Wednesday, June 30, 2010

President Obama, Welcome to Bush’s World

By Stuart Rothenberg

In the middle of February, veteran Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg gave some free advice to his party’s Congressional leaders via the New Republic, urging them to take a series of steps to minimize Democratic vulnerabilities (and losses) in the fall elections.

It has been four months since Greenberg’s article, “Disaster Relief: How to Avoid a Repeat of 1994,” appeared, but there is no sign of a Democratic turnaround on the horizon — only more depressing news and pessimistic public opinion data for Democrats.

The news on joblessness and the U.S. economy, combined with growing concerns over the federal deficit, Europe’s financial health (particularly growing debt), the lack of progress of the war in Afghanistan and the damage resulting from the BP oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico, are burying the president and his party in an avalanche of public dissatisfaction.

As former President George W. Bush found out only a few years ago, a never-ending supply of bad news saps a presidency, and a political party, of its strength.

Voters who once felt hopeful and gave the new president the benefit of the doubt instead distrust the White House’s explanations and assume the worst. No number of high-profile speeches will reverse the decline. Only good news will, and it isn’t anywhere to be found.

Greenberg’s first suggestion for Democrats in February was to “quickly pass a version of the Senate health care bill.” That was wise advice because the alternative — getting no bill at all — would have been disastrous for the party.

But the highly regarded strategist’s prediction that passing a bill “will raise presidential and Congressional approval ratings” was overly optimistic.

In mid-February, when Greenberg’s article appeared, Obama’s job ratings stood at 49 percent approve/50 percent disapprove in a CNN poll. A month later, days before Obama signed the health care bill, the president’s poll numbers stood at 46 percent approve/51 percent disapprove, and more recently, a mid-June CNN survey found Obama’s job ratings at 50 percent approve/48 percent disapprove — largely unchanged from February.

Gallup had Obama’s job rating at 51 percent approve/42 percent disapprove in mid-February, 50 percent approve/43 percent disapprove in mid-March and 49 percent approve/44 percent disapprove in mid-June — again, largely unchanged during the period.

And the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, conducted June 17-21, offers a similar picture, with the president’s job rating down to an approval of 45 percent, with more respondents disapproving of his performance for the first time in his presidency.

Congress’ job rating (22 percent approve/73 percent disapprove) is up a bit from the NBC News/Wall Street Journal March survey (17 percent approve/77 percent disapprove), but the institution is still held in very low esteem.

It’s true that support for the health care reform measure has inched up since March (from 36 percent to a still underwhelming 40 percent in the June NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey), but the gain is both misleading and irrelevant if it doesn’t improve the standing of Democratic officeholders.

Gallup’s Lydia Saad, writing on her firm’s June 11-13 poll with USA Today, notes that support for the reform bill fell from 47 percent in March to 45 percent in April but rose to 49 percent in June. She calls the recent uptick “not statistically significant.”

She also notes the increase in support for the measure came primarily from Republicans (up from 10 percent to 17 percent), while support of independents was flat (41 percent approve in April compared with 43 percent support in March) and support among Democrats actually slipped 5 points. Those Republicans, of course, aren’t likely to vote Democratic in the fall.

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey’s other poll numbers confirm the growing importance of the federal deficit in voters’ minds, the low opinion that voters hold of both parties and the increased inclination of registered voters to support Republican candidates in the 2010 midterm elections.

The poll also found the overall mood of the public continues to erode, with 29 percent of respondents saying the nation is “generally headed in the right direction” and 62 percent saying “things are off on the wrong track” — about where it was in December 2008, shortly after the presidential election.

Democratic strategists are deluding themselves if they believe that passing a financial reform bill or a small-business measure will change the public’s mood. It won’t. Voters won’t care by the time November rolls around unless their mood brightens.

If bad news continues in our nation’s newspapers and on the evening news, whether about jobs and the economy, foreign policy or the environment, the public will quickly discount Democratic achievements on Capitol Hill as ineffectual and insufficient.

That’s why Republicans were punished in 2006 and 2008, and it’s why Democrats are headed for the same fate. The president needs some good news. Unfortunately for him and his party, time is running out, and tomorrow’s news is largely beyond their control.

This column first appeared in Roll Call and on June 29, 2010. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Bush Bashing Cuts Both Ways in Ohio Race

Talk with Democratic candidates for Congress across the country, as I do, and you will hear the same two lines of argument about how they are going to win their contests in November.

Both narratives seek to morph November’s elections away from being a referendum on President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress.

First, these candidates promise that they will contrast their records and experiences with the views and experiences of their Republican opponents, who, they argue, defend Wall Street and big corporations instead of the average person, opposed health care reform and efforts to stop global warming, and opposed efforts to revive the economy.

The approach relies heavily on “defining” the opponent — whether it’s portraying the Republican as a corrupt Congressional insider, as Missouri Democratic Senate candidate Robin Carnahan does to Rep. Roy Blunt (R), or as a tea-party-backed extremist, as supporters of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) do when they talk about his race against Republican challenger Sharron Angle.

Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan (D) did the same thing when, during a recent interview, he characterized his race against Republican Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania essentially as a messenger of change (Callahan) against a Member of Congress responsible for the nation’s problems (Dent).

This boils down to an effort to “localize” the 2010 midterm elections by making November a choice between candidates rather than a statement on the direction of the country.

Second, Democratic candidates invariably promise to remind voters exactly who got the nation into its economic mess — former President George W. Bush and years of free-spending, regulation-cutting Republican Congresses.

Two Democrats in high-profile Senate races I interviewed earlier this year, New Hampshire Rep. Paul Hodes and Carnahan, repeated this line often and predicted that they will win because voters will remember who is responsible for the nation’s economic problems.

If there is one Republican candidate who would seem to be vulnerable to this one-two combination of punches, it is Ohio Republican Senate hopeful Rob Portman, who served as director of the Office of Management and Budget under Bush, as Bush’s trade representative and, before that, in Congress.

In bashing Bush, Buckeye State Democrats are scoring points against Portman.

Not everyone, however, is sure whether the Bush strategy will prove effective nationally or even in Ohio.

The Hotline’s Reid Wilson recently looked at a bipartisan NPR survey and concluded that, as a general rule, “Blaming Bush doesn’t work.”

But you need not rely on the NPR survey to conclude that. There is other evidence.

Last fall, New Jersey Democrats tried to shift the focus of the state’s gubernatorial race away from Obama and back to Bush in a state that Sen. John McCain lost by 15 points and Bush lost by 7 points in 2004. But it didn’t work.

A few months later, Democrats in Massachusetts were unsuccessful trying to blame Bush and Republicans for existing problems, and Republican Scott Brown won a Senate election in one of the most Democratic states in the nation.

History shows how difficult it is for the president’s party to pass on blame to an earlier administration. In 1982, Republicans lost more than two dozen House seats because of a recession that eventually pulled the country out of a stagflation that occurred during the presidency of Jimmy Carter.

Blaming Carter for the nation’s problems two years after voters threw him out of office didn’t work for Republicans in 1982, and it isn’t likely to work any better for Democrats this year.

Still, Ohio could be a unique case because of Portman’s credentials.

The problem both parties have in the Buckeye State is that each of the major-party candidates in the Senate race carries serious baggage.

Portman carries the Bush baggage, while Democrat Lee Fisher, the state’s sitting lieutenant governor, was selected by Gov. Ted Strickland (D) to be the state’s director of development — essentially the state’s job czar.

If “jobs” and “the economy” are problems for Portman, they would seem to be even bigger problems for Fisher, who is now in office.

Ohio’s unemployment rate in January 2007, when Strickland and Fisher took over the state’s top two jobs, was 5.4 percent. In January 2009, when Obama was sworn in as president, the state’s unemployment rate had risen to 8.6 percent. And in the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report, Ohio’s unemployment rate for May 2010 stood at 10.7 percent.

Recent polling in the Ohio Senate race is very close, generally within the margin of error. That makes the contest much closer than it was in the first quarter of this year, when Fisher held a substantial lead over Portman in hypothetical ballot tests.

Clearly, Fisher has been hurt by the economy, much as Obama has been hurt politically. The question is whether he can shift the blame away from himself and to Portman and Bush. It will be a much tougher task than Ohio Democrats are now willing to admit.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on June 24, 2010. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

New 2010 Senate Ratings

In North Carolina, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall secured the Democratic nomination in a runoff this week but she will have a considerably more difficult task against Sen. Richard Burr (R), given her limited fund raising success and the dynamics of the election cycle.

Realistically, Republicans are still short of the 10-seat gain they would need to flip the Senate in November. For now, we see no reason to revise our earlier outlook. The GOP is most likely to net 5 to7 Senate seats, with an 8-seat gain certainly possible. Additional Democratic losses would depend on whether Washington, Wisconsin and California become more competitive. This means Democrats would retain control of the Senate, but at a dramatically reduced level.

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

Pure Toss-Up (1 R, 2 )
Bennet (D-CO)
OH Open (Voinovich, R)
PA Open (Specter, D)

Toss-Up/Tilt Republican (3 R, 3 D)
Reid (D-NV)
FL Open (Martinez, R)
IL Open (Burris, D)
IN Open (Bayh, D)
KY Open (Bunning, R)
MO Open (Bond, R)

Toss-Up/Tilt Democrat
--- none ---

Lean Republican (1 R, 2 D)
Lincoln (D-AR)
DE Open (Kaufman, D)
NH Open (Gregg, R)

Lean Democrat (0 R, 2 D)
Boxer (D-CA)
Murray (D-WA)

Republican Favored (2 R, 0 D)
Burr (R-NC) *
Vitter (R-LA)

Democrat Favored (0 R, 2 D)
Feingold (D-WI)
CT Open (Dodd, D)

Safe Republican (11 R, 1 D)
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)
ND Open (Dorgan, D)
UT Open (Bennett, R)

Safe Democrat (0 R, 6 D)
Gillibrand (D-NY)
Inouye (D-HI)
Leahy (D-VT)
Mikulski (D-MD)
Schumer (D-NY)
Wyden (D-OR)

Same Party but Two Very Different Candidates

By Stuart Rothenberg

As we crawl toward November, I’m fortunate to interview more and more candidates. Each candidate is unique, but I don’t know that I’ve seen two so very different candidates in a matter of one hour as I did recently, when I interviewed Arizona Democratic Senate hopeful Rodney Glassman and then Ohio Democratic Congressional hopeful Paula Brooks.

Brooks, 55, is a two-term Franklin County (Columbus) commissioner who is challenging five-term Republican Rep. Patrick Tiberi in the 12th district. She was elected to the commission in 2004 after serving two terms on the Upper Arlington City Council. She was re-elected in 2008.

I’m not sure whether Brooks can knock off Tiberi in the current environment, but I am sure that she is a terrific candidate. I liked her a great deal.

Personable and well-spoken, Brooks struck me as someone who thinks seriously about issues and about how to make a difference. She seems approachable, not because she is some smiling back-slapper, but because she seems interested in people and in solving problems.

Brooks peppers her answers to questions with references to votes she cast and issues she took on. Unlike some candidates who rely on prepared talking points and automatic responses, she actually thought before answering questions.

But Brooks is running in what is going to be a difficult year for Democrats. Her bent seems predictably liberal, and she falls back on the usual lines of attack against Tiberi — including blaming the nation’s and state’s current problems on President George W. Bush, a line of attack that is not likely to be particularly effective in the fall.

While Tiberi serves on the Ways and Means Committee and is close to Minority Leader John Boehner (a fellow Ohio Republican), he hasn’t been a robot for his party. CQ’s Politics in America 2010 noted that Tiberi voted to boost fuel efficiency standards, supported the expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and was one of only 35 Republicans to back a measure outlawing employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.

In addition, he initially opposed the Troubled Asset Relief Program but eventually voted for the final bill after heavy lobbying from the White House and Boehner.

Tiberi’s district went for President Barack Obama 54 percent to 44 percent, but it went for Bush narrowly in 2004, 51 percent to 49 percent. We’ll see whether Brooks, who trailed Tiberi 2 to 1 in fundraising and 3 to 1 in cash on hand as of April 14, can actually win given the national Republican advantage, but I’m pretty sure that Democrats couldn’t have come up with a better candidate.

Glassman, a 32-year-old Arizonan, is a whole different kind of candidate.

Glassman grew up in Fresno, Calif., but finished high school in Chicago so that he could play ice hockey. He attended Cornell University for a year before moving to Arizona to join his family.

Unlike Brooks, who put herself through Youngstown State by working as a hairdresser and then went to Capital University Law School at night, Glassman holds a B.A. (1999), an MBA (2001), an MPA (2002), a Ph.D. (2005) and a law degree (2007) — all from the University of Arizona.

Did I mention he worked for Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) in 2002, was a consultant to KB Home Tucson (2004-2007), served for three years on the board of the Arizona Farm Bureau, was elected to the Tucson City Council in 2007, was commissioned in the Air Force JAG program in 2008 and got married in 2009?

Just a busy, successful young man? Maybe, but this looks more like somebody trying to put together the perfect résumé to run for Congress. I’d be shocked if Glassman didn’t already have his 2020 presidential campaign sketched out somewhere.

Glassman, whose only full-time job has been working for a Congressman for less than a year, has loaned his campaign $250,000. He earned that money, he told me, during his time consulting with KB Home and when he managed his family’s ice skating rink in Tucson. He started earning $24,000 a year at the ice rink and eventually earned six figures a year. (This fact should spur job applications to ice skating rinks around the country and particularly in the Southwest.)

Although he launched an exploratory committee last year, Glassman didn’t file as a candidate until April 8 of this year, and he has not yet filed a fundraising report with the Federal Election Commission. His June 30 FEC report will show about, or possibly in excess of, $750,000 raised.

Glassman is tall (6 feet 6 inches), confident and smooth talking. During my interview with him, he had a broad smile that never disappeared. He had a quick retort to every question, and he wasn’t averse to trying to turn the table and ask his own question of the questioner.

While Glassman talks about his broad range of support from business and labor, his views are consistently liberal. He supports the Democratic health care reform measure, the stimulus and the Employee Free Choice Act (“card check,” to Republicans), and he opposes S.B. 1070, the illegal immigrant bill recently passed by the Arizona Legislature.

Some of those positions may fly in Brooks’ district, but they will be viewed differently in Arizona.

Glassman’s criticisms of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) don’t even deserve serious mention, but the Democrat may have a road to victory if former Rep. J.D. Hayworth happens to upset McCain in the Republican primary in late August.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Glassman eventually has a long career in politics even if McCain beats him like a drum in November. It’s pretty obvious that the young political wannabe will do whatever he needs to do to make his mark.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on June 22, 2010. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

New 2010 House Ratings

In our latest (June 18) issue of the Rothenberg Political Report, we moved two races: the Democratic open seat in Arkansas 2 from Toss-Up/Tilt Republican to Lean Republican and South Dakota Cong. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D) from Democrat Favored to Toss-Up/Tilt Democrat.

We're also moving Cong. Chet Edwards (D-TX 17) from Democrat Favored to Toss-Up/Tilt Democrat. Voters know and like Edwards, but they are not, at least at this point, prepared to vote for him again.

Our next full House overview in the middle of next month, so stay tuned for even more changes.

Overall, substantial Republican gains are inevitable, with net Democratic losses now looking to be at least two dozen. At this point, GOP gains of 25-30 seats seem likely, though considerably larger gains in excess of 40 seats certainly seem possible.

Here are our latest House ratings.
#- Moved benefiting Democrats
* - Moved benefiting Republicans
Special Elections in italics

Pure Toss-Up (1 R, 12 D)
  • AR 1 (Open; Berry, D)
  • FL 24 (Kosmas, D)
  • IL 10 (Open; Kirk, R)
  • IL 14 (Foster, D)
  • MI 1 (Open; Stupak, D)
  • MI 7 (Schauer, D)
  • NH 1 (Shea-Porter, D)
  • NH 2 (Open; Hodes, D)
  • NY 24 (Arcuri, D)
  • NV 3 (Titus, D)
  • PA 7 (Open; Sestak, D)
  • TN 8 (Open; Tanner, D)
  • WA 3 (Open; Baird, D)
Toss-Up/Tilt Republican (0 R, 7 D)
  • AL 2 (Bright, D)
  • FL 8 (Grayson, D)
  • IN 8 (Open; Ellsworth, D)
  • KS 3 (Open; Moore, D)
  • MS 1 (Childers, D)
  • VA 2 (Nye, D)
  • VA 5 (Perriello, D)
Lean Republican (3 R, 10 D)
  • AR 2 (Open; Snyder, D) *
  • CA 3 (Lungren, R)
  • CO 4 (Markey, D)
  • FL 25 (Open; M. Diaz-Balart, R)
  • LA 3 (Open; Melancon, D)
  • MD 1 (Kratovil, D)
  • NM 2 (Teague, D)
  • NY 29 (Open; Massa, D)
  • OH 1 (Driehaus, D)
  • OH 15 (Kilroy, D)
  • WA 8 (Reichert, R)
Republican Favored (5 R, 1 D)
  • CA 45 (Bono Mack, R)
  • NE 2 (Terry, R)
  • OH 12 (Tiberi, R)
  • PA 6 (Gerlach, R)
  • PA 15 (Dent, R)
  • TN 6 (Open; Gordon, D)
Toss-Up/Tilt Democrat (1 R, 5 D)
  • HI 1 (Djou, R)
  • ND A-L (Pomeroy, D)
  • SC 5 (Spratt, D)
  • SD A-L (Herseth Sandlin, D)*
  • TX 17 (Edwards, D) *
  • WV 1 (Open; Mollohan, D)
Lean Democrat (1 R, 18 D)
  • AZ 5 (Mitchell, D)
  • AZ 8 (Giffords, D)
  • DE -AL (Open; Castle, R)
  • ID 1 (Minnick, D)
  • IN 9 (Hill, D)
  • IA 3 (Boswell, D)
  • MA 10 (Open; Delahunt, D)
  • MO 4 (Skelton, D)
  • NJ 3 (Adler, D)
  • NM 1 (Heinrich, D)
  • NY 1 (Bishop, D)
  • NY 19 (Hall, D)
  • OH 16 (Boccieri, D)
  • OH 18 (Space, D)
  • PA 4 (Altmire, D)
  • PA 11 (Kanjorski, D)
  • PA 12 (Critz, D)
  • VA 9 (Boucher, D)
  • WI 7 (Open; Obey, D)
Democrat Favored (1 R, 16 D)
  • CA 11 (McNerney, D)
  • CO 3 (Salazar, D)
  • CT 5 (Murphy, D)
  • FL 22 (Klein, D)
  • IL 11 (Halvorson, D)
  • IN 2 (Donnelly, D)
  • LA 2 (Cao, R)
  • NY 13 (McMahon, D)
  • NY 20 (Murphy, D)
  • NY 23 (Owens, D)
  • NC 8 (Kissell, D)
  • OH 13 (Sutton, D)
  • PA 3 (Dahlkemper, D)
  • PA 8 (Murphy, D)
  • PA 10 (Carney, D)
  • PA 17 (Holden, D)
  • WI 8 (Kagen, D)
Total seats in play: 79
Republican seats: 12
Democratic seats: 67

Link Between Grayson, Tea Party Questioned

By Nathan L. Gonzales

One of Rep. Alan Grayson’s pollsters is running for the state House in Florida as a Tea Party candidate, fueling Republican suspicions that the Democratic Congressman is using a newly formed third party to boost his own re-election bid.

On Friday, Victoria Torres, 44, of Orlando qualified to run as a Tea Party candidate in state House district 51 in the last hours of the qualifying period.

A call to Torres was returned by Nick Egoroff, communications director for the Florida Tea Party, who described Torres as a “quasi-paralegal assistant who works in a law office.” But apparently, Torres is also a pollster.

According to records from the Florida Department of State office, Torres incorporated Public Opinion Strategies Inc. in December 2008. In the first quarter of this year, Grayson’s campaign made two payments to her firm, totaling $11,000, for polling and survey expenses.

“She’s got various businesses on the side,” explained Egoroff, who confirmed Torres’ work for Grayson. “It’s just a business relationship. Nothing more. Nothing less.”

Egoroff described Torres as a conservative. When asked why she would work for a liberal lawmaker, he said, “It’s quite common.”

The name of Torres’ company is curious, considering Alexandria, Va.-based Public Opinion Strategies is one of the largest and best-known Republican polling firms in the country. Egoroff declined to say if Torres has worked for any other clients, and her company doesn’t appear to have a website.

“We definitely do not poll for Democrats, nor do we have an office in Orlando,” said Glen Bolger of the Virginia-based POS. “However, we do wish Congressman Grayson the worst of luck in November.”

Dave Beattie, a prominent Florida-based Democratic pollster, also said he had never heard of Torres or her polling firm.

A spokesman for Grayson confirmed that Public Opinion Strategies Inc. is one of three pollsters the Congressman has employed. Dr. Jim Kitchens is Grayson’s principal pollster, but his campaign also uses Middleton Market Research. The use of multiple pollsters simultaneously in the same cycle is highly uncommon for a Congressional candidate.

This latest connection between the Florida Tea Party, Torres and Grayson is only likely to fan the flames of an ongoing battle about the tea party in Florida.

“I will not stand for the way Alan Grayson is using this political party to further his own political career,” businessman Bruce O’Donoghue said at a Thursday press conference with other local tea party movement activists.

O’Donoghue, one of the Republicans vying to take on Grayson this fall, is among Grayson’s detractors who believe the Congressman is connected to the Florida Tea Party. Business consultant Peg Dunmire is running as the Tea Party candidate in Grayson’s 8th district and there is concern among Republicans that she’ll take votes from the GOP nominee and help Grayson get re-elected.

The Florida Tea Party has also recruited Congressional candidates to run in two Republican-held open seats that Democrats have some hope of putting into play, including Rep. Adam Putnam’s 12th district and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart’s 25th district.

“There is no proof of any money from the Congressman going to the Florida Tea Party,” Grayson spokesman Todd Jurkowski said. “It’s all conspiracy theory.” According to Jurkowski, no decisions have been made about whether to use the polling services of Public Opinion Strategies Inc. in the future.

According to local Republicans, the whole situation is riddled with coincidences.

The Florida Tea Party was founded in August by attorney Fred O’Neal. Egoroff later signed on as communications director, and the party (including Dunmire’s Congressional candidacy) is promoted by Orlando political consultant Doug Guetzloe. Guetzloe and Egoroff were suspended by the Florida Republican Party late last year, but there are differences of opinion about why that happened.

An extensive June 14 Orlando Sentinel article detailed multiple connections between Grayson and Guetzloe. The Congressman appointed Guetzloe to a small-business advisory panel, and Guetzloe’s son interned in Grayson’s Congressional office. In addition, Republicans note that the two men have a financial connection since Grayson is running campaign ads on Guetzloe’s conservative radio show.

With political accusations being lobbed backed and forth, legal charges are in the mix too.

A group of local tea party activists filed suit against the Florida Tea Party, O’Neal and Guetzloe because they say the party doesn’t represent the movement. Guetzloe claims he is the victim of “character assassination,” according to the Sentinel, and has filed his own defamation countersuit.

Now with a couple dozen candidates in races across the state, the Florida Tea Party is planning to file a “criminal complaint” against the Republican Party of Florida for trying to “intimidate” Tea Party candidates and get them to drop their candidacies.

Darin Dunmire, whom Egoroff described as a relative of Peg Dunmire, is running in state House district 40. Nina Virone, a partner at Dunmire Consulting, is running as a Tea Party candidate against state Speaker-designate Dean Cannon (R). Another Tea Party candidate worked at the same radio station as Guetzloe.

Both Darin Dunmire and Virone contributed to Peg Dunmire’s Congressional campaign earlier this year. Peg and Darin Dunmire and Virone all list Peg Dunmire as their campaign’s treasurer and use the same address on their filings.

The tone and tenor of the Florida Tea Party’s actions are remarkably similar to Grayson’s controversial and colorful comments.

“People who know me know that one of my ‘rules of life’ is to try not to get drawn into fist fights with midgets. But, in your case, I’m going to make an exception,” wrote O’Neal, chairman of the Florida Tea Party, in a colorful four-page letter to O’Donoghue after the Republican started criticizing the group.

“Specifically, if by some fluke you become the Republican nominee for the 8th Congressional district, and if by some fluke Peg Dunmire were to want to withdraw from the race, I, personally, am going to beat her with a stick until she agrees to stay in the race to the end,” O’Neal wrote.

“Mr. O’Donoghue seems to admire Congressman Grayson’s shoot from the hip style because he’s doing a darn good imitation of it,” O’Neal said in a separate June 18 release.

Grayson said the Republicans’ health care plan was for seniors to “die quickly,” called a Federal Reserve adviser a “K Street whore” and compared former Vice President Dick Cheney to a vampire.

Along with the rhetorical similarities, the threats of litigation are reminiscent of Grayson as well.

When someone started the website to satirize Grayson’s, the Democrat wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking him to investigate and prosecute the woman.

This story originally appeared on on June 21 at 6:20pm and later in Roll Call and on June 22. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved.

New Print Edition: Virginia 2 & Louisiana Senate

Subscribers already have the June 18, 2010 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report, but here are excerpts from the introduction to the two stories in this issue:

Virginia 2: Shifting Tides
By Nathan L. Gonzales

Republicans don’t believe Democrats won Virginia’s 2nd District in 2008. They believe they lost it, and they plan to take it back in November.

GOP Cong. Thelma Drake narrowly survived the Democratic wave in 2006 but was swept out two years later. Now freshman Cong. Glenn Nye (D) is a top GOP target in a district that Barack Obama carried very narrowly.

Republicans nominated wealthy car dealer Scott Rigell, but he looks like a much stronger candidate than those adjectives make him out to be.

Subscribers get the full story including the Lay of the Land, candidate bios, their consulting teams and a breakdown of the general election.

Louisiana Senate: Saved by the Cycle
By Nathan L. Gonzales

Louisiana Sen. David Vitter (R) was supposed to have two tough fights this cycle – one for renomination and one for reelection. But those scenarios haven’t materialized yet, and Election Day is less than five months away.

Vitter was thought to be vulnerable on the right after his connection with a prostitution ring was revealed and vulnerable in the general election against Democrats’ top recruit, Cong. Charlie Melancon. But no Republican ever stepped up to challenge him, and Vitter starts the summer with a solid lead against Melancon.

The oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico has created some potential volatility in the race. But thus far, it hasn’t changed the fundamental dynamics.

Subscribers get the full story including the Lay of the Land, candidate bios, their consulting teams and a breakdown of the general election.

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 updated 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.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Let’s Poke Holes in the ‘Anti-Incumbent’ Hype

By Stuart Rothenberg

My heart sank when I saw my friend Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post write about this cycle’s elections and whether they really deserved the “anti-incumbent” moniker that they have received. Damn it, I thought, there goes another half-written column that I have to toss into the trash.

But Chris encouraged me to offer my take, even though he did a good job dissecting the issue.

The narrative that this is an anti-incumbent political year is already well-established, and only a fool would fight it. So here goes. While there is some truth to the storyline, the narrative being pounded into your head daily on television and in print is clearly misleading.

There are plenty of data showing that voters distrust politicians, are unhappy with the direction of the country, have a low opinion of Washington institutions and officeholders, and are sympathetic to “outsider” candidates preaching change.

Whether you look at recent polling by ABC News/Washington Post (June 3-6), the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press (March 18-21), CBS News (May 20-24) or NBC News/Wall Street Journal (May 6-10), you will see voter anger and dissatisfaction, with voters often less supportive of incumbents. And this same message is showing up in state-level and district-level data, as well.

But this mood has not resulted in voters engaging in a scorched-earth policy against incumbents or in most “establishment” candidates falling in primaries. It simply hasn’t happened.

Incumbents have lost, and so have some “establishment” candidates. But the results have many explanations, most of which have nothing to do with incumbency. Alvin Greene’s victory in the South Carolina Democratic Senate primary ought to be proof of that. (Surprisingly, I haven’t yet heard anyone say he won because he was the ultimate “outsider.”)

Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) was denied access to the primary ballot by conservatives angry over one of his votes in particular. He may well have won renomination (and subsequently re-election) if he had made the ballot, but an odd nominating system that exaggerates the power of a relative few activists (conservative activists in this case) caused his defeat.

Like Bennett, Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), who is expected to lose a runoff, has aroused opposition on his political right for selected votes. Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan (W.Va.) lost his primary because of ethics problems.

Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and Rep. Parker Griffith (R-Ala.) lost their respective primaries not because they are incumbents, but because they are party-switchers. Party-switchers often have problems winning primaries in their new parties because they were once viewed as political enemies and voters in their new party have trouble embracing them. Their losses had nothing to do with their incumbency. Nothing.

Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons (R) lost renomination because of scandals and incompetence, not the general mood of voters.

Among the handful of “establishment” candidates who lost are Republican former U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan in Pennsylvania, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, former Nevada Republican Party Chairwoman Sue Lowden and Idaho Congressional hopeful Vaughn Ward — none of whom was an incumbent in any sense of the word.

Buchanan’s campaign was inept, Lowden and Ward said absurd things during their campaigns that discredited themselves, and Grayson was uninspiring. They could have lost during any cycle.

Cillizza describes the “anti-incumbent storyline” as “overblown,” and he is exactly right.

Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) was renominated in May with more than 79 percent of the vote while Ward, the favorite for the GOP nomination in Idaho’s 1st district, was losing his primary.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) was re-nominated with almost 90 percent of the vote in his May primary. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) was re-elected with 83 percent, while Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) drew 84 percent in his primary. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) drew 80 percent to win renomination in California.

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) and South Dakota Sen. John Thune (R) were unopposed for renomination.

If this is such an “anti-incumbent” or “anti-establishment” year, then why do some — most — incumbents and establishment-backed candidates win easily? So far this year, 98 percent of Congressional incumbents seeking re-election have been renominated.

I don’t doubt that the public’s mood has fueled some outsider candidates, and that some lesser candidates have done better in this environment and this cycle than they would have done had they run in 2000, 2002 or 2004.

And as I have already noted, incumbency, support from Washington, D.C., or being a Member of Congress aren’t the assets this cycle that they have been in previous cycles. That is clear. But fitting every result into an exaggerated narrative doesn’t help anyone understand what is happening.

Conservatives certainly are angrier and more mobilized than I’ve seen them in years, and in many races they are lining up behind conservative candidates who criticize incumbent Republicans for not being conservative or confrontational enough.

And in a few Democratic primaries, more liberal voters and activists have taken on incumbents not identified with the party’s left (Specter and Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, for example).

But come November, we will have a rather traditional midterm election. Angry voters will turn out to vote against the party in charge. And that’s why, ultimately, 2010 will be remembered as a Republican wave election, not an anti-incumbent year.

This column first appeared in Roll Call and on June 17, 2010. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Melancon Takes On a Second Opponent: BP

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Rep. Charlie Melancon hasn’t made much headway in his contest against Sen. David Vitter (R) over the past seven months, but now the Democrat has a new enemy in the Louisiana Senate race: BP.

With oil from the Deepwater Horizon leak threatening the shores and marshes of his 3rd Congressional district, Melancon has dramatically increased his profile. He’s been making the rounds on the cable news talk shows and received plenty of national attention for his post-spill efforts.

But Melancon must be careful not to look too political in a time of crisis, and it’s unclear whether he has fundamentally changed the dynamics of the Senate race. Early indications are that he still has a lot of work to do.

A new Public Policy Polling (D) survey released exclusively to Roll Call showed Melancon trailing Vitter by 9 points, 46 percent to 37 percent. Vitter led by a dozen points in July 2009, the last time PPP surveyed the contest.

Democrats will cheer the results showing the incumbent under 50 percent and with a 45 percent job approval rating (compared with 43 percent disapproval). But Melancon’s numbers weren’t much better. The Democrat’s personal rating was 29 percent favorable and 34 percent unfavorable.

The automated survey of 492 Louisiana voters was conducted June 12-13. It had a 4.5-point margin of error.

“The oil spill has presented an opportunity that never would have come up,” according to one Democratic operative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Before the leak, Melancon’s campaign was a collection of attacks on Vitter (largely harping on the Senator’s connection to the “D.C. Madam” prostitution ring, including alleged incidents that happened almost a decade ago but surfaced about three years ago), while touting Melancon’s record on local issues (including cracking down on Chinese drywall) and highlighting tours around the state by his wife, Peachy.

Now Melancon is on a crusade against BP.

The Congressman has created online petitions calling for the firing of BP CEO Tony Hayward and railing against any effort to cap the financial liability of the company. He’s also asked people to submit their own cleanup ideas through his campaign website.

Online petitions have little practical effect but are used to generate media attention and, more importantly, capture people’s e-mail addresses and zip codes so that the campaign can solicit them later for a contribution or present them with a volunteer opportunity.

“The only reason Charlie got into public service was to help people,” said Bradley Beychok, Melancon’s campaign manager. “That’s why he ran for Congress, and that’s why he will be elected to the U.S. Senate. Politics is the last thing on his mind.”

But Melancon’s campaign has been relentless. One of the Congressman’s challenges is to distinguish what he is doing to help the recovery effort from what Vitter is doing in order to fundamentally alter the trajectory of the race. Democrats believe Vitter’s initial idea to cap BP’s liability gave them an opportunity to make that distinction. Melancon believes BP should be fully responsible and is calling the Senator’s idea a “taxpayer bailout” for the oil company.

On Friday, the Democrat’s campaign released a “Melancon Memeaux” titled “Putting People Before Politics.” This is after a conference call with reporters that attacked Vitter for politicizing the oil leak crisis.

“He’s not necessarily setting himself apart, just more theatrics,” according to one GOP strategist, taking a jab at Melancon, who got choked up during a Congressional subcommittee hearing — a moment that got some national attention. “He’ll need to do all that and more to make up lost ground.”

Before the crisis, Melancon consistently trailed Vitter by at least 10 points in hypothetical general election matchups.

An April 19-23 Southern Media & Opinion Research survey for businessman Lane Grigsby showed Vitter with a lead of 49 percent to 31 percent over Melancon. The survey had a 4-point error margin. Rasmussen Reports had the incumbent winning by 16 points in early April, with a 4.5-point error margin, and is polling the race again this month.

Melancon’s own poll (conducted in late February by Anzalone Liszt Research with a 3.5-point error margin) showed him down by 10 points, but Democrats were encouraged that Vitter was under 50 percent even though the incumbent led 48 percent to 38 percent.

There is no doubt that people are upset about the spill — a “deep-seated disgust” according to one GOP consultant — but there isn’t any evidence that voters disproportionately blame Vitter.

Aside from BP, Republicans believe President Barack Obama is on the hook for significant blame. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) has been a vocal critic of the federal response and is given high marks for his performance since the leak began.

Melancon has tried to distance himself from the president, and Vitter’s attacks, by opposing Obama’s six-month moratorium on offshore drilling. Louisiana politicians are in agreement that the oil industry is too critical to the local economy to stop drilling.

While everyone is responding in their own way, Melancon is painting himself as the most effective — a campaign theme that the Democrat will use throughout the race. For now, he’s riding the wave of earned media because the paid advertising phase of the campaign is still weeks, if not months, away.

No one is certain where the oil leak will rank in the minds of Louisiana voters by the time Labor Day rolls around, or whether the issue is the game-changer that Melancon needed. The Democrat has been looking for ways to cut through clutter of other Senate races across the country. Earlier this year, veteran Democratic strategist and pundit James Carville, a proud Cajun, was making media calls talking about Melancon’s prospects.

Republican strategists are not oblivious to Vitter’s weaknesses and understand that Melancon, a former sugar industry lobbyist, is probably Democrats’ best possible candidate. But they also believe that the developing anti-Democratic wave will be Vitter’s saving grace.

This story first appeared in Roll Call and on June 15, 2010. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Is Reid Better Off Than He Was a Week Ago?

By Stuart Rothenberg

The post-Nevada primary chorus was loud and clear last week after former state Assemblywoman Sharron Angle won the GOP Senate primary and the right to face Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) in November.

Everyone seems to think that Reid is measurably better off now than he was before the primary and that he now has a 50-50 chance of winning another term. Everyone but me.

Unfortunately for me, it looks as if my opinion of Reid has changed because my newsletter now has the race rated as Tossup/Tilt Republican instead of Lean Takeover, which it was previously.

But until this week, we used a Tossup/Tilt category only in rating House races, not Senate contests. In choosing to make the Rothenberg Political Report House and Senate rating categories identical, we adopted the House categories for Senate races as well, which means introducing Tossups that tilt to each party as well.

Had we had a Tossup/Tilt Republican category available to us six months ago, we probably would have had Reid in that category rather than putting him in Lean Takeover. But we didn’t have that option, and we didn’t think he had anything close to an even chance of being re-elected, so we had to move him to Lean Takeover. So that’s where he landed.

In putting Reid into the new Tossup/Tilt Republican category, we are reiterating our view that the Senate Majority Leader is in a very competitive contest and that he is more likely than not to lose his bid for a fifth term.

But Reid obviously has the resources — and now a potentially vulnerable target in Angle — to change the likely outcome of the race, so it bears watching.

Still, I don’t believe that last week’s primary fundamentally changes the Nevada Senate race. I don’t believe that the race is a pure Tossup.

It was clear even before the Senate primary rolled around that Silver State Republicans wouldn’t be nominating a tested, charismatic, politically safe candidate against Reid.

None of the three “top” Republicans — Angle, former state Republican Party Chairwoman Sue Lowden and two-time unsuccessful candidate Danny Tarkanian — had the kind of profile, experience and obvious savvy to compete against Reid in a neutral environment.

Lowden, who was once thought to be the GOP’s “best” candidate, turned out to be less than compelling. And, as national Republican strategists point out quite fairly, if she couldn’t beat Angle for the nomination, how was she going to beat Reid?

If Angle wins, she wouldn’t be the first flawed hopeful to make it to the Senate, even from Nevada. In 1982, Chic Hecht (R) defeated Sen. Howard Cannon (D), even though the Almanac of American Politics described Hecht as “short, speaks with a squeaky voice and a lisp, and is anything but a brilliant phrasemaker.”

Given all of these considerations, Angle’s primary victory doesn’t dramatically alter Reid’s prospects for the fall.

Reid continues to run poorly in polling, and as long as the general election is about him, President Barack Obama and jobs, the Senate Majority Leader will be in deep trouble.

Polling for the past year has generally shown Angle and Lowden running about equally well against Reid. In a June 1-3 Mason-Dixon poll for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Angle (and Tarkanian) actually led Reid while Lowden trailed.

Two surveys conducted right before the Nevada primary showed Reid ahead of Angle: a May 31-June 2 Research 2000 poll for the liberal website Daily Kos and a May 24-26 Mason-Dixon poll for the Review-Journal. Assuming that those surveys are accurate, they may well have reflected the attacks of each of the candidates against the others — and the short-term fallout that occurred from them.

But as readers of this column know, it’s Reid’s numbers that matter most, not Angle’s. And Reid’s numbers still look terrible to any dispassionate observer.

Reid has been drawing 38 percent to 43 percent on the ballot test against Angle for months, and he has been in that range in ballot tests against almost any of his possible GOP opponents.

In the June Review-Journal Senate poll, Reid’s name identification was 35 percent favorable/52 percent unfavorable — about where it has been for months, and roughly where then-New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D) was six months before he was defeated for re-election.

The chances of Reid improving his own standing are small. He’s simply been around too long to do that, especially given his recent position as Senate Majority Leader and his role in advancing the president’s agenda in a midterm election year.

That means Reid’s only alternative is to drive up Angle’s negatives, ultimately making her unacceptable and sneaking to victory as the lesser of two evils (or three, given the presence of a tea party candidate on the ballot).

That’s definitely possible (North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms did that in his comeback victory over Democratic challenger Jim Hunt in 1984, though Helms started making his move on TV and in the polls in 1983 and had pulled ahead by the fall of 1984). But there are far more examples of that strategy failing.

It will be difficult for Reid to make the election about Angle, whose demeanor doesn’t seem scary to voters, than about Obama, the unpopular Congress, the economy and the Democratic agenda. And that’s why Harry Reid is still more likely than not to lose.

This column first appeared in Roll Call and on on June 15, 2010. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

New 2010 Senate Ratings

Realistically, Republicans are still short of the 10-seat gain they would need to flip the Senate in November. For now, we see no reason to revise our earlier outlook. The GOP is most likely to net 5 to7 Senate seats, with an 8-seat gain certainly possible. Additional Democratic losses would depend on whether Washington, Wisconsin and California become more competitive. This means Democrats would retain control of the Senate, but at a dramatically reduced level.

NOTE: We have revised our categories to give readers a better idea where races stand.

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

Pure Toss-Up (1 R, 2 )
Bennet (D-CO)
OH Open (Voinovich, R)
PA Open (Specter, D)

Toss-Up/Tilt Republican (3 R, 3 D)
Reid (D-NV)
FL Open (Martinez, R)
IL Open (Burris, D)
IN Open (Bayh, D)
KY Open (Bunning, R)
MO Open (Bond, R)

Toss-Up/Tilt Democrat
--- none ---

Lean Republican (2 R, 2 D)
Burr (R-NC)
Lincoln (D-AR)
DE Open (Kaufman, D)
NH Open (Gregg, R)

Lean Democrat (0 R, 2 D)
Boxer (D-CA)
Murray (D-WA)

Republican Favored (1 R, 0 D)
Vitter (R-LA)

Democrat Favored (0 R, 2 D)
Feingold (D-WI)
CT Open (Dodd, D)

Safe Republican (11 R, 1 D)
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)
ND Open (Dorgan, D)
UT Open (Bennett, R)

Safe Democrat (0 R, 6 D)
Gillibrand (D-NY)
Inouye (D-HI)
Leahy (D-VT)
Mikulski (D-MD)
Schumer (D-NY)
Wyden (D-OR)

New Print Edition: Senate Overview

Subscribers already have the April 11, 2010 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report, but here is the introduction to this issue:

Senate Overview – The Lay of the Land

Democrats and Republicans are each defending 18 seats going into the fall elections, but the national landscape has tilted the battlefield dramatically to the Republicans’ advantage. If the focus in November is on unemployment and the failure of the Obama Administration to handle big issues (e.g., the economy, the Gulf oil leak and foreign policy problems), Democrats will find their Senate seats falling like dominoes. If they can turn these races into local contests and choices between the lesser of two evils, they can minimize their losses.

Republican prospects in two or three states seem to be improving enough so that party strategists can argue that at least ten Democratic seats are in play. Realistically, however, Republicans are still short of the 10-seat gain they would need to flip the Senate in November. For now, we see no reason to revise our earlier outlook. The GOP is most likely to net 5 to7 Senate seats, with an 8-seat gain certainly possible. Additional Democratic losses would depend on whether Washington, Wisconsin and California become more competitive. This means Democrats would retain control of the Senate, but at a dramatically reduced level.

Subscribers get state-by-state analysis and recent polling for each race.

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 updated 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.

Friday, June 11, 2010

There Are Democrats Who May Survive a Wave

By Stuart Rothenberg

Check my House race ratings, and you’ll find about two dozen Democratic seats at great risk. But the truth of the matter is that early ratings are based more heavily than I’d like on district fundamentals than on actual developments in races.

Midterms usually cost the president’s party House seats, so Democrats in the most Republican and conservative districts are particularly vulnerable this cycle. But challenger quality and incumbent records differ from district to district, and those factors certainly affect vulnerability.

Later in the cycle, voters will start paying serious attention to campaigns, and polls will measure voter sentiment about the candidates and about how and why voters plan to cast their votes.

But even now, campaign developments can matter, and some Democratic House incumbents who deserved to be listed among the most vulnerable Democrats of the cycle are looking a little less vulnerable now than they were even a few months ago.

For months now, my colleague Nathan Gonzales has been repeating the same mantra: One or two of the most vulnerable House Democrats are likely to survive anything but the biggest of waves — we just don’t know who they are.

Perhaps it’s time to take a first stab at figuring out who they might be.

While many Democrats running in conservative districts in 2006 and 2008 ran as “independent” candidates, only to later support their party on controversial issues (Reps. Betsy Markey of Colorado and Suzanne Kosmas of Florida are obvious examples), Idaho Rep. Walt Minnick actually has gone out of his way to reject Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (Calif.) agenda on the stimulus, health care reform and cap-and-trade legislation.

Still, it isn’t clear that even his voting record — or his endorsement by the Tea Party Express — will entirely mollify conservative (and reliably Republican) voters in his district, which gave Barack Obama 36 percent of the vote in 2008 and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) only 30 percent four years earlier.

Minnick won the district in 2008 only because the sitting Republican incumbent, Bill Sali, was so personally unpopular that voters apparently were willing to vote for any alternative — even a Democrat.

But Minnick’s re-election prospects have brightened with the nomination of state Rep. Raul Labrador, who defeated Iraq vet Vaughn Ward in the recent GOP primary.

Labrador showed $174,000 raised in his pre-primary report, so while he defeated a much better-funded candidate in the primary and can likely count on support in the general election from the National Republican Congressional Committee in a cheap media market, his weak fundraising numbers raise questions about the quality of his candidacy.

The last Democrat to represent Idaho’s 1st in Congress was Larry LaRocco, who won in an upset in 1990. While it is true that LaRocco was defeated when he ran for a third term in 1994, it’s also true that he won re-election to a second term in 1992. That should give Democrats reason to hope that Minnick can hold on in November.

Alabama Rep. Bobby Bright is another Democrat who would seem to have a decent chance of surviving a good national year for Republicans.

Bright, who spent a decade as mayor of the state capital of Montgomery, won an open seat in a squeaker in 2008, in part because the losing candidate in a tight GOP primary endorsed him.

Like Minnick’s Idaho district, Bright’s 2nd district went heavily for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the last presidential race. Obama received 37 percent in the district in 2008, slightly better than Kerry’s 33 percent in 2004.

In Congress, Bright has established his political independence by voting against the stimulus bill, the health care reform bill and cap-and-trade legislation, though critics note that he held his vote back on the climate change bill until it was clear that the Democratic leadership had the votes that it needed without Bright’s.

Democrats argue that Bright is defined in voters’ minds more as the nonpartisan mayor that he was than as a Member of Congress.

Bright’s Republican opponent likely will be Montgomery City Councilwoman Martha Roby. But Roby was barely forced into a July 13 runoff against self-described tea party activist/businessman Rick Barber, so she’ll have to spend another month fighting for her party’s nomination.

Roby’s May 12 pre-primary FEC report showed she raised just under $440,000, a little less than half of what Bright did.

Even though an early Bright poll showed him well-liked and running far ahead of Roby, Democratic insiders will acknowledge privately that the outcome will be close. The district and national mood remain problems for Bright.

But it’s also true that Bright has steered the right course to have a chance at re-election, and that’s really all that his admirers can expect.

This column first appeared in Roll Call and on June 10, 2010. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

In the Delta, Everyone’s Buzzing About Barbour

By Stuart Rothenberg

GREENVILLE, Miss. — Politically interested folks in the Mississippi Delta spent the last few days of May wondering about whether Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln will survive today’s Democratic runoff against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter and whether Democratic Rep. Travis Childers of Mississippi’s 1st district can win in a Republican wave in November.

With Democrats controlling both chambers of Congress, Lincoln and Childers are regarded by many in this region (even Republicans) as crucial advocates for Southern agriculture.

But more than anything else, political junkies throughout the Magnolia State seemed intrigued by the future of their own governor, Republican Haley Barbour.

“What’s Haley going to do?” they ask at the drop of a political hat, clearly ready to chip in with their own comments about the governor’s political future.

Barbour, first elected in 2003 and re-elected in 2007, is finishing his second term. Since he is precluded from running again, political junkies in the state have already started to handicap next year’s election to replace him.

Not that anyone thinks that the next occupant of the state’s top office can actually replace Barbour, who has a larger-than-life reputation in Mississippi and among some people in the nation’s capital.

At a time when many governors have seen their poll numbers and reputations tumble, the 62-year-old chief executive is still viewed by Mississippi political observers as hugely successful.

So it isn’t surprising that movers and shakers in the Mississippi Delta, where politics has replaced cotton as king, are wondering what is in store for their governor when his term ends next year.

Barbour, who currently chairs the Republican Governors Association, chaired the Republican National Committee from 1993 to 1997, putting him at his party’s helm during the 1994 midterm elections, when the GOP swept control of the House and Senate.

After the RNC, Barbour opened up an influential lobbying firm in the nation’s capital, and Barbour continues to have a legion of political allies in Washington, D.C., and nationally ready to do battle for him.

Barbour considered a presidential run in 2008 but wasn’t all that serious about it. This time, insiders say, he is taking a long look at 2012. Admirers of the governor — and there are many — note that he has a long list of assets in a presidential race.

Barbour has been active in his party for so long that every Republican activist seems to know him and like him. He is well-liked by state and local GOP party leaders, and his popularity is unmatched, according to one veteran Republican insider, as a fundraiser, particularly among high-dollar GOP contributors. His current role at the RGA only increases his contacts.

As a debater, Barbour certainly can hold his own against any Republican now mentioned for 2012, and some think his combination of substance and style would allow him to stand out from the rest of the field. Anyone who knows the governor is aware that he seems equally at home talking with folks at the local diner and with corporate CEOs in a boardroom or at a gala.

And of course, Barbour earned good marks for his handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, adding to his reputation for competence and his ability to get things done.

Barbour’s fundraising ability, reputation of political savvy, conservative views and national Republican contacts all make him a credible contender for the Republican nomination. But as a nominee, he would begin with some serious liabilities.

Barbour’s lobbying wasn’t a big enough liability in Mississippi to destroy him, and it may actually have helped him, given the state’s need for federal dollars and Barbour’s understanding of which buttons to push on Capitol Hill.

But nationally — and in the current environment — Barbour’s business dealings would be a far, far bigger issue. The governor is often portrayed as a Washington insider and power broker, and unless the public mood changes dramatically over the next two years, that’s not an ideal résumé for a presidential candidate.

Mississippi is home to many fine people, but the state’s rankings in a number of categories paint a less-than-flattering picture for any state politician hoping to jump from Jackson to the White House.

Mississippi ranked 50th in per capita personal income in 2007, 48th in average annual pay (2007), first in infant mortality rate in 2006, first in people below the poverty level (2008), fifth in traffic fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles (2007), fourth in the 2008 unemployment rate, and 48th in people 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree (2008).

If Michael Dukakis’ Massachusetts Miracle turned into a political liability, imagine what Barbour’s critics could do to him given the stereotype of Mississippi and a few figures from the 2010 Statistical Abstract.

Interestingly, few Mississippi insiders I talked with recently in the Delta see Haley in the Oval Office. But they also don’t see him taking his fishing pole and entering a peaceful, largely invisible retirement, either.

Some talk about Barbour running for Senate in 2014, when the current term of 72-year-old Thad Cochran (R), Mississippi’s senior Senator, ends. Barbour ran for the Senate many years ago, in 1982, against veteran Democratic Sen. John Stennis.

But others, noting that the Senate would be less appealing to Barbour after serving as his state’s chief executive, offer a far different scenario. They see him as a sort of super vice president, who could offer counsel to a Republican commander in chief about everything from policy to politics, or as a powerful White House chief of staff.

I’m guessing that Barbour hasn’t made a decision about his future because he doesn’t need to make one yet. As savvy as he is, he’ll look at all the angles before deciding on his next step.

This column first appeared in Roll Call and on June 8, 2010. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

We Come to Bury Sodrel, Not to Praise Him

By Stuart Rothenberg

Mike Sodrel has been in my life forever. Or maybe it just seems that way.

Every two years for almost a decade, the Republican businessman has been on the ballot in Indiana’s 9th district, either trying to oust Rep. Baron Hill (D) from Congress or, once, seeking re-election to the House.

But with his bizarre primary defeat earlier this month, Sodrel, a 64-year-old trucking company owner, probably ends a political run that featured more downs than ups.

Sodrel first took on Hill in 2002, four years after the Democrat won an open-seat contest to succeed highly regarded Democrat Lee Hamilton in a Congressional district that includes much of southeastern Indiana.

Hill won that contest narrowly, 51 percent to 46 percent, and Sodrel presumably figured that he’d do better in a rematch. He did, nipping Hill by half a point (49.5 percent to 49 percent) to win the House seat in the presidential year of 2004.

Hill, figuring that he’d do better in a midterm year, came back for a rematch of his own, and he won back his seat, 50 percent to 45 percent.

Sodrel, not content to move on with his life, ran again in 2008. But this time Hill, riding a big Democratic wave, went on to draw 58 percent of the vote and win by about 20 points, a true landslide in a district where Hill previously had won by just a few points.

You might have thought that Sodrel would see the writing on the wall, and for months it seemed as if he had run his last race in the 9th district. But with the Republican field in the district very thin this cycle (attorney Todd Young and real estate investor/outspoken Christian Travis Hankins), Sodrel once again jumped into the race.

He came in for an interview in late March, his eyes focused squarely on Hill and the general election, not on the primary.

He was armed with a Wilson Research Strategies poll of 400 likely general election voters (with an oversample that included 300 likely GOP primary voters), conducted Feb. 28 to March 4.

During the interview, Sodrel and his consultants dismissed his primary opponents, preferring to talk about how and why the former Congressman was going to defeat Hill. In fact, the WRS polling memo included four “Key Observations” — the first three about how well-positioned Sodrel was to defeat Hill.

Only the fourth point — “With the Primary Election in 41 days, it is very unlikely that Young or Hankins can catch-up” — dealt with the primary outlook.

According to the WRS poll, Sodrel’s 46 percent showing in the Republican primary put him far ahead of Hankins’ 19 percent and Young’s 13 percent. Both primary opponents had been running for more than a year, the WRS memo pointed out dismissively, promising that the former Congressman should “sweep” his primary opponents away in the early May contest.

Part of Sodrel’s optimism about the primary is that, as he told us, he is “98 percent known” by the Republican base. Because he said that it takes years to build up name ID in a district that includes multiple media markets, he didn’t plan to spend much money or run paid media during the primary campaign.

Of course, as Sodrel found out, there is a difference between being known and being liked.

Apparently, 9th district Republican voters knew Sodrel but were ready for a change.

Sodrel ended up finishing third, with 30 percent of the primary vote, behind Young (34 percent) and Hankins (32 percent). Hankins had raised a total of $184,000 through April 14, yet he finished ahead of a former Congressman who was allegedly leading the contest handily six weeks earlier.

National Republican strategists weren’t all that upset when Sodrel lost the primary. They figured that voters had already tired of him and that he didn’t have all that appealing a profile given the dynamics of the 2010 cycle.

If Sodrel’s defeat proves anything, it is that candidates can’t take anything for granted and that any candidate who thinks he doesn’t need to win over the voters is a candidate who probably won’t win over the voters. It also raises questions about some early polling.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on June 1, 2010. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

A Primary Loss Does Not Equate a Lost Cause

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Democrats are reveling in the primary losses of candidates preferred by the National Republican Congressional Committee in the last couple of weeks. But they only have to look back four years within their own caucus to see that upset primary winners can get elected to Congress.

In Idaho’s 1st district, Iraq war veteran Vaughn Ward had reached the top level of the NRCC’s “Young Guns” program and had a significant lead heading into the May 25 primary. But he made a series of serious missteps in the final days and lost to state Rep. Raul Labrador, 48 percent to 39 percent.

Ward’s “loss calls into question the competence of the NRCC’s political skills,” the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee charged in a press release, which noted other Republican establishment candidates who have lost in primaries this year. But that doesn’t mean Republicans can’t win in the Idaho district or elsewhere.

Back in 2006, there were several instances where House Democrats’ top recruits lost in the primary, yet the party still picked up the seat in that fall’s Democratic wave election.

In California’s 11th district, Navy veteran and former airline pilot Steve Filson was one of 22 initial challengers on the DCCC’s “Red to Blue” program, the Democratic prototype for the GOP’s Young Guns program.

Six weeks after being added to the list in 2006, Filson lost the Democratic primary in a dramatic fashion to wind turbine company executive Jerry McNerney, who took 53 percent to Filson’s 29 percent.

The DCCC went on to spend a meager $217,000 in the general election, but McNerney defeated GOP Rep. Richard Pombo, 53 percent to 47 percent. The challenger had considerable help from the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups.

McNerney wasn’t the only Democrat that cycle to defeat the establishment candidate in a primary and win the general election with little or no help from the national party.

In New Hampshire’s 1st district, social worker and community college instructor Carol Shea-Porter trounced state House Democratic leader Jim Craig, the national party’s preferred candidate, by a whopping 20 points in the September primary.

The DCCC didn’t spend a dime on independent expenditures in the general election as Shea-Porter defeated then-Rep. Jeb Bradley (R) 51 percent to 49 percent in November.

In New York’s 19th district, attorney Judy Aydelott was the early frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in 2006, but she lost the primary, 50 percent to 27 percent, to former 1970s band Orleans frontman John Hall. The DCCC didn’t spend any money in the general election, and Hall defeated Rep. Sue Kelly (R) by 2 points.

These Democratic examples from 2006 do not necessarily mean that Labrador will defeat Rep. Walt Minnick (D) in Idaho or that Keith Rothfus, another upset GOP primary winner, will unseat Rep. Jason Altmire (D) in Pennsylvania’s 4th district. But with the national political climate trending in their favor, it is unwise to dismiss these GOP nominees out of hand, according to one veteran Democratic consultant.

“We are in denial,” according to the Democratic source, who is concerned about a prevailing “arrogance” among party operatives. The political winds working against the party in power can be enough to help flawed nominees win.

In Kentucky’s 3rd district in 2006, newspaper columnist John Yarmuth (D) wasn’t an upset primary winner, but Republicans believed they drew the Democratic candidate with the most baggage.

Iraq war veteran Andrew Horne (D) generated significant attention for being one of many veterans running for Congress that cycle, but Yarmuth won the primary, 54 percent to 32 percent.

“We were concerned with Horne because of his military background and lack of a voting record,” said Terry Carmack, then-Rep. Anne Northup’s (R) chief of staff at the time. “As it turns out, it didn’t matter because the campaign became a referendum on George Bush.”

Yarmuth defeated Northup by 3 points in the general election.

Sometimes strategists at the campaign committees may have picked the wrong horse in the beginning or the establishment candidate simply was not the best general election nominee.

In the case of Ohio’s 18th district, Chillicothe Mayor Joe Sulzer was supposed to be the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in 2006 even though Republicans were eager to run against him because of his personal baggage. Attorney Zack Space ended up winning the nomination with 39 percent, while Sulzer finished third with 24 percent.

Space was the less experienced politician but had a sufficient clean slate compared to embattled then-Rep. Bob Ney (R), his initial opponent, and then-state Sen. Joy Padgett (R) after Ney dropped out and then finally resigned.

Overall, instant, post-primary analysis can be dangerous when looking too far ahead to the general election. There are plenty of examples to show that candidates can win primaries and general elections without the support of the national party, particularly with the wind at their backs.

This story first appeared in Roll Call and on June 1, 2010. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

PA 12 Special: Only One Piece in Bigger Picture

By Stuart Rothenberg

Less than a day after the polls closed in the May 18 Pennsylvania special election, I left the country.

But e-mails followed me everywhere, and I read with some surprise the post-election assessments of the meaning of Democrat Mark Critz’s substantial victory over Republican Tim Burns in the race to succeed the late Rep. John Murtha (D).

I understand that we live in an era when exaggeration is the norm, but characterizing the GOP loss in that special election as evidence that Republicans can’t win the House is about as misguided as the pre-election assessments that the special was a “must win” for Republicans.

Critz’s victory was very welcome news for Democrats and a good reminder that candidates, campaigns and district fundamentals matter. Conservative Democrats, at this point in the cycle, can still win in conservative Democratic districts, even if President Barack Obama isn’t popular.

But while the result certainly ought to be a dose of humility for Republicans who have talked nonsensically about gaining 50, 60 or even 70 seats in November, the result in Pennsylvania wasn’t a game-changer.

From the time Republicans won the House in 1994 to their loss in the 2006 elections, the GOP never held Murtha’s district. Since that district wasn’t a “must win” for them then, it can’t possibly be regarded as one now.

The argument about whether Pennsylvania’s 12th is a swing district or a Democratic district obviously is important. Not surprisingly, the answer is somewhere in between the two alternatives.

Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) carried the district very narrowly in 2008, and state Attorney General Tom Corbett (R) exceeded 50 percent of the vote there in his re-election that same year. Democratic Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) only squeezed by George W. Bush in the district in 2004, while then-Republican Sen. Arlen Specter carried the district (without winning a majority) in 2004. In other words, Republicans can run very competitively in the district, even winning it.

But at other times, the district’s Democratic heritage shows. Democrat Al Gore defeated Bush in the district in 2000 by a solid 11 points (54 percent to 43 percent), and Bill Clinton carried it comfortably twice.

More recently, 2009 state Supreme Court nominee Joan Orie Melvin (R), a western Pennsylvania native who won her race by an unexpectedly comfortable 8 points statewide and carried Chester, Delaware and Bucks counties in the southeastern corner of the state, drew only 48.5 percent of the vote in the 12th.

This is a picture of a narrowly Democratic district that moves toward the GOP when Republicans can establish a clear ideological contrast. When they can’t — and they didn’t last week — they don’t win.

Of course, the much ballyhooed “mood for change” should have boosted GOP prospects in the special election and given voters an opportunity to send a message of dissatisfaction to the president. They didn’t do that.

Did Critz win because the state’s competitive Senate primary pulled Democratic voters to the polls, or did the Congressional contest drive turnout? Partisans on both sides are certain of the answer, but I’m not. I remain agnostic about the question.

Critz’s victory boosts the prospects of moderate Democrats running in swing districts, whether in Western Pennsylvania, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula or nonurban Ohio.

But it doesn’t necessarily offer equally good news for Democratic Reps. Tom Perriello (Va.), Betsy Markey (Colo.), Steve Driehaus (Ohio), Mary Jo Kilroy (Ohio), Suzanne Kosmas (Fla.), Carol Shea-Porter (N.H.) or others who have cast votes that are unpopular back home.

And Critz’s victory doesn’t say anything about Democrats running in Republican-leaning districts or about districts with large numbers of independent voters, who are more likely to vote on mood than anything else.

As regular readers of this column know, election cycles develop over time, not overnight. In both 2006 and 2008, to say nothing of 1994, a number of races broke late, as voters turned their attention to the elections. I expect the same thing to happen this year, and that could change the arithmetic of the midterms.

There are dozens of reasons why the political environment might improve, or deteriorate, for Democrats between now and November — ranging from an improving employment picture or Republican stupidity to growing financial troubles in the European Union, political fallout for the administration from the BP oil disaster or a double-dip economic slowdown.

Some of these developments would help boost Obama’s standing and give Democratic candidates a better chance to localize their contests, while others would undermine the administration’s standing and create an even bigger wave for political change that would overwhelm many Democrats who run strong re-election campaigns.

Much has been made by some of Republican special election victories in Oklahoma and Kentucky prior to the 1994 midterms and of the Democrats’ win in Pennsylvania last week. But, unlike the one in Pennsylvania’s 12th, both of those 1994 specials occurred in districts that George H.W. Bush won comfortably in 1992 and overwhelmingly (by 60 percent) in 1988. The comparisons, in short, don’t hold.

It’s understandable that we all look for deep meaning from a single event. But with Election Day more than five months away, the die for November is not yet cast, no matter the results in Pennsylvania’s 12th district.

This column first appeared in Roll Call and on on May 27, 2010. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.