Friday, July 31, 2009

Obama, Biden Seats in Danger?

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Lost in the focus on President Barack Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden’s history-making move down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House in January was the fact that Republicans have a historic opportunity to pick up the pair’s former Senate seats.

Over the past century, half of the dozen seats vacated by a new president or vice president have switched partisan control in the next election. Click here for the Senate chart.

In 2010, Republicans have open-seat opportunities in Illinois and Delaware and could win both seats vacated by a president and vice president in the same cycle for the first time in U.S. history.

The last time a newly elected president and vice president gave up their Senate seats the same year was in 1960. Democrats held President John F. Kennedy’s Massachusetts seat in the next election, but the party lost Vice President Lyndon Johnson’s Texas seat when appointed Sen. William Blakley (D) narrowly lost a 1961 special election to John Tower (R).

“Obviously people see these as elected [not appointed] offices,” said former Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), who was appointed to fill the vacancy in 1989 when Sen. Dan Quayle was elected vice president. “That’s why the first election is so critical.”

Democratic chances of holding Obama’s seat improved when appointed Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) decided not to run next year. Burris’ tenure has been overshadowed by fallout from his controversial appointment by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), who has since been indicted and impeached. But after Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D) took a pass on the Senate race and Rep. Mark Kirk (R) jumped in, Republican chances improved dramatically.

In Delaware, former Gov. Ruth Ann Minner (D) appointed longtime Biden aide Ted Kaufman (D) as a placeholder to fill the vice president’s Senate seat. State Attorney General Beau Biden (D) is expected to run for his father’s seat once he returns from active duty in Iraq. Meanwhile, political operatives on both sides of the aisle are waiting for Rep. Mike Castle (R) to make a decision on the race. With Castle, who has represented the entire state both as Congressman and governor, this race might be one of the best GOP takeover opportunities in the country. Without him, it’s not even competitive.

Over the past 100 years, three Senate seats vacated by a president-elect or vice president-elect have been filled with placeholders (not including Kaufman).

In 1948, Democrats held the seat vacated by Alben Barkley (D-Ky.), who was elected vice president under Harry Truman. When appointed Sen. Garrett Withers (D-Ky.) did not run in 1950, Earle Clements defeated Charles Dawson (R) to keep the seat in Democratic hands. Clements lost re-election six years later.

After Kennedy’s election in 1960, Benjamin Smith II (D-Mass.) was appointed to his Senate seat until the election in 1962, when the president’s brother, Edward Kennedy (D), was old enough run and serve.

More recently, Republicans took over the seat vacated by then-Sen. Al Gore (D-Tenn.) after he and Bill Clinton were elected to the White House in 1992. Appointed Sen. Harlan Mathews (D-Tenn.) didn’t seek a full term, and Fred Thompson (R) defeated Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper 60 percent to 39 percent in the Republican wave of 1994.

The political environment was a critical factor in many of these Senate races.
“Some of these things are beyond the candidate’s control,” former Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R-Minn.) said in a recent interview. “Dynamics come up that are quite beyond you.”

Boschwitz was elected to the Senate in 1978 when he defeated Democrat Wendell Anderson, who had been appointed to fill the vacancy created when then-Sen. Walter Mondale (D-Minn.) was elected Jimmy Carter’s vice president. Republicans netted three seats in the Senate and 15 in the House that cycle, but the appointment became an issue as well.

Anderson had resigned as governor in order to be appointed to Mondale’s seat by the new governor. Self-appointments are rare and can be politically trickier to explain to voters. In Minnesota, Anderson’s maneuver became an issue, the midterm cycle turned against the Democrats and Boschwitz took issue with Anderson’s absenteeism, resulting in a 17-point victory. Boschwitz held the seat until he lost to Democrat Paul Wellstone by two points in 1990.

The stock market crash helped George McGill (D) defeat appointed-Sen. Henry Allen (R-Kansas) in 1930, who was appointed to the seat vacated when Charles Curtis (R-Kansas) was elected vice president under Herbert Hoover two years earlier. McGill was the last Democrat to represent Kansas in the Senate.

Historically, appointed Senators who follow a president or vice president into office and then run for a full term have had nearly equal odds of winning or losing in the next election.

Before Anderson in Minnesota, Mondale was appointed to the seat in 1965 when Hubert Humphrey was elected vice president under Johnson. Mondale was elected in his own right in 1966 with 54 percent and served until he was elected vice president.

“The election is a way of ratifying or denying that appointment,” Coats explained. “Ninety percent of Indiana didn’t know who I was, so I thought I better get in front of them.” After his appointment to Quayle’s seat, the former Congressman defeated Democrat Baron Hill with 54 percent in 1990 and was elected to a full term in 1992 with 57 percent.

After Sen. Richard Nixon (R-Calif.) was elected vice president under Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, appointed Sen. Thomas Kuchel was elected to the remainder of Nixon’s term in 1954 and served until 1968.

Along with Allen in Kansas, the Blakley loss in Texas in the 1960s and Anderson’s loss in the 1980s, Democrats lost Harry Truman’s Missouri Senate seat, the only presidential Senate seat to immediately switch party hands in the last century.

Frank Briggs (D) was appointed in Missouri after Truman was elected vice president under Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944. But when Roosevelt died a few months later, Truman ascended to the presidency. Then in 1946, Briggs lost to James Kem (R), who was known as a staunch Truman opponent. Kem served only one term before he lost re-election to Stuart Symington (D).

Surely, the White House doesn’t want to fuel Republican confidence or give the party a rallying cry by letting Obama’s or Biden’s Senate seat fall into GOP hands.

Republicans lost Vice President Gerald Ford’s Michigan House seat in a February 1974 special election at a time when Nixon’s approval was sagging. The race also foreshadowed larger GOP losses that would come that fall.

Democrat Richard Vander Veen’s special election victory was remarkable since the Grand Rapids-area district hadn’t elected a Democrat since 1912 — and hasn’t elected one again since 1974.

Ford’s seat is one of two House seats that have been vacated by an incoming vice president.

Speaker John Nance Garner (D-Texas) left Congress when he was elected vice president under FDR in 1932. Milton West kept Garner’s 15th district seat in Democratic hands for seven terms, but Garner may have been a bit jealous since he famously described his new job as “not worth a bucket of warm piss.”

This story first appeared in Roll Call on July 29, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. Some updates made to original.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Capitol Hill Democrats Have Met Their Enemy and It Is Them

By Stuart Rothenberg

Earlier this week, I asked a veteran Washington-based Democratic political operative who has worked for more than his share of liberals whether he had seen any indication that grass-roots “progressives” were getting angry with the party’s performance on Capitol Hill and were starting to make their anger known.

“No. No. Not yet,” he said, shaking his head. “Right now we are just happy to be in the majority. We were out of power for a long time,” he laughed. “But it will come; it will come,” sighed the Washington veteran, looking as if he might like either a glass of scotch or at least a couple of aspirin.

Twenty-four hours later, I was interviewing a reliably liberal Democratic candidate running in 2010 in a swing state. I asked him what he will say when his formidable Republican opponent argues that the country doesn’t need yet more Democrats in Washington, D.C. — that it needs more officeholders who will act as a check on President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress.

“I’ll say that if you look at what has been happening in Congress right now, we appear to have plenty of Democrats who are acting as checks on Democrats in Washington,” he answered with a smile.

Rattle off names such as Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.) or Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.) to a member of Democratic House or Senate leadership, and they are likely to think, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?”

Democratic Blue Dogs and deficit hawks are showing their muscle right now. Whether it’s out of principle or merely a political reflection of the president’s loss of support on health care among independent voters in a number of recent surveys, moderates in the president’s own party are now driving the bus.

The Democratic grass roots so far have been patient with Congress, but at some point that patience may wear out.

Few people outside of the political class understand how Capitol Hill works, so it shouldn’t be surprising that many Democrats around the country assumed that a 60-seat Senate, an overwhelmingly Democratic House and a Democratic president would pass a health care bill with a public insurance option rather easily.

Ultimately, the president is likely to get a health care bill that he will sign. No bill means broken promises by both the White House and the Congressional leadership, and with the healthy majorities that Democrats have on Capitol Hill, blaming Republicans will almost certainly not work, no matter how damaged the GOP brand currently is.

But it is increasingly obvious — indeed it has been rather clear for at least the past couple of weeks — that the final health care reform product won’t be what Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, would prefer. Nor will it be the bill that Obama would write, if he had the power to do so.

Still, the president is likely to hail passage of any bill as a historic achievement, taking credit for “the most dramatic health care reform in the nation’s history,” or words to that effect. It really doesn’t matter exactly what is and what is not in the bill. The president will have to claim victory for producing “change” no matter the specifics.

The key for Democrats is how much discontent will be caused by a bill that disappoints, maybe even angers, the party’s more liberal wing.

Will activists be so happy to get anything that they swallow hard and smile even if the final bill lacks a pure public insurance plan option? Will they accept the president’s likely assessment of the final product, when he says that the final bill is a huge step toward universal coverage and controlling cost?

The president continues to draw strong support from Democrats, particularly the most liberal in his party. Gallup’s massive mid-July aggregated weekly tracking numbers show Obama’s job approval at 92 percent among Democrats and 95 percent among liberal Democrats.

Both groups apparently have great confidence in him and are likely to give his interpretation of the final bill great weight. But between now and final passage, will the voices on the Democratic left get louder and more angry? And if they do, what will that mean for the rest of the Obama agenda?

The division within the Democratic Party has Republicans feeling almost giddy. The health care debate, following the stimulus bill, the fiscal 2009 omnibus spending bill, the auto industry bailout and the Troubled Asset Relief Program, has resurrected two issues, spending and taxes, dear to GOP hearts. And many Republicans are now confident that the pendulum is swinging back to them.

These are interesting times politically, even if Democrats do control all of the levers of power in Washington, D.C.

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

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Late Primaries Can Equal Big Headaches in Targeted Races

By Nathan L. Gonzales

As House Republicans are drawing up their list of top Democratic targets in 2010, a familiar enemy awaits: the primary election calendar.

A handful of the GOP’s best takeover opportunities are in states such as Arizona, Maryland, Florida and New Hampshire, where late and crowded primaries have the potential to put the party’s nominee at a distinct disadvantage heading into the general election.

In addition to often leaving the party’s base fractured, late primaries can produce battered nominees with depleted bank accounts and only a few weeks to recover.

Last cycle, in what one GOP operative described as a “train wreck,” Maricopa County Treasurer David Schweikert won the Republican nomination with 29 percent in a six-way primary in early September in Arizona’s 5th district.

While Schweikert began to reload for the general election, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee unloaded television ads attacking him the same week. Schweikert was never really able to regain strong footing, and Rep. Harry Mitchell (D) — who was then a top target after knocking off a Republican incumbent in 2006 — easily won re-election, 53 percent to 44 percent.

Schweikert “never got out of the box,” one Democratic strategist said.

Mitchell is once again a top target in 2010, but Republicans face yet another late primary. Schweikert is running again, and this time he faces a primary against former LucasArts President Jim Ward.

Along with the financial ramifications of a late primary, the increasing emphasis on early voting is a challenge because it narrows the window between when the primary ends and the general election begins. In Arizona, next year’s primary will be Aug. 24 while early voting begins Oct. 7.

Republicans also have their sights set on freshman Rep. Frank Kratovil (D-Md.), who won in the heavily Republican 1st district last year with 49 percent of the vote. Kratovil benefited greatly from a bloody GOP primary fight between moderate Rep. Wayne Gilchrest and state Sen. Andy Harris. Harris won, but the fight left the party heavily fractured, both ideologically and geographically, with Harris burning many bridges in the Eastern Shore-based district. Gilchrest went on to endorse Kratovil, and Harris couldn’t match the Democrats’ spending on Baltimore television.

Harris is running again, but he may face state Sen. E.J. Pipkin (who came in third in the 2008 primary) or former state Del. Al Redmer in the primary. More importantly, last year’s primary was held Feb. 12 in conjunction with the presidential primary, but next year it will be Sept. 14.

Last cycle, the National Republican Congressional Committee in particular took heat for not getting more involved in primaries in order to get the strongest general election candidate. But in an age when candidates are eager to run against the establishment, there isn’t a lot the national parties can do to clear primary fields.

“The NRCC’s policy on primaries is that there is no policy,” one committee official said. At times in the past, the committee’s intervention has created exactly the opposite effect of what was intended.

One thing the campaign committees can do is grease the fundraising gears. Earlier this decade, the NRCC created special funds to raise money for its eventual nominees in competitive races with contested primaries. The accounts were a repository for money from other Members and for money that the White House helped raise to be transferred to the Congressional nominee after the primary.

For example, in 2004, then-Washington state Rep. Cathy McMorris inherited $200,000 after she won the GOP nomination on Sept. 14 in a three-way primary. The infusion of money helped her gain the 5th district seat over a self-funding Democratic opponent.

“Late primaries have to be managed,”one GOP operative said. Aside from setting up special accounts, Republicans try to prepare by making sure potential nominees have their general election media and mail plans in places, including research on potential opponents.

The DCCC prepares research on all potential GOP opponents, but instead of setting up generic fundraising accounts in certain races, the committee immediately puts its nominees on the “Red to Blue” program list in order to jump-start their fundraising and boost the candidates’ ability to collect Member contributions.

In addition to the Arizona race, the DCCC went on the air in New Hampshire’s 1st district almost immediately after former Rep. Jeb Bradley secured the GOP nomination in early September of last year. The committee’s spending helped boost Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D) to a 52 percent to 46 percent victory in November.

Two years before, Shea-Porter surprised both parties when she knocked off state Senate Minority Leader Jim Craig, the DCCC’s preferred candidate, and went on to defeat Bradley without support from the national party.

This cycle, Republicans look to be headed for another September primary to determine who will take on Shea-Porter. But Democrats will also likely have a crowded primary in the state’s 2nd district, where they are trying to hold the seat being vacated by Rep. Paul Hodes (D) to run for Senate.

The DCCC chose not to immediately flex its fundraising muscle last year in New York’s 26th district after Alice Kryzan (D) was the surprise winner of the Sept. 9 primary over the DCCC’s favored candidate.

Recent Republican successes in races that featured late primaries have often been circumstantial.

Last year in Kansas’ 2nd district, state Treasurer Lynn Jenkins beat former Rep. Jim Ryun in a competitive Aug. 5 primary. But Jenkins’ general election victory over then-Rep. Nancy Boyda (D) had more to do with the Republican nature of the district and the relatively inexpensive media markets there. Another big factor was that Boyda shunned all outside help, so the DCCC didn’t come in with its usual TV blitz.

Back in 2000 when Republicans enjoyed more fundraising parity (and were able to use soft money), the NRCC helped elect Ric Keller (R) in Florida’s 8th district by going on television and attacking Orange County Chairman Linda Chapin (D) three weeks before the primary. Keller finished second in the Sept. 5 primary and first in the Oct. 3 runoff.

But a late primary also helped foreshadow Keller’s loss in 2008. The Congressman’s 53 percent to 47 percent primary victory over an unknown candidate on Aug. 26 demonstrated that he had significant cracks in his base of support. He lost in November 52 percent to 48 percent to now-Rep. Alan Grayson (D).

Multiple candidates are interested in taking on Grayson in 2010, setting up what could be a competitive Aug. 24 GOP primary in the 8th district. Republicans could also see a crowded primary in the 24th district represented by freshman Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D-Fla.).

Democrats are not immune to the negative fallout from late primaries, but with a significant majority in the House, they are less of a concern.

Democrats will likely see a competitive September primary in Hawaii’s 1st district, where Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D) is running for governor. Honolulu City Councilman Charles Djou (R) is hoping for a repeat of 1986, when Republican Pat Saiki was elected to Congress in the wake of a bloody late Democratic primary.

Multiple Democratic candidates are lining up to take on Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), including 2008 nominee Elwyn Tinklenberg, physician Maureen Reed and state Sen. Tarryl Clark. Democrats hope the party’s nominating convention winnows the field before the September primary.

Similarly in Colorado’s 4th district, Republicans hope that state Rep. Cory Gardner’s early fundraising and the district’s convention sorts out the GOP race before the Aug. 12 primary.

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

Monday, July 27, 2009

2010 Senate Ratings

Here are our latest Senate ratings.

#- Moved benefiting Democrats
*- Moved benefiting Republicans

Toss-Up (4 R, 2 D)
  • KY Open (Bunning, R) *
  • MO Open (Bond, R)
  • NH Open (Gregg, R)
  • OH Open (Voinovich, R)
  • IL Open (Burris, D) *
  • Dodd (D-CT)
Narrow Advantage for Incumbent Party (2 R, 2 D)
  • Burr (R-NC)
  • Vitter (R-LA) #
  • Reid (D-NV)
  • Specter (D-PA) *
Clear Advantage for Incumbent Party (1 R, 2 D)
  • FL Open (Martinez, R) *
  • Bennet (D-CO)
  • 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)

2009-2010 Gubernatorial Ratings

Here are our latest gubernatorial ratings. 2009 races in italics.
# - Moved benefiting Democrats
* - Moved benefiting Republicans

Lean Takeover (4 R, 5 D)
  • CA Open (Schwarzenegger, R)
  • FL Open (Crist, R)
  • HI Open (Lingle, R)
  • RI Open (Carcieri, R)
  • KS Open (Parkinson, D)
  • Corzine (D-NJ) *
  • OK Open (Henry, D)
  • TN Open (Bredesen, D)
  • WY Open (Freudenthal, D)
Toss-Up (3 R, 3 D)
  • Brewer (R-AZ)
  • Gibbons (R-NV)
  • MN Open (Pawlenty, R)
  • MI Open (Granholm, D)
  • PA Open (Rendell, D)
  • VA Open (Kaine, D)
Narrow Advantage for Incumbent Party (2 R, 2 D)
  • Douglas (R-VT)
  • GA Open (Perdue, R)
  • Doyle (D-WI)
  • Strickland (D-OH) *
Clear Advantage for Incumbent Party (5 R, 7 D)
  • Herbert (R-UT)
  • Rell (R-CT)
  • AL Open (Riley, R)
  • SC Open (Sanford, R)
  • SD Open (Rounds, R) *
  • Culver (D-IA) *
  • Quinn (D-IL)
  • Paterson (D-NY)
  • Patrick (D-MA) *
  • Ritter (D-CO)
  • ME Open (Baldacci, D)
  • NM Open (Richardson, D) #
Currently Safe (4 R, 4 D)
  • Heineman (R-NE)
  • Otter (R-ID)
  • Parnell (R-AK)
  • Perry (R-TX)
  • Beebe (D-AR)
  • Lynch (D-NH)
  • O'Malley (D-MD)
  • OR Open (Kulongoski, D)

Midterms, History and the Expectations Game for the House in 2010

By Stuart Rothenberg

One of the jobs of nonpartisan analysts is to keep the parties honest. Partisans have a tendency to talk themselves into certain opinions, and there are enough data out there to make any case they wish. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the expectations game.

Over the past few months, both Democratic and Republican officeholders have noted that midterm elections usually result in losses — often sizable losses — for the president’s party. Democrats make the assertion so that they’ll be able to claim victory if the party suffers a small net loss next November, while Republicans cite the trend as a recruiting tool and to boost party morale.

Just recently, a Republican Congressional candidate told me that he expected his party to make big gains next year “because the average midterm loss for a president’s party is 30 seats.” That number has also been cited by Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) in his effort to set a bar that he certainly can beat.

In fact, “averaging” midterm results over the past 100 or 150 years, or even the past 50 years, to set expectations for 2010 makes no sense. Averages are meaningless when you have a wide range of outcomes, as there have been in midterm elections since 1960, a reasonable place to start examining recent midterm trends.

Over the past five decades, there have been 12 midterm elections. Five of them resulted in large losses of at least 20 seats by the president’s party: 2006 (30 seats), 1994 (52 seats), 1982 (26 seats), 1974 (49 seats) and 1966 (47 seats).

Another five elections resulted either in small losses or gains by the president’s party — 2002 (+8 seats), 1998 (+5 seats), 1990 (-8 seats), 1986 (-5 seats) and 1962 (-4 seats). The remaining two outcomes were between the two extremes, with the president’s party losing 15 seats in 1978 and 12 seats in 1970. (Midterm numbers come from “Vital Statistics on Congress: 2001-2002” by Norman J. Ornstein, Thomas E. Mann and Michael J. Malbin.)

Clearly then, midterm results over the past 50 years have generally fallen into one of two ranges — either small, single-digit changes (even sometimes in the favor of the president’s party) or large swings of at least two dozen and sometimes close to four dozen seats against the president’s party.

“Averaging” the outcomes of these dozen elections exaggerates the importance of the years with the biggest swings (1994, 1974 and 1966), ignores the bimodal distribution of election outcomes and produces a number that doesn’t come close to reflecting what has actually happened in the elections.

To be sure, the general trend that the president’s party loses seats in midterms certainly is worth noting, as is the fact that in only two of the past six midterms has the president’s party suffered anything more than single-digit losses. Indeed, in two of the past three midterms, the president’s party has gained seats. So we should expect Democrats to gain a handful of seats, shouldn’t we? Obviously not.

Each election, even each midterm, is different. The GOP is now down to 178 seats in the House, far below what it was just six years ago and back to where it was before the 1994 midterm surge vaulted Republicans into the majority. After back-to-back strong Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008 — when the party gained 50 House seats — the GOP is due to rebound, especially with Democratic President Barack Obama in the White House.

But the president’s continued popularity, the damage to the Republican brand, and the Democrats’ financial advantage limit the snapback that the GOP and the National Republican Congressional Committee can expect. Moreover, the noteworthy scarcity of House Democratic retirements so far and decisions by a few Republicans in Democratic-leaning districts to seek higher office give Democrats and the DCCC the opportunity to minimize overall losses.

Since we can’t know what shape the country or the economy will be in next fall, we can’t know whether Republicans will have a robust rebound or a modest one. But the evidence so far suggests a small 5- to 10-seat Republican rebound is more likely than anything substantial, and, at this point, a 30-seat Republican gain looks like a pipe dream. Of course, ruling out any specific outcome 15 months before the election is unwise.

Voters are increasingly concerned about the Obama agenda and the performance of the Democratic Congress, so a larger GOP gain than the one now likely certainly could occur. But right now, most GOP political strategists say they would be thrilled with a net gain of a dozen seats in the House, though they expect a somewhat smaller number. A 15-seat GOP gain would cause a wild celebration among savvy Republican operatives.

As for Democratic efforts to limit the party’s House losses to “just” 10 seats, as the DCCC has said, that’s a reasonable and a realistic goal. Anything much above that would be a surprisingly good year for the NRCC. Of course, during the rest of this year and next, expectations can and will change. Just don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that history forecasts a big Republican sweep. It doesn’t.

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

Saturday, July 25, 2009

New Print Edition: 2010 Senate Overview

The July 23, 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 introduction to this edition:

Senate Overview – The Lay of the Land

Democrats still have more opportunities than does the GOP, but the public’s growing nervousness about the economy and the deficit could develop into a problem for Democratic candidates next year, particularly in open seats such as Missouri and Ohio. In addition, developments in Illinois and New Hampshire suddenly have improved Republican prospects in both states.

Four GOP seats currently look quite vulnerable, with Democratic recruiting in North Carolina still in progress. Republicans have two interesting targets in very blue states, in Connecticut and Illinois, and they hope to have strong challengers in Nevada and Delaware.

The economy and Congress’ dealings on health care, energy, the environment, the deficit and taxes are likely to move voters to one party or the other. At this point, the GOP brand is still damaged, but that shouldn’t make Democrats overly confident. Midterm elections tend to benefit the party out of power, and the Democrats’ 60-seat majority in the Senate could turn out to be an albatross in next year’s elections.

At this point, Republican open seats still give Democrats more to shoot at, and Democratic gains in the order of 2-4 seats certainly seem reasonable. But the tide may be shifting slightly away from the Democrats.

Subscribers to the print edition get race-by-race analysis as well as the latest polls.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Running Against Bush: Can It Work Again for Democrats in 2010?

By Stuart Rothenberg

Democrats ran against Herbert Hoover for decades. Republicans ran against Jimmy Carter for years. Can Democrats make 2010 another referendum on George W. Bush, or at least use the unpopular former president to demonize Republicans in competitive races?

Democratic operatives assert that running against the former president next year isn’t going to be the focus of their efforts, but they are obviously more than willing to fall back on an anti-Bush message when they think it is effective.

Last week, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee released a Web video, “Insider,” and an accompanying press release hanging the former president around the neck of former Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio). Democratic insiders say that the video was a response to Portman’s invitation for voters to look at his record.

The DSCC video comes after a recent Quinnipiac University poll in the Buckeye State showed Portman, the favorite for the GOP Senate nomination, gaining ground on Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher (D) and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner (D) in the state’s open-seat Senate race.

Unsurprisingly, the video refers to Portman as “George Bush’s trade director” and “Bush’s budget director.” What’s noteworthy, though, is that it includes six separate photographs of Portman and Bush standing together.

Ohio Republicans scoff at the Democrats’ strategy and argue Democrats are “fighting the last war.” And Portman is likely to fire back, defending his record at the Office of Management and Budget and as trade representative and trying to refocus the discussion on growing joblessness and a ballooning national deficit.

Still, Portman, as director of the OMB under Bush, looks vulnerable to the Democrats’ strategy because of his close connection to the former president and the Bush economy.

A day after the Portman video was released, the DSCC launched a second Web video, “The True Mark Kirk,” which mocks the Illinois Congressman’s reputation as a moderate, and ends with a photograph of Kirk, now a candidate for the Senate, standing with Bush.

“When Illinois voters get to know the real Mark Kirk, they’ll find a politician who championed George Bush’s policies for years and is now standing in the way of President Obama’s bold agenda to get the economy moving again,” DSCC Communications Director Eric Schultz said in the press release announcing the video.

But if tying Portman to Bush is easy, linking the unpopular former president to Kirk is much more difficult, as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee found out in 2008 when it ran a late October TV spot attacking Kirk for “his unbending support for George Bush” and for his “support of George Bush’s failed economic policies.”

Interestingly, it appears that both the 2008 DCCC TV ad and the 2009 DSCC video close with the same photograph of Bush and Kirk.

Here’s what the 2008 edition of CQ’s Politics in America had to say about Kirk, who has represented Illinois’ 10th district since his election in 2000: “Kirk parts with Republican doctrine on a number of key issues. In January of 2007, he backed all six signature bills espoused by the new Democratic majority, including initiatives to promote embryonic stem cell research and increase the federal minimum wage. Kirk was also among the 17 Republicans who voted in February 2007 for a nonbinding resolution disapproving of a Bush administration initiative to increase troop strength in Iraq. Kirk’s voting record consistently earns strong marks from abortion-rights and environmental organizations.”

While Democratic consultants are likely digging up photographs of Republican candidates with Bush in an effort to energize Democrats and boost fundraising, the often-used technique — a form of transference — isn’t likely to be nearly as effective in demonizing GOP candidates as it was when Bush occupied the White House.

Voters won’t have forgotten Bush in another 15 months, but he won’t be on their minds, either.

“The next election will be about moving forward. But it can’t just be about the challenges we face. We have to talk about why we are facing those challenges, the problems Bush left us,” said one Democratic consultant not involved with the Web videos.

With the 2010 midterm elections still more than 15 months away, it’s unclear what the nation’s economy will look like or whom voters will blame — or credit — when voters next go to the polls.

June’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey found more Americans (46 percent) blaming Bush for the nation’s federal budget deficit than Congress and the Obama administration combined. But that may not still be the case a year from now, and the more time passes, the more likely that swing voters will shift the responsibility for the nation’s economic problems to current officeholders.

Ronald Reagan, after all, rode to the White House in 1980 on a wave of dissatisfaction with Carter’s presidency, but that didn’t stop voters from spanking Republicans at the polls two years later (costing Republicans 26 House seats just two years after they won 33 seats), even though the “Reagan recession” was the only way to cure the stagflation (low growth, high interest rates and inflation) that he inherited from Carter.

Bush (along with Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh) will always be a bogeyman to red-meat Democrats. But in most cases — and Ohio may be an exception — national Democratic strategists and campaign managers will need a better strategy for the midterm elections than merely running against the former president, as they did over the past two cycles.

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

Monday, July 20, 2009

Educating America About a Judge and Other Summer Follies

By Stuart Rothenberg

This column first appeared in Roll Call on July 16, 2009.

In a stunning statement Monday sure to affect her confirmation prospects, Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor pledged her “fidelity to the law.” That must have been regarded as big news to the folks over at the Washington Post, since that was the bold headline on Page One of Tuesday’s newspaper.

Tomorrow’s headline in the newspaper may well be “Dog Bites Mailman,” or possibly, “Wednesday Followed Tuesday.”

The New York Times apparently wasn’t as excited by Sotomayor’s stunning admission. Its headline, “Judge Focuses on Rule of Law at the Hearings,” was more matter-of-fact, though the newspaper’s first paragraph noted that the nominee said that a judge’s job “is not to make law” but “to apply the law.” Wow.

The Boston Globe’s Tuesday headline about the hearings was a straightforward “Sotomayor Makes Her Case,” but the subhead was “Nominee Pledges Allegiance to the Law.” Double wow. Just once, mind you, I’d like to hear a Supreme Court nominee refuse to pledge allegiance to the law. Imagine if Sotomayor, for example, had said that the law was a bucket of warm spit. Now that would have been newsworthy.

One of the Senators who introduced the nominee, New York’s Charles Schumer (D), crawled way out on a limb to suggest that the judge “puts rule of law above everything else.” (Personally, I put a flawless third-to-second-to-first double play or my mother’s chopped chicken livers above the rule of law, but I suppose that disqualifies me from ever being on the Supreme Court.)

So let’s see, the big news is that Sotomayor is going to follow the law, as opposed, I guess, to following the editorials of the New York Times, the public opinion polls or the sentiments of bloggers over at Daily Kos or RedState. My, that’s a relief. I really was afraid that Sotomayor might call someone at random from the Cedar Rapids phone book to ask how to vote on a case.

We are told repeatedly that each confirmation is an opportunity to teach the American public about the political process and the law, but as far as I can tell, this confirmation, like other recent ones before it, will be little more than an opportunity for Senators to ramble on about their own views and for the nominee to duck and dodge her way to confirmation.

The fact of the matter is that you could ask anyone currently on the Supreme Court and they, too, would say they had “fidelity to the law,” are “impartial” and “apply the law,” not make it. And yet, they can have totally different views of cases and produce wildly different opinions.

No judge in his right mind who wanted to be confirmed by the Senate would testify that he planned to “make law” from the bench. But it’s done all the time. Call it “interpreting the Constitution” if you’d like, but many Supreme Court decisions have the effect of creating rights or obligations that did not exist.

For Sotomayor, the confirmation process is now about not making mistakes, not being too clear about where she stands. If this is a “teaching moment,” it’s a lesson about platitudes, vagueness and glittering generalities. By all means, let’s cover it 24/7.

The Sotomayor coverage is only the latest spectacle. This has been one of the weirder summers in recent memory, and we still have many more weeks ahead of us for other strange developments to materialize.

The media’s frenzy over South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s (R) “disappearance” and subsequent acknowledgement of an affair with a woman in Argentina could have been short-circuited only by something as unexpected as entertainer Michael Jackson’s death, an ending that was as bizarre as the rest of his life was.

Since I expect Members of Congress to try to politicize everything and to interject themselves into every pop culture development, I wasn’t shocked when Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) announced that she would introduce a resolution honoring the late singer.

Unfortunately, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) quickly snuffed out that idea. That’s too bad. I would have loved to hear the House debate whether to pass that resolution. In fact, I would have paid to hear it. (Maybe that’s a way for Congress to raise additional revenue: pay-per-view Congressional floor debates over mind-bogglingly silly resolutions. Of course, C-SPAN might object.)

Then there was Sarah Palin, who didn’t merely announce that she wouldn’t seek re-election; she announced that she was stepping down from her post almost immediately. After she said something about lame ducks and dead fish, she went fishing.

Conservatives were outraged at the criticism of the Alaska governor, even though if the same thing had been done by a liberal Democrat they would have raked that person over the coals. And liberals slammed the governor for her action, even though if it had been done by a liberal Democrat they would have defended her just like the conservatives did.

Just another summer in your nation’s capital. Health care reform, anyone?

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

Thursday, July 16, 2009

GOP Strategists Seek to Alter the Health Care Reform Debate

By Stuart Rothenberg

While Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) tries to work with key GOP committee members to fashion a bipartisan health care bill, Republican insiders are chewing over the results of two large mid-June surveys conducted for the Republican National Committee to find out what voters really care about and what lines of argument would prove effective to derail a Democratic plan.

With an OnMessage Inc. poll of 2,200 likely voters in hand, GOP strategists now believe they have the ammunition they need to engage President Barack Obama and Democratic Congressional leaders more effectively on the health care debate.

A memo written by veteran Republican consultant Alex Castellanos and now being circulated to GOP leaders around the country argues that while the discussion about health care often involves access to care, patient choice and quality of care, to most Americans “reducing health care costs is health care reform.”

“Our cause,” Castellanos writes, “must be about what is driving this debate as well. Our cause must also be bringing down health care costs.”

The memo paints the health care approach being advocated by Obama and Democratic Congressional leaders as an “old, top-down Washington-centered system” that “will empower Washington to restrict the cures and treatments your doctor can prescribe for you. ... Their Washington-centered system will end up costing trillions more, not less, and bankrupting the country.”

Repeatedly portraying the Democratic plan as “risky” and “an experiment,” the memo charges that “Obama’s plan will put government in charge of the doctors you can see and the types of treatment you can receive.” It promises higher taxes, more bureaucracy and less patient control, all at the same time that it “will further bankrupt the country with trillions more in deficit spending.”

In response, the Castellanos memo urges Republicans to offer what it calls “bottom-up, common sense fixes,” including:

• “Requiring/incentivizing doctors and hospitals to post pricing and outcomes” on the Internet;

• Incentivizing insurance companies to compete with each other with “simple one page contracts/summaries,” as well as “one page reimbursement forms;”

• Protecting doctors from “frivolous, expensive lawsuits;”

• Portability of health insurance;

• Prohibiting insurance companies from denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions;

• Cutting the Washington bureaucracy to produce “big health care savings;”

• Changing the law “so any American can buy the lowest cost insurance available nationwide, not just in their states — whether from insurance companies, businesses, church groups, college alumni associations or groups like AARP.

The memo also includes a call for a “new language” for Republicans, arguing for a “patient-centered health care movement” and against a “Washington-centered plan,” a “top-down system” and “monopolies.”

But if some of the words and phrases in the memo are new, the overall thrust isn’t. Anyone who watched the fight over the Clinton health care plan in the early 1990s will remember that critics complained about the creation of a new Washington bureaucracy, higher costs and government decisions that would tie the hands of doctors and determine who could receive what treatments.

Fundamentally, Republicans believe that while the Obama White House has been politically astute in promising that people happy with their current health care plan can keep it and that any new program won’t add to the deficit or require a major tax increase, the Obama plan will result in nothing less than government takeover of health care.

And Republicans think that time is on their side, which is why the Castellanos memo insists it is crucial for Republicans to slow down what it calls “the Obama experiment with our health.”

“Even voters who support a ‘public plan’ think Obama and Congress are moving too fast, with reckless speed, risking a huge part of our economy and our health care, when they don’t know what reform would really bring,” the memo says. “If we slow this sausage-making process down, we can defeat it, and advance real reform that will actually help.”

The memo comes at a time when Congressional Democratic leaders are giving conflicting signs about what kind of legislative package they could eventually support.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has praised Baucus’ efforts to strike a bipartisan deal, even signaling that he might support a plan that does not include a government-run insurance option. House Blue Dogs also continue to be uncomfortable with aspects of the House leadership’s approach.

Meanwhile, House committee chairmen are emphasizing that they haven’t bought into any deal that may be worked out in the Senate, and liberal grass-roots groups are already warning that a final bill that doesn’t include a public insurance option is unacceptable.

After months of media coverage of bank and automobile company bailouts, of stimulus spending and of growing deficits, says one Republican operative, voters seem less inclined to trust anyone — including a personally popular president, even on health care.

If Republicans can successfully convince Americans that they have a significant health care reform agenda that addresses exploding costs and protects both the quality of care and patient rights, yet doesn’t add to the deficit, require higher taxes or turn over control to government bureaucrats, they will only add to Democrats’ problems in producing a bill that can pass both chambers of Congress.

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

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

New Print Edition: Colorado 4 & Washington 8

The July 10, 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 introduction to this edition:

Colorado 4: Since You’ve Been Gone
By Nathan L. Gonzales

After a couple cycles of frustration, Democrats finally ousted Republican Cong. Marilyn Musgrave last year. Now, they have the challenging task of keeping Colorado’s 4th District in their column.

Since her initial election in 2002, Musgrave’s reelection percentages steadily declined as she became more and more polarizing, continually under-performing the Republican nature of the district.

Last cycle, former Senate aide and small businesswoman Betsy Markey (D) ousted Musgrave fairly handily, with some help from a strong showing by Barack Obama (D) at the top of the ticket.

Now, there are a number of Republicans aiming for Markey, including state Rep. Cory Gardner, University of Colorado Regent Tom Lucero and Fort Collins City Councilman Diggs Brown.

The race is just getting started, but Markey will be a top Republican target next year. And Democrats will have to adjust to life after Musgrave and keep up Democratic excitement without her or Obama on the ballot.
Subscribers get the whole story in the print edition of the Report.

Washington 8: Badge of Honor

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Republican Cong. Dave Reichert survived the Democratic wave of 2006. Two years later, he survived as well, and he out-did himself by improving his winning percentage while his party sunk further into the minority. Democrats are hoping that the third time will be the charm.

The competitive nature of Washington’s 8th District virtually guarantees that Reichert will be a target once again. He’s one of only six Republicans to represent districts that both John Kerry and Barack Obama won at the presidential level.

After defeating former Microsoft manager Darcy Burner (D) in two consecutive elections, Reichert is likely to face former Microsoft vice president Suzan DelBene (D). Democrats believe she’ll bring more stature and some personal money and will give Reichert his toughest race yet.
Subscribers get the whole story in the print edition of the Report.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Can Democrats Get Re-Elected by Voting Against Obama?

By Stuart Rothenberg

The extent of Democratic losses in next year’s midterm elections will rest, in part, on the ability of Democrats elected in conservative or Republican districts over the past two cycles to survive aggressive GOP attempts to defeat them.

More than four dozen districts sent a Democrat to Congress last year while casting a plurality of their votes for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for president. Of the 49 Congressional districts where this occurred, 11 gave McCain more than 60 percent of the vote (see chart).

But not all of those 11 look equally vulnerable. Six of those successful Democrats won handily in 2008 (with at least 59 percent of the vote) — Reps. Charlie Melancon (La.), Ike Skelton (Mo.), Gene Taylor (Miss.), Dan Boren (Okla.), Lincoln Davis (Tenn.) and Bart Gordon (Tenn.) — and their electoral histories suggest that nothing short of a tsunami could seriously threaten them. Indeed, three of them (Skelton, Taylor and Gordon) proved their mettle more than a decade ago by surviving in 1994.

Obviously, retirements in any of the six districts would be disastrous for Democrats, which is why a possible Melancon Senate run is so disturbing to the party’s House strategists.

Purely from a statistical point of view, the most vulnerable House Democrats are the four who won election last cycle with less than 55 percent of the vote in districts where McCain scored comfortable wins. That includes Reps. Bobby Bright (Ala.), Parker Griffith (Ala.), Walt Minnick (Idaho) and Travis Childers (Miss.), plus Rep. Frank Kratovil in Maryland’s 1st district. Kratovil won with just 49 percent of the vote while McCain was carrying the district with 58 percent.

Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas) falls somewhere in between the vulnerable and less vulnerable lists, since he won with only 53 percent in a very Republican district but has survived repeated attempts to defeat him.

A handful of other freshman and sophomore Democrats in McCain districts also deserve mention.

Freshman Rep. Tom Perriello (Va.), who won a squeaker with 50 percent in a district that McCain won with 51 percent, should find himself in trouble because of possible lower Democratic turnout in nonpresidential years. Two other Democratic freshmen, Reps. Betsy Markey (Colo.) and Eric Massa (N.Y.), ousted controversial GOP incumbents in districts that were tight in the presidential contest (McCain carried both narrowly), though Markey’s 56 percent showing was considerably stronger than Massa’s 51 percent victory.

Elsewhere, freshman Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (Fla.) knocked off a damaged GOP incumbent, winning with 57 percent in a district that McCain carried with 51 percent, while sophomore Rep. Christopher Carney (Pa.) was re-elected with 56 percent in a district that gave McCain 54 percent.

Of course, “vulnerability” is more than merely a district’s generic voter preference or even its recent electoral history. Candidate quality, fundraising and national mood are among the other relevant factors.

Democrats in conservative or heavily Republican districts are particularly vulnerable next year because crucial voters in those districts veered away from their traditional behavior in 2008.

Can these Democrats win re-election by voting against Obama initiatives — and with most House Republicans — on health care, climate change, spending and the stimulus package? Will that establish their “independence” and inoculate them from defeat?

The answer is, it depends. Have they bucked their party on all high-profile votes? Do they have other vulnerabilities? What kind of general election opposition have they drawn? How will President Barack Obama be regarded next November?

Some Democrats will survive by building records that seem in sync with district voters on hot-button issues and by emphasizing their differences with their own party and the president. Claims of “I’m an independent Democrat” and “I voted against my party” will work in some districts next year.

But at least a few of the House Democrats in Republican or conservative districts are likely to be defeated in 2010 as turnout trends and at least a touch of buyer’s remorse helps GOP challengers.

Those who survive next year will face additional difficulties in 2012 and 2014 as the “I’m an independent Democrat” argument sounds less appealing in the face of years of Democratic legislative activity.

Unless House Democrats who hail from such districts are rescued by redistricting, most of them will have an extremely difficult time surviving a second midterm election.

By 2014, voters are likely to be less enthusiastic about the Obama presidency than they are now, creating a political environment in which voters are willing to sacrifice Members of Congress whom they like in order to send a message of change.

By that point, it won’t be enough for moderate Democrats to point to their voting records. Their partisan connection will be enough to do them in, especially since six years of Democratic control of the White House and Congress is likely to entice stronger Republican candidates (who waited for the best year to run) into these contests.

Sound familiar? It should. For years, moderate Republicans survived in Democratic districts, but when voters decided that a fundamental change was needed, those Members found themselves out of a job.

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

Thursday, July 09, 2009

For Obama and Capitol Hill, the Future Starts Today

By Stuart Rothenberg

This column first appeared in Roll Call on July 6, 2009.

The next six months will be a crucial time for the White House and for both political parties.

While the nation’s economic problems have not been resolved, there is now a general sense among many, certainly in the public at large, that things have stabilized.

No, we aren’t entering a period of economic boom, but the worst, most people believe, is behind us, and the nation’s political leaders can now turn their attention toward health care, climate change, energy and other policy areas. There has been a dramatic improvement in the “right direction/wrong track” poll question, and more and more Americans say they think the economy is improving.

Though the optimism is tempered, it creates certain expectations. The question is whether events over the next six months will prove that optimism well-founded, and whether Democrats will be as strong and well-positioned at the end of the year as they seem to be at the year’s midpoint.

Growing unemployment, or any new signs of economic weakness, certainly could damage the president and his party.

For all of the frenzy of activity in the nation’s capital over the past six months, most of it has been of the emergency variety. Prevent a financial collapse of U.S. banks. Keep the doors open at General Motors. Take steps to prevent a full-fledged economic meltdown.

The result is that most of the big-ticket policy items are still far from being enacted.

While the House of Representatives passed a climate bill immediately before Members left for the July Fourth holiday break, the narrow 219-212 majority ought to be unsettling to supporters of the measure. Senate leaders have already indicated that the House bill is only a starting point for Senate efforts, an ominous sign given the maneuvering and arm-twisting needed to pass the bill in the House.

If the outlook for climate legislation is uncertain, the prospect of Congress producing a broadly acceptable health care reform bill that will fundamentally alter the nation’s health care system is even cloudier.

That’s not to say Congress won’t pass something in both areas, only that it’s still quite possible the president and Democratic Congressional leaders may ultimately have to accept half a loaf if they want something at all.

Months of bickering within a divided Democratic majority wouldn’t be good for the president’s party, of course.

November will also bring two gubernatorial elections, in Virginia and in New Jersey, as well as legislative elections.

While Republicans have been battered over the past six months — with personal scandals, failures and controversies dogging some of the GOP’s most high-profile figures and party infighting doing nothing to convince voters that Republicans have a plan for themselves, let alone for the country — the two gubernatorial contests have a chance to inject a dose of optimism into the GOP.

While Republican victories in one or both of those states won’t turn around the party’s prospects completely, a couple of wins could change a narrative that has benefited Democrats for more than the past three years. Two Democratic victories, on the other hand, would reinforce the perception that voters have no interest in turning to Republicans, further strengthening the president’s hand.

Then there is foreign policy, an area where the Obama administration has yet to record any great accomplishments. Unlike the domestic agenda, over which the president and Congressional leaders have considerable control, foreign policy is more reactive.

With problems still brewing in North Korea, Iran and the Middle East in general, the administration could be faced with critical decisions at any moment. How it handles those decisions surely will affect the president’s and his party’s reputations.

And what can Republicans do to change their standing with the public? Aside from winning November’s elections in Virginia and New Jersey, not much. If they oppose the president at every turn, they look like the “party of no,” as Democrats have branded them. And if they sign onto legislative measures, they are, to some extent, co-opted, limiting future options.

The GOP’s near-term fate rests more with Democrats — with how the president performs and how the Democratic majority in Congress is viewed — than with anything that the Republican Party can do.

So far, the Obama administration has been remarkably error-free, especially when compared to the first few months of Bill Clinton’s first term. But as the lifting gets heavier, as the costs of new programs grow and as tough decisions are wrestled with by the Democratic Congressional leaders, criticism of the president and his party could grow.

On the other hand, if Democrats can navigate the dangerous waters successfully, producing both climate and health care legislation that the public likes, overseeing a brightening economy and hanging on to the two governorships in November, Republicans may find themselves roaming the wilderness well into Barack Obama’s second term.

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

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

2010 Senate Ratings

Here are our latest Senate ratings, reflecting Attorney General Lisa Madigan's (D) decision not to run for the U.S. Senate in Illinois and Cong. Mark Kirk's (R) decision to run.

#- 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, 2 D)
  • FL Open (Martinez, R)
  • Burr (R-NC)
  • IL Open (Burris, D) *
  • Reid (D-NV)
Clear Advantage for Incumbent Party (1 R, 3 D)
  • Vitter (R-LA)
  • Bennet (D-CO)
  • 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)

2010 House Ratings

Here are our latest House ratings, reflecting Cong. Mark Kirk's (R) decision to run for the U.S. Senate.

#- Moved benefiting Democrats
* - Moved benefiting Republicans

Pure Toss-Up (1 R, 0 D)
  • NY 23 (Open; McHugh, R)
Toss-Up/Tilt Republican (0 R, 0 D)
  • - None -
Toss-Up/Tilt Democratic (1 R, 8 D)
  • AL 2 (Bright, D)
  • ID 1 (Minnick, D)
  • IL 10 (Open; Kirk, R) #
  • MD 1 (Kratovil, D)
  • MS 1 (Childers, D)
  • NH 1 (Shea-Porter, D)
  • NH 2 (Open; Hodes, D)
  • OH 1 (Driehaus, D)
  • OH 15 (Kilroy, D)
Lean Republican (3 R, 0 D)
  • CA 3 (Lungren, R)
  • CA 44 (Calvert, R)
  • WA 8 (Reichert, R)
Lean Democratic (0 R, 6 D)
  • AL 5 (Griffith, D)
  • CO 4 (Markey, D)
  • FL 8 (Grayson, D)
  • NC 8 (Kissell, D)
  • PA 10 (Carney, D)
  • VA 5 (Perriello, D)
Republican Favored (8 R, 0 D)
  • AK A-L (Young, R)
  • CA 45 (Bono Mack, R)
  • DE A-L (Castle, R)
  • FL 10 (Young, R)
  • MI 11 (McCotter, R)
  • MN 3 (Paulsen, R)
  • MN 6 (Bachmann, R)
  • PA 6 (Gerlach, R)
Democrat Favored (1 R, 12 D)
  • GA 8 (Marshall, D)
  • HI 1 (Open; Abercrombie, D)
  • IL 14 (Foster, D)
  • LA 2 (Cao, R)
  • MI 7 (Schauer, D)
  • NM 2 (Teague, D)
  • NY 19 (Hall, D)
  • NY 20 (Murphy, D)
  • NY 24 (Arcuri, D)
  • NY 29 (Massa, D)
  • PA 7 (Open; Sestak, D)
  • TX 17 (Edwards, D)
  • VA 2 (Nye, D)

Monday, July 06, 2009

Big States Set to Host Hottest Contests Next Year

By Nathan L. Gonzales

It is impossible to predict what the national political environment will be next year, but a handful of battleground states are guaranteed to be a hotbed of activity.

Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, California and New York have the most overlap in terms of competitive elections on the state and federal levels. All of the states are relatively large, and the gubernatorial and Senate races there are expected to be very expensive.

The following are the top five states that appear to be the political epicenter of the 2010 elections.

1. Ohio

Up and down the ballot, the Buckeye State is shaping up to be the hottest battleground in the country. Gov. Ted Strickland (D) is running for re-election in difficult economic times. Strickland’s race against Fox News Channel host John Kasich (R), an ex-Congressman, could be a bellwether for whether voters blame the governor and the Democrats for the economic hardship or continue to blame Republicans and former President George W. Bush.

Republicans are playing offense in the gubernatorial race, but the party has to defend the seat of retiring Sen. George Voinovich. Democrats like their chances against former Rep. Rob Portman, the likely GOP nominee, because he worked in the Bush administration. But first, Democrats have to sort out their primary between Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher and Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner.

On the Congressional level, Republicans are hoping to take back the 1st and 15th districts, represented by freshman Reps. Steve Driehaus (D) and Mary Jo Kilroy (D). Former Rep. Steve Chabot (R) and state Sen. Steve Stivers (R) are seeking to avenge their losses last cycle. Democrats will take their biennial shot at trying to defeat Rep. Jean Schmidt (R), and Republicans will try to finally land a top recruit against Rep. Zack Space (D), but both races start as long shots for each party.

In addition, Ohio’s other statewide offices are up for election and competitive. Winning those may prove to be the most critical for each party because the state’s redistricting commission — made up of the governor, auditor, secretary of state and one member of each party from the legislature — will draw new state Legislative district lines after 2010.

2. Pennsylvania

Over the past four years, Republicans have lost both Senate seats and five House seats in the Keystone State. But history is on their side as they seek to win back the governorship in 2010.

Republicans lost the second Senate seat recently when Sen. Arlen Specter defected to the Democratic Party. It looks like he’ll face Rep. Joe Sestak in the Democratic primary. But regardless of who wins that battle, the Democratic nominee will start with the advantage over former Rep. Pat Toomey, the likely Republican nominee in a state that is growing more Democratic.

The outlook is brighter for Republicans in the gubernatorial race since voters have put the out-of-power party in control every eight years since World War II. The fields are still fluid, but Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, state Auditor General Jack Wagner and wealthy businessman Tom Knox are battling on the Democratic side, while Attorney General Tom Corbett and former U.S. attorney Pat Meehan are jockeying on the Republican side.

Rep. Jim Gerlach (R) is exploring a gubernatorial bid as well. If he leaves the House, Republicans will have a difficult time holding his 6th district seat. Republicans will also take a look at the 7th district, if Sestak runs for Senate, and try to oust Rep. Christopher Carney in the 10th district, Rep. Jason Altmire in the 4th district and Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper in the 3rd district — although it’s far from certain that those races will be competitive.

3. Florida

Gov. Charlie Crist’s (R) decision to run for Senate dramatically increased the GOP’s chances of holding the seat of retiring Sen. Mel Martinez, but it put the governorship at significant risk. Crist faces former Speaker Marco Rubio in the GOP primary and will likely face Rep. Kendrick Meek (D) in the general election — although Rep. Corrine Brown (D) has recently said she is exploring the race.

But Crist remains popular, despite the state’s sour economic conditions, and at this point he’s viewed as the frontrunner.

With Crist’s absence, state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink is the early favorite to win the governorship for Democrats. State Attorney General Bill McCollum is the likely GOP nominee, but some Republicans worry about his ability to win given his unsuccessful bids for Senate in 2000 and 2004 (when he lost the primary to Martinez).

On the Congressional level, Democrats are once again targeting the 10th district seat held by Rep. Bill Young (R), where they believe state Sen. Charlie Justice (D) can win regardless of whether Young retires. Democratic party strategists also believe they have an opportunity to make the open-seat 12th district race competitive, but time will tell whether they are right.

Republicans are excited about knocking off freshman Rep. Alan Grayson (D) in the 8th district. Their prospects are decidedly uphill against Reps. Suzanne Kosmas (D) and Ron Klein (D).

4. California

Democrats have gained 53 seats in the House over the past four years, but only one in California. But after a strong performance by President Barack Obama, a surge in Democratic voter registration and the collapsing numbers of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), Democrats are on offense.

Targeting more than a handful of Congressional seats, Democrats’ best opportunities appear to be against GOP Reps. Ken Calvert, Dan Lungren and Mary Bono Mack. Republicans believe state Assemblyman Van Tran (R) can be competitive against Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D) in the 47th district.

Democrats’ best opportunity of all is likely in the gubernatorial race, where they’re banking on voter fatigue toward Republicans after seven years of “the governator.” The Democratic primary field got slightly less complicated when Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D) announced he wasn’t running, but the nominee will likely be former governor and state attorney General Jerry Brown or San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner are vying for the Republican nod.

And while it’s not expected to be close, Republicans are hoping to woo former Hewlett Packard executive Carly Fiorina (R) into running against Sen. Barbara Boxer (D), who has never won a Senate race with more than 60 percent of the vote.

5. New York

If Gov. David Paterson runs for re-election and is the Democratic nominee, Republicans actually have a chance of taking back the Empire State’s governorship, even if their nominee is former Rep. Rick Lazio (R).

But if state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (D) changes course and decides to run, polls show he could coast to the nomination and into the governor’s mansion — though most Democratic insiders do not see a Paterson-Cuomo primary taking place. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is probably the Republicans’ best hope, but he’s only likely to run if it looks like Paterson will be the nominee.

Republicans are down to holding just three House seats in the 29-Member delegation. And they are at significant risk of losing Rep. John McHugh’s (R) 23rd district in a special election now that he has agreed to serve in the Obama administration. Prior to the 2006 elections, Republicans held nine seats.

But Republicans are trying to crawl back by targeting a handful of seats in an effort to regain relevance in the Northeast. They are hoping competitive races develop in the districts represented by Democratic Reps. Eric Massa, Michael Arcuri, John Hall and Scott Murphy, who just won the 20th district special election.

Depending on how Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s likely Democratic primary against Rep. Carolyn Maloney plays out and the Republicans’ ability to get a recruit with statewide viability, Democrats are in good position to hold both Senate seats.

Although former Gov. George Pataki (R) and Rep. Peter King (R) say they’re considering the possibility of running for Gillibrand’s seat, neither is expected to do so. Senior Sen. Charles Schumer (D) is safe.

This story first appeared in Roll Call on June 29, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

N.C. Controversy Reveals Perils of Reporting on Polls

By Stuart Rothenberg

One of the growing problems with political reporting is the explosion of polls and the tendency — particularly among local TV reporters and editors, cable TV hosts and bloggers — to report all of them as if they are equally reliable and newsworthy, and to draw dramatic conclusions from small subsamples and from statistically insignificant changes.

Polls receive so much attention that they become the focus of races — even if the actual races haven’t really started. This is true right now in North Carolina and Nevada, where Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Harry Reid (D-Nev.) look weak in early surveys even though they have not drawn heavyweight opponents.

Recently, Republicans have started complaining long and hard about polling conducted this cycle by Public Policy Polling in the Tar Heel State. They note, quite correctly, that PPP is a Democratic polling firm and that too many reporters fail to note their partisan bent. GOP insiders also complain about the firm’s sample, arguing that it often is too urban and too Democratic, and that its surveys understate Burr’s strength and his prospects for re-election.

If readers don’t know that PPP is a Democratic firm, they are reading the wrong publications. At the Rothenberg Political Report, we’ve regarded PPP as a Democratic firm, and identified it as such, since it has been around. In February, Roll Call reporter John McArdle wrote a lengthy article about PPP, calling it “a Democratic firm based in Raleigh” and referring to the company’s “controversial” methodology. National Journal’s Hotline also identifies PPP as a Democratic firm, as does the News & Observer (Raleigh).

It’s true that some newspapers don’t always note PPP’s Democratic credentials — including the Charlotte Observer, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the News-Topic (Lenoir, N.C.) — but that’s not PPP’s fault. Obviously, any reporter who fails to note the firm’s partisan bent is making an error, and Republicans have a legitimate gripe with them.

GOP efforts to discredit PPP because it is a Democratic firm are a different story. Yes, it’s important to note the firm’s partisan connections, and it’s not unreasonable to be wary, at least initially, of its numbers. But the fact that the polling firm works for Democrats doesn’t make its poll numbers inherently flawed.

In fact, the handful of us who have been reporting on and handicapping House and Senate races for many years tend to believe that partisan pollsters generally produce more reliable numbers than colleges and some newspapers. The key, of course, is to get them to share those numbers and to discuss them free of spin.

I personally have been slow to give PPP’s surveys a lot of credibility because of its interactive voice response methodology. Pollsters who are relatively new to political polling need to prove that they have a successful track record before they deserve to be taken seriously, and I haven’t been convinced that PPP has met that standard.

But PPP’s polling in this year’s Virginia Democratic gubernatorial primary was good, and a pollster whom I respect highly tells me that the firm’s poll numbers in North Carolina last year were good, as well. So dismissing PPP’s data out of hand seems unwise.

PPP puts its polls up on its Web site, including the demographics of each survey, so anyone who is interested can view those data and evaluate the sample. Of course, many people who talk about polls don’t pay any attention to the mechanics of polling or to individual samples, but that’s part of the broader problem that I already mentioned.

Ironically, in reporting on the North Carolina controversy recently, Politico mistakenly treated a seriously flawed Republican “poll” as if it were a legitimate public opinion survey. The Hotline made the same mistake, proving that even careful, politically astute journalists can miss things.

Politico’s article on PPP refers to Burr consultant Paul Shumaker and a “survey” conducted by his firm, Carolina Strategy Group, which appears to show the Senator somewhat better positioned for re-election than does PPP’s polling.

The problem is that many of the questions in that particular “poll” are loaded, discrediting the entire survey and making it look much worse than PPP’s approach. (Interestingly, Republican strategists aren’t complaining about it — or Republican or Republican-leaning pollsters who also produce survey results that sometimes seem mind-bogglingly outlandish.)

For example, instead of asking a straight Congressional job approval question, Shumaker’s survey asked, “Do you approve or disapprove of the job Congress is doing under the leadership of Senator Harry Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi?”

National surveys increasingly show Pelosi is a divisive figure, so including a mention of her in the question could well distort the results about respondents’ attitudes about Congress. It could also poison the rest of the survey.

Two questions later, respondents are asked which Senate candidate, Burr or North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall (D), would “better serve the people of North Carolina as a check and balance on the policies of President Obama.”

That question is followed immediately by a straight ballot test between Burr and Marshall. Unfortunately, the results from this question — which showed Burr ahead 52 percent to 37 percent — have been polluted by the previous questions, two of which included the “check and balance” language.

Rather than whining about PPP, Republicans might want to try to set the record straight in North Carolina by releasing their own poll by a credible, full-time polling firm. That would go a long way to helping develop a more balanced, more thoughtful narrative about the race.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on June 29, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

New Print Edition: Maryland 1 & Kansas Senate

The June 26, 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 introduction to this edition:

Maryland 1: Shoring up the Base
By Nathan L. Gonzales

Abraham Lincoln was right: A house divided against itself cannot stand – at least not in Maryland’s 1st District.

Last cycle, Republicans suffered through a bitter primary that left incumbent Cong. Wayne Gilchrest in its wake. Gilchrest subsequently endorsed Queen Anne’s State’s Attorney Frank Kratovil (D) for the general election, helping Kratovil win in November over state Sen. Andy Harris (R).

Kratovil’s narrow victory and the fact that John McCain won the district by almost 20 points over Barack Obama virtually guarantee that the freshman congressman will be a target in 2010. Harris is running again, and has a new campaign team in tow, but Republicans may be facing another competitive primary.

While the Republicans get their ducks in a row, Kratovil is working to prove the independence he promised on the campaign trail. He’ll need to work hard and have a little help to keep enough Republicans on the Eastern Shore in his column if he wants to win a second term. Subscribers get the whole story in the print edition of the Report.

Kansas Senate: Degrees of Difference
By Nathan L. Gonzales

Who said President Obama doesn’t have the interests of Republicans at heart? When the president chose Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) to be his secretary of Health and Human Services, he took the Democrats’ best potential Senate candidate with him.

Sen. Sam Brownback (R) is abiding by his term limits pledge and exiting the Senate to run for governor —a race he is heavily favored to win.

Meanwhile Republican Congressmen Jerry Moran and Todd Tiahrt are battling for their party’s Senate nomination and essentially the seat now that Sebelius is out of the state and out of the picture.
Subscribers get the whole story in the print edition of the Report.