Thursday, April 30, 2009

For Obama, Deference Is Starting to Become a Troubling Habit

By Stuart Rothenberg

It certainly looks as if President Barack Obama can’t quite make up his mind on how to deal with calls within his party for a full-scale public investigation — with possible legal action — of Bush administration officials who approved of interrogation tactics that most Democrats regard as torture.

The president made it clear initially that he wanted to avoid looking “backward” at the previous administration’s policies, reiterating that view on Thursday at a meeting with Congressional leaders.

But for a couple of days, and in the face of a firestorm of protest from his party’s ideological left, Obama backed off from that position, seemingly handing the issue off to Congress, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and other Democrats are far more inclined to rake Bush administration officials over the coals in the Congressional version of a show trial, and, quite possibly, to go even further.

Obama’s “I can’t quite make up my mind because I’m trying to please everybody” approach on dealing with the matter is reminiscent of his approach on the omnibus spending bill earlier this year. He called that legislation “imperfect” (because it was bloated with earmarks and wasteful spending that he opposes), but he signed it without hesitation, according to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

The president could have used his bully pulpit and political muscle to force Congressional Democrats (and some Republicans, for that matter) to cut some of the unnecessary spending from that bill. Given his standing in the party, he certainly could have succeeded in making the bill more to his liking. He chose not to.

There is a part of this Obama management style that is appealing. Instead of acting as if he has all of the answers, Obama is comfortable delegating and deferring. He prefers to stay above the fray, guiding the nation with his vision but refusing to get his hands dirty.

But in the case of Bush interrogation tactics, deferring to Congressional Democrats and to the party’s political left only drew Obama back into the very fray he was trying to avoid and put at risk his agenda for the next year and a half.

There are many compelling reasons to avoid a “truth commission” or Congressional show trial, but purely from a political point of view, a full-scale witch hunt into alleged Bush administration abuses, including the possibility of prosecution of some, is nothing short of nuts.

First, a truth commission such as the one called for by Pelosi and others would soon become the only story, making it all but impossible for Obama to accomplish his policy agenda. If you are looking for something comparable, think Monica Lewinsky plus the Clinton impeachment, and you’ll start to get a sense about the train wreck we’d be heading for.

Second, Democrats already are divided over how to handle the matter. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) wants to go much more slowly on investigating Bush interrogation procedures, and you can be sure that there are plenty of Democrats from the South and from rural areas who think that a partisan Democratic show trial of Bush officials would amount to something close to political suicide.

A Democratic Party divided over something as explosive as this would be a party that looks less than completely appealing to all but the most liberal Democratic activists. Don’t Pelosi, Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.) and others on the left remember what happened to Republicans when they tried to take their pound of flesh from President Bill Clinton?

Third, Democratic efforts to publicly destroy former Bush officials surely would run counter to the mood that Obama has tried to create since his election. The president seems truly committed to trying to change the tone in Washington, and while Republicans haven’t been exactly rushing to embrace him, the president doesn’t seem interested in starting a partisan war with the GOP. Many on his party’s left have no such disinclination for bitter partisanship.

Fourth, Democrats could find along the way that there isn’t a bright line of responsibility, and some of them could end up being implicated. Democratic leaders were briefed about the interrogation tactics and failed to complain loudly, complicating the issue and making party leaders appear hypocritical.

Finally, ABC News polling director Gary Langer’s April 23 column, “Obama, Cheney and the Politics of Torture,” points out that the public’s reaction to what Langer calls “types of coercion” and even to “torture” under certain circumstances is complicated. Democrats could unintentionally hand their political opponents an opportunity to paint them as insufficiently committed to take steps to prevent another terrorist attack.

So far, the president has seemed interested in avoiding confrontations — with his own party’s most liberal elements, with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, with the business community over the Employee Free Choice Act, with Canada over NAFTA and even with his Republican adversaries.

Recently, spokesman Gibbs said that it is up to the Justice Department, not the White House, to determine how to proceed on the matter of those who formulated and carried out Bush administration interrogation policy — passing the buck.

But this time, the president has found that his waffling and backtracking have drawn him further into an unwelcome controversy, not inoculated him from it. Sometimes, even presidents who don’t want to make enemies need to draw a line, take control of a situation and tell their party loyalists not to cross it, if only for their own sake. Hopefully, the president has learned that lesson.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on April 27, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Oklahoma Governor: J.C. Getting Close to Giving the O.K. in OK

Former Congressman J.C. Watts is getting close to making a decision about whether to enter the Oklahoma Republican gubernatorial race, and usually reliable sources say that he is now much more likely than not to jump into the contest.

Watts, who served four terms in the U.S. House before deciding not to seek reelection in 2002, immediately would be a major contender for the nomination, along with Rep. Mary Fallin. The Democratic nomination is likely to boil down to a fight between Lt. Gov. Jari Askins and Attorney General Drew Edmondson. A competitive general election is expected, though the GOP nominee should have a slight advantage given the state’s partisan preferences.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

2010 Senate Ratings

Here are our latest Senate ratings, reflecting Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter's switch from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party.

#- Moved benefiting Democrats
*- Moved benefiting Republicans

Lean Takeover (1 R, 0 D)
  • Bunning (R-KY)
Toss-Up (3 R, 1 D)
  • MO Open (Bond, R)
  • NH Open (Gregg, R)
  • OH Open (Voinovich, R)
  • Dodd (D-CT)
Narrow Advantage for Incumbent Party (2 R, 1 D)
  • FL Open (Martinez, R)
  • Burr (R-NC)
  • Reid (D-NV)
Clear Advantage for Incumbent Party (1 R, 4 D)
  • Vitter (R-LA)
  • Bennet (D-CO)
  • Burris (D-IL)
  • Lincoln (D-AR)
  • Specter (D-PA) #
Currently Safe (11 R, 12 D)
  • Bennett (R-UT)
  • Coburn (R-OK)
  • Crapo (R-ID)
  • DeMint (R-SC)
  • Grassley (R-IA)
  • Isakson (R-GA)
  • McCain (R-AZ)
  • Murkowski (R-AK)
  • Shelby (R-AL)
  • Thune (R-SD)
  • KS Open (Brownback, R)
  • DE Open (Kaufman, D)
  • Bayh (D-IN)
  • Boxer (D-CA)
  • Dorgan (D-ND)
  • Feingold (D-WI)
  • Gillibrand (D-NY)
  • Inouye (D-HI)
  • Leahy (D-VT)
  • Mikulski (D-MD)
  • Murray (D-WA)
  • Schumer (D-NY)
  • Wyden (D-OR)

Polling in Perilous Territory

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Are Sens. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) or Richard Burr (R-N.C.) this cycle’s Rick Santorum?

The former Pennsylvania Senator began his 2006 re-election race down in the polls and never recovered. And while Bunning, Dodd and Burr have something in common with Santorum’s early standing, each hopes for a different outcome.

Whether it’s trailing in polls from the get-go, as was the case for Santorum and then-Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) in 2008, or leading but at the mid-40 percent mark in ballot tests like then-Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), all three recent cases demonstrated the difficulty for vulnerable Senators to significantly improve their standing over the course of a campaign.

Santorum trailed now-Sen. Bob Casey (D) 44 percent to 43 percent in a March 2005 Keystone poll and by a wider 49 percent to 35 percent margin in an April 2005 Quinnipiac University survey. Overall,

Santorum never led over the course of two years and lost on Election Day, 59 percent to 41 percent.

In New Hampshire last cycle, Sununu trailed former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D) 44 percent to 34 percent in a March 2007 American Research Group survey and trailed in all but one of 35 public polls over the course of the campaign, never topping 45 percent. He lost 52 percent to 45 percent on Election Day.

Of course, each Senate race has some unique characteristics, but Bunning, Dodd and Burr start their re-elections from a position of fundamental weakness.

Bunning’s vulnerability has been known since his narrow victory in 2004. An early Research 2000 survey in February 2009 for the liberal Daily Kos Web site showed Bunning defeating four potential Democratic opponents but still in the mid-40s on the ballot tests. Two months later, the former Hall of Fame pitcher trailed all four opponents and polled in the low to mid-30s, according to a survey by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling.

Dodd’s vulnerability started with headlines and then was realized when a Quinnipiac poll in February showed that 51 percent of Connecticut voters would probably not or definitely not vote to re-elect the Democrat and that more people disapproved (48 percent) than approved (41 percent) of the job that he is doing.

A month later, Quinnipiac showed Dodd in a dead heat with former Rep. Rob Simmons (R), 43 percent to 42 percent. Later in March, a Research 2000 poll had slightly better news, with Dodd besting Simmons 45 percent to 40 percent.

“Their numbers are so bad that it goes well beyond the environment,” said one GOP strategist speaking on the condition of anonymity so that he could speak freely about Dodd and Bunning.

“It doesn’t matter if Obama finds a cure for cancer, Dodd is not coming back to the U.S. Senate,” he added, while predicting that Bunning would lose, too.

In North Carolina, Burr has consistently polled between 37 percent and 46 percent in ballot tests conducted this year by the PPP, which is based in the state. The Republican has led some potential Democratic opponents and trailed state Attorney General Roy Cooper, the party’s top prospect who has yet to announce his intentions. But Burr’s standing is more important than the margin.

Last cycle, Democrats hypothesized that Smith had an electoral ceiling in the mid-40s, and that’s why they weren’t discouraged even when their February 2007 survey showed him ahead of Rep. Peter DeFazio (D) 42 percent to 38 percent. Smith consistently polled in the low 40s throughout the race and received 46 percent on Election Day.

Supporters of Dodd and Burr maintain that the incumbents’ initial numbers are soft because they are still undefined in the voters’ minds.

Considering the significant recent population growth of North Carolina, it’s an easier argument for Burr to make after one term in office. But that doesn’t make him any less vulnerable. He had an extremely low 37 percent favorable/13 percent unfavorable rating in a mid-March poll for the Civitas Institute (R). Plus, he’s running in a tossup state that President Barack Obama carried very narrowly.

For Dodd, it’s much tougher to redefine himself after representing the state for almost three decades. He had 91 percent name identification in Quinnipiac’s March poll (46 percent favorable/45 percent unfavorable) and 87 percent name identification in the March survey by Research 2000 (47 percent favorable/40 percent unfavorable).

In the spring of the year before their losses, Santorum’s name identification was 60 percent while Sununu was closer to 70 percent.

Vulnerable incumbents tend to overestimate their ability to define their race as a choice between two candidates. This cycle, Democrats will attempt to tie Simmons to former President George W. Bush, former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, while Republicans will try to use Cooper’s record against him and declare whomever winds up the Democratic nominee in Kentucky too liberal for the state.

But it doesn’t always work. In the previous cycle, Sununu was confident that the race would shift once he refocused voters on Shaheen’s record as governor — the message that helped him defeat her six years earlier. Santorum, Sununu and Smith spent a combined $45 million trying to reframe their races to no avail.

Bunning and Dodd will likely watch the other party compete in a competitive primary, when Santorum and Sununu’s challengers had clear paths to the nomination. But that doesn’t guarantee success either, since the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee helped drag now-Sen. Jeff Merkley (Ore.) through the primary last cycle before he knocked off Smith.

But while Santorum, Sununu and Smith ran in states trending against them, Bunning and Dodd are running for re-election in more favorable territory. Obama carried Connecticut with 61 percent and Oregon with 57 percent, while Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) carried Kentucky with 58 percent.

Democrats believe this is most significant for Dodd, who simply needs to remind Democratic voters about the good things that the Senator has done for them. “I would much rather have to win back Democrats than have to win over Republicans,” Dodd campaign manager Jay Howser said.

And while Santorum and Sununu ran into a political headwind, next year’s political environment is uncertain. “Political die is not cast yet on next year’s election,” said one GOP strategist familiar with Burr’s race.

Still, using recent history as a guide, the longer an incumbent is mired at less than 50 percent, the more difficult it becomes to break out on Election Day.

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

Monday, April 27, 2009

April Madness: Can GOP Win Back the House in 2010?

By Stuart Rothenberg

Cheerleading has its place, including on a high school or college basketball court. But not when it comes to political analysis.

Over the past couple of weeks, at least three Republicans — House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.), former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and campaign consultant Tony Marsh — have raised the possibility of the GOP winning back the House of Representatives next year.

That idea is lunacy and ought to be put to rest immediately.

None of the three actually predicted that Republicans would gain the 40 seats that they need for a majority, but all three held out hope that that’s possible. It isn’t.

“I don’t remove the prospect that we could take the majority back in 2010,” Cantor said at a breakfast with reporters early this month.

Gingrich recently told Roll Call contributing writer Nathan Gonzales that Democratic support for the budget and the stimulus bill could help the GOP “beat enough Democrats to get Republicans back into the majority.”

Tony Marsh, a consultant to Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, went further in a piece. He argued that Republicans can win back the House next year by expanding the playing field, running smarter campaigns and offering a “contrasting and visionary message to America.”

Yes, Republicans have plenty of opportunities in good districts following their loss of 53 House seats over the past two cycles. And yes, there are signs that the Republican hemorrhage has stopped and even possibly that the party’s fortunes have begun to reverse course.

But there are no signs of a dramatic rebound for the party, and the chance of Republicans winning control of either chamber in the 2010 midterm elections is zero. Not “close to zero.” Not “slight” or “small.” Zero.

Big changes in the House require a political wave. You can cherry-pick your way to a five- or eight-seat gain, but to win dozens of seats, a party needs a wave.

Recruiting better candidates and running better campaigns won’t produce anything like what took place in 1980, 1994, 2006 and 2008, when waves resulted in huge gains for one party. The current political environment actually minimizes the chance of a near-term wave developing.

The problem for Republicans is that they aren’t yet in the position — and won’t be in one by November of next year — to run on a pure message of change, or on pent-up demand for change.

Waves are built on dissatisfaction and frustration, and there is little in national survey data that suggest most voters are upset with President Barack Obama’s performance or the performance of his party.

Obama’s job approval generally falls between 55 percent and 63 percent, and his personal favorable numbers are as strong or slightly better. The trend line on the right direction/wrong track question shows a growing optimism, as do attitudes about the direction of the economy.

A recent Pew Research Center poll found two out of three Americans saying that they were optimistic “that Barack Obama’s policies will improve economic conditions in the country.”

All of these numbers show a public that is more upbeat than it was before the last election, and optimism produces status quo elections, not an electorate demanding change.

The uptick in mood, combined with the public’s still-vivid memory of the disappointing Bush years, makes it almost impossible for Republicans to deliver a change argument successfully. GOP candidates and strategists will have to wait for at least another election cycle before they can hope that a change message will resonate with voters.

Of course, there are millions of Americans who are unhappy with Obama’s agenda and with the direction of the country. But those people have never liked Obama, and more importantly, they don’t come close to constituting a majority of Americans.

Most Americans — even many of those who are still worried and pessimistic — are willing to give Obama more time and to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The benefit of the doubt is exactly what voters gave President Franklin Roosevelt and his party in the 1934 midterms, when Democrats gained seats after two disastrous elections for the GOP during which the party lost a total of 150 seats in the House. Democrats gained seats for a third successive election in 1934 (nine seats) and for a fourth cycle in a row in 1936 (11 seats).

It’s not yet clear which party will gain seats in next year’s midterms or how large the swing will be. The GOP could well gain back some ground, given how far its House numbers have fallen.

But a small gain is not the standard of success that Marsh and company have set. They’ve talked about the country making a 180-degree turn after two years and following a Democratic wave for change with a Republican wave for change.

Since there is no sign of that happening, we are left with the obvious conclusion: Cantor, Gingrich and Marsh are merely cheerleading, trying to make their supporters more energetic about next year’s elections.

But cheerleading to keep enthusiasm high has a downside. It creates unreasonable expectations. Managing expectations, not creating impossible ones, is also part of the game.

Given their unbridled early cheerleading, Marsh, Cantor and Gingrich better have the legs for short skirts.

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

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Media Cover Obama Like He’s Ultimate A-List Celebrity

By Stuart Rothenberg

For the national media, Barack Obama isn’t merely the president of the United States. He’s so much more than that.

Obama is a celebrity, and he and his family are covered that way. That means there is a heavy focus on the personal, making Obama the first “Entertainment Tonight president.”

First, it was Michelle’s wardrobe. Then, it was the kids’ school. Then it was Michelle’s White House vegetable garden. And most recently, it is the new dog, Bo.

As befitting the pet of an international celebrity, Bo-mania is an international phenomenon. AFP, the French news agency, reported Tuesday a “surge of interest in the pedigree in Britain,” after the announcement about the Obamas’ new Portuguese water dog.

“We frequently see the popularity of certain breeds soar once people have seen them being bought by their favorite celebrities,” said a spokeswoman for Britain’s Kennel Club.

Note that the Kennel Club spokeswoman said “celebrities.” First the Beckhams, then the Osbournes and now the Obamas. But you would have to be more than a little naive to believe that the White House isn’t helping feed the media beast. Washington Post staff writer Manuel Roig-Franzia’s April 12 piece showed that the White House had orchestrated a series of “exclusives,” giving the garden story to the New York Times and the dog story to the Post.

It’s hard to know what hard news story the public relations folks inside the administration will think of next. Maybe re-paint the kids’ rooms? How about new bikes for the whole family? That’s sure to be a big story. There are a lot of bike riders around the country, and bicycling involves physical fitness and the environment at the same time.

I know there isn’t much happening in the world these days — other than the North Koreans exporting their nuclear technology to the Middle East, growing authoritarianism in South America and the budget deficit — so it’s understandable that the media are so locked in on the Obamas.

Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot. The media are paying plenty of attention to those pirates off the coast of Somalia. You know, those swashbuckling romantic heroes who evoke memories of great pirates of the past, including Tyrone Power (“The Black Swan,” 1942, with Maureen O’Hara), Johnny Depp (“Pirates of the Caribbean,” 2003, with Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly) and Roberto Clemente (Pittsburgh Pirates, 1955-1972, .317 lifetime batting average).

But back to something really important, such as Portuguese water dogs.

If you run through the recent Obama topics (e.g., the garden, the dog), you would have to say the Obama family’s life resembles a couple of episodes from “The Dick Van Dyke Show” of the 1960s. (In fact, episodes 7 and 130 of that series dealt with dogs in the Petrie household.)

Actually, some inside-the-Beltway friends of mine have been comparing Obama to Vincent Chase, the lead character in the popular (and extremely hip) HBO series “Entourage,” which tells the story of a young actor (not yet president) who becomes something of a celebrity and his hangers-on.

His entourage includes his often-over-the-top brother, Johnny “Drama” Chase (played, some think, in the case of Obama, by Vice President Joseph Biden); Turtle, his chunky gofer-buddy from childhood who’ll do whatever Vince needs done (played by Communications Director Robert Gibbs); his reasonably sane friend and manager, Eric (played by strategist David Axelrod); and his hyperaggressive, hyperkinetic agent, Ari Gold (played by Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel).

The Ari Gold character, of course, is patterned after super-agent Ari Emanuel, Rahm’s real-life brother. Ari Emanuel reps Mark Wahlberg, an actor and ex-rapper who is the executive producer of “Entourage.”

Fans of “Entourage” even note that a dog played a role in the series pilot. (One scary thought: Johnny Drama bought a horse in one episode, an obvious possible storyline for the Obamas because all young girls seem to go through a pony stage.)

The line between fiction and reality is going to fade even more, according to the Hollywood Reporter, when Michelle Obama’s hairstylist, Johnny Wright, gets his own television “reality” show. (Will Michelle make an appearance?)

Is there a serious political angle to all of this Obama celebrity talk? There is.

In encouraging all of the celebrity coverage (journalists don’t need much encouragement given the public’s apparent unquenchable need for gossip), the White House surely is trying to keep Obama’s appeal high among those Americans who really don’t care a great deal about politics.

Being celebrities gives the Obamas a bigger audience, and probably deeper emotional commitments, than many politicians receive. Even if the economy doesn’t recover completely and Obama’s policy proposals stir up opposition, he could retain his popularity — and, with it, political clout on Capitol Hill — because of his (and his family’s) celebrity coverage and appeal.

That’s not a bad thing for a president proposing one of the most ambitious agendas ever, or for journalists looking for a way to get a byline.

This column
first appeared in Roll Call on April 20, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

2010 Senate Ratings

Here are our latest Senate ratings.
#- Moved benefiting Democrats
*- Moved benefiting Republicans

Lean Takeover (2 R, 0 D)
  • Bunning (R-KY) #
  • Specter (R-PA) #
Toss-Up (3 R, 1 D)
  • MO Open (Bond, R)
  • NH Open (Gregg, R)
  • OH Open (Voinovich, R)
  • Dodd (D-CT) *
Narrow Advantage for Incumbent Party (2 R, 1 D)
  • FL Open (Martinez, R) *
  • Burr (R-NC)
  • Reid (D-NV)
Clear Advantage for Incumbent Party (1 R, 3 D)
  • Vitter (R-LA) *
  • Bennet (D-CO) #
  • Burris (D-IL) *
  • Lincoln (D-AR) *
Currently Safe (11 R, 12 D)
  • Bennett (R-UT)
  • Coburn (R-OK)
  • Crapo (R-ID)
  • DeMint (R-SC)
  • Grassley (R-IA) *
  • Isakson (R-GA)
  • McCain (R-AZ)
  • Murkowski (R-AK)
  • Shelby (R-AL)
  • Thune (R-SD)
  • KS Open (Brownback, R)
  • DE Open (Kaufman, D)
  • Bayh (D-IN)
  • Boxer (D-CA)
  • Dorgan (D-ND) #
  • Feingold (D-WI) #
  • Gillibrand (D-NY)
  • Inouye (D-HI)
  • Leahy (D-VT)
  • Mikulski (D-MD)
  • Murray (D-WA)
  • Schumer (D-NY)
  • Wyden (D-OR)

Friday, April 17, 2009

New Print Edition: 2010 Senate Overview

The April 17, 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:

Senate Overview – The Lay of the Land

Democrats continue to benefit from a favorable political landscape, solid poll numbers from President Barack Obama and generally successful Senate candidate fundraising, as the party continues to point itself toward additional gains next year.

With the election still more than sixteen months away, the landscape could change significantly. But at this point, Democrats have more and better opportunities than do Republicans, and Democratic gains in the order of 2-5 seats certainly seem reasonable.

For the state-by-state analysis and the latest polls, you must subscribe the the print edition of the Report.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Have House GOP Retirement Woes Run Their Course?

By Stuart Rothenberg

House retirements are running a bit ahead of schedule this cycle, at least compared with where they stood in 2005 and 2007. And if they even approach the same numbers as in the past two election cycles, retirements could play a significant part in the eventual 2010 House battleground.

Roll Call’s Casualty List now shows a dozen House Members leaving their House seats to run for another office next year. In June 2007, the Casualty List identified four House Members who were not seeking re-election — one of whom, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), eventually changed his mind and ran for re-election. Two years earlier, in April 2005, Roll Call’s list stood at only six House Members not running again.

House Democrats have benefited greatly from retirements of late. In each of the past five cycles, more Republican incumbents than Democratic incumbents have decided against running for re-election.

There were 26 GOP retirements in 2008 compared with only six Democratic ones. Two years earlier, 10 Democrats and 18 Republicans opted not to seek re-election to their House seats, and in 2004, 12 Democrats and 17 Republicans called it quits, either retiring or running for a different office.

Republican retirements in the House numbered 22 in 2002 and 23 in 2000, while only 13 Democrats retired in 2002 and a mere eight Democrats walked away from their seats in 2000.

The last time more Democrats than Republicans retired was in 1998, when 17 Democrats and 16 Republicans did not seek re-election.

None of these calculations includes Members who were defeated in the primary, who resigned their seats in midterm or who died while in office. And retirements certainly are not synonymous with open seats, some of which were created by reapportionment and redistricting after the 2000 Census.

Still, the retirement numbers make it clear that Republicans have lost far more veteran officeholders during the past decade and have had to defend those open seats. Over the past five elections, 106 Republican House Members have not sought re- election, while only 49 Democrats have walked away from their seats — a significant difference.

Sometimes, of course, it’s easier for a party to defend an open seat than to have a damaged incumbent in the race. Not all retirements are unwelcome by the incumbent’s party. And yet, retirements generally create problems for the incumbent party, often leading to expensive and potentially divisive primaries or exposing a district that has changed its partisan bent but continued to reelect its incumbent.

Given the past three cycles’ totals — 61 GOP retirements compared with only 28 Democratic retirements — it would be extraordinary if Democrats were to have another huge advantage in open seats next year. But the appeal of nonfederal statewide races this cycle, combined with the ambitiousness of the Obama agenda and the inability of the House GOP to do anything to stop it, could lead still more Republicans to run for the exits, giving Democrats more interesting open-seat opportunities.

Obviously, open seats both reflect the nature of the political environment and contribute to that environment.

Republican incumbents saw the writing on the wall last cycle, and many of them preferred to call it quits rather than struggle to hold their seats, knowing that the party would remain in the minority, which, in the House, often means irrelevancy.

The retirements added to the sense of gloom and doom on the Republican side, which, in turn, encouraged others to retire. The large number of GOP open seats then gave Democrats plenty of good opportunities for takeovers, and take over they did.

Indeed, Democratic insiders aren’t shy in acknowledging that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had a “retirement strategy” last cycle, and one that the party is certain to follow again this cycle.

The strategy was and remains simple: Target Republican incumbents whom the DCCC wants to retire and “encourage” them to retire. That means firing a shot across the bow. We try to tell them, “If you run again, it’s going to be a tough race,” is the way one Democratic operative put it.

Democrats argue that at least two veteran GOP Congressmen who called it quits last time, Reps. Jim Saxton (N.J.) and Ralph Regula (Ohio), got the message.

This cycle, Democratic operatives are hoping that the same tactics will work on Republican veterans such as Reps. Mike Castle (Del.), 69, Bill Young (Fla.), 78, Henry Brown (S.C.), 73, Don Manzullo (Ill.), 65, and Roscoe Bartlett (Md.), 82.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that Democrats have talked about Castle and Young retiring, and since Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) carried Bartlett’s district by 18 points, a Democrat wouldn’t be likely to win the seat even if it becomes open.

So far, only one young House Republican has announced that he is giving up his seat to seek other office, 34-year-old Rep. Adam Putnam (Fla.). But a number of Republicans in their 40s and 50s, who might have stayed in the House if the GOP were still in control — including Reps. Gresham Barrett (S.C.), 48, Zach Wamp (Tenn.), 51, Jim Gerlach (Pa.), 54, and Pete Hoekstra (Mich.), 55 — have either announced for statewide office or opened an exploratory committee.

Democratic insiders insist that Putnam’s district, which went very narrowly for McCain in the presidential contest, could be in play.

“The district has better Democratic performance than people assume. The right candidate could make the race very competitive,” one Democratic strategist argued.

Democratic strategists will be eyeing a handful of other GOP Members to see whether their seats will open up. The list includes Reps. Mark Kirk (Ill.), Mary Bono Mack (Calif.), Judy Biggert (Ill.), Dave Reichert (Wash.), John Shadegg (Ariz.) and Elton Gallegly (Calif.).

“Democrats have been very clear about their intentions to try to force incumbent Republicans into retirement. In some cases they have been successful, but now we are looking to replicate that success,” one Republican operative told me recently.

Three Democrats have already taken steps to run for higher office — Reps. Paul Hodes (N.H.), Neil Abercrombie (Hawaii) and Tim Ryan (Ohio) — and others are mentioned as possibly interested.

Republicans are keeping their eyes on Peter DeFazio (Ore.), Loretta Sanchez (Calif.), Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (S.D.), Charlie Melancon (La.) and a handful of Democratic Representatives from the Philadelphia suburbs, who might look at the Senate race with renewed interest now that Sen. Arlen Specter (R) has drawn a serious primary challenger.

Republican operatives are making every effort to recruit strong challengers to these Democratic incumbents, hoping to push some of them toward other contests.

GOP insiders cite their efforts to encourage California Assemblyman Van Tran to challenge Sanchez and Springfield Mayor Sid Leiken into a race against DeFazio as evidence that they are trying to broaden the playing field and that they have adopted a new strategy. Both Republicans are still considering their options.

National GOP strategists are also pleased that Honolulu City Councilmember Charles Djou has jumped into the Hawaii race to succeed Abercrombie, who holds a seat they haven’t seriously contested since 1996.

“Last cycle, many Republicans thought that we could simply conquer old territory to win back the majority. Now, most people realize that we need to create new opportunities,” said one Republican observer, echoing what Democratic strategists said in 2006 and 2008.

Both parties will make every effort to get their incumbents to run again, thereby minimizing the number of open seats each must defend. But given recent trends, with retirements averaging in the low 30s over the past six cycles, another 20 retirements wouldn’t be unusual.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on April 13, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Most Vulnerable Senator Up for Re-Election in 2010?

By Stuart Rothenberg

Move over, Jim Bunning. You have company.

Veteran Sen. Chris Dodd (D) should not be vulnerable in his home state of Connecticut. As a longtime officeholder in a reliably Democratic state and the chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, Dodd should have the stature, political base and access to resources to dissuade even the most ambitious of Republicans from challenging him for re-election.

But the darkening cloud that is growing over the Senator’s head has changed Dodd’s prospects quickly, and the signs already are clear that he’ll have the fight of his life next year when he seeks his sixth consecutive term in the Senate.

Coverage of Dodd’s special treatment from lender Countrywide Financial — and his designation as a “friend of Angelo” — has blanketed local media, severely damaging Dodd’s standing in a state where Democrats hold better than 2-1 majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature, hold all of the Congressional seats and haven’t lost a U.S. Senate race since 1986.

Only one Republican, Lowell Weicker, has won a Senate race in the Constitution State since Prescott Bush did so in 1956. (Bush defeated Democrat Thomas Dodd, the current Senator’s father.)

Chris Dodd has had no serious tests since he coasted to victory in an open-seat House race in the very Democratic year of 1974. Dodd’s closest race since then was his first bid for Senate, in 1980, which he won by “only” 13 points over former New York Sen. Jim Buckley (R). Buckley had lost re-election in the Empire State in 1976 and figured that he might as well run for the Senate in neighboring Connecticut.

But this cycle is shaping up very differently. A March 26-28 Quinnipiac University poll of registered voters showed Dodd with a 30 percent favorable/58 percent unfavorable rating and his job approval at 33 percent approve/58 percent disapprove. Four in 10 Democrats disapproved of his job performance.

More troubling, he was 16 points behind Republican opponent Rob Simmons, a well-regarded former Member from eastern Connecticut who was overwhelmed in the Democratic wave of 2006. Dodd was losing independents by more than 2-1, and Simmons was winning more than 1 in 4 Democrats.

The poll also showed Dodd trailing Waterbury state Sen. Sam Caligiuri, who recently entered the race, and former Ambassador to Ireland Tom Foley, who is considering his options. Caligiuri held a 4-point lead over Dodd even though 88 percent of those responding hadn’t heard enough about the state lawmaker to have an opinion of him.

Dodd’s position now is an excellent example of how quickly things can change. Until the Countrywide Financial story broke last summer, Dodd’s chairmanship looked like a political asset. But now it is a double-edged sword, causing more light to be shined on him and his dealings with the financial community and exposing him to criticism that creates electoral problems for him back home.

Dodd, it should be noted, insists he has done nothing wrong and never knew he was receiving special treatment from Countywide (an assertion that some have disputed).

But in addition to his Countrywide problems, the Senator has also been forced to return contributions from R. Allen Stanford, a financier accused of defrauding investors, and admitted that he had been involved in the process that ultimately stripped from the stimulus bill a provision that would have limited bonuses American International Group executives eventually received.

The Senator said that his admission about his role in modifying the bill (at the request of Treasury Department officials) did not amount to a reversal of his initial explanation, but local and national media certainly played it as a switch.

To make things worse, Dodd’s wife was also on the board of directors of IPC Holdings, a Bermuda-based insurance company controlled by AIG.

Finally, and not insignificantly, Dodd riled some Connecticut voters when he moved his family to Iowa during the 2008 presidential contest, even going so far as to enroll his eldest daughter in a Des Moines kindergarten.

All of that adds up to political baggage that would fill one of Dodd’s mortgaged homes.

But Republicans ought to be realistic about their chances of ousting the Senator. Dodd is an incumbent who can raise more money than most candidates would ever need, and his Democratic label is a significant asset in the state.

Moreover, while the Senator has already hired an experienced campaign manager, at some point later this year thoughts of retirement will cross his mind — if his prospects look as bad as they now do. If he were to decide against seeking re-election, Democrats would likely find a strong candidate to replace him, reducing the GOP’s chances in the race.

Further, Republicans are headed to a two-way or three-way primary, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has already started attacking Simmons. A Senate bid would be a big step up for Caligiuri.

The primary, which could be expensive, both complicates GOP prospects and reflects Dodd’s vulnerability. You can be sure that Simmons and Caligiuri wouldn’t be in the race if Dodd had not been damaged by recent news stories and events.

It seems as if every election cycle one supposedly safe Senator up for re-election somehow finds himself in an unexpectedly difficult race. In 2004, it was Bunning. In 2006, it was Sen. George Allen (R-Va.). Last year, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) was forced into a runoff. It already looks as if Chris Dodd will join that select club next year.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on April 6, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Gun Control: Stu on CNN

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

New Print Edition: New Hampshire 1 & South Carolina 1

The April 3, 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 Hampshire 1: Politics Goes On
By Nathan L. Gonzales

Two years ago, Carol Shea-Porter rode the Democratic wave into Congress. And she would have been swept out last cycle had she not learned some critical lessons.

Shea-Porter defeated incumbent Cong. Jeb Bradley (R) without the help of the national party in 2006, so she initially rejected party offers to help her win reelection. But she eventually reversed that decision, and the DCCC helped her turn back another challenge by Bradley in November.

This year, the congresswoman actively considered a run for the open U.S. Senate being vacated by GOP Sen. Judd Gregg, but she recently announced that she would take a pass on that contest. And even though Shea-Porter required some special attention from Democratic strategists last cycle, they are much happier having her run for reelection than defending an open seat. For the whole story, subscribe to the print edition of the Report.

South Carolina 1: We Didn’t Start the Fire
By Nathan L. Gonzales

Early last fall, it looked as if South Carolina Cong. Henry Brown (R) was on the fast track to involuntary involvement. He hadn’t faced a Democratic opponent in years, let alone a serious one, when he was suddenly confronted with a well-funded challenger and a national wave that was sweeping out many of his colleagues.

But Brown righted his campaign with just enough time to survive, and now Democrats are wondering whether they missed their opportunity.

In 2008, Democrat Linda Ketner ran a classic outsider race. She had the personal money to blast Brown with television ads turning his incumbency into a liability with an electorate unhappy with Washington. And she was nearly successful in a very Republican district until Brown finally returned fire.

The congressman’s narrow victory last fall demonstrated some vulnerability, and it could land him credible Democratic and Republican opponents next year. For the whole story, subscribe to the print edition of the Report.

Monday, April 06, 2009

New York’s 20th: It Is a Little Like Kissing Your Sister

By Stuart Rothenberg

It’s overtime in New York’s 20th, where Democrat Scott Murphy’s lead over Republican Jim Tedisco is so small that absentee ballots will determine the district’s next Congressman.

But in some respects it doesn’t matter who wins the seat. The results tell us something about the public mood, the district and the art of running Congressional elections. And while both sides have reasons to feel good about the results, Tuesday night offered Republicans a small but important bit of evidence that they have turned the corner.

Both parties’ Congressional campaign committees and the Democratic National Committee sent out press releases moments after all the votes were counted Tuesday night. The Democratic releases were nearly identical talking points.

Democrats cited the GOP registration edge, argued Murphy had stormed back from more than 20 points down and asserted that they are confident that Murphy will expand his lead. Let’s look at the points one by one.

Much has been made of the Republican registration — far too much, even by those of us who should know better. You don’t need a doctorate in political science to know that registration is a lagging indicator and that what is important is how people usually vote.

Polling in the special election conducted for the National Republican Congressional Committee’s independent expenditure arm asked party ID in two different ways, and the results are eye-opening.

When asked how they were registered, 30 percent of district respondents said that they were registered as Democrats, 23 percent said that they were registered independents and 44 percent said that they were registered Republicans — a 14-point GOP advantage.

But when those same respondents were asked how they usually vote, 28 percent said they usually or always vote Democratic, 34 percent responded that they were ticket-splitters, and 34 percent said that they usually or always vote Republican — a much smaller 6-point GOP edge.

People in this district may be registered as Republicans, but many simply haven’t been voting that way. The district is competitive. President Barack Obama won it (51 percent to 48 percent), now-Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) was elected to represent the district twice (with 53 percent and 62 percent) and President George W. Bush won it with only 54 percent in 2004. Bush won a very similarly configured district (then the 22nd) with just 50 percent in 2000. Democrats Eliot Spitzer and Hillary Rodham Clinton carried this district in 2006, and Sen. Charles Schumer (D) won it two years earlier.

What does this mean? It means much, though not all, of this talk about the huge Republican nature of the district is baloney.

Second, talk of a stunning Murphy surge from far back is ridiculous and ignores normal campaign dynamics.

True, Murphy started behind Tedisco in initial ballot tests, but that was almost entirely because district voters knew Tedisco, a state legislator, but had never heard of political neophyte Murphy, who lived in Missouri until 2006.

The early deficit was entirely name ID. I’ve seen hundreds of races like this one, where an unknown candidate spends heavily and moves up in polls. That’s why, when my newsletter first rated the special election on Feb. 20, we rated it as Tossup/Tilt Republican. It looked competitive from the start.

Given both parties’ spending, the personal appeal and profile of Murphy, the excellent Democratic advertising and the fundamental competitiveness of the district — to say nothing of the popularity of both Obama and Gillibrand, and Gov. David Paterson’s (D) delay in declaring the seat’s vacancy — it isn’t surprising that Murphy started behind but closed the gap in the race.

Third, I can’t see why Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) and DNC Chairman Tim Kaine would be confident that Murphy will expand his lead. I don’t know who will eventually win, but more Republican than Democratic absentee ballots have been received, according to GOP sources.

Finally, the returns have something bigger to say about the political environment, and both parties have reason to take away something positive from the dead heat.

Often, special elections are opportunities to send a message to the sitting president — a message of restraint and caution. We don’t trust you completely, so we are sending someone of the opposition to Congress to keep an eye on you, is how I’d put it.

No matter who ends up winning this race, that didn’t happen in the 20th district. The president remains very popular in the district, and even some Republicans believe that voters there backed Murphy as a way of indicating their support for Obama and their willingness to give him more time.

While Murphy and the DNC injected the president heavily into this race (through advertising) and said the contest was a referendum on the president’s economic agenda, there is little evidence of a strong anti-Obama vote. On the other hand, a tie isn’t a huge vote of confidence for the president’s economic agenda, either.

The worry for Democrats is that the president’s numbers are so high that they have nowhere to go but down. And if that happens, districts like this will be harder to hold in 2010.

More importantly, think what this election would have been like for Republicans if it had occurred last November. Murphy would have buried Tedisco by 6, 8 or maybe 10 points.

The absence of George W. Bush as a factor in this race helped Tedisco, and it suggests that while Republicans certainly haven’t turned the page on the past eight years and still have plenty of damage to repair, they have hit the bottom and are starting to bounce back. That is good news for the GOP.

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

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Redux of 1994 is Unlikely

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Having just lost the White House and facing smaller minorities in the House and the Senate, Republicans begin the 2010 election cycle in a remarkably similar position to where they were in 1993 — just one year before the GOP’s historic sweep of Congress.

At least on paper.

But while on the surface the landscape is similar, a closer examination of today’s Republican Party reveals significant weaknesses and a steeper climb back to the majority.

By the numbers, the GOP has an almost identical starting point in the House and the Senate as it did in 1993. Republicans held 176 seats in the House and 43 seats in the Senate at the beginning of the 103rd Congress, compared with 178 House seats and 41 Senate seats in the 111th.

With a volatile economy and President Barack Obama’s expansive recovery plans, some Republicans are sensing that the 2010 elections could be a replay of the 1994 GOP tsunami.

“A ‘yes’ vote [on the budget] on top of the stimulus vote could beat enough Democrats to get Republicans back into the majority,” former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said in a recent interview.

There’s little question that the GOP is expected to pick up House seats next year, but Republicans have a very slim chance of getting the 40 seats they need.

The Depth of Obama’s Victory

In 1992, Bill Clinton was elected with more Electoral College votes than Obama (370 versus 365), but his victory was more personal, considering Democrats simultaneously lost 10 seats in the House and there was no net change in the Senate.

Obama’s 2008 victory was wider and deeper. He received 53 percent of the popular vote (compared with only 43 percent for Clinton in a three-way race), and his coattails helped Democrats net 21 House seats — the most to accompany an incoming president since Dwight Eisenhower’s coattails brought 22 in 1952. Democrats also gained at least seven Senate seats (with Minnesota a possible eighth), the most since Ronald Reagan brought in a dozen new GOP Senators in 1980.

Despite their similar minority position 16 years ago, Republicans were held in higher regard than today. A May 1993 survey for U.S. News & World Report showed the Republican Party with 47 percent favorable/43 percent unfavorable ratings. A March 23-26 poll conducted for the liberal Web site Daily Kos by the nonpartisan firm Research 2000 showed the GOP with 27 percent favorable/64 percent unfavorable ratings.

And even though President George H.W. Bush lost re-election in 1992, he left office with higher approval ratings than his son. According to a mid-January 1993 Gallup Poll, the 41st president rebounded to a 56 percent approve/37 percent disapprove job rating. George W. Bush carried a 34 percent approve/61 percent disapprove job rating in his final days, according to Gallup.

Today, the Republicans’ problem is more than likability. The party is less trusted and fewer voters identify with it. According to a Feb. 19-22 ABC News/Washington Post poll, Americans trust Democrats, 56 percent to 30 percent, over Republicans “to do a better job in coping with the main problems the nation faces over the next few years.”

And unlike 1992, a major shift in party identification has occurred, even if it is temporary. Self-identified Democrats outnumbered Republicans by just 3 points (38 percent to 35 percent) in 1992 compared with a 7-point Democratic edge (39 percent to 32 percent) last fall, according to exit polling.

‘The Aftertaste of GOP Governance’

With the Bush administration and a Republican-controlled Congress in the rearview mirror but not out of sight, it will be more difficult for Republicans to run as effectively with a reform message as they did in 1994.

“Last time, Republicans hadn’t been in control for 40 years,” explained former Rep. Tom Davis (Va.), who was elected to Congress in 1994 and chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee for two cycles in the majority. “There’s still the aftertaste of GOP governance.”

This cycle, Republicans face a skeptical electorate on an unfavorable playing field. Senate Republicans are defending 19 seats (including five open seats) while all 17 of the Democratic incumbents up for election are running again.

“It’s hard to get very far with that map,” one GOP strategist admitted.

In 1994, Democrats had to defend 22 seats (including six open seats) while Republicans had only 12 seats (including three opens). Republicans gained eight seats on Election Day and added a ninth when Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby switched parties the next day. With the current Senate map, Republicans are far more likely to lose seats than regain the majority.

On the House side, Republicans are lacking a couple of key advantages from 16 years ago.

In 1994, Republicans belatedly benefited from a favorable round of redistricting. In the midst of Clinton’s victory in 1992, some Democratic incumbents won re-election in districts that were drawn in an effort to defeat them, but they didn’t lose until two years later. Next year will be the end of a 10-year cycle for the current Congressional lines and many incumbents are entrenched.

Republicans also benefitted from a large number of Democratic retirements in 1994, since 22 of the 56 seats they picked up were Democratic open seats. Democrats shouldn’t have nearly that many competitive open seats this cycle, but some Republicans believe incumbency could be a greater liability.

“Are incumbents marked by a record they can’t defend?” Gingrich asked. His party defeated 34 Democratic incumbents in 1994.

But increasingly sophisticated targeting programs and get-out-the-vote operations on both sides of the aisle make it easier to insulate a race from national whims. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will work hard to make sure their incumbents are in strong financial and political shape. Many of the party’s operatives survived the last GOP wave without drowning and don’t intend to relive it.

“We’re not going to be caught napping,” one Democratic strategist said.

Focus on the Off Year

With 19 months before voters go to the polls, it’s too early to determine what the political or economic environment will be like on Election Day. But in the short term, the focus will be on the off-year and special elections. Republicans took over the governorships of Virginia and New Jersey in 1993 and have an opportunity to follow the same path this year.

But observers should be cautious in extrapolating meaning from the results of today’s special election in New York’s 20th district.

In all five House special elections in 1993, the incumbent party won, maintaining the partisan status quo. Republicans did win the Texas Senate seat vacated by Lloyd Bentsen (D) in a June 1993 special. But it wasn’t until the 1994 special elections in the House that the wave began to take shape.

When Republicans scored special election victories in Oklahoma and Kentucky — and Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.), a Clinton ally, was defeated in a primary by a mediocre candidate — the Democratic downturn became apparent.

“Those 1994 specials became early warning signs as to the kind of challenges we would face in open seats in the South and Midwest,” said Democratic media consultant David Dixon, who was the DCCC’s political director in 1994.

“Prior to [the early 1994 special elections], we didn’t have any hard evidence that something was happening,” Gingrich recalled. “I originally thought it would take two cycles.”

The Synar race was an early indication that Clinton was a liability in many districts. With decisions on gays in the military and gun control as well as failed health care proposals, Clinton became a rallying point for Republicans.

It remains to be seen whether Obama will become a similar lightning rod.

“If [Obama and Congressional Democrats] keep up this level of ambitious programs and spending, they could create a climate for big losses,” said GOP media consultant Curt Anderson, who was political director at the Republican National Committee during the 1994 cycle.

Thus far, Obama has been able to downplay more liberal decisions and use bipartisan rhetoric to disarm the opposition. There is clear GOP resistance to his early spending plans, but Republicans are not completely unified, as evidenced by three potential high-profile primary challenges to GOP Senators.

Republicans are optimistic because they believe Democrats have lost their unifier.

“Bush was the energy of the Democratic Party for the last eight years,” Davis said. “Now their energy source is gone.”

Gingrich added: “Democrats peaked the morning that George W. Bush left office.”

This story first appeared in Roll Call on March 31, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Off-Year Specials Often Provide No Tea Leaves

By Nathan L. Gonzales and Josh Kurtz

This story first appeared in Roll Call on March 31, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Special elections this early in the cycle are generally poor predictors of a party’s future electoral success or failure in the next general. But it doesn’t matter who wins today’s special election in New York’s 20th district, breathless over-analysis will rule the day.

Those who want to look to tonight’s results for a glimpse at what November 2010 might bring should wait until next year.

In 1993 — the year before the watershed election that saw House Republicans sweep into the majority with a net gain of 52 seats — the incumbent party won all five special elections and maintained the partisan status quo.

That year Democrats held California’s 17th district, vacated by Rep. Leon Panetta to become Budget director, and Mississippi’s 2nd district, vacated by Rep. Mike Espy to become Agriculture secretary. They won each contest by 10 points.

Republicans held onto the late Rep. Paul Henry’s (Mich.) seat, while Cincinnati attorney Rob Portman easily kept Ohio’s 2nd district in GOP hands after Rep. Bill Gradison resigned and left for the private sector.

The special election in Wisconsin’s 1st district was much more competitive after Rep. Les Aspin (D) left to become secretary of Defense, but Democrats held his seat as well. Republican Mark Neumann, who ran against Aspin in 1992 and received 41 percent, came 675 votes short in the special election against Democrat Peter Barca in a district that Bill Clinton carried 41 percent to 35 percent in 1992. Neumann came back to defeat Barca in the November 1994 general election.

Republicans did take over the Texas seat vacated by Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) in a June 1993 special, but it wasn’t until the 1994 special elections in the House that the eventual Republican wave began to become evident.

Democrats held a 2-1 voter registration edge in Oklahoma’s 6th district but lost the seat when Rep. Glenn English (D) left for the private sector, and then-state Rep. Frank Lucas won the May 1994 special election by eight points.

And when Rep. Bill Natcher (D-Ky.) passed away, Republican Ron Lewis won his seat by defeating former state Sen. Joseph Prather (D) by 10 points.

More recently, in 2007, the incumbent party won all five House special elections — which were all in relatively safe districts that were drawn to the advantage of one party.

Republicans held seats in Georgia, Ohio and Virginia, while Democrats maintained control of seats in California and in Massachusetts’ 5th district — the only competitive one of the bunch. Republican nominee Jim Ogonowski generated some excitement when he held Niki Tsongas (D) to a 51 percent to 46 percent victory in the Bay State race.

But Republicans went on to lose three seats in special elections in 2008 (in Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi) and then had a net loss of an additional 21 seats in November.

The incumbent party also won all three of the House special elections in 2005, and Republicans even held California’s 50th district seat in a June 2006 special — when Rep. Duke Cunningham (R) was headed to jail — but still lost 30 seats later that year.

But even if the results of today’s special election in upstate New York offer no bankable trends, the two candidates were campaigning furiously in the final hours, and neither party was boldly predicting victory.

Republican James Tedisco, the state Assembly Minority Leader, was planning to stump through the night Monday straight through to this afternoon, dropping in on a paper mill in Glens Falls, diners and other late-night hangouts throughout the district. He interrupted his campaign day to appear at a news conference at the state Capitol on Monday afternoon with fellow Republicans critical of the budget deal just crafted by Gov. David Paterson (D) and Democratic legislative leaders.

In a special election with a small turnout, voters’ ire toward Paterson’s budget plan could prove to be a plus for Tedisco.

Businessman Scott Murphy, the Democratic nominee, was scheduled to make five stops Monday. He campaigned Sunday with New York’s two Democratic Senators: Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, the woman he hopes to replace in Congress. House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) was also on hand at certain stops on Sunday, and on Saturday Murphy was joined at a rally by three Democratic Congressmen who represent adjoining upstate New York districts: Reps. John Hall, Maurice Hinchey and Paul Tonko.

The Murphy campaign was also sending robocalls recorded by Gillibrand, who remains highly popular in the district, into voters’ homes Monday. Tedisco was countering with robocalls from former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) and 1950s heartthrob Pat Boone.

Although Republicans have a 70,000 voter enrollment advantage in the 20th district, Democrats have been making gains there in recent election cycles, and the last public poll on the race, released Friday, showed Murphy clinging to a slim 4-point margin. Recent private polls taken for both parties have shown the race to be very close.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

For North Dakota’s Kent Conrad, the Time Is Now

By Stuart Rothenberg

North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad (D) is in the right place, at the right time. Or, depending how you look at it, he’s in precisely the wrong place, at precisely the wrong time.

Conrad, after all, chairs the Senate Budget Committee, making him a key player in President Barack Obama’s effort to pass a budget, and ultimately to move forward with expensive, expansive programs.

But it’s not just his chairmanship that makes North Dakota’s senior Senator a key player. It’s that Conrad begins with well-earned credibility as one of the Senate’s true deficit hawks that allows him to take on a president of his own party, both now and later.

Will Conrad continue to be a vocal critic of bigger deficits, even if it means fighting the president’s agenda on global warming, health care and the financial industry? Or will he simply talk about the danger of exploding deficits while allowing deficits totaling $9.3 trillion from 2010 to 2019 — a figure that the Congressional Budget Office calculated from the administration’s budget proposal?

Since the budget resolution is only a blueprint, Conrad will have many opportunities to take on the White House over spending and the deficit if he so chooses. And some Democrats’ willingness to consider using the reconciliation process (which requires only a bare majority, not 60 votes) to jam controversial health care and possibly global warming legislation through the Senate will give Conrad other opportunities to make a stand.

The North Dakota Democrat begins with some unique qualities and assets as a possible adversary for Obama, who has his own great abilities.

“Kent is a quiet, effective Member who becomes more important every day that he’s there,” former Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) told me recently.

But Breaux didn’t stop there.

“Republicans don’t always agree with him. Democrats don’t always agree with him. But Senators from both parties will tell you that they are happy that he is there. They know that he’ll bring a sense of sanity to the [budgetary and legislative] process.”

Conrad is widely regarded as one of the most knowledgeable, hardest-working Senators on Capitol Hill, and he has, at least in part, moved into a role once played by Breaux: the legislative broker who tries to bring various interests together to produce a reasonable bill that can be enacted into law.

Conrad, who is the only person in history to hold both of a state’s Senate seats at the same time (however briefly), has been a deficit hawk since he was first sent to the Senate by North Dakota voters in 1986, when he knocked off incumbent Sen. Mark Andrews (R). He’s been an advocate of balanced budgets (and pay-as-you-go rules) whether the White House was held by a Republican or a Democrat.

One Republican Capitol Hill staffer who is very familiar with Conrad was nothing short of effusive in explaining the North Dakotan’s skills.

“Most Members will tell staff what they need and leave it to them to do the real work. Not Conrad. He sits through the negotiations. It’s almost as if he does staff work in addition to a Member’s work. He always has paper. He has information. He knows his stuff. And when the doors close, he cuts the deal,” said the staffer.

The question, of course, is whether everyone will like the deal.

Republicans, in particular, were quick to criticize Conrad’s version of the budget last week.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Obama’s budget “spends too much, taxes too much and borrows too much” — the newest Republican refrain. But he also slammed Conrad when he complained that given “all the bipartisan praise that budget transparency received ... the Budget Committee voted to put most of the gimmicks and tricks back in.”

Conrad’s disagreement with the Obama budget’s bottom line doesn’t necessarily mean that the North Dakotan disagrees with what Obama wants to accomplish. He has only suggested that he is unhappy with the cost of some of the pieces of President Obama’s agenda.

However, Conrad has indicated that he isn’t ready to throw out procedural niceties, such as the filibuster, to accomplish big changes.

Given the president’s emphasis on bipartisan cooperation and changing the tone in Washington, D.C., as well as the likelihood that Republicans would go nuclear if Senate Democrats tried to use reconciliation to pass cap-and-trade legislation or even fundamental health care reform, Conrad could find himself facing off against his own party’s Senate leadership.

Serious and studious, Conrad doesn’t possess Barack Obama’s charisma or bully pulpit. But because of his reputation and skill as a negotiator, the North Dakota Democrat definitely is a man to watch in the coming months.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 30, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009