Tuesday, March 31, 2009

New York 20: Stu on Newshour

Stu was also on the Newshour this evening talking about the special election in New York's 20th District. Unfortunately, they don't have an embed function, but you can listen to the segment by clicking here.

New York 20: Stu on CNN

Monday, March 30, 2009

Is the New York Race a Referendum on the Candidates or Politics?

By Stuart Rothenberg

Is the special election in New York’s 20th district a referendum on the national political environment — on President Barack Obama, Washington, D.C.’s handling of the American International Group bonus scandal, the economic stimulus package and the national reputations of the two parties? Or, rather, is it about the skills and appeal of the two candidates?

It’s about both.

Republican Jim Tedisco initially appeared to possess the most important qualities for the brief campaign. A veteran of the New York state Legislature, he is known as “Mr. Schenectady” and has deep roots in the area. He also appeared to benefit from the district’s GOP leanings and a 70,000-voter registration advantage.

But even some Republicans acknowledge that Tedisco, the State Assembly Minority Leader, is, as one put it, like “the old dog that can’t learn new tricks.” Democrats have used his lengthy record against him, portraying him as an insider and part of the problem.

One Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee-funded TV ad, for example, asserted that “politician Jim Tedisco” is “just another Albany politician,” while a different spot attacked the Republican for collecting per diem allowances from the state even though he lives 17 miles from Albany.

Democrat Scott Murphy, 39, has never run for office before and claims to have created jobs as a businessman. He worked for two Democratic governors in Missouri, but voters don’t seem to care that he hasn’t lived in the area as long as Tedisco. The Democrat presents himself as the candidate of change and new ideas, another not-so-subtle effort to create a contrast with his Republican opponent.

Murphy stumbled out of the gate but has become a better candidate. And yet he has given Republicans openings, such as his recent comment that he opposes the death penalty even for terrorists. That view is simply out of touch with the district. And his decision to reiterate his support of the stimulus bill, even knowing that a measure to prevent bonuses for executives of companies like AIG had been removed, is a potentially serious blunder.

Still, local observers note that the Midwestern Murphy may be a better fit for the northern and southern parts of the district than Tedisco, an urban ethnic politician who plays well in Schenectady and Albany — neither of which are in the 20th district — but not necessarily in the “white bread,” old Yankee areas of the district.

But while the candidates matter, so do the race’s atmospherics, and that’s where national figures and issues come into play.

Polling shows Murphy doing well among independents and getting a chunk of GOP voters, a function no doubt of his outsider profile and embrace of change, jobs and Obama.

Obama carried the district in 2008, and he remains popular. So is Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D), who won it twice. She urges voters to support Murphy in a TV spot, and she will be active in get-out-the-vote efforts in the race’s final days.

The jobs issue is Murphy’s ace in the hole. His campaign and the DCCC repeatedly emphasize the Democrat’s support of the president’s job creation agenda, trying to create a contrast with Tedisco.

While the Republican nominee has talked about job losses and his commitment to bringing jobs to the area, nationally, the GOP still has problems convincing voters that it has a quick fix for job losses. The Republican Party’s image is poor, and the national atmosphere isn’t better for the party than it was in 2006 and 2008.

Fundamentally, the Republican answer to all economic slowdowns and unemployment is tax cuts, and while party policy advocates may be correct that that is the best way to get the economy going and to keep it going, tax cuts simply aren’t a compelling message to voters who have lost their jobs and want immediate help. The national Democratic approach is more effective, politically, right now, and Murphy seems to be reaping the benefits of that advantage.

The big questions in this race, however, involve AIG, the insurance giant-turned-financial services company. Is Tedisco benefitting enough from the issue to help him win?

The Republican continues to attack Murphy on that front, noting in a radio spot that began airing Tuesday that the Democrat “backs the law allowing AIG millionaires to collect outrageous bonuses” and that that’s not surprising because Murphy has “approved bonuses for failing executives before in another company taxpayers helped.”

Insiders agree that the race is “within the margin of error,” which is why both sides are so focused on turnout. A new Siena College poll expected to be released Friday could be an important indicator of how the race has moved in the campaign’s final days.

If Tedisco loses, it’s hard to see how National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) and Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele deserve any blame, but I’m sure someone will fault them. If Murphy wins, local Democrats and the DCCC will deserve considerable credit, as will the candidate.

If Tedisco wins, it isn’t likely to be pretty, and Republicans should breathe a sigh of relief rather than celebrate wildly.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 26, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Polls, Press Releases and Partisanship: Let the Reader Beware

By Stuart Rothenberg

Nobody is under oath, so I suppose that it’s too much to expect “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” especially when it comes to press releases, headlines and even reputable pollsters.

But I was disappointed to see how some of the results of a March Public Opinion Strategies/Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research poll of likely voters for National Public Radio were presented.

Yes, the two firms have very different partisan bents, but they collaborated on a national survey for NPR, a nonpartisan organization, so it’s reasonable to expect a certain level of analytical neutrality from both.

But if you only read about the NPR poll on the Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Web site, you would have a seriously distorted view of the results of the survey.

“Latest NPR Poll: Democrats Besting Republicans in National Debate on Key Budget Issues” proclaimed the headline on the Democratic firm’s Web site.

The report on the Web site continued by saying the poll “shows [President] Barack Obama with high overall approval ratings and strong marks on handling the economy, but much more important, Democrats winning the big debates surrounding Obama’s first budget on taxes, energy, health care, and the deficit by significant margins.”

If you are looking for any bits of data that are more even-handed, you can find it in the Greenberg Quinlan Rosner statement only if you have a powerful magnifying glass.

For example, “On both energy and health care the Democratic message wins by 53 [percent] to 42 percent, a margin nearly twice the Democrats’ 6-point partisan advantage.” So Democrats have only a 6-point advantage?

Or this: “President Obama’s approval rating remains strong. Nearly six-in-ten voters (59 percent) approve of the job President Obama is doing while just 35 percent disapprove.” Just 35 percent disapprove? That’s a surprisingly high number compared to other polls and given the euphoria implicit in the Greenberg analysis.

You would think that analysis of a survey examining the national political landscape might note prominently that the Democratic Party’s 6-point advantage in party identification was down from a 10-point advantage in May 2008, the last NPR poll, or holding steady from November, when the national exit poll showed the electorate as 39 percent Democratic and 32 percent Republican.

And, you might think that it’s worth noting that the Congressional generic ballot in the new NPR survey showed the parties deadlocked at 42 percent, a surprising reversal from Election Day, when Democrats had a substantial advantage in ID, especially given the public’s low opinion of the Republican Party.

And while I wouldn’t disagree with the characterization of Obama’s poll numbers as “strong,” NPR correspondent Mara Liasson’s observation that the president’s job approval is “down from the mid-60s” and “just about where the past 4 presidents have been at this point in their terms” put the numbers in a far more realistic context.

The cheerleading of the Greenberg Quinlan Rosner release is all the more obvious and misleading because the NPR poll came just one day after the release of a Pew Research Center for the People & the Press national poll headlined “Obama’s Approval Rating Slips Amid Division Over Economic Proposals.”

That Pew survey found Obama’s job approval had slipped from 64 percent in February to 59 percent in March, while his disapproval rating rose from 17 percent to 26 percent. (That’s not a seismic shift, but it’s enough to get almost anyone’s attention.) Pew’s analysis accompanying the poll also noted that “the public expresses mixed views of his many major proposals to fix the economy.”

When I went over to the Public Opinion Strategies Web site, I found a brief item on the poll. The piece was headlined “New NPR Poll Released.” No spin, no bias.

The first substantive paragraph on the poll results was merely a reprint from the NPR analysis, noting that Obama’s job ratings were “still high” and that among likely voters, “the Democratic position on issues was favored across the board.” “Still, there’s some reason for Republicans to hope,” ended the paragraph.

NPR’s more matter-of-fact reporting and analysis — and Public Opinion Strategies’ use of the NPR language — stands in stark (and welcome) contrast to Greenberg’s very partisan presentation.

But NPR can’t be left off the hook entirely. NPR headline writers attached a curious headline to the release: “NPR Poll: More Voters Think U.S. Is On Right Track.”

Huh? More voters think the country is on the right track than think that it is going off in the wrong direction? Or more voters now think the country is on the right track compared to what they thought in the previous NPR poll?

The NPR story makes it clear that 63 percent still think the country is on the wrong track, so the improvement in sentiment is modest. And with a popular new president in the White House and Democrats talking constantly about change, wouldn’t you think that the “right direction” number would be higher than 31 percent?

There are plenty of polls floating around and more analysis than anyone could ever need. But partisan analysis isn’t analysis at all. It’s message.

This column
first appeared in Roll Call on March 23, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

New Print Edition: California 32 & Florida 8

The March 20, 2009 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report is on its way to subscribers.

The print edition of the Report comes out every two weeks. 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 preview of this edition:

California 32: Race Matters?

By Nathan L. Gonzales

When President Barack Obama plucked Cong. Hilda Solis (D) from the House for his cabinet, he left Democrats with an open seat to defend. But unlike the special election in upstate New York, Democrats are in no danger of losing this Southern California seat.

State Sen. Gil Cedillo (D) and Board of Equalization Chairman Judy Chu (D) are battling to replace Solis in the 32nd Congressional District, even if other candidates join the race before the filing deadline.

Chu represented a large chunk of the district in the state Assembly and now on the Equalization Board. But in a district where ethnicity still matters, she’s Asian-American in a majority Hispanic district. That’s a big reason why Cedillo has a significant opportunity in the race, even though he doesn’t live in or represent any of the district.

After Solis officially resigned on February 24, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) set a May 19 all-party primary. If no candidate gets over 50%, then the top Republican and Democratic vote-getters will face off on July 14. But the Democratic nominee will be the prohibitive favorite. Subscribers get the entire story in the print edition of the Report.

Florida 8: Magical World of Politics
By Nathan L. Gonzales

It was bad enough last fall for Republicans to lose another 21 House seats, but they even lost Disney World. Now, GOPers are hoping out-spoken freshman Cong. Alan Grayson (D) will help make their dreams of taking back Florida’s 8th District come true by saying something outlandish.

Grayson couldn’t get out of the primary in 2006, but spent millions of his own money last cycle to secure the nomination and knock off four-term Cong. Ric Keller (R). Some GOP strategists saw the writing on the wall after a flawed challenger received 47% against Keller in the GOP primary. The Democratic attorney used his personal resources to exploit Keller’s weaknesses and rode the Barack Obama wave into office.

Republicans don’t yet have an announced, credible candidate for 2010, but will look to former state House Speaker Dan Webster or Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty. There is little doubt they’ll compete in the Orlando-area district that is proving to be very competitive at multiple levels.

Much of the attention on Florida last cycle was on the presidential race or Cong. Tom Feeney’s (R) ethical troubles in the neighboring 24th district, and not Keller’s race. This time around, it’s the 8th District that could be one of the most talked about House races this cycle. Subscribers get the entire story in the print edition of the Report.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Should Democrats Worry About Obama Disconnect in 2010?

By Stuart Rothenberg

Don’t be surprised if you soon hear Democrats asserting that midterm elections are referendums on incumbent presidents and that as long as President Barack Obama’s numbers remain strong and the GOP brand remains weak, Democratic candidates running for high office next year have nothing to worry about.

In fact, some wise Democrats are concerned about a possible disconnect between the president’s popularity and voters’ views of Democratic candidates next year, especially for incumbents.

Their fear is that even if Obama remains personally popular, voters will not look kindly on their party’s candidates for Congress and governor if the economy remains weak and the public mood is sour and frightened. And even if the economy is showing signs of life, public concern over the deficit, taxes or cultural issues could drive turnout among voters wanting — you guessed it — change.

The concern is well-founded, and you don’t have to believe me to take this danger seriously.

Here is what noted Democratic pollster/strategist Stanley Greenberg wrote in his article “The Revolt Against Politics” in the Nov. 21, 1994, issue of “The Polling Report,” just two years into a Democratic president’s first term and only weeks after a midterm election in which the GOP gained more than 50 House seats and won control of the House for the first time since the 1950s:

“Voters this year voted against Democratic-dominated national politics that seemed corrupt, divisive and slow to address the needs of ordinary citizens. In that, they were voting their disappointment with the spectacle of a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress promising change, but seemingly unable to produce it. Many voted to change a government that spends too much and accomplishes too little, and to shift the public discourse away from big government solutions.”

Midterm elections are about anger, so if there isn’t any, incumbents of both parties do just fine. But if there is some — watch out. Blaming the previous administration works for six months or a year, but after that, it’s a much tougher sell.

In focus groups in Macomb County, Mich., and Riverside, Calif., Greenberg wrote in his article, “one hears an electorate acutely conscious that the Democrats came to power promising change, but produced only turmoil.”

It’s not hard to imagine some voters feeling that very same way next fall, especially if the Obama administration continues to spread itself so thin by dealing with an endless number of problems, yet solving none.

As for the issue of corruption that Greenberg referred to in 1994, it, too, could be a problem for Democrats next year.

Democratic operatives are still regurgitating old e-mails trying to hang Jack Abramoff around the necks of GOP candidates, but how will those same operatives deal with Democratic Reps. Charlie Rangel (N.Y.), John Murtha (Pa.), Eliot Engel (N.Y.), Maxine Waters (Calif.) and Alan Mollohan (W.Va.), all of whom have their own issues to deal with, to say nothing of the tax problems of Obama Cabinet nominees? Republicans aren’t likely to give Democrats a free pass on ethics nationally.

Later in his 1994 article, Greenberg made another crucial point that is certain to be applicable for 2010: “Democrats lost ground because of the composition of those who went to the polls.”

The makeup of the midterm electorate always differs from that in a presidential year, and next year’s electorate will be less sympathetic to Obama and Democrats. The 2010 electorate is likely to be less black than was the electorate of 2008, and it’s almost certain to be older. Given those factors, it’s also likely to be at least a bit more Republican.

Whites, who went for McCain by 55 percent to 43 percent last year, constituted 77 percent of the electorate in 2004 and only 74 percent in 2008, but they constituted 79 percent of the electorate in 2006. And people ages 18 to 29, Obama’s strongest age group last year, constituted 18 percent of the electorate in 2008 and 17 percent in 2004, yet a mere 12 percent in 2006.

One Democratic strategist told me recently that only Obama can effectively defend his performance and agenda next year, thereby boosting Democratic turnout, keeping Republicans on the defensive and saving some Democratic incumbents from defeat. That’s a reasonable strategy, but not one wholly without risk.

Given the president’s personal qualities and communication skills, it’s quite possible that his personal and job ratings will remain relatively high at least through the midterms, even if voters remain sour about the economy. Obama, after all, is a unique political figure, and many Americans will continue to admire him personally, no matter what happens.

But so far, Obama has stayed above the partisan fray, preferring to emphasize his efforts at bipartisanship and at changing the tone in Washington, D.C. If he throws himself completely into the 2010 elections and casts himself in more partisan hues, he could damage his own standing with voters, particularly those who find him appealing because he has not been excessively partisan. And he could damage the prospects of Democrats sitting in Republican House districts.

Right now, Democrats have everything going for them. But, if they read Greenberg’s 1994 article, they’ll likely conclude that they cannot afford to feel too comfortable about 2010. Midterm elections can have a dynamic all their own, and even a popular Barack Obama may not be enough to protect all Democratic candidates from voter anger.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 19, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Stu on ABC: Bonus Backlash

Click here to watch Stu on ABC about the AIG bonus backlash.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

RNC Selects New Political Director

Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele has selected veteran GOP operative Gentry Collins to become the RNC’s new Political Director.

Collins joins a team that already includes Executive Director Ken McKay and Director of Communications Trevor Francis, both of whom were named earlier.

Collins most recently served as a Regional Campaign Manager for McCain-Palin 2008, managing campaign operations in three Midwestern states (Missouri, Iowa and Illinois). Before that, he served as Iowa State Director for Mitt Romney’s Presidential campaign.

From February 2005 to December 2006 Collins served as National Political Director for the Republican Governors Association. Prior to that, he spent more than two years as Executive Director of the Republican Party of Iowa.

National Mood Isn't Always Visible on the Ground

By Stuart Rothenberg

Polls show that the nation’s political winds are not changing. President Barack Obama is up, while Republicans are down — and spending more time on trivial matters such as Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele than on rebuilding their brand.

The past couple of months have also seen some significant campaign developments that are affecting the two parties’ outlooks for 2009 and 2010 — not always as expected.

The special election in New York’s 20th district has become a barnburner, with Republican Jim Tedisco holding only the slightest (and statistically insignificant) advantage over Democrat Scott Murphy in the fast-approaching March 31 special election. For Republicans, the special election to replace appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) looks to be repeating a troubling pattern.

Even though the district leans Republican, soft GOP voters who like Obama are not embracing Tedisco. Some have gravitated to Murphy, who is young, has money to put into the race and has no legislative record, while others are undecided.

Tedisco has served in the state Assembly for years, and that makes him easily branded as a “typical politician,” which is exactly what a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee TV ad calls him.

One GOP insider whom I spoke with recently said the race “doesn’t look good,” in part because Murphy has been “rolling up the score” among independents. But strategists from both parties expect a close finish, and turnout, as is often the case in special elections, will determine the winner. A loss for Republicans would be demoralizing, but it could happen.

At the same time that Democratic prospects in the New York special election are brightening, the party’s prospects in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections later this year are dimming.

Gov. Jon Corzine (D) is now running behind former U.S. attorney Chris Christie, the GOP’s likely nominee, in the Garden State, and tough economic conditions, which are not likely to improve in the short run, are forcing Corzine to make unappealing choices.

In Virginia, the crowded race for the Democratic nomination is allowing former state Attorney General Bob McDonnell to run free and clear, and to define himself.

Six months down the road, these two state races could look very different, but right now it appears unlikely that Democrats can retain both governorships. That would give Republicans something to crow about in November, and a sweep would certainly boost the GOP mood across the country heading into 2010.

Republicans caught a break in Kansas when Obama selected Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) for his Cabinet. Her confirmation will virtually guarantee that Republicans will hold the open Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) in order to run for governor.

In Connecticut, local media continue to raise questions about Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd’s past financial arrangements, and former Rep. Rob Simmons (R) is now widely expected to enter the Senate race against him.

Any Senate contest in the Nutmeg State is difficult for the GOP, and Dodd is a formidable foe, even with his depressed poll numbers. Still, this Senate contest wasn’t expected to be worth watching, so Dodd’s electoral problems are a welcome windfall for Republicans.

In Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist (R) is more likely than not to jump into the Senate race.

Normally, the governor’s office in almost any state is seen as a refuge from the partisanship of Capitol Hill. But the Sunshine State faces the same fiscal problems that other states do, and the next governor will have to make unpopular decisions. That might make the Senate look relatively appealing to Crist.

In any case, Democratic recruiting for the state’s Senate race has, at least so far, not been all that intimidating, leaving Republicans feeling better about their prospects of retaining retiring Sen. Mel Martinez’s open seat.

Ohio looks to be another dogfight, but the race took an unfortunate turn for Democrats when both Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner decided to seek the Democratic nomination. The primary could enhance the chances of former Rep. Rob Portman, the likely GOP Senate nominee.

While recent developments have caused Democrats a few problems, the party has reason to feel increasingly confident about its chances of taking open Senate seats in Missouri and New Hampshire.

The prospect of a bitter GOP primary in Missouri between Rep. Roy Blunt and former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman — with the winner facing Secretary of State Robin Carnahan (D) — is making GOP strategists nervous. Blunt has the backing of most insiders, but given his years in the House leadership and the problems that his son, Matt, had as governor, the conservative Steelman’s “outsider” message of reform might resonate.

Democratic prospects in Kentucky also are bright now, as GOP efforts to ease Sen. Jim Bunning (R) out of the race have backfired. With Democrats likely to nominate either Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo or state Attorney General Jack Conway for the Senate contest, GOP prospects of retaining the Bunning seat are not good.

In North Carolina, state Attorney General Roy Cooper (D) seems genuinely interested in challenging Sen. Richard Burr (R). Burr should run a far better race than then-Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) ran last cycle, and the midterm electorate should not be as favorable for Cooper as it was for now-Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.). Still, a Burr-Cooper contest would be a titanic struggle, giving Senate Democrats another serious opportunity.

Finally, the Pennsylvania Senate race looks messier each day. Conservative Pat Toomey now seems likely to repeat his 2004 primary challenge to Sen. Arlen Specter (R), and Specter’s chances of surviving this time are worse than they were six years ago, when he won renomination with 50.8 percent.

Specter’s chances for winning a primary would be improved, of course, in a multicandidate race, and conservative, anti-abortion activist Peg Luksik said last week that she’s getting into the GOP contest. Any votes she gets almost certainly would be anti-Specter voters peeled away from Toomey.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 16, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Savvy Players Are Big Factor in Current Success of Democrats

By Stuart Rothenberg

There are more than a few reasons why Republicans are in a political hole currently and, more importantly, why the party is having a hard time getting out of it.

But we’ve all talked long enough about former President George W. Bush, the unpopular war in Iraq, the economy, the GOP’s missteps when it controlled both chambers of Congress, the damage to the Republican brand and the unique abilities and appeal of President Barack Obama. There is no need to cover that ground again.

Instead, there is one other Democratic advantage — and Republican shortcoming — that can’t be ignored: People.

Democrats simply have smarter, tougher, more cold-blooded voices in government at the moment. That hasn’t always been the case, and it’s certainly not inevitable. But right now, it’s true.

I’m not talking about the Democrats’ official leaders on Capitol Hill, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.). Both are skilled insiders who know their caucuses and understand politics.

Instead, I’m referring to a trio of Democrats in Washington, D.C., who epitomize the party’s current advantage — Rep. Barney Frank (Mass.), Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who until recently served in the House as the third-ranking party leader.

Republicans don’t have anyone with the smarts and debating skills of Frank, who, during a TV segment, can go from examining his hands (apparently not even listening to the discussion) to eviscerating a Republican opponent with facts and his sharp wit.

He can beat opponents over the head with facts when it suits him and simply overwhelm them rhetorically when facts are not on the Democrat’s side. He has been doing it for more than three decades, going back to his appearances on PBS’s “The Advocates.”

Nor do Republicans have equals to Schumer or Emanuel, who never stop trying to make life difficult for Republicans. Both men live and breathe politics — they were, after all, the architects of the historic 2006 Democratic sweep of the House and Senate majorities — and they are skilled in front of and behind the camera. They are constantly looking for new angles, issues to exploit and new ideas to pursue. Call them intense, ferocious or something worse, you get the picture.

The list of Democrats who understand both politics and policy and can play both the inside game and the outside game doesn’t end with those three, of course. Veterans of Capitol Hill cite other Democrats, as well, including Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.).

Just as important, these smart legislators, advocates and strategists are benefitting from the support of capable like-minded people on Capitol Hill and allies off of it — including groups pushing their agendas at the state or national levels, and sympathetic bloggers who now play a role similar to what conservative talk show hosts have for years for Republicans.

In an effort to resuscitate Democratic prospects in Texas, for example, Matt Angle formed the Lone Star Project, a federal political action committee that hammers Republicans whenever its get a chance, promoting strong local Democratic candidates and even bringing lawsuits. Angle, a former top aide to ex-Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), has a few successes under his belt already, though Republicans still have the advantage in the state.

Recently, the left-of-center Center for American Progress launched a “war room” that seeks to add its weight behind the White House’s agenda.

The great irony, of course, is that Democrats have become successful, in part, because they have adopted the strategies of Republicans that they once so reviled. Everything involves confrontation.

Years ago, Democrats complained that the party had nobody who could match strategist Karl Rove or then-Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) in sheer political calculation, or in their willingness to push — or even sometimes tear — the envelope. But now, the roles are reversed, with Republicans lacking anyone as aggressive and politically effective as Emanuel, Schumer or Frank.

It would be foolish, of course, to say that Republicans have no talent in the nation’s capital.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) are no pushovers, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) can hold his own in a debate. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) are widely regarded as bright and creative up-and-comers and as able to talk strategy and tactics, as well as handle themselves well in debate.

Looking outside Washington, some observers cite governors such as Utah’s Jon Huntsman Jr. and Indiana’s Mitch Daniels as having the kind of analytical ability, political savvy and maturity to help reinvigorate the Republican Party nationally now.

And most people I’ve talked to about this acknowledge that former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) is one of the few Republicans with the intellectual firepower, political savvy and speaking ability to match the sharpest Democrats.

But right now, the Republicans on Capitol Hill have no match for Emanuel, Frank and Schumer, or the other talented Democrats. Taking nothing away from GOP legislators, staffers or interest groups, Democrats are simply more aggressive, better organized and more poised for the kill. It’s up to the GOP to counter that quickly.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 12, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

One Thing Obama Didn’t Change Is the Same Old Rhetoric

By Stuart Rothenberg

“I realize that there are those who simply don’t believe Washington can bring about this change. And the odds are long. It’s failed too many times. There are too many special interests and entrenched lobbyists invested in the status quo. ... I didn’t come to Washington to take the easy route, or to work for the powerful and the well-connected interests who have run this city for too long. I came here to work for the American people.”
President Barack Obama
March 2, 2009
For somebody who wants to break the old political mold, Obama certainly continues to rely on some trite rhetoric.

When I read the president’s remarks (see above) prior to his introducing his newest selection for secretary of Health and Human Services, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D), I wasn’t reading anything I hadn’t read before. Politicians always say they are battling the special interests, whom they invariably associate with their opponents.

Indeed, more than 25 years ago, on Oct. 11, 1983, the Washington Post editorialized: “‘Special interests’ has become a central issue in the contest for the Democratic nomination, and President [Ronald] Reagan will surely make it an issue if he faces Mr. [Walter] Mondale in the general election.”

There are so many examples of attacks on special interests and lobbyists over the years that it’s hard to select only a few examples.

Here’s one from the Washington Post, Jan. 31, 2004: “[John] Kerry, who did not begin his campaign with a heavy emphasis on fighting lobbyists, appears to have usurped the special interest message from [John] Edwards and [Howard] Dean over the past few months. Now, Kerry’s standard campaign refrain includes this warning to the ‘special interests’ and their lobbyists: ‘We’re coming, you’re going and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.’”

And another from the Boston Globe, Feb. 1, 2004: “Howard Dean, bolstered by a Marine Corps general and a newspaper article questioning Senator John F. Kerry’s links to special interests, yesterday lam basted the Democratic front-runner as a ‘special-interest clone.’”

During a campaign, even Democrats accuse other Democrats of being too close to special interests. But the special interest charge is most often used by politicians in one party against politicians in the other party.

For example, from the Hartford Courant, July 12, 2000: “Monday, [Vice President Al] Gore came to New Britain with a new national message, that he would ‘fight for the people, not the powerful,’ pledging to lead the fight against special interests.”

Let’s not forget this one from the Washington Post, Sept. 2, 1992: “Sensitive to the danger that defending government programs before groups with whom they are popular might leave him open to charges that he is an old-fashioned Democrat responsive to special interest groups, [Bill] Clinton said [President George H.W.] Bush, not he, was the candidate of ‘special interests.’”

When it comes to special interests, the best defense apparently is a good offense. When someone attacks you as a tool of special interests, just turn the attack around — even if you are one of the special interests.

Consider this one from the New York Times, Jan. 28, 1984: “In a blunt, free-wheeling response to Mr. Reagan’s criticism that Democratic candidates were trying to ‘buy support’ with promises to special interests, Mr. Mondale said, ‘Nobody has served the wealthy and powerful special interests with more devotion for more years than Mr. Reagan.’”

Or this doozy from Sept. 5, 1980, in the New York Times: “Lane Kirkland, the president of the [AFL-CIO], said in urging the endorsement of the President: ‘Unlike President [Jimmy] Carter, Ronald Reagan is the captive of some of the most narrow special interests in this nation, and they are not about to let him go.”

Remember, this most recent dose of anti-special interest rhetoric comes from a president who is going to bring all of us together — unless of course, you are part of one of the powerful special interests with entrenched lobbyists.

Let’s see, who exactly does that special interest label include? The National Education Association? The National Endowment for the Arts? The AFL-CIO? Planned Parenthood? AARP? General Motors?

The president ought to know that we are a nation of special interests and that his stimulus package and budget reward certain interests and penalize others, sometimes in the same sector of the economy.

Southern agricultural interests are often at odds with Midwest agricultural interests, just as physicians and hospitals are often at odds even though both are involved in health care. Wind power surely is as much a special interest as the large oil and gas companies.

Obama is using the same bogeyman scare tactics that other politicians have used, dividing when it serves his purposes and talking about bringing Americans together when he thinks it will benefit him and his agenda.

The special interest argument is used so often by politicians and their press folks because it is effective. Many voters, after all, are easily manipulated. But it’s still demagoguery, and it should be called such — especially when it comes from a man, and an administration, that spends so much time talking about bringing all Americans together and changing the way things have been done.

This column
first appeared in Roll Call on March 9, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

New York 20: Toss-Up

By Stuart Rothenberg and Nathan L. Gonzales

It’s a sprint to March 31 in the special election race to replace appointed-Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) in New York’s 20th District, and there is mounting evidence that this race is a pure toss-up.

The Republican voter registration advantage appears to be a lagging indicator of the direction of a district that voted overwhelming for Gillibrand and gave Barack Obama a more narrow victory last fall.

There appears to be a sizable population of Republicans that aren’t yet willing to vote for state Assembly Minority Leader Jim Tedisco (R). Democrats have Tedisco on the defensive for not taking a stance on the stimulus bill in a district where President Obama and Gillibrand are very popular.

Meanwhile, Republicans have been aggressive against former venture capitalist Scott Murphy (D), but his lack of a voting record or public office appears to make him a difficult target.

Given the recent release of a late February Democratic survey that showed Tedisco leading by seven points but at only 44%, and Democratic comments at the time of the poll expressing uncertainty about the party’s willingness to fight for the seat, it now appears that Democrats were low-balling their prospects of holding the seat.

Democrats have downplayed the race by playing up the GOP registration numbers to avoid fallout from losing a Democratic House seat in the first special election of the Obama Administration.

But now, both the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee are advertising in the district with significant television buys and each party has a legitimate shot to win.

Republicans and Tedisco should no longer be considered favorites to win the seat. The race is now a pure toss-up. [Click here for our latest House ratings.]

2010 House Ratings

Here are our latest House ratings. We've moved New York's 20th District from Toss-Up/Tilt Republican to Pure Toss-Up. The special election will be held on March 31.

Pure Toss-Up (0R, 2 D)
  • NH 2 (Open; Hodes, D)
  • NY 20 (Open; Gillibrand, D) *March 31 special
Toss-Up/Tilt Republican (0R, 0 D)

Lean Republican (1R, 0D)
  • WA 8 (Reichert, R)
Republican Favored (8R, 0D)
  • AK A-L (Young, R)
  • CA 3 (Lungren, R)
  • CA 44 (Calvert, R)
  • MN 3 (Paulsen, R)
  • MN 6 (Bachmann, R)
  • NJ 7 (Lance, R)
  • PA 6 (Gerlach, R)
  • SC 1 (Brown, R)
Toss-Up/Tilt Democratic (0R, 4D)
  • AL 2 (Bright, D)
  • ID 1 (Minnick, D)
  • MD 1 (Kratovil, D)
  • MS 1 (Childers, D)
Lean Democratic (1R, 9D)
  • CO 4 (Markey, D)
  • FL 8 (Grayson, D)
  • LA 2 (Cao, R)
  • MI 7 (Schauer, D)
  • NH 1 (Shea-Porter, D)
  • NC 8 (Kissell, D)
  • OH 1 (Driehaus, D)
  • OH 15 (Kilroy, D)
  • PA 10 (Carney, D)
  • VA 5 (Perriello, D)
Democrat Favored (0R, 8D)
  • AL 5 (Griffith, D)
  • GA 8 (Marshall, D)
  • NM 2 (Teague, D)
  • NY 19 (Hall, D)
  • NY 24 (Arcuri, D)
  • NY 29 (Massa, D)
  • TX 17 (Edwards, D)
  • VA 2 (Nye, D)

2010 Senate Ratings

Here are our latest Senate ratings. In the face of poor polling numbers and media stories, we've moved Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd (D) from Currently Safe to Clear Advantage. Republicans don't yet have a candidate against him, but Dodd can't be considered safe.

Lean Takeover (0 R, 0 D)

Toss-Up (5 R, 0 D)
  • Bunning (R-KY)
  • FL Open (Martinez, R)
  • MO Open (Bond, R)
  • NH Open (Gregg, R)
  • OH Open (Voinovich, R)
Narrow Advantage for Incumbent Party (3 R, 2 D)
  • Burr (R-NC)
  • Specter (R-PA)
  • Vitter (R-LA)
  • Bennet (D-CO)
  • Reid (D-NV)
Clear Advantage for Incumbent Party (1 R, 3 D)
  • Grassley (R-IA)
  • Dodd (D-CT)
  • Dorgan (D-ND)
  • Feingold (D-WI)
Currently Safe (10 R, 12 D)
  • Bennett (R-UT)
  • Coburn (R-OK)
  • Crapo (R-ID)
  • DeMint (R-SC)
  • Isakson (R-GA)
  • McCain (R-AZ)
  • Murkowski (R-AK)
  • Shelby (R-AL)
  • Thune (R-SD)
  • KS Open (Brownback, R)
  • Bayh (D-IN)
  • Boxer (D-CA)
  • Burris (D-IL)
  • Gillibrand (D-NY)
  • Inouye (D-HI)
  • Kaufman (D-DE)
  • Leahy (D-VT)
  • Lincoln (D-AR)
  • Mikulski (D-MD)
  • Murray (D-WA)
  • Schumer (D-NY)
  • Wyden (D-OR)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

New Print Edition: New Jersey Governor & Virginia Governor

The March 6, 2009 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report is on its way to subscribers.

The print edition of the Report comes out every two weeks. 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 preview of this edition:

New Jersey Governor: Don’t Blame Me

By Nathan L. Gonzales

With the current economic crisis, it’s a tough time to be a governor. But New Jersey’s Jon Corzine (D) is the only incumbent facing voters this year.

In 2005, Corzine made the jump from the U.S. Senate to the governor’s mansion on the heels of scandal surrounding Democratic Gov. Jim McGreevey. Now, four years later, the national and state economic situation has worsened dramatically, and the governor’s polling numbers range from mediocre to extremely vulnerable.

Most Garden State Republicans are rallying behind the candidacy of former U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie and are excited about the opportunity to knock off the governor. They’ll be looking to pin responsibility for the state’s economy onto Corzine, while Democrats will look to associate Christie with former President George W. Bush.

But considering that Corzine hasn’t even started his reelection campaign and will spend millions of dollars of his own money when he finally does, and that Republicans haven’t won statewide in New Jersey in a dozen years, Republicans might want to keep that champagne on ice before they start putting this contest into the “win” column. For the whole story, you must subscribe to the print edition of the Report.

Virginia Governor: Bucking the Trend
By Nathan L. Gonzales

If you place a great deal of emphasis on long-term historical trends, you have to figure that Republicans will be victorious later this year in their effort to take back the Virginia governorship. But recent elections prove that Democrats are on the march in the Commonwealth and could retain the governorship for a third consecutive term.

Still reeling from more losses in the 2008 elections, local Republicans have coalesced behind former Attorney General Bob McDonnell as their nominee. Meanwhile, Democrats won’t know their nominee until June 9, when the competitive Democratic primary is over. Gov. Tim Kaine (D) is prohibited from seeking a second consecutive term.

Former DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe, former state delegate Brian Moran, and state Sen. Creigh Deeds, all have viable paths to the Democratic nomination, but there is no clear frontrunner in the race.

Given the state’s proximity to the nation’s capital, this race could take on more significance as Republicans try to regain relevancy. For the whole story, you must subscribe to the print edition of the Report.

For our latest ratings on all of the 2009-2010 gubernatorial ratings, click here.

Monday, March 09, 2009

New York 20: DCCC Turns to Ralston-Lapp for IE

By Stuart Rothenberg and Nathan L. Gonzales

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee entered the New York 20 special election over the weekend with a significant $139,000 television ad buy, according the committee’s 24-hour, independent expenditure disclosure, filed with the Federal Election Commission on Monday afternoon.

On Friday, the National Republican Congressional Committee filed their $147,000 television ad buy. The GOP independent expenditure ads were produced by Chris Mattola.

The DCCC ads were produced by Ralston Lapp Media . In 2006, Lapp was the DCCC’s political director before moving over to coordinate the committee’s IE campaign. And last cycle, he was a key consultant to the IE campaign, headed up by new DCCC executive director Jon Vogel.

Lapp and his partner, Jason Ralston, are handling the DCCC’s IE program for the special election.

State Assembly Minority Leader Jim Tedisco (R) and venture capitalist Scott Murphy (D) are squaring off in the race to replace appointed Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D).

New York 20: The DCCC's Decision

By Stuart Rothenberg

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 5. The DCCC did indeed start their TV campaign over the weekend.

To play or not to play, that is the question. Democrats began this year holding 257 seats in the House, a majority so large that the party can afford a few defections here and there, or even the loss of a seat in a special election.

Kirsten Gillibrand’s appointment to the Senate has put one of those Democratic seats at risk, and party strategists have to decide how far they’ll go to try to hold it.

Should the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee invest substantial resources in that contest, risking making it a referendum on the first months of Barack Obama’s presidency and Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) House leadership? Or should the DCCC keep expectations low by doing little more than it has already done for its nominee?

The district starts just outside Poughkeepsie and stretches all the way north along the state’s eastern border up to Lake Placid, and also includes an arm south of Albany that runs west toward Binghamton. It’s a sprawling district by New York standards, the state’s second-largest geographically.

While Republicans hold a voter registration advantage in the district over Democrats, and George W. Bush carried the district 54 percent to 46 percent in 2004, it went for Obama in 2008 by between 3 and 6 points, depending on whose numbers you believe.

And the GOP enrollment advantage in the district has been falling steadily over the past few elections, from 88,667 in November 2004 to 82,737 in November 2006 to 70,632 last year.

Gillibrand won the House seat initially in 2006, aided by a GOP incumbent who proved to be a magnet for bad media coverage. More impressive than that victory, however, was Gillibrand’s re-election last year.

She beat challenger Sandy Treadwell (R), a personable, wealthy one-time Republican state party chairman, by 75,000 votes (58 percent to 35 percent). Gillibrand ran ahead of Treadwell in each of the four full counties and six partial counties that make up the district.

Knowledgeable observers agree that talk of the GOP registration advantage in the district misses the point, ignoring the fact that party registration is a lagging indicator. Indeed, private polling confirms that the district’s current generic partisanship is much closer to even than the registration numbers suggest.

The Democratic nominee, businessman Scott Murphy, has already received the backing of the state AFL-CIO and won the Independence Party line, which Gillibrand did not have in 2008. The DCCC has been airing radio ads in the district, and the committee’s national press secretary, Ryan Rudominer, has been in the district for weeks, ever since Murphy stumbled out of the gate.

A Siena College poll conducted February 18-19 showed the Republican nominee, state Assembly Minority Leader Jim Tedisco, leading Murphy by 12 points, 46 percent to 34 percent. Other polling generally confirms the Siena numbers and finds Tedisco ahead but not over the 50 percent mark.

Tedisco’s lead isn’t unexpected, considering that he has represented part of the district in the New York State Assembly for 25 years, the last few serving as Minority Leader. Murphy, on the other hand, hasn’t held elective office. A venture capitalist or a Wall Street executive, depending on your partisan point of view, he has worked as an aide for two Missouri Democratic governors.

Both nominees have some baggage — with Tedisco it’s his long voting record, association with Albany and refusal to take a clear stand on the stimulus bill, while for Murphy it’s business tax liens, writings and statements while in college, and association with Wall Street — so the final month should see plenty of sparks fly.

Some Democrats are privately skeptical about their party’s chances of winning the special election, arguing Tedisco’s initial advantage will be difficult to overcome. But others counter that Tedisco has plenty of baggage, Murphy has a good profile and the district is now almost even in partisan identification, giving Murphy a real shot at an upset.

Republicans believe that they have the advantage in the race, but President Obama’s job ratings in the district remain sky-high, and they don’t believe that the victory is already in the bag.

The fact that the National Republican Congressional Committee just bought a substantial amount of time for an Albany TV buy confirms that GOP operatives believe they are in a serious fight.

Money is also a consideration for Democrats. The DCCC has a debt of $16.5 million coming out of the 2008 elections, but the campaign committee raised $3.5 million in the first month of this year, and it showed $2 million on hand at the end of January — surely enough to play in the special election if party strategists want to.

Right now, Democrats want to have it both ways — emphasizing the difficulty of holding the seat and dismissing a Republican victory in this district as no big deal while still keeping their options open and inching toward making a big bet on Murphy.

The most important question may be this: How have things changed since November? The answer is “not much.” Obama is very popular in the district, the GOP brand damaged and Democrats have another young, outsider nominee. They don’t, however, have the popular Gillibrand on the ballot.

It’s true that House Democrats could afford to lose this seat and it wouldn’t affect them at all on Capitol Hill. But I suspect the DCCC won’t be able to resist taking a flier on Murphy, considering the district’s recent voting history, Tedisco’s long legislative record and the prospect of forcing Republicans to go “all in” on a race that the GOP simply cannot afford to lose.

Tedisco has the edge, but this race could be much closer than many observers expect, especially if the DCCC jumps in.

2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Stu on CNN: The Never-Ending Campaign

Saturday, March 07, 2009

New York 20: DCCC Starts TV Campaign

By Nathan L. Gonzales

This item first appeared on RollCall.com on March 5, 2009.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is weighing into the special election in New York’s 20th district with a television ad buy.

According to knowledgeable sources, the buy is scheduled to start on Friday [March 6] and continue through March 31, the date of the special election. Specific details about the size of the DCCC’s buy are not yet known. The committee previously was on the air with a radio ad.

On Thursday, the National Republican Congressional Committee went on the air with about 1,200 gross ratings points of television ads on broadcast and cable in the Albany media market, which covers the majority of the district.

State Assembly Minority Leader Jim Tedisco (R) and venture capitalist Scott Murphy (D) are squaring off in the race to replace appointed Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D).

2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Louisiana Senate: Vitter Breathes Easier?

By Nathan L. Gonzales

With a handful of potential primary and general election challengers taking a pass, Sen. David Vitter’s (R-La.) road to re-election in 2010 now looks a little clearer than it did last week.

Still, Vitter’s political rehabilitation after being tarnished by his ties to a prostitution scandal is far from certain, and the lack of public polling on the Republican incumbent leaves some question as to his true electoral strength.

Late last week, former Rep. John Cooksey (R-La.) was reportedly interested in taking on Vitter in the primary. But the former 5th district Congressman announced Monday that he is not running, in a statement that included some nuance.

“While I do not always agree with David Vitter’s position on social issues, I believe David Vitter does a good job representing the people of Louisiana on fiscal matters,” Cooksey said in a statement to the Concordia Sentinel. “If David Vitter emerges as the Republican nominee in the 2010 Senate race in Louisiana, I will vote for him.”

It was never clear that Cooksey’s candidacy was more than idle chatter. Lee Fletcher, the former Congressman’s chief of staff and campaign manager, confirmed Monday that he had had no contact with his former boss about a potential Senate race. Fletcher, now chief of staff for freshman Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), lost the 2002 open-seat race to replace Cooksey, who left to run for Senate.

Cooksey co-hosted a Washington, D.C., fundraiser for Vitter late last year, along with former Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D), the entire Republican Congressional delegation at the time and a considerable list of former lawmakers, including ex-Reps. Bob Livingston (R-La.) and Billy Tauzin (R-La.).

The “Mardi Gras in December” event was one step in Vitter’s plan to dissuade potential challengers. Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) attended the event but has not yet endorsed Vitter’s re-election bid, a rare move for a sitting governor, considering the Senator is of the same party.

“He’s been doing everything he needs to do,” one GOP insider said of Vitter’s efforts.

While Vitter has been working hard to shore up his base, Cooksey was not the first potential primary challenger to be mentioned.

After Vitter’s name was linked to the D.C. Madam prostitution ring in July 2007 — and his subsequent admission that he committed a “serious sin” — questions about his electability have persisted. But the Senator’s biggest vulnerability is likely in the form of a conservative primary challenge instead of the general election next year. Louisiana has trended more and more Republican in recent years, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won 59 percent of the vote there in the 2008 presidential race.

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins is considered a potential serious threat to Vitter because of his appeal to social conservatives. But Perkins, a former Republican state Representative from East Baton Rouge who heads up a Washington, D.C.-based conservative group, has said he is less inclined to run and could not be reached for comment Monday.

In the 2002 all-party Senate primary, Perkins finished fourth with 10 percent, while Cooksey was third with 14 percent.

Secretary of State Jay Dardenne (R) has said he is being encouraged to consider the race, but he doesn’t appear to be taking steps toward a run, either.

Thus far, it appears Vitter has effectively fended off primary challenges before they begin, in part because of his strong fundraising. He has done a good job of securing the support of major donors in the state, according to one GOP operative, in a race where a primary challenger would need at least $1 million to be competitive. Vitter showed more than $2 million in his campaign account at the end of last year.

Knocking off Vitter, who became the first popularly elected Republican Senator in Louisiana history in 2004, won’t be easy. No Senator in the state has been defeated for re-election, going back to World War II.

“He’s traveled all over the state on a regular basis holding town-hall meetings in each of Louisiana’s 64 parishes each Congress, and his votes reflect that he is in tune with representing the best interests of the state,” Vitter spokesman Joel DiGrado said.

But even with the strong fundraising, Vitter’s electoral strength has not been substantiated by public polling numbers — though that should change soon.

The liberal Democratic Web site DailyKos.com will be releasing new Louisiana Senate numbers later this week, including hypothetical primary matchups as well as general election numbers and favorable and unfavorable numbers.

Until now, polling has been scarce and private. One poll apparently shows Vitter with strong re-election numbers, while other private surveys have shown him with virtually even favorable and unfavorable ratings. More recent polling conducted in state legislative races in Louisiana confirms that Vitter has some work to do to improve his image.

Vitter is “vulnerable to a legitimate challenge,” according to one GOP insider, “but where is the legitimate challenger?”

The Republican Senator appeared to dodge another bullet when Rep. Charlie Melancon (D) told the Thibodaux Daily Comet on Sunday that he is unlikely to run.

Melancon, the only Democrat in Louisiana’s seven-member Congressional delegation and co-chairman of the Blue Dog Coalition, is viewed as Vitter’s greatest potential general election challenger because of his ability to appeal to conservative Democrats who often vote Republican in federal races.

Even without Melancon, Democrats are still not likely to give Vitter a pass. Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu (brother of Sen. Mary Landrieu [D-La.]), Shaw Group Chief Executive Officer Jim Bernhard, former Gov. Kathleen Blanco and former Rep. Chris John are mentioned on the Democratic side, but none of them is seen as initially as strong as Melancon. John, who is now head of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, finished second behind Vitter in the 2004 all-party primary, garnering only 29 percent to Vitter’s 51 percent.

“Between Sen. Vitter’s past and his extremist right-wing voting record, Sen. Vitter is vulnerable this cycle. While there was a lot of hype from the other side about what a competitive race Sen. Landrieu was going to have [in 2008], she won by a very comfortable margin,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Communications Director Eric Schultz said. “We believe Sen. Vitter doesn’t represent Louisiana’s mainstream values. He’s ethically challenged, and between now and Election Day, will have many questions to answer.”

This story first appeared in Roll Call on March 3, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Have Republicans Found Their Floor in the House With 178?

By Stuart Rothenberg

Republicans hold a mere 178 seats in the House of Representatives, a number far smaller than they’ve held at anytime since the 1992 elections, when the party won only 176 seats.

Just two years later, of course, in the first midterm election after a Democrat (Bill Clinton) was elected to the White House, the GOP gained more than 50 seats, winning a House majority for the first time in 40 years. Could it happen again in 2010?

Don’t bet on it.

National surveys continue to show that the damage to the Republican brand remains very real, and it will likely take the party more than a few months to turn things around. In the meantime, GOP candidate recruitment and fundraising may rebound a bit compared to the previous cycle’s disastrous political environment, but probably not enough to match Democratic efforts in both categories this year and next.

Does that mean that Democrats could increase their numbers in the House in next year’s midterm balloting? It’s not impossible, but it certainly seems unlikely.

Republicans added House seats in four straight elections from 1914 to 1920, and Democrats gained House seats in four consecutive elections a decade after the GOP streak, in 1930, 1932, 1934 and 1936.

Much more recently, Democrats gained seats in three elections in a row from 1986 to 1990 and again from 1996 to 2000. But in both recent cases, their gains in each year were in the single digits, a far cry from the substantial gains that House Democrats made during the last two election cycles.

The last time one party had two big Congressional elections in a row (net gains of at least 20 seats each time), it gave back considerable ground in the following election.

Republicans gained 28 seats in 1950 and 22 seats in 1952, but in 1954, Democrats picked up 19 seats to win back control of the House after two years in the minority.

Since Democrats gained 30 seats in 2006 and 21 in 2008, they now hold more than a few GOP-leaning districts, making them susceptible to a Republican snapback. (The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee insists that it gained 23 seats in 2008 because it includes special election victories held between the 2006 and 2008 general elections.)

That doesn’t mean that the DCCC doesn’t have several interesting opportunities this cycle, only that their opportunities are fewer and that sitting GOP incumbents have demonstrated some level of acumen by surviving elections where many of their colleagues went down to defeat.

Still, DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) has some targets to shoot at, including GOP open seats and Republican incumbents who won narrowly in the previous cycle but could be vulnerable to a stiffer challenge.

Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao (R), who upset then-Rep. William Jefferson (D) in Louisiana’s 2nd district, obviously looks like a juicy target. Given the large majority of Democratic and black voters in the district, Cao’s seat should be an easy takeover for the DCCC.

Elsewhere, Democrats are hoping that GOP Reps. Jim Gerlach (Pa.) and Mark Kirk (Ill.) give up their House seats to make statewide bids. They are also hoping that Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.) will finally call it quits and retire, and that Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) will either retire or run for the Senate. Open seats in any of those districts would create real Democratic opportunities.

California Republican Rep. Ken Calvert’s surprisingly narrow win in 2008 obviously makes him a target, though his district certainly continues to lean Republican.

And Republicans such as Reps. Don Young (Alaska), Erik Paulsen (Minn.), Michele Bachmann (Minn.), Leonard Lance (N.J.) Henry Brown (S.C.) and Dave Reichert (Wash.), all of whom had close contests last year, have to prepare for another possible Democratic assault.

Finally, DCCC automated telephone calls into districts currently held by GOP Reps. Charlie Dent (Pa.), Judy Biggert (Ill.) and Thaddeus McCotter (Mich.) reflect Democratic strategists’ views that those districts are either already Democratic enough or are becoming Democratic enough to present the party with new opportunities.

But while Democrats still have opportunities in 2010, Republicans, on the defensive for the past two cycles, finally should have more.

The upcoming special election to fill Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s open House seat in Upstate New York gives the National Republican Congressional Committee a golden opportunity to begin a mini-comeback. Republicans must win that special election in what had been a reliably Republican seat until Gillibrand upset a GOP incumbent in 2006.

The party also has a handful of good opportunities in districts that it shouldn’t have lost, even considering the environment. Democratic freshmen Reps. Bobby Bright (Ala.) and Tom Perriello (Va.) look to be at particular risk if Republicans can unite behind strong challengers and if turnout among key Democratic groups (blacks and younger voters, in these two cases) drops during the midterms, as expected.

Democratic Reps. Travis Childers (Miss.), Walt Minnick (Idaho) and Frank Kratovil (Md.) also face serious problems given the conservative (and often Republican) natures of their districts. Even 10-term Rep. Chet Edwards (Texas), who has turned back stiff challenges in the past yet won with only 53 percent last year, would seem to be an obvious GOP target.

The NRCC faces plenty of hurdles in trying to reverse the GOP’s recent decline, but the sheer number of Republican districts now sending a Democrat to Congress provides the Republican campaign committee with more than enough opportunities to make certain that the party makes at least small gains in the House next year.

Another Republican net loss in the chamber — even a small one — would be devastating to party activists.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 2, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

2009-2010 Gubernatorial Ratings

Here are our latest gubernatorial ratings. We've updated Kansas to reflect Gov. Kathleen Sebelius appointment to the Obama cabinet. But since incoming Gov. Mark Parkinson (D) reiterated his decision not to run in 2010, the race remains a Lean Takeover for Republicans. 2009 races in italics.

Lean Takeover (3 R, 3 D)
  • CA Open (Schwarzenegger, R)
  • HI Open (Lingle, R)
  • RI Open (Carcieri, R)
  • KS Open (Parkinson, D)
  • OK Open (Henry, D)
  • WY Open (Freudenthal, D)
Toss-Up (2 R, 4 D)
  • Gibbons (R-NV)
  • SD Open (Rounds, R)
  • MI Open (Granholm, D)
  • PA Open (Rendell, D)
  • TN Open (Bredesen, D)
  • VA Open (Kaine, D)
Narrow Advantage for Incumbent Party (3 R, 2 D)
  • Brewer (R-AZ)
  • Douglas (R-VT)
  • Pawlenty (R-MN)
  • Corzine (D-NJ)
  • NM Open (Richardson, D)
Clear Advantage for Incumbent Party (4 R, 6 D)
  • Rell (R-CT)
  • AL Open (Riley, R)
  • GA Open (Perdue, R)
  • SC Open (Sanford, R)
  • Blagojevich (D-IL)
  • Doyle (D-WI)
  • Paterson (D-NY)
  • Strickland (D-OH)
  • ME Open (Baldacci, D)
  • OR Open (Kulongoski, D)
Currently Safe (5 R, 6 D)
  • Crist (R-FL)
  • Heineman (R-NE)
  • Otter (R-ID)
  • Palin (R-AK)
  • Perry (R-TX)
  • Beebe (D-AR)
  • Culver (D-IA)
  • Lynch (D-NH)
  • O'Malley (D-MD)
  • Patrick (D-MA)
  • Ritter (D-CO)

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

DCCC Ad Campaign on Stimulus Ignores Defectors

By Nathan L. Gonzales

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is trying to turn up the heat on a number of House Republicans who voted against the stimulus bill, while turning a blind eye to a handful of Democratic Members who voted the exact same way.

Over the past two weeks, the DCCC has sent out a series of “hypocrisy alerts,” which highlight Republican lawmakers who voted against the stimulus bill but are allegedly “celebrating” the benefits of it in their districts.

On Tuesday, the DCCC also launched the third phase of its “Putting Families First” campaign, targeting a dozen Republicans who opposed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act by mounting a “major grass-roots campaign” against them that includes phone calls, e-mails and text messages.

“House Republicans can’t have it both ways. ... Americans will hold House Republicans accountable for ‘just saying no’ to the largest tax cut in American history and saving and creating three to four million jobs,” DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said in a news release. “We will hold accountable those Republicans who continue to vote in lockstep against President Obama’s economic recovery plan for the American people.”

But after six House Democrats voted identically to House Republicans on the stimulus, is the DCCC trying to have it both ways?

Democratic Reps. Bobby Bright (Ala.), Parker Griffith (Ala.), Walt Minnick (Idaho), Collin Peterson (Minn.), Gene Taylor (Miss.) and Heath Shuler (N.C.) opposed the initial House stimulus plan that passed in January, as well as the final version that was signed into law. All represent conservative districts, though only Bright, Griffith and Minnick are considered politically vulnerable in 2010.

House Republicans unanimously opposed both bills.

On Feb. 9, the DCCC launched the second phase of its effort by targeting seven GOP freshmen with automated telephone calls to “focus on the Republicans’ out of step priorities by putting partisan politics before the needs of the jobs in their districts,” according to the release.

The six House Democrats who opposed the stimulus voted against creating or saving 270,000 jobs in their states, according to the DCCC’s new Web site, recoveryforamerica.org, which was created to detail how the stimulus affects each state and to hold Republicans accountable. They also apparently voted against 8,670,000 families receiving the Making Work Pay tax credit, against 312,000 additional students receiving the college tax credit and against 1,225,000 children receiving the Child Tax Credit.

According to Democratic strategists, the difference is that for Republicans, it was a premeditated effort to obstruct the recovery at all costs, while for the Democrats, it was a principled vote that fit their district.

Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann, who represents Minnesota’s 6th district, was targeted during the first phase of the DCCC’s campaign on Feb. 2 because she voted against the stimulus bill. Meanwhile, Peterson represents the neighboring 7th district and voted against the bill as well.

Bachmann, who was one of 28 Republicans on the DCCC’s initial target list, earned a week’s worth of drive-time radio ads, telephone calls and e-mails from the DCCC for her vote, while Peterson maintained his chairmanship of the House Agriculture Committee without a whimper of discontent.

“I expected to catch hell about this,” Peterson said, according to the West Central Tribune. “Every single person that came up to me said they agreed with me.” According to Peterson, calls to his offices were 100-1 against the stimulus bill, which is even greater than the 9-1 ratio of calls against the bill that Bright told the media he received.

But their reports are a stark contrast to other media stories. Van Hollen senior adviser Doug Thornell distributed a Feb. 3 National Journal story titled “Frosh Finding Stimulus Popular at Home,” which talked specifically about the warm welcome Democratic Reps. Travis Childers (Miss.) and Betsy Markey (Colo.) were finding for the bill in their conservative districts.

Instead of making district-by-district evaluations, the DCCC appears to be simply sowing the seeds in the 2010 playing field.

The latest list of Democratic targets includes a mix of usual suspects (such as Washington Rep. Dave Reichert, Illinois Rep. Mark Kirk and Pennsylvania Reps. Jim Gerlach and Charlie Dent), incumbents that had surprisingly close races last cycle (including California Reps. Ken Calvert and Dan Lungren, and Michigan Rep. Thaddeus McCotter), and longer-shot GOP-held seats that Democrats are trying to pull into the competitive category (including those of Illinois Rep. Judy Biggert, Delaware Rep. Mike Castle, Missouri Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer and the open seat in Florida’s 12th district). The DCCC threw National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) onto the target list for good measure.

After winning more than 50 seats in the House over the past four years, Democrats believe the stimulus vote is an opportunity to create takeover opportunities that are harder to come by these days. And even though the committee’s mission is to maintain and expand its majority, it doesn’t change the fact that the DCCC’s rhetoric about the stimulus bill doesn’t match with its leaders’ public lack of concern about Democratic defections.

“We fully recognize and understand that with 256, 257 Members spread out across the country ... we’ll have a situation where people don’t always agree,” Thornell said in a Los Angeles Times story, which also noted that Democrats made no effort to woo Minnick, who agonized over whether to support the stimulus package on the first vote.

Not only were Minnick and some of his Democratic colleagues given a pass, but he, Bright and Griffith were added this week to the DCCC’s “Frontline” program, which is designed to boost vulnerable incumbents through fundraising and outreach, on the same day the committee unveiled its third round of attacks on Republicans.

Overall, the impact and effectiveness of the DCCC’s campaign is unclear. No one can accurately predict the political climate for the midterm election that is 20 months away. And more importantly, no one knows whether a vote against the stimulus bill will be an asset or liability when November 2010 rolls around.

In addition, the Putting Families First campaign looks to be designed to gain the most amount of media attention by expending the fewest dollars possible, rather than persuading a large number of voters in targeted districts.

E-mailing the DCCC’s list of 3 million voters costs nothing, to say nothing of its ability to affect Republican incumbents’ behavior. And a week’s worth of “targeted” radio ads during drive time is an inexpensive endeavor.

Rounds of 100,000 person-to-person phone calls sound impressive, but at 75 cents per call (according to one Democratic consultant), it’s not particularly expensive, and the automated calls only cost about 8 cents per call.

The “national initiative” has also been strategically rolled out in waves to generate a new round of stories each time, creating a sense of momentum, even when the dollars behind the deeds are minimal. Cost is an important factor to a committee still carrying more than $16 million in debt from the past cycle.

Democrats aren’t the only ones trying to take advantage of the stimulus vote. Last week, the NRCC launched a television ad against freshman Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.) and automated phone calls against 10 other Democrats, “in the next phase of holding Democrats accountable for supporting a pork-laden so-called ‘stimulus’ package,” according to a release.

This story first appeared in Roll Call on February 26, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Monday, March 02, 2009

If This Is Bank Nationalization, It’s Not What Marx Meant

By Stuart Rothenberg

Much of the talk about “nationalizing” our country’s banks borders on the ridiculous, with journalists and television celebrities more interested in getting attention than in explaining what is going on or might develop.

If you watch Sean Hannity on Fox News, you probably now believe that the United States had taken a dramatic turn toward socialism and the Obama administration is about to embark on a plan to eliminate the private sector. That’s hogwash.

Socialism involves an economic system defined by state ownership of the means of production, not a brief government investment in a failing bank with the full intention of returning the bank to profitability and a return to private ownership.

Unfortunately, too many in the media have been throwing around the term “nationalization.”

For some, it’s an effort to frighten viewers and rally conservatives for whom the word nationalization evokes images of Latin American leftists or the Soviet Union. For others, I suspect, use of the term is merely the latest example of the national media’s reliance on hype and hyperbole, whether to attract viewers or inflate the importance of the latest topic du jour.

While some elected officials, including a Republican or two, have employed the term nationalization, most wisely have not. Most Democrats, including those at the White House, have run as far and as fast from “nationalization” of the banking industry as they possibly can.

And those who do raise the prospect of the government increasing its role in the industry (usually by investing in a troubled bank and taking back either preferred or common stock) talk about only those banks in the worst shape, not the entire industry and not permanently.

I did a search of available transcripts on LexisNexis to see how various television programs and major newspapers discussed potential additional U.S. government investment in selected banks (which could ultimately lead to government ownership and control of some of those banks), and discovered some considerable differences in coverage.

The worst coverage, not surprisingly, came from non-journalists on TV: Glenn Beck on Fox and Jack Cafferty on CNN. (I found no transcripts from “O’Reilly Factor” or Hannity on Fox or the liberal shows on MSNBC, so I can thankfully ignore them for the moment.)

Beck’s show on Feb. 16 threw “nationalization” and “socialism” around without caution or definition, making no distinction between weak banks such as Citibank and Bank of America and stronger banks such as JPMorgan Chase.

“I’m concerned about a couple of things of the nationalization of banks. ... Is anybody bothered that the United States government will be controlling all of our finances?” Beck asked, choosing to paint with a fire hose rather than a brush.

Cafferty poses questions to viewers on the “Situation Room,” and on Feb. 18 his question was, “Is it time for the U.S. to nationalize its banks?”

No modifiers. No distinctions between banks that have value (and therefore presumably would require compensation to stockholders if they were expropriated by the federal government) and those that are insolvent.

At the other extreme of the coverage were two programs on public (“nationalized”?) TV, “The Charlie Rose Show” and “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.”

Rose’s show of Feb. 18 was a model of thoughtfulness and context. On that program, Columbia Business School economist Frederic Mishkin distinguished between “bad nationalization,” which he argued involves government owning and running banking institutions, and “good nationalization,” which involves distinguishing “institutions that have enough capital” to prosper from those that “are just not viable.” Good nationalization requires selling off the assets of the bad banks before getting them “into private hands as quickly as you possibly can,” he said.

Most of the show transcripts I found that dealt with the banking crisis fell somewhere between the two extremes.

On Feb. 20 on MSNBC’s “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” host David Shuster commented about “this potential bank nationalization,” but NBC News Chief White House Correspondent Chuck Todd ended the back-and-forth by wisely pointing out that “the entire banking system is not going to be nationalized.”

PBS’ “Nightly Business Report,” NBC’s “Meet the Press” and to a lesser extent ABC’s “This Week” talked about “nationalization,” but eventually made distinctions that instigators like Beck didn’t.

Still, if you watch cable TV periodically throughout the day, I’m quite certain you’ll find many examples of hosts and guests tossing around nationalization without any context or distinctions.

Even newspapers are not immune to the hype.

Tuesday’s Washington Post used “Nationalization” in the sub-headline of a page 1 story and in the headline on the jump, though the article itself noted repeatedly that this was only a possibility and that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner didn’t want the government “in charge of running banks.”

Thankfully, a brief but terrific sidebar in yesterday’s Post business section addressed the idea of nationalization in a thoughtful, intelligent way, noting that the term means different things to different people.

The federal government may have to rescue a bank, or even several banks, and this may or may not mean taking common stock and a controlling interest in that bank or banks. Even if that happens, it’s unlikely that the government would seek to run those banks, and there is no sign that the Obama administration fundamentally favors the public ownership of banks or the banking industry.

Call that whatever you wish: nationalization, government investment, short-term public ownership or whatever. Maybe it’s good and maybe it’s bad. But it’s a far cry from the hysteria that some are trying to spread or to capitalize on, and it’s not at all what Karl Marx or Che Guevara hoped for.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 26, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.