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There is little doubt these days about whether Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) can be nominated and then elected the first female commander in chief. Republicans and Democrats alike believe that she can.
But privately some Democrats — along with gleeful Republicans — are examining this question: Could the polarizing former first lady win the White House in 2008 but end up costing her party seats in Congress downballot?
Clinton allies argue that she has proved her appeal in Republican-friendly terrain — upstate New York most notably — and other Democrats believe that the name at the top of the ticket won’t ultimately matter.
“It’s impossible to predict the impact one particular candidate will have,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.).
However, some of the most vulnerable House Democrats next year are freshmen who rode the 2006 Democratic wave to victory in states and districts that traditionally favor the GOP, especially in presidential years. Freshman House Members such as Nancy Boyda (Kan.), Jerry McNerney (Calif.), Zack Space (Ohio), Heath Shuler (N.C.) and Christopher Carney (Pa.) represent very conservative electorates.
Could having Clinton at the top of the ticket further jeopardize those seats as well as more veteran Democrats such as Reps. Baron Hill (Ind.), Jim Marshall (Ga.) and John Barrow (Ga.), top targets who are all but certain to face difficult re-elections in states that will not be contested on the presidential level?
“Having her at the top of the ticket is just as polarizing as [President] Bush at the top of the ticket, even though the electorate right now is looking for a less polarizing figure,” Florida-based Democratic consultant Dave Beattie said.
Beattie said he believes Clinton can be elected president but if she competes in and wins largely the same states that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) did in 2004, she could have an adverse impact downballot on Democratic Members and candidates in states that aren’t competitive on the presidential level.
“I think that the problem with Hillary is there is a caricature of Hillary Clinton among conservative voters. Her campaign is about countering that caricature,” Beattie said. “But where the caricature is strongest, where it’s going to hurt the most, they’re going to be doing the least to counter it.”
Still, many Democrats say, “Not so fast.”
Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), who has won re-election since 1992 in a state that overwhelmingly favors the GOP in presidential elections, spoke very favorably of Clinton and noted that Republicans were attacking her awfully hard for someone they say they would prefer to run against.
“It’s way too early to conclude that Hillary would be a disaster downballot for the party,” said Pomeroy, who is still mulling a 2008 endorsement.
To be fair, Clinton’s top rivals for the Democratic nod — Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) — carry their own liabilities with conservative voters and it’s debatable whether having either man at the top of the ticket would help vulnerable Democrats fare any better.
However, neither has as controversial a persona as Clinton, best known to the national audience of voters from the eight years she spent as first lady.