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District-level polling generally confirms national poll numbers — namely, a surge in Americans who say the country is heading off on the wrong track. Republican insiders also acknowledge some movement — not in their favor — in the so-called generic ballot in individual districts.
But the same observers insist that they are not seeing a significant erosion of Republican strength in ballot test numbers or in favorable ratings for Republican incumbents.
Still, Republican insiders have started to show signs of concern both about Bush and about control of Congress.
The worsening public mood “isn’t having an impact now [on Republican House and Senate candidates], but what happens if the trend continues?” one GOP consultant told me recently. “The national political scene is not good for Republicans now.”
“Safe incumbents are still safe,” predicted another Republican operative, “but their margins are going to be down.”
Strategists from both parties emphasize that recent events have hurt the president, and add that other events during the next two months could reverse the recent trendlines or, alternately, add to Bush’s woes.
In any case, Republicans can’t merely assume that downballot candidates will be insulated from the president’s slide.
It is quite possible, as one Democratic consultant argued, that Republican House and Senate candidates aren’t seeing their numbers drop yet because voters are focused on the presidential race. When those same voters start to consider their choices for the House and Senate, this theory goes, they may also start to express more dissatisfaction with GOP downballot candidates.
As for Democratic opportunities, remember Larry DeNardis? He was a moderate Republican from New Haven, Conn., who was swept out in the 1982 wave. And he could serve as a model for Democrats who hope to ride — and need — a wave.
Even a small Democratic breeze could enhance the chances of long-shot Democratic challenges in the Northeast. Candidates such as Lois Murphy (against Rep. Jim Gerlach in Pennsylvania’s 6th district), Steve Brozak (against Rep. Mike Ferguson in New Jersey’s 7th district) and Diane Farrell (against Rep. Christopher Shays in Connecticut’s 4th district) face an almost impossible task in running against an incumbent in a district located in an expensive media market. But a Democratic wave could boost the prospects of those long shots.
Unless the public’s mood about the country and President Bush turns upward quickly, Republican House and Senate candidates won’t be able to use the president as they intended, or as they did in 2002.
“Bush is not going to be the weapon that Republicans expected he would be in places like Colorado, West Virginia and even Nebraska,” argued one Democratic operative. “Weak Republican and Independent voters are much more open to our ideas. Bush provided a gateway into the Republican Party for voters in states like Georgia and North Carolina in 2002. This time we will have that gateway.”
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.