Collins still has strong poll numbers and is clearly well-liked in her state. Her challenger, Rep. Tom Allen (D), still has time to redefine her, and her GOP label isn’t an asset, but at this point she looks formidable.

And in Oregon, Democratic state Speaker Jeff Merkley ought to spend more time trying to defeat activist Steve Novick for his party’s nomination than running a general election campaign against Smith.

The most likely outcome right now — far too far out from Election Day to take very seriously — is a Democratic gain of three to six seats. More is possible, of course. But be careful where you get your information. Not everything that is written is fit to print.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 13, 2008. Copyright 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Should McCain Fret About Bush — and About Disappearing?

By Stuart Rothenberg

No sooner had Arizona Sen. John McCain won enough delegates to claim the Republican presidential nomination than some talking heads began to assert that this was bad news for him.

The logic of these observers was simple. First, because the GOP race is now over, McCain will largely disappear from the news, which will instead focus on the Democratic contest between Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.).

Second, some said, as the certain Republican nominee, McCain would not be able to avoid being embraced by unpopular President Bush.

The idea that meeting with Bush and receiving his endorsement would be damaging for McCain doesn’t even deserve to be taken seriously.

Everyone knows the president is broadly unpopular and that McCain doesn’t want the 2008 election to be a referendum on Bush. And after the first day of the Republican National Convention in early September, you aren’t likely to see Bush anywhere near McCain. Between now and then, you aren’t going to see the two Republicans, arm-in-arm, barnstorming across the country.

But it’s no secret that McCain and the president are both Republicans, and regardless of whether Bush endorsed McCain, the Arizonan surely will be hurt by the president’s weak standing among voters as well as his support for the president’s surge policy in Iraq.

On the other hand, while Bush’s support among Republicans is far from ideal, many Americans (and most Republicans) still approve of the job he has done, and he continues to be an important party fundraiser. In addition, Bush certainly is an asset for McCain as the Senator tries to reach out to skeptical conservatives.

Snubbing Bush would have brought McCain even greater problems from Republicans. Indeed, the quick Bush endorsement means McCain can now move on without having to deal with questions about his relationship with the president.

The suggestion that McCain is damaged because he now has enough delegates to assure his nomination and therefore will be less newsworthy is worth more discussion, since at first it may seem both counterintuitive and smart.

The premise that some of McCain’s media attention will dry up surely is correct, but the idea that this is a big problem for him borders on being silly.

Yes, McCain won’t receive the same attention over the next few weeks that the two Democratic contenders will, but that’s not a problem for the inevitable Republican nominee. He won’t disappear or be forgotten.

The 2008 presidential election has been stunningly interesting and entertaining. McCain’s road to the nomination, in particular, has been remarkable, from frontrunner to also-ran to comeback kid to nominee. The idea that even a couple of months as the second political story of the day will damage McCain’s chances ignores the political calendar and elevates what happened yesterday — any yesterday — to a ridiculous level of importance.

The general election won’t take place until November, eight months away. By the time November rolls around, voters will see plenty of McCain, and his Democratic opponent.

There will be the announcement of a running mate, the Republican National Convention and McCain’s acceptance speech. There will be debates and the suffocating media coverage that will precede them and follow them. And there will be interviews, controversies and arguments galore.

In other words, there will be more coverage of McCain than he needs for voters to form an opinion of him. McCain may well lose in November, but it won’t be because he won his nomination before the Democratic race was decided, and it certainly won’t be because his media coverage dimmed in March and April.

But there is another set of reasons why McCain should actually benefit from a relatively brief hiatus in media coverage.

The Arizona Republican now needs time to talk to and with Republicans who haven’t been enthusiastic about him. He needs time to raise campaign cash. And he doesn’t need national political reporters hovering over him while he does both.

McCain also needs time to retool on the economy.

He clearly is comfortable discussing the war in Iraq and the war on terror, but he still has a ways to go before he can talk as articulately and confidently about the economic issues of the day. He certainly could use a few weeks to focus on domestic issues, which will be a major part of the ’08 campaign.

Finally, though I expect he would deny it vociferously, McCain almost certainly could use a bit of a rest right now. It’s been a grueling year for him, and while he continues to show energy and enthusiasm, all candidates, especially those in their 70s, could use time to relax a bit and recharge their batteries.

It’s still a long time until November. McCain, like his eventual Democratic opponent, will have more than his share of media coverage, both good and bad. He’ll have opportunities and campaign crises. While the national media treats each day as if it were the crucial day of the campaign (and any given day certainly could be crucial), most days aren’t.

McCain could well benefit from the continued Democratic contests. That, of course, depends on how the nomination fight develops. But what’s certain is that McCain’s victory in the GOP race is good news for him, not bad.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 10, 2008. Copyright 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Mississippi 1: Russell Expected to Endorse McCullough

Former Tupelo Mayor Glenn McCullough (R) and Southaven Mayor Greg Davis (R) are headed for an April 1 runoff in Mississippi's 1st District, vacated when Roger Wicker (R) was appointed to the U.S. Senate.

McCullough edged out Davis 39%-37% in Tuesday's initial balloting, with Dr. Randy Russell finishing third with 24%. Now, Russell is likely to endorse McCullough, with the official announcement expected soon.

Democratic state Rep. Steve Holland and Prentiss County Chancery Clerk Travis Childers are set for a runoff on the Democratic side. President Bush won the district 62%-37% in 2004.

UPDATE: The announcement is scheduled for tomorrow at 3pm in Oxford.

New Print Edition: Alaska At-Large & Arizona 8

The March 7, 2008 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...

Alaska At-Large: Young Blood
By Nathan L. Gonzales

Not too long ago, no one could have imagined that both of Alaska’s legislative legends could possibly go down to defeat. But with Republicans in the state being dragged off to jail one-by-one and the general public souring on Republicans in general, both Cong. Don Young (R) and Sen. Ted Stevens (R) find themselves at risk of losing reelection in 2008.

While Stevens is described as the statesman and even godfather of the state, Young’s image is far less awe-inspiring, and he’s faced with a growing mountain of questions surrounding his performance in office and the ongoing investigation into his dealings.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee would have loved to get Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich (D) to challenge Young, but instead the mayor is running against Stevens. Democrats do have former state House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz against Young, and although he doesn’t have the profile or name that Begich brings, he is a credible challenger who can take advantage of a weak incumbent.

Unfortunately for Democrats, the state is staunchly Republican by the numbers, particularly in a presidential year. And Alaskans haven’t voted for a Democrat for the House of Representatives in over three decades. But as we’ve seen in districts across the country, scandal and ethics is the recipe that can neutralize any existing partisan advantage. Read the whole story in the print edition.

Arizona 8: Bee Ready

Usually the first race to Congress is the most difficult for a member. But in the case of Democratic Cong. Gabrielle Giffords, this year is likely to be a tougher election fight than was her open seat contest in 2006, when she first won the right to represent Arizona’s 8th Congressional District by defeating a former GOP state legislator who was so polarizing that he lost some of the party’s faithful.
In 2008, Giffords will face state Senate President Tim Bee (R), whose candidacy represents a slice of sunshine in an otherwise gloomy election cycle for national Republicans.

But even though he’s the best candidate Republicans could have asked for in this southeastern Arizona district, he will also face the toughest general election fight of his political career.

And while many of her Democratic colleagues are excited about the potential influence of the Democratic presidential nominee on down ballot races, Giffords is running in the shadow of Arizona Sen. John McCain’s (R) presidential bid, creating an uncertain dynamic in the 8th District. Read the whole story in the print edition.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Illinois 14: More Bad News for the GOP

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Bill Foster's (D) victory in Illinois 14 was another dose of bad news for the Republican Party, but the national repercussions likely lie somewhere between the heavy spin coming from both Republicans and Democrats. The results don't spell the end of the GOP, but demonstrates a party that still has considerable problems. And for Republicans who thought the 2006 election was their electoral floor, there could be a basement.

Foster, a scientist and wealthy businessman, defeated wealthy businessman Jim Oberweis (R) 53%-47% in a race that included heavy spending by both the NRCC and DCCC. National Republicans didn't have the money to spare, but desperately needed an electoral victory to improve the morale of a caucus suffering from massive retirements and depressed fundraising. The NRCC's significant spending paid off in last year's special elections, but they were unable to pull Oberweis across the line on Saturday.

The fact that Illinois 14 used to be represented by House Speaker Dennis Hastert is worth little more than a Democratic talking point. But Republicans should still be concerned because it's the type of district that they will have to defend more of in November, and will be extremely difficult to win if they can't regain some support from moderates and independent voters.

Sure, Republicans had district-specific problems like Oberweis' high unfavorable ratings and a Saturday special election in a state where the Republican Party is as organized as a soccer game with six year olds, but they shouldn't use Oberweis' problems to mask the party's damaged brand.

It's also a stretch to claim Illinois 14 was a proxy battle between Barack Obama and John McCain, and a precursor to November. First, the Republican Party is still being defined by George W. Bush, and in that respect, Saturday's special election took place in the 2006 environment instead of the unknown and undefined 2008 environment. Foster would have likely won the race without the Obama television ad.

Secondly, the special election took place in Obama's living room, so it's difficult to compare and project future down-ballot results with races elsewhere around the country. Illinois Congs. Mark Kirk (R-10th C.D.) and Peter Roskam (R-6th C.D.) have some reason for concern, but they are incumbents and much better candidates than Oberweis.

Finally, the entire country isn't going Democrat, as evidenced by huge Republican special election victories in Ohio and Virginia last year. Of the five outstanding special elections this year, four are not expected to be particularly competitive (including two GOP open seats), but Louisiana 6 is a potential trouble spot for Republicans. Overall, Republicans still have significant problems outside the loyal base, and they will continue to struggle in districts that require a significant number of independent and moderate voters to win unless the party's image improves.

This item also appeared on Political Wire on March 9, 2008.

Monday, March 10, 2008

It Ain’t Over Till the Fat Lady Sings ... and She Hasn’t Yet

By Stuart Rothenberg

OK, it’s official: The Democratic race for president is officially screwed up. Forget the silly candidate spinning. With any luck, you weren’t listening when Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s operatives told you what New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton needed to do in order to win or how it’s impossible for her to win enough delegates in the remaining tests to allow her to pass Obama’s total or be nominated in Denver.

And I hope you ignored all of those spinners and strategists from Clinton’s campaign who said that if Obama didn’t sweep the March 4 primaries, it would be a rejection of him.

Obama may still have more pledged delegates than Clinton, but Tuesday’s primary confirmed that Democratic voters are still deeply divided about which Democrat they want to carry their party’s banner in the fall. Neither presidential hopeful is in a commanding position in the race. Neither one has the kind of momentum that normally is associated with being a frontrunner.

Yes, delegates matter, and the Illinois Democrat remains ahead in delegates. But — as the Obama folks have been arguing when it suits them — the popular vote is crucial because it reflects the fundamental wishes of the people. And the size of Clinton’s win in Ohio (and in Rhode Island, too), as well as her win in the Texas primary, can’t easily be ignored.

What many Democratic strategists and insiders have been hoping for is a clean victory, a knockout blow that makes it crystal clear which contender Democrats want as their presidential nominee. Instead, Tuesday confirmed only that Democrats can’t agree on their nominee.

The problem for Democrats is that the race is certain to get more negative and more personal over the next seven weeks, until Pennsylvania in late April, all but guaranteeing increased bitterness and division. That’s not good for a party that would prefer that Clinton and Obama spend their resources attacking Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) rather than each other.

Indeed, the two campaigns’ overflowing war chests become something of a problem for the party, instead of an asset. Both Obama and Clinton have so much cash — and will raise more over the next few weeks — that they have plenty of resources to pummel each other with, adding to the division within the party.

The only good news in all of this for Democrats is that Clinton and Obama will continue to spend resources identifying and turning out Democratic voters, and building organizations in states they ordinarily would ignore.

Still, back in the middle of January, liberal Democratic bloggers were chortling over the chaos in the GOP primary, laughing about how the Republican race could go on indefinitely after Mike Huckabee won Iowa, McCain won New Hampshire and Mitt Romney won Michigan. One blogger even encouraged Democrats to participate in the GOP race just to stir the pot and drag out the Republican race. Bad karma. Very bad karma.

The 2008 presidential race already has reminded us of something very important: We are a nation of separate states, and states are more than lines on a map. They are more than artificial distinctions.

Each state has its own political culture, its own demographic reality. A candidate who wins in Iowa doesn’t automatically win in New Hampshire. Wisconsin voters aren’t the same as Ohio voters. Indeed, Hispanic Democrats in Connecticut aren’t just like Hispanic Democrats in Texas.

The longer the Democratic race continues, the more likely Obama will come under intense media scrutiny. From Clinton’s point of view, the longer the contest goes on, the more the chance that the Illinois Senator will make a mistake, maybe even a major blunder.

The Democratic contest has been all about momentum, and Clinton supporters now have the right to feel that their candidate’s message about experience and readiness for the job has finally started to take hold. Of course, we don’t know if that is true. Ohio and Rhode Island may just be different from Nebraska, Hawaii and Alabama. But at least it gives Clinton supporters an argument that they can make over the next few weeks.

Tuesday’s results, and the prolonged Democratic race, once again resuscitate the Michigan and Florida debate. Party insiders know that they can’t seat delegates elected in violation of Democratic National Committee rules, but they also can’t have a national nominating convention without delegates from two large states.

Former Bush strategist Karl Rove said on the Fox News Channel on Tuesday night that McCain may be hurt by the fact that he will become invisible over the next month as members of the national media and the public focus on the Democratic race.

Last time I looked, the general election isn’t until November, and McCain could use a few weeks to relax, recharge his batteries, raise money and reach out to party activists and insiders. He’s far better off having Democrats and Republicans alike watch Obama and Clinton raise questions about each other’s judgment, readiness and character, even if it means the focus isn’t on him. He’ll have more than enough time to tell his story.

This column
first appeared in Roll Call on March 6, 2008. Copyright 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Once Blue-Chip Candidates, Now Duds

By Nathan L. Gonzales

National Democrats and Republicans spend most of the off-year focusing on two key areas: recruiting and fundraising.

But as the cycle progresses, candidates move from names on a piece of paper to the campaign trail, where the road can be much tougher. And in the end, some candidates simply don’t live up to the hype and some races never develop into serious contests.

Recently, Republicans lost not only a candidate but a nominee when New Lenox Mayor Tim Baldermann dropped out of the race in Illinois’ 11th district. His departure gives Democrats an additional advantage in the race to replace retiring Rep. Jerry Weller (R).

According to his public remarks, the candidate apparently didn’t comprehend the demands of the campaign trail until two weeks after he secured the GOP nomination on Feb. 5. Baldermann’s move wasn’t entirely surprising, since the mayor commented late last year about how much he despised fundraising.

Democrats almost faced a similar situation in West Virginia.

State Sen. John Unger (D) launched his bid to unseat Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) late last spring in West Virginia’s 2nd district, but he dropped out hours before the filing deadline in late January. Anne Barth (D), a former aide to Sen. Robert Byrd (D), filed for the race at the last second.

Publicly, Unger explained that he believed asking people for money would make him beholden to special interests. But privately, Unger blamed Gov. Joe Manchin (D) for thwarting his fundraising.

“Absolutely the furthest thing from the truth,” Manchin replied in a recent interview, when he was in Washington, D.C., for the National Governors Association meeting. “He was hesitant from day one. You have to be totally committed to these things.”

As a Democrat representing a Republican-leaning legislative district, Unger’s candidacy generated considerable early excitement.

Even though Unger had a couple of nominal primary opponents, he was endorsed by West Virginia Reps. Alan Mollohan (D) and Nick Rahall (D), the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Manchin and the West Virginia AFL-CIO. But the Democrat was unable to translate that support into campaign dollars.

Unger filed his candidacy papers with the Federal Election Commission on July 3, raised $120,000 through December and finished the year with $68,000 on hand. Those are meager totals for any House race, let alone a challenge to a tough incumbent like Capito, who had $644,000 in the bank on Dec. 31.

Rumors circulated in Washington and on the Internet that Manchin was working to force Unger out of the race because of some sort of nonaggression pact with Capito. But Manchin emphatically denies he did anything of the sort and resents being blamed for Unger’s failed candidacy.

“I was there for him in 2006. I was there for him in 2008. He just didn’t pick up the ball and run with it,” said the governor, detailing his support for Unger in the state Senator’s 2006 re-election race. Manchin also introduced Unger to top aides at the Democratic Governors Association (where he is now the chairman) in an effort to boost the candidate’s campaign by broadening his potential fundraising base.

“He has to grow up, but he’s got a good heart,” Manchin said. “I was disappointed that he waited to the last moment [to drop out], but I’m elated with Anne Barth.”

Unger certainly is not the only candidate to ever flame out, even in West Virginia. In the previous cycle, Republicans heavily promoted state Del. Chris Wakim in the 1st district, before embarrassing revelations about inflating his military service torpedoed his effort.

Over the past few cycles, each party has had its share of overhyped candidates, including Democrats Paul Babbitt (Ariz.), Dario Herrera (Nev.), Billy Richardson (N.C.) and Larry Maggi (Pa.) and Republicans Chuck Blasdel (Ohio), Kevin Raye (Maine), Doug Roulstone (Wash.) and Ralph Norman (S.C.).

This cycle, Republicans were high on Sean Sullivan, former commander of the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, Conn., who is taking on freshman Rep. Joe Courtney (D) in Connecticut’s 2nd district. When former Rep. Rob Simmons (R) declined a comeback attempt, Republicans thought Sullivan was the next best thing.

But Sullivan had just more than $14,000 on hand in campaign funds through June 2007 and wasn’t showing much of an interest in boosting that total. National Republicans encouraged Sullivan to pick up the pace, but with little success. The Republican showed $127,000 on hand through the end of last year, not nearly enough for a competitive race, particularly against Courtney, who was sitting on more than $1 million.

Republicans also thought they were going to be able to make a rare run at Rep. Bart Stupak (D) in Michigan’s 1st district. State Rep. Tom Casperson (R) got into the Congressional race with a 2002 victory for the state House over the Congressman’s wife already on his résumé. But through the end of the year, Casperson raised a mere $42,000 for his Congressional run and finished 2007 with less than $30,000 on hand. The race against Stupak (who had $417,000 on hand on Dec. 31) was always going to be an uphill battle, but Republicans expected much more from Casperson.

Democrats have seen a number of candidates in Pennsylvania fail to meet initial expectations. Erie County Councilman Kyle Foust (D) was supposedly a top challenger to Rep. Phil English (R) in the 3rd district, but he raised less than $55,000 last year and finished December with $25,000 on hand.

Lake Erie Arboretum Director Kathy Dahlkemper, who was a late entry into the race, also is running for the Democratic nomination. She raised about $88,000, contributed $66,000 of her own money, and had $116,000 on hand on Dec. 31. But she also has a ways to go before she is considered a serious threat to English, who was sitting on $537,000 in campaign funds.

In the 18th district, Democrats had grand plans for knocking off Rep. Tim Murphy (R) with Beth Hafer (D), vice president of Hafer & Associates and daughter of former State Treasurer Barbara Hafer. Not only does the younger Hafer still have to win the Democratic nomination — which is no sure thing — but she raised only $106,000 through the end of the year and had $42,000 on hand on Dec. 31.

In the Chicago suburbs, Democrats had difficulty finding a challenger to Rep. Peter Roskam (R) in Illinois’ 6th district but finally landed on retired Army Col. Jill Morgenthaler (D). The Democrat raised $105,000 (including a $10,000 personal contribution) and had $42,000 on hand through Jan. 16.

Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth (D) spent more than $4.5 million in the 6th district in the previous cycle and fell short in the open-seat race. Roskam had raised more than $1 million and had $864,000 on hand through Jan. 16.

This story first appeared in Roll Call on March 4, 2008. Copyright 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Illinois 14: Now a Toss-Up

By Nathan L. Gonzales

The race to succeed former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) is too close to call, and we've changed our rating of the race from Lean Republican to Toss-Up, in advance of Saturday's special election.

Jim Oberweis (R) and Bill Foster (D) have both spent heavily from their own pockets, and both the NRCC and DCCC are involved as well. A March 3-4 SurveyUSA poll for Roll Call (subscription required) showed Foster leading the race 52%-45%, but some private polling contradicts the Roll Call numbers.

Republicans are at serious risk of losing the seat, but they could benefit from turnout in the Republican-leaning district. It would be a symbolic victory for the Democrats, and NRCC Chairman Tom Cole predicted that if his party were to lose the seat there would be a flood of stories spelling out the end of the GOP. At least he knows what he's in for.

Can John McCain Win in Spite of the Republican Brand?

By Stuart Rothenberg

It would take two or three columns to adequately list the GOP’s problems going into the 2008 general election, but if there is a fundamental one facing the Republican presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, it is the damage to the party’s brand.

It’s an understatement to observe that Americans have a low opinion of the Republican Party. A recent USA Today/Gallup survey found only 41 percent of adults saying they had a favorable view of the GOP, while 52 percent had an unfavorable view. In contrast, 56 percent of those polled said they had a favorable view of the Democratic Party.

Just as important, a late January/early February Washington Post/ABC News survey found Americans having more faith in the Democratic Party to deal with issues ranging from tax policy and the federal budget deficit to the war against terrorism and, not unexpectedly, health care.

Four years ago, when President Bush came from behind to win re-election, the GOP had a far more favorable image and was still regarded as better able to deal with a number of important issues, most notably the war on terror.

If the Republican Party were a brand of cereal, it would be discontinued by its maker.

But surprisingly, the Republicans actually have a chance to retain the White House in November.

The reason the Republicans have a fighting chance is simple: Even though the Republican Party’s brand is damaged, John McCain’s remains surprisingly good. Because of that, the most important question for strategists in both parties is this: Will McCain’s nomination and campaign re-brand the Republican Party, thereby improving the party’s reputation with voters, or will the damaged GOP brand rub off on McCain and damage his reputation?

An early February USA Today/Gallup poll of adults found McCain’s personal ratings (54 percent favorable/36 percent unfavorable) roughly the same as Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama’s (58 percent favorable/34 percent unfavorable) and far, far better than New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (48 percent favorable/49 percent unfavorable).

A late February CNN/Opinion Research survey of Texas primary voters also found that McCain has considerable appeal as the general election begins. Fully half of likely Democratic primary voters in the Lone Star State had a favorable opinion of McCain.

The Arizonan isn’t likely to get the votes of many Texas Democrats in November, of course, but the poll confirms that McCain has a relatively good reputation even among Democrats.

On the key issues of experience and leadership, McCain also has a clear advantage over Obama. And McCain actually leads Obama in two reputable national polls, the USA Today/Gallup survey (Feb. 21-24) and the Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll (Feb. 21-25).

It’s remarkable that, with all of the bad news for Bush and the GOP, the huge crowds that Obama is generating at events, the undeniable Democratic surge in turnout in this year’s primaries and the horrendous state of the Republican brand just nine months before Election Day, McCain is even competitive with Obama in recent polling, let alone ahead in a couple of surveys.

Indeed, last week I spoke with two smart, extremely levelheaded political consultants — one Republican and one Democrat — who told me separately that he/she (let’s not narrow the possibilities) believed McCain would defeat Obama for the White House in November.

At this point, that seems a bit of a stretch to me, but that’s not the point. Given the national mood and images of the parties, Obama should be leading McCain regularly in national polling by10 to 15 points.

But if Republicans have reason for some unexpected optimism about the presidential race, they should not get too excited. Obama still has an easier road to victory than McCain, in part because Democrats will have the opportunity to tie McCain to the damaged Republican brand, and because the media’s narrative that McCain is a hypocrite and behaves like other Members of Congress plays right into Democrats’ hands.

McCain’s task is a difficult one. He needs to define himself apart from his party at the same time that he is running in the most inherently partisan race that this country has. And he must do so while revving up GOP audiences and voters and at the same time appealing to independents and Democrats who have doubts about Obama’s readiness or his liberalism.

Finally, it seems easier for Democrats to link McCain to his party than for McCain to remake his party’s reputation, especially since George W. Bush won’t be completely invisible.

It certainly is possible that seven months from now political observers may look back and wonder why anyone in his right mind could have even imagined a McCain victory. But now, in early March, a McCain win is not out of the question, even with the GOP brand as weak as it is.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 3, 2008. Copyright 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Monday, March 03, 2008

GOP Mines for Congressional Seats in Northeast Pennsylvania

By Stuart Rothenberg

What comes to mind when you think of Northeast Pennsylvania?

For me, it is the Steamtown National Historic Site (formerly Steamtown USA), the Scranton boondoggle that honors steam railroading and benefited from the largess of then-Rep. Joe McDade (R). It’s the now abandoned anthracite coal mines of Coaldale and Lansford, with their Slovak and Carpatho-Rusyn miners. It’s the heart-shaped beds of the Poconos. And it’s even mustachioed Dan Flood, the Shakespearean actor turned Democratic Congressman who helped the area recover from Hurricane Agnes in 1972.

This cycle, add U.S. House races to that list, as both of Northeast Pennsylvania’s Congressional districts could see interesting contests that tell all of us something about voter sentiment.

Pennsylvania’s 10th is a sprawling district that includes rural counties north and east of Scranton, stretches west to Williamsport and then south to Lewisburg, home of two unrelated institutions, the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary and Bucknell University.

The 10th also is one of those seats that the GOP never should have lost — a reliable stronghold that went Democratic in the previous cycle because of a mega-scandal that destroyed the political career of then-Rep. Don Sherwood (R), who didn’t even have a Democratic opponent in 2002 or 2004. George W. Bush won the district twice, with 56 percent in 2000 and 60 percent in 2004.

Sherwood’s personal problems and the Democratic wave of 2006 combined to turn the district blue and to make Democrat Christopher Carney the new Congressman.

Carney taught political science at Penn State Worthington Scranton before winning a seat in Congress. He continues to serve in the Navy Reserve and was on active duty as recently as September.

The freshman Democrat calls himself a moderate. He is seeking the National Rifle Association’s endorsement, and he notes that he repeatedly has voted against timelines requiring an exit from Iraq.

As Washington Post (and former Roll Call) reporter Paul Kane has noted, Carney also is one of a handful of freshman Democrats from Republican districts who regularly vote against their party’s leadership on procedural issues, including approving the House Journal. It allows him to lower his support score for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). It may well be a smart move — or else it’s too cute by half.

Despite all his efforts to ingratiate himself with key interest groups and with his constituents, Carney can’t ever take his re- election for granted. His district simply is too Republican for that, and he must always worry that voters will revert to their normal partisan instincts.

Republicans figure they have a good chance of winning back the seat. But without a well-known elected official to rally around, they are likely to nominate someone with a profile closer to Carney’s in the previous cycle: a political novice with no pre-existing base of support or name identification.

The two GOP contenders are both businessmen. Dan Meuser, 44, is the president of Pride Mobility, a family-owned medical equipment company that manufactures high-end mobility devices (motorized wheelchairs). Chris Hackett, 45, owns a staffing agency and is the more animated of the two hopefuls. He was just endorsed by the Club for Growth.

At the end of December, Meuser showed more than $650,000 raised, but almost 40 percent of that figure came from his own pocket. Hackett had raised $470,000, but one-third of that was his own money. In contrast, Carney had raised almost $1 million, ending the year with $760,000 in the bank and no debt.

If the Republicans win this seat back, it will be because voters simply return to their normal partisan tendencies, not because of the strength of the eventual GOP challenger.

The race in the neighboring 11th district, currently represented by 12-term Democratic Rep. Paul Kanjorski, is noteworthy for one reason: The likely GOP nominee is Lou Barletta. Barletta, the mayor of Hazleton, lost to Kanjorski 56 percent to 42 percent in 2002, but the Republican’s reputation has grown as he has spoken out against illegal immigration.

Kanjorski has never been seriously tested for re-election, but he had to deal with controversy recently when the National Republican Congressional Committee slammed him for allegedly steering millions of dollars in federal earmarks to a technology company owned by his nephews.

Barletta has his own problems. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission and blasted the Republican for what the DCCC calls a “sweetheart loan” at a local bank. The DCCC says Barletta has never paid interest on the unsecured loan.

Maybe even more important, Scranton Times-Tribune reporter Borys Krawczeniuk, who writes a weekly column in his newspaper, recently blasted the Barletta campaign’s “lack of readiness” for not being prepared to answer Democratic attacks that the mayor wants to privatize Social Security, for not responding effectively to questions about the bank loan, and for not having positions on most issues.

Still, Barletta has made a name for himself in Northeast Pennsylvania on the immigration issue, and if there is a true anti-incumbent mood in the country, it could well show up in Kanjorski’s district.

Democrats don’t seem too worried about these two contests, and right now, that’s entirely reasonable. But they can’t take either one for granted. The big question now is whether the Republican nominees will put together the resources and quality campaigns needed to become credible challengers.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 28, 2008. Copyright 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.