Measuring the Coattails

Strategists See Clinton, Obama About the Same

Posted March 31, 2008 at 6:59pm

As the White House slugfest between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) continues, top Republican Congressional strategists say they are losing their fear of Obama and becoming increasingly hopeful that either Democrat could help GOP House and Senate candidates this fall.

Republicans since early in this election cycle have believed that Clinton as the White House nominee would be a tonic for their structural disadvantages in Congressional contests this year.

They believed only Clinton’s high negatives and the animosity she engenders among base GOP voters could motivate turnout and hurt Democratic House and Senate candidates in competitive and GOP-leaning districts, while helping Republican Congressional hopefuls overcome several key disadvantages.

But with Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) as their nominee and left alone to burnish his presidential credentials, and an Obama who appears to them to be less indestructible by the day, Republicans are beginning to feel at ease with either of the two Democrats as the White House nominee. The longer the Democratic fracas lasts, Republican operatives contend, the better McCain’s chances of prevailing in November become — and with them, his ability to redefine the GOP and help Republicans in House and Senate battlegrounds.

“Hillary certainly looked like she would help us a great deal when this all got started. But every day this goes by, the more Obama’s veneer starts to crack and the more he looks like just another liberal,” said Mike Slanker, political director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “By the time we get to October, either one of them will help us.”

Both Slanker and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) expect McCain to be an asset to their candidates in targeted battleground states and House districts.

But Democratic operatives argue that neither McCain nor any other factor will enable Republican Congressional candidates to overcome the several obstacles before them. Not only do House and Senate Republicans have far fewer financial resources from which to draw on in the upcoming elections, but generic polling has shown Democrats with a clear advantage among voters regarding which party they would prefer to be in charge on Capitol Hill.

Democrats say McCain and Republican candidates down-ticket will be hurt by their association with President Bush, their position on Iraq and a growing perception that the presumptive GOP presidential nominee is not well-versed on what could be the No. 1 issue on voters’ minds come Election Day: the economy.

Couple that with statistics showing higher voter turnout and enthusiasm in the Democratic White House primary and lingering GOP unity problems for McCain, and Democratic Congressional strategists are confident that their candidates will receive a boost on Nov. 4, whether their nominee is Clinton or Obama.

“Whoever is the Democratic nominee will be in a strong position to win the presidency — is likely to win the presidency — and our candidates will do very well across the country,” said Matthew Miller, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

A Different Map

Democratic operatives focused on House races say the only difference between a Clinton candidacy and Obama heading the ticket is the map, and where Democratic candidates will receive an extra boost.

If Clinton comes from behind to secure her party’s White House nod, three competitive New York seats could perform much better for the Democrats on Election Day. If Obama maintains his primary contest lead and wins the Democratic nomination, two targeted Illinois seats that currently are held by the Republicans might be more likely to flip.

The NRCC is targeting New York’s 20th district, which delivered 54 percent of its vote to Bush in 2004 but elected Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) to her first term in 2006. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is after the Democratic-leaning 25th district and the GOP-leaning 26th district, which are being vacated by Reps. Jim Walsh and Tom Reynolds, respectively.

In Illinois, the Democrats already won a special election in the GOP-leaning 14th district, formerly held by ex-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R). This fall, they are targeting Rep. Mark Kirk’s (R) Democratic-leaning 10th district and Republican-leaning 11th district being vacated by Rep. Jerry Weller (R).

“When you look at these individual races, I think it’s going to be clear for voters that Democrats are pushing a new direction — pushing change — and Republicans are standing up for the status quo,” said DCCC spokesman Doug Thornell. “Regardless of who our nominee is, our candidates are in a very strong position to argue their case.”

As the Democratic presidential primary drags on, Cole, the NRCC chairman, is finding company in his position that Obama — not Clinton — is a weaker nominee and the better candidate for Republicans to run against.

Cole bases his assessment on four factors. He sees Obama as farther to the left than Clinton, as a less-plausible commander in chief, as having a thinner résumé and therefore being easier to exploit politically, and as being weaker with key voting blocs, including women, senior citizens and conservative Democrats.

Cole also believes that McCain would run better against Obama in classic battleground states like Michigan and Pennsylvania. That could be good for the GOP in two Republican-leaning districts they are targeting in the Keystone State: the 4th and the 10th, which are held by freshman Democratic Reps. Jason Altmire and Christopher Carney, respectively. Clinton has a big lead in the polls over Obama in the Pennsylvania presidential primary contest, which is April 22.

If Cole is right about McCain vs. Obama in Michigan, Republicans could have a better chance of defending two GOP-held seats being targeted by the Democrats there: the Republican-leaning 7th district, held by freshman Rep. Tim Walberg, and the GOP-leaning 9th district held by eight-term Rep. Joe Knollenberg.

While Clinton secured 55 percent of the vote in Michigan’s presidential primary, she was the only prominent Democrat on the ballot. McCain beat Bush in the 2000 GOP primary, but lost this year’s contest to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Michigan native.

“I think [Obama] has got a real experience problem. He was in the state Senate in Illinois three years ago,” Cole said. “I’m not convinced that where his unique strengths are, that they really take away from us.”

Extending Obamamania

Still, Obama has generated great enthusiasm among young voters and is also seen as more appealing to political independents than Clinton — and his ability to attract independents could hurt both McCain and the Arizonan’s ability to help downballot candidates.

Among the districts where Obama could prove crucial to Democrats are those with a significant black population. Black voters are a key Democratic voting bloc but do not always turn out in high numbers. With Obama at the top of the ticket, however, some Southern House seats being targeted by the DCCC could have a better chance of flipping, despite their Republican bent.

In Alabama’s 2nd district, being vacated by Rep. Terry Everett (R), Democrats are high on Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright (D), who is running to replace him. With a 29 percent black population, Obama leading the ticket could make a difference there. Obama could also be a difference-maker in Louisiana’s 4th and 6th districts, two open, Republican-leaning districts with 33 percent black populations — before Hurricane Katrina.

Some analysts speculate that Obama might also have more coattails out West, including in the GOP-leaning Wyoming at-large seat, being vacated by Rep. Barbara Cubin (R), and in the competitively drawn Oregon 5th district, which is being vacated by Rep. Darlene Hooley (D). However, Clinton could better lift Democrats in the bellwether of Ohio, where Democrats are targeting at least four Republican-held seats, two of which are open.

Clinton might also be more effective for Democratic House candidates in Florida, where the DCCC could end up going after five GOP-held seats. Clinton beat Obama in Ohio overwhelmingly. But like Michigan, the Florida primary was disputed because of a disagreement between state officials and the Democratic National Committee. But Clinton is seen a having an edge over Obama in the Sunshine State.

“It’s not that Clinton or Obama is better for each Congressional race, it’s that whomever is at the top of the ticket changes the universe of seats being contested,” said one Democratic operative based in Washington, D.C. “Clinton does better in some, while Obama does better in others.”

Senate Battlefield

Republicans are defending 23 Senate seats this cycle, and are under heavy threat in at least eight of them. But Slanker, the NRSC political director, believes McCain could be particularly helpful to Sen. John Sununu’s (R) chances in New Hampshire, while helping the GOP hold onto the Colorado seat being vacated by Sen. Wayne Allard (R).

And in Louisiana — despite the state’s significant black population — Slanker believes his committee’s lone legitimate pickup opportunity is primed for a Republican victory regardless of whether the Democratic nominee is Clinton or Obama.

Louisiana has been trending Republican since the 1990s, and many GOP operatives speculate that the numbers simply aren’t there for either of the Democrats to knock the Pelican State out of the Republican column — particularly on the heels of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s (R) election.

Slanker cited New Hampshire as a state where McCain has “tremendous appeal,” noting his victories there in the 2000 and 2008 primaries. Slanker added that the bad blood between the Clinton and Obama camps could imperil Democratic unity in the Granite State and make life harder for the Democratic Senate candidate, former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen. Shaheen has been way up on Sununu in polling.

In Colorado, past polls have shown the perception of Clinton to be particularly negative. And even though Obama won the Democratic presidential caucus there, Slanker said the Illinois Senator is too far to the left to win statewide, and said his continuing battle with Clinton is exposing a legislative record that makes this fact abundantly clear.

“McCain is an extraordinary help to us in the states that are in play,” Slanker said.

Democrats disagree, and do so armed with primary-season voter turnout statistics that are difficult to argue with. In almost every presidential primary contest held this cycle, Democrats have outdrawn Republicans at the ballot box, and by large numbers. In New Hampshire, where independent voters can participate in either the Democratic or Republican primary, 50,000 more voters participated in the Democratic primary than in the GOP contest.

In Colorado, Democrats drew 49,000 more voters to its caucus than the Republicans did; in Louisiana, 223,000 more Democrats voted in their party’s primary than Republicans did in theirs.

“All of our candidates are moving forward running their elections separate from the presidential contest,” the DSCC’s Miller said. “In any year at this point in the campaign, they’d be doing the same things they are doing today.”