Twenty Questions

The Answers Could Determine Who Controls Congress in January — and Beyond

Posted October 1, 2004 at 10:54am

1) So the issue is security after all?

Apparently so. Not the economy (stupid). Not gay marriage. Not even Iraq — though President Bush has done a good job of coupling the two, entirely to his benefit.

The question now becomes whether Bush can ride this issue matrix to a big victory and bring several Republican Congressional candidates along with him.

Echoing the same themes in 2002, the GOP pretty much ran the table in competitive Senate races. And while recent history suggests that presidential wins don’t result in huge gains on the Congressional level (the exception being 1980), if Bush runs up big numbers it is easy to envision a scenario in which he drags GOP Senate candidates who are currently trailing, including Rep. Richard Burr in North Carolina, Tim Michels in Wisconsin or Rep. George Nethercutt in Washington, across the finish line.

2) Does John Kerry aid a single Congressional candidate anywhere?

Surprisingly, the answer is yes — at least in a few places.

While Republicans in most cases rush to embrace President Bush and his agenda — and his presence at the top of the ticket is an undeniable asset in several key Senate races — Democratic House and Senate candidates are at best ambivalent about their presidential standard-bearer.

But there are exceptions.

Rep. Joe Hoeffel, the Democratic Senate nominee in Pennsylvania, has tethered himself to Kerry surprisingly tightly (but then, Hoeffel’s bid to unseat four-term GOP Sen. Arlen Specter hasn’t had much else to grab onto). Kerry will have a huge turnout operation in the Philadelphia area, which should help Hoeffel considerably. A trio of Democratic House candidates in and around Philly — Allyson Schwartz, Lois Murphy and Ginny Schrader — could get some residual benefit.

3) Does Joe Hoeffel outrun Ron Klink?

Even with help from the top of the ticket, Hoeffel, the beleaguered Democratic Senate nominee in Pennsylvania, may struggle to do better than then-Rep. Ron Klink (D-Pa.) did in his 52 percent to 46 percent defeat at the hands of Sen. Rick Santorum (R) in 2000.

At the start of this cycle, some people viewed Hoeffel’s run against Specter as a tune-up for a race with Santorum in 2006. Two years from now, more likely, Hoeffel will be, like Klink, on the sidelines.

4) Do voters in South Dakota buy the argument that Tom Daschle is Washington’s No. 1 obstructionist, or do they remember his 26 years of Congressional service?

Or do they simply turn off their TV sets?

The tightening of the race between Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) and former Rep. John Thune (R) should not be read as an indication that voters have accepted the obstructionist message. South Dakota is a strong Republican state and Thune’s movement in the polls simply reflects GOP voters coming home.

Daschle has never faced a sustained assault on his role as leader of his party in Washington. Expect the attacks to pick up in the final month of the race.

5) If at the end of 2004 the Senate makeup is the same as it is today, have Democrats won or lost?

Though they won’t admit it, Senate Democrats would be very happy with a status quo election.

Sure, retaking control is the ultimate goal, but given the playing field heading into this cycle — 19 Democratic seats up compared to 15 for Republicans — no gain by either side is a victory for Democrats, especially given the decision by five Southern Democrats to retire this cycle. And as some Democratic operatives are noting, a status quo Senate without Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) is actually a net gain.

The picture looks a bit brighter for Democrats next cycle — 17 Democrats up for re-election, 15 Republicans and Independent Jim Jeffords (Vt.) — although they must re-elect eight freshman.

Fighting Republicans to a draw in 2004 would give Democrats a major leg up in the fight for control in 2006 and beyond.

6) Will the Hammer fall on the Texas Five?

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and his GOP allies in the Lone Star State Legislature crafted a redistricting proposal in 2003 that endangered several House Democrats. Ralph Hall was scared enough to switch parties; Jim Turner decided to retire rather than try to run for re-election. And already Republicans have Reps. Chris Bell and Ciro Rodriguez notched in their belts. Could Chet Edwards, Martin Frost, Nick Lampson, Max Sandlin and Charlie Stenholm be next?

No question. While a clean sweep for Republicans remains a distinct possibility in Texas, it is more likely they win either three or four of the races.

Reps. Randy Neugebauer (R) and Pete Sessions (R), facing Stenholm and Frost, respectively, are favorites. Both have used the power of incumbency to outraise their opponents and will benefit from the Republican tilt of their districts.

The fate of Sandlin and Lampson is the real test of which party emerges from Texas with a real victory. If both Democrats win against their underwhelming Republican opponents, party leaders will — and should — crow. If they lose, Republicans should pat DeLay and the Texas state Legislature on the back … repeatedly.

Edwards is an odds-on favorite to be re-elected but if he is the only one of the so-called “Texas Five” to wind up on top, it will be a very lonely win.

7) Crisp and refreshing, or dull and experienced?

Put another way, will Pete Coors’ (R) money trump Ken Salazar’s (D) record of service in the Colorado Senate race?

He’s a political neophyte, but Coors’ famous family name and unlimited resources make him very formidable, especially in a state that is trending ever more Republican.

But Salazar, the state attorney general, is the lone Democrat to have prospered statewide in the current political climate. Polls have shown him barely ahead. But for how long?

Coors is a household name in Colorado but he is better known for the beer his company brews than he is for his policy acumen.

Republicans’ formula for success in the last two Senate races — both pitting Sen. Wayne Allard (R) against attorney Tom Strickland (D) — was to cast the Democrat as a Denver liberal, a label that severely curtailed Strickland’s appeal statewide. This time that formula is reversed as Salazar is the candidate of rural Colorado, an image that he has cultivated in television advertising that shows him wearing a cowboy hat and driving a pickup truck. Even Republicans admit that Salazar is the best candidate Democrats could field.

If Salazar can’t win this time, it may be a while before there is another Democratic Senator from Colorado.

8) Is the second time the charm for Erskine Bowles?

Once derided as being stiff, this time the Clinton White House chief of staff is trying to hug his way to the Senate. And against five-term Rep. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), it just may work.

Bowles is a completely different candidate in this race than he was when he lost to Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) in 2002. In that contest he relied on millions of his own dollars to fuel a media campaign but was awkward and uncomfortable on the stump. Bowles has completely retooled that strategy this time around as he willingly dives into crowds, hugging women and kissing babies.

“You’re looking at one jacked-up candidate,” he tells audiences.

Of course, Burr is a completely different opponent than the super-polished Dole was.

Burr, though highly regarded by Republican leaders, has not run the kind of campaign they hoped he would, and now he finds himself trailing in the polls. He has used the more than $6.5 million he had on hand at the end of June to attack Bowles over the airwaves — most recently for Bowles’ ties to Clinton.

With Gov. Mike Easley (D) expected to win a second term relatively easily and Sen. John Edwards (D) on the national ticket, this could be the best Democratic year in North Carolina since iconic Gov. Jim Hunt (D) retired from politics in 1998.

9) How much good will does the Babbitt family still engender in northern Arizona?

Sure, his brother was a two-term governor. And his family owns a retailing chain in the Grand Canyon State.

But 1st district House challenger Paul Babbitt (D), a Coconino County commissioner and former mayor of Flagstaff, hasn’t proved to be a particularly dynamic campaigner. His race against freshman Rep. Rick Renzi (R) may be a tossup. But if the Democrats win, it won’t be on the strength of the challenger’s personality.

Still, Democrats believe that this massive district — it is larger than the state of Pennsylvania — means that meeting voters face to face is less important than reaching them with television and radio advertisements.

The best thing going for Babbitt is his last name. But his brother last held office in the state in 1986. Voters’ memories in this fast-growing state may not be that long.

10) How does the brother act play in the Mountain region?

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) recently opined that there may be “one Salazar too many” on the ballot in Colorado this year.

That was a reference to Ken Salazar (D), the aforementioned Centennial State attorney general and Senate candidate, and his brother, state Rep. John Salazar (D), who is seeking the seat of retiring Rep. Scott McInnis (R).

Reynolds could just have easily been talking about Utah, where Rep. Jim Matheson (D) competes in a tough re-election contest while his brother, Scott Matheson Jr., runs for governor.

Both Salazars are in tossup contests; in Utah, bet on Jim — despite the extreme Republican tilt of his district — but not on Scott.

11) Will anyone pay attention to the Florida Senate race?

Or do hurricanes and the reverberations from Recount 2000 still obliterate all other political discussions?

Though the battle between former state Education Commissioner Betty Castor (D) and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez (R) is interesting in its own right, the two candidates will struggle to emerge from the news coverage of the hurricane-recovery efforts and the inevitable focus on ballot security in the presidential race.

12) How many Louisiana races will be decided in December runoffs?

A sure bet is three although four is not out of the question.

Of the state’s open Senate seat and three vacant House seats, only the 1st district will likely have a new Congressman on Nov. 3. Former Health and Human Services Department official Bobby Jindal (R), who narrowly lost the governor’s race in 2003, is running away with that seat.

Rep. David Vitter (R), who is leaving the 1st district after five years, is a sure thing for the runoff in the Senate race. Rep. Chris John (D) and state Treasurer John Kennedy (D) are battling it out for the other slot, with John having a slight edge due to his financial advantage.

In the 3rd district, the legacy of Rep. Billy Tauzin (R) will get a major test come winter as his son — BellSouth lobbyist Billy Tauzin III (R) — is a likely runoff participant. Former state Rep. Charlie Melancon (D) is the favorite for a second spot.

The 7th district is a jump ball among cardiologist Charles Boustany Jr. (R) and Democratic state Sens. Don Cravins and Willie Mount. Mount has led in every poll but is now under attack from national Republicans.

The big question is whether Democrat-turned-Republican Rep. Rodney Alexander can avoid a runoff in the 5th. A recent GOP poll had him barely above 50 percent and his former Democratic colleagues are itching for a chance to get back at him for his last-minute switch.

13) Will Las Vegas-area voters roll the dice on a former casino executive?

It wasn’t supposed to be so easy last time for freshman Rep. Jon Porter (R-Nev.). Running in a new suburban district that was drawn evenly between the parties, Porter won a 19-point victory over a fatally flawed Democrat.

This time, he has drawn a well-to-do challenger, former casino CEO Tom Gallagher. Polls have shown Porter with a decent lead. But they like a long shot in Vegas.

14) Who will win the “Jon Corzine Award?”

No one will rival the $62 million that the New Jersey Democrat spent to win the open Senate seat in 2000 but that doesn’t mean there aren’t million-dollar personal checks being cashed even as we write.

Former commodities trader Blair Hull (D) was the odds-on pick to assume the Corzine mantle after he dumped nearly $30 million into his Illinois primary race, but past marital problems proved too costly and he finished a distant third. Businessman Doug Gallagher flushed $5 million on a losing effort to capture the Republican nomination in the Florida Senate race.

On the House side, Republican businesswoman Jeanne Patterson, who has her own private plane and has already donated more than $1 million to her run for the open 5th district in Missouri but, is a long shot, as is 26-year-old Capri Cafaro (D) — personal donations totaling $486,000 as of June 30 —who is taking on Ohio Rep. Steven

LaTourette (R).

The two money men whose investments seem most likely to pay off are brewing magnate Coors and construction company executive Tim Michels (R), who are running for Senate seats in Colorado and Wisconsin, respectively.

As the head of the nation’s third-largest brewery, Coors has an unlimited bank account to tap, though he has only given $400,000 to this point. Michels loaned himself $1.25 million for his primary victory but will need to pitch in quite a bit more if he hopes to unseat Sen. Russ Feingold (D).

15) How does Russ Feingold play the outsider this time?

He has been in the Senate for a dozen years and spent the previous 10 in the Wisconsin Legislature. Twenty-two years in elective office. That’s an awfully long time as an insider to continue portraying yourself as something else. Especially when your opponent truly is an outsider, for better or worse — a wealthy businessman and former Army Ranger without a minute’s worth of political experience.

16) Is Nick Clooney too liberal for Kentucky’s 4th district?

Do the Hollywood connections help him or hurt this Democrat in his race against Republican businessman Geoff Davis? Come to think of it, is George Clooney too liberal for the district?

Probably. But Clooney — Nick, that is — is running on the strength of his personality, not his party affiliation. Clooney has been a known commodity in the Northern Kentucky area long before his son — George — became one of the leading lights in Hollywood.

On the stump, Clooney is clearly a superior candidate to Davis, the 2002 nominee. And internal polls show the Democrat with a lead. But in a district that President Bush is likely to win by more than 20 points, the “D” after his name on the ballot might be a scarlet letter that dooms Clooney.

17) Does George Nethercutt have one last killer rock in his slingshot?

Maybe. But Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) may prove to be a more difficult target than Speaker Tom Foley (D) was a decade ago.

In 1994, the Republican Nethercutt was in the right place at the right time. Voters were fed up with the Democratic leadership in the House and took it out on Foley and 51 of his Democratic colleagues.

No similar dynamic is at work right now but a month is a long time in politics and anything could happen. Nethercutt brought out his big weapon — Murray’s two-year-old statement that she understood why Osama bin Laden engendered loyalty in some Muslin countries — in an ad at the end of September, which either means Nethercutt is desperate to show some movement in the polls or he has even more potentially damaging issues in his slingshot. The former option is more likely.

18) Does Phil Crane get Beaned?

There doesn’t appear to be any major anti-incumbent breeze out there. And his suburban Chicago district is still fairly Republican.

But Crane, the longest-serving Republican in the House (he won a 1969 special election to replace Donald Rumsfeld) looks increasingly endangered in his rematch with Melissa Bean (D). Bean, who took 43 percent of the vote last time, is accusing the 73-year-old incumbent of being ineffective and out of touch.

The situation is a little analgous to Republican Greg Ganske’s victory over 36-year incumbent Neal Smith (D) a decade ago in Iowa. But 1994 was a Republican — and an anti-incumbent — year.

The embattled Rumsfeld may now have greater job security than his House successor.

19) Can Max Burns get his old job back?

Calling Georgia Southern University, where Burns was a professor of information systems.

Burns, a Republican, won the House seat in 2002 because Democrats fielded a candidate who was entirely unelectable. They did not make that mistake twice. Athens-Clarke County Commissioner John Barrow hasn’t blown the doors off as a candidate but he doesn’t need to.

The district heavily favors Democrats and even Republicans admit that Burns is likely a goner. Incumbents rarely go down without a fight, and Burns has begun hitting Barrow on television. This race will be close since Georgia is becoming less and less fertile ground for Democrats, but if one House Republican incumbent loses this fall, it will be Burns.

20) Do the Democratic bulls retire if the party loses House seats this time around?

With tired pledges every two years that this is the cycle Democrats take back the House majority they lost in 1994, the party has largely avoided an onslaught of departures among their most senior Members. But if Republicans gain seats for the second straight election and the majority slips further from their grasp, expect a number of Members to re-evaluate their options before 2006.

If Members like Reps. Ike Skelton (Mo.) and John Spratt (S.C.) decide to bow out, Democrats will be hard-pressed to hold those conservative-minded seats.

“Twenty Questions” asked and answered by Chris Cillizza and Josh Kurtz.