Monday, October 20, 2008

Should Congressional GOP Throw McCain Under the Bus?

By Stuart Rothenberg

A dozen years ago this month, with GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole mired far back in the polls, the National Republican Congressional Committee spent millions of dollars on a television ad that urged voters not to give Bill Clinton and “liberal special interests” a “blank check” on Election Day by giving Democrats control of Congress.

Now, with Nov. 4 approaching quickly and the campaign of presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) slipping into a hole that in all likelihood is inescapable, GOP House and Senate strategists — and individual candidates — must decide whether to do the same thing.

Should Republican operatives act as if McCain still can win next month or change their message to something like “Don’t give Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats a blank check in November,” thereby virtually accepting the inevitability of McCain’s defeat and giving House and Senate Republicans a new, potentially effective message in the election’s final weeks?

The NRCC’s decision in late 1996 was not without controversy. Dole’s running mate, former New York Rep. Jack Kemp, strongly criticized the strategy, and even those party insiders who supported it seemed embarrassed by the tactic, which tacitly accepted the idea that the Kansas Senator no longer had any chance to win the presidential race.

But the ad, which ran in more than four dozen Congressional districts, may have helped Republicans minimize their losses and retain their House majority that year.

Republicans don’t have the resources to blanket the country with a similar ad this cycle, and the circumstances are different because Bill Clinton already had served a term in the White House when the 1996 campaign was heading into the final stretch.

And for this strategic shift to work, the Republican National Committee would have to shift some spending away from the presidential contest, and individual candidates would have to take up the message, framing it on a case-by-case basis depending on the district or state.

Still, Republican candidates and strategists have to consider the “no blank check” strategy because it might change the nature of this year’s House and Senate contests from a referendum on President Bush and the financial industry’s meltdown to the next four years under Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and huge Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate. Any success in doing that would help GOP downballot candidates.

Not everyone agrees that the strategy would work.

One strategist I spoke with noted that voters have little patience with “process arguments” and suggested that the message would need to be more specific about what Obama and a heavily Democratic Congress might do.

But others pointed out that a stunning 40 percent of voters don’t know that Democrats control Congress and that a “blank check” argument could be an effective message for Republican challengers and open-seat candidates.

Still, even those who think the message is a good one are realistic about its potential effect. “It’s a good message, but it isn’t a winning message. I think that it may minimize the damage,” one GOP strategist speculated.

“Nothing else has worked very well this cycle anyway. It’s worth a try,” another Republican agreed.

But wouldn’t throwing McCain under the bus drain Republican enthusiasm, depressing GOP turnout and thereby hurting the party’s House and Senate hopefuls?

Two Republican strategists that I spoke with say it would not. Both argued that Republican voters see what is happening in national polls and increasingly expect McCain to lose. In fact, one said, a “blank check” message might actually increase Republican turnout by convincing the party’s voters that there is “something at stake in this election.”

The most obvious reason to oppose a “blank check” argument is that McCain still may be able to win, and if anyone is able to use the argument it should be McCain, because nothing can stop Democrats from controlling both chambers of Congress with big majorities after November.

In fact, while an external event could theoretically save McCain, the Arizona Republican’s current prospects are horrible.

Obama has now opened up comfortable leads in some supposedly swing states, and his image is improving as McCain’s worsens. As they did in 1980 when they swung late in the campaign to challenger Ronald Reagan, voters apparently have decided that Obama is not a risky choice.

One GOP poll shows McCain trailing by more than 15 points in Wisconsin, a state that Bush lost by two-tenths of a point in 2000 and four-tenths of a point in 2004. Even worse, Obama’s favorable rating in the state is more than 60 percent, while McCain’s is in the mid- to low-40s.

Anyone who thinks that all McCain needs is more TV ads doesn’t understand where this election is. Given the lateness in the cycle, the Republican Party’s current poor image and the party’s financial problems, additional spending on House and Senate contests may well be too little too late. But it just might help deliver a new “no blank check” message that could help Republicans win a few more races than now seems likely.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on October 16, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.