Thursday, March 19, 2009

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.