Outlook for Democrats

Posted September 8, 2004 at 2:17pm

Only a few months ago, 2004 looked like it might be a surprisingly good year for the Democratic Party. How quickly things change. [IMGCAP(1)]

Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) was raising tons of cash. President Bush was sliding in the polls. Democrats were talking optimistically about winning control of the Senate. And House Democrats had reason to be upbeat about their promising recruiting class, even if electing a Speaker looked like a long shot.

No, a wave hadn’t yet developed for Democrats, but growing voter dissatisfaction with the direction of the country and the public’s disapproval of the president’s performance were reason enough for Democrats to believe that they had the momentum.

Understandably, party strategists and spinners talked up these brighter prospects, offering more optimistic scenarios for November and creating higher expectations.

But August has been a cruel month for the Democratic Party, both for its presidential nominee and its two federal campaign committees. The news has not been good. Will the downdrafts be forgotten once voters begin focusing on the campaign in earnest? Or do the recent problems bode ill for November?

Kerry’s problems are apparent in the early post-convention polls, and I’m not even referring to the bounce that the president received in his ballot test against Kerry. Voters’ concerns about terrorism and increased confidence in Bush have improved the president’s prospects, forcing the Kerry campaign to change its tactics and to shuffle its organization.

But at least Kerry still has a realistic chance of winning the White House in November. As long as voters haven’t decided to rehire the president for another term and continue to believe that the country is headed in the wrong direction, the presidential contest remains competitive.

Over at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, things have turned from bad to worse. Let me count the ways.

One: Rep. Rodney Alexander (La.) defects and joins the GOP, even though he would have been a heavy favorite for re-election as a Democrat. Then Democratic efforts to throw him off the ballot or reopen filing come up empty.

Two: Jim Stork, the party’s much ballyhooed recruit against Rep. Clay Shaw in Florida’s 22nd district announces suddenly that he is putting his campaign on hold for health reasons.

Three: Highly prized recruit Christine Jennings is upset in the Aug. 29 Democratic primary in Florida’s 13th district, all but ending the national party’s interest in the race to oust Rep. Katherine Harris (R).

Four: If the committee didn’t have enough problems, Kori Bernards, the widely respected and widely liked communications director of the DCCC, leaves the committee and joins the staff of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). That can’t be good news for the DCCC, and many insiders will take it as a sign of the committee’s problems.

To have any chance of retaking the House, Democrats still need a wave to develop, and in this regard they remain better positioned than the Republicans to net seats in November. But a wave seems less likely today than it did four weeks ago, and honest Democrats are no longer able to talk seriously about 218 seats.

Recent news has also worked to the disadvantage of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

After succeeding in selling their argument that they had a chance of getting to 50 or even 51 seats in November, the roof has fallen in on the DSCC.

First, former Rep. Jim DeMint wins the Republican Senate nomination in South Carolina and blows past Inez Tenenbaum (D) in polling. Then former Rep. Tom Coburn wins the GOP Senate nomination in Oklahoma without a runoff and blows past Rep. Brad Carson (D) in state polls.

Then former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez makes a late rush and wins the Republican Senate nomination in Florida. For weeks, Democrats had been saying privately that they would have a hard time defeating Martinez in a general election. But, they figured, they wouldn’t have to, since he couldn’t beat former Congressman Bill McCollum for the Republican nomination.

By winning, Martinez has fundamentally altered Florida’s Senate race, undercutting Democrat Betty Castor’s prospects in the contest.

Elsewhere, things haven’t been much better. Businessman Pete Coors, the stronger candidate in the Republican primary, won the Republican Senate nomination in Colorado, and in Pennsylvania, Sen. Arlen Specter won the AFL-CIO’s endorsement, making the odds that Democratic Senate challenger, Rep. Joe Hoeffel, will upset Specter that much longer.

But while Democratic prospects have dipped over the past month, the general election is still seven weeks away. Kerry is very much in the race, and events could turn sentiment quickly.

The Democratic Party still has time to reverse current trends and put together a good election night. Not very much time, though.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.