Happy Days Are Here Again for GOP

Posted January 21, 2010 at 3:18pm

Even before the stunning upset last week in the Massachusetts Senate special election, Republicans were poised to do well this fall.

History says so: In almost every midterm election since the Civil War, the party that lost the previous presidential election made gains in the Congressional balloting. Republican Scott Brown’s victory in the race to replace the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) simply put an exclamation point on the historical reality.

Right now, even with huge majorities in the House and Senate and control of the White House, Democrats appear to be in political free fall. Can they reverse the trend in nine months?

Democrats and Republicans are essentially even in the Gallup surveys that ask registered voters which party’s candidate they plan to vote for in November. But that’s “good news for Republicans,— Gallup Editor-in-Chief Frank Newport said, “because in a midterm election, turnout is lower, and Republicans very typically have an advantage in turnout.—

What’s more, Tennessee-based Republican consultant Brad Todd said, “There is a consensus that the Democrats have moved too far too fast in exactly the wrong direction.— He sees a “taint of incumbency— in this election that “is weighing on the Democrats more than the Republicans.—

Morale in the GOP is sky-high after two dismal election cycles. The 2009 gubernatorial victories of Bob McDonnell in Virginia and Chris Christie in New Jersey, the party switch of Alabama Rep. Parker Griffith from Democrat to Republican three days before Christmas and Brown’s exhilarating victory have the Republicans believing they can compete with Democrats just about anywhere.

Of course, the Republican Party stands to gain seats because it can really sink no further after losing a net 54 House seats and 14 Senate seats in the past two election cycles.

Republicans are hopeful that voters will elect more of their party’s candidates as a check against Democratic rule.

“They own Washington,— said Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), who heads up recruitment efforts for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “If everything in this country was going right, if the country was even on the right track, if the country had low unemployment, [Democrats] would have a very good year. But you know what? Not only do they control everything, they run Washington in a one-party manner. They don’t want ideas from the other side.—

Bush Albatross Gone

Democratic campaigns in 2006 and 2008 thrived by focusing heavily on their opposition to the policies of President George W. Bush, who was unpopular for most of his second term. Now they don’t have that foil, and Republicans stand to benefit.

“2008, if you ask me, was for a lot of people a personal election, mostly about George Bush,— said former Ohio state Sen. Steve Stivers (R), who narrowly lost an open-seat House race last cycle but is seeking a rematch with Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy (D) in a highly competitive Columbus-based district.

Republicans will be running on their opposition to President Barack Obama, who doesn’t have the coattails that he did two years ago.

Republicans are going to win some Democratic-held seats in part because they’ve had more success attracting blue-chip candidates to run for office than in the pro-Democratic 2006 and 2008 election years.

One of the NRCC’s most highly touted candidates is Stephen Fincher, a farmer and gospel singer from western Tennessee who has demonstrated impressive fundraising in a campaign that he originally planned to wage against 11-term Democratic Rep. John Tanner, who announced his retirement in November. After failing to even field a candidate against Tanner in 2008, Republicans are now at least an even-money bet to win his seat.

The Republicans also are favored to win the Little Rock-based district of retiring Arkansas Democratic Rep. Vic Snyder, in large part because they landed a good candidate in Tim Griffin, a former U.S. attorney who was already giving Snyder a run for his money. Like Tanner, Snyder didn’t even draw a Republican opponent in 2008.

Republican candidates are coming out of the woodwork even in districts that appear long shots for the party to win. The five-candidate field challenging Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa) includes a former college wrestling coach who raised more money in six weeks than the little-known 2008 Republican nominee did for his entire campaign. In just the past week, an Arizona Republican state Senator announced a campaign against Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) and two well-known Republicans revealed plans to challenge Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.).

On the Senate side, the Jan. 11 announcement by popular North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven (R) that he is running for the seat of retiring Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) should secure for the Republicans a seat that had been safely Democratic. In Delaware, GOP officials laud the Senate candidacy of Rep. Mike Castle (R), far and away the party’s best candidate for the seat once held by Vice President Joseph Biden.

Republican strategists are hopeful that Republican Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts will persuade more prospective candidates to run for seats that until recently seemed secure for Democrats.

Republican gains in the Senate seem inevitable. Beyond the North Dakota and Delaware open seats, several Senate Democrats are in a perilous political condition — none more so than Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), who has poor approval ratings and has trailed in polls against second-tier Republican opposition. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) also is struggling to win re-election in a state that has little affection for Obama. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) hasn’t made much of an impression on voters one year after he was appointed to succeed Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, and he’s running no better than even with former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, the leading GOP candidate.

The Republicans also have a shot at defeating either party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) or his chief primary opponent, Rep. Joe Sestak, in November with former Rep. Pat Toomey as their nominee.

Not the Retiring Kind

Democratic strategists acknowledge that they will lose ground in Congress this fall but argue that the losses will not be catastrophic.

The vast majority of House districts — 335 of 435, or 77 percent — are considered safe for the defending party at the moment, though some of them will become competitive over the next nine months.

Several factors militate against robust GOP gains, including the party’s sluggish fundraising to date. While House Republican strategists have aspirations of seriously contesting as many as 80 Democratic-held seats this November, it’s far from clear whether they will have the funds to assist so many Republican challengers who will be facing well-funded Democratic incumbents.

Democratic strategists are pleased that nearly all of their incumbents are running for re-election this year. Just five House Democrats are retiring outright, and five others are running for other offices. (This tally doesn’t include Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii, who is resigning Feb. 28 to concentrate on a gubernatorial bid and whose House successor will seek re-election in November.) And just two of the 14 elected Democratic Senators whose seats are up this year are eschewing re-election bids.

It’s clear that the Republicans won’t have the same opportunities to capture Democratic open seats as they did in 1994, when the GOP won 22 of the 28 Democratic open seats and lost just four of their own to the Democrats.

Four of the five Democrats who are retiring outright — Brian Baird of Washington, Dennis Moore of Kansas and Bart Gordon and Tanner of Tennessee — announced their decisions between late November and mid-December, spawning speculation of a larger wave of retirements. But only one House Democrat — Snyder — has since announced his retirement, and a handful of veteran Democrats affirmed their re-election plans and quashed retirement rumors fanned by Republican operatives.

“If you had another five to 10 Democrats in swing districts retire, then it becomes a real concern,— said former Texas Rep. Martin Frost, who headed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the 1996 and 1998 cycles. “But there’s nothing overly disturbing yet in the retirements.—

Frost said the Democrats would have retaken the House in 1996, after just two years of Republican rule, were it not for so many GOP victories in districts that House Democrats left open.

“It is very important to minimize the number of retirements, there’s no question about that,— Frost said.

The low number of Democratic open seats necessarily requires the Republicans to unseat a huge number of Democratic incumbents to either win the majority or make significant gains. That is something the Republicans have struggled to do in recent elections.

In the seven election cycles between 1996 and 2008, House Republican challengers unseated a total of 21 Democratic incumbents, an average of three per election. To win a majority of House seats, Republicans may need to match the 34 defeats of Democrats that they registered in the 1994 wave election.

Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who is heading the DCCC for the second consecutive cycle, said Republicans will not replicate their successes from 1994, when he said many Democratic incumbents were unprepared for a GOP upswing.

“No one is going to be caught by surprise,— Van Hollen said.

On the Senate side, Dorgan’s retirement was a setback for Democrats. But the retirement of Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) was a boon to the party; Dodd had sagging approval ratings and the party’s replacement candidate, popular state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, should now hold the seat for the Democrats.

Voters Still Skeptical of GOP

What gains Republicans make in this election will owe more to voters firing Democrats than hiring Republicans, whose party continues to have a poor public profile three years into minority status.

According to a Wall Street Journal-NBC poll taken in mid-January, just 30 percent of respondents said they had very positive or somewhat positive feelings about the Republican Party, compared with 42 percent who had a very negative or somewhat negative feeling. In a Washington Post-ABC News Poll taken Jan. 12-15, 24 percent of respondents said they had a “great deal— or “good amount— of confidence in the GOP to make the right decisions for the country’s future. (At 32 percent, the Democrats weren’t all that better.)

And while Republican fortunes are better with Bush no longer in the White House, 67 percent of Americans think he deserves a “great deal— or “a good amount— of blame for the country’s economic situation, according to the Washington Post-ABC News Poll survey. Just 36 percent of respondents said the same about Obama.

“We’ve had one year to make up for eight,— Obama said at a rally last week for Martha Coakley (D), the Massachusetts attorney general who lost the Senate election to Brown.

Democratic strategists have already telegraphed that one part of their election strategy will be to juxtapose their party’s stewardship of the economy with the Republicans’.

“There are going to be a lot of issues in this campaign, but the central issue will be around the economy — what are you doing to make it go forward and what have you done to fix the problems that put us here in the first place,— Van Hollen said.

Obama has a better image than the Republican Party. His approval rating has hovered around 50 percent — not spectacular, but not in a danger zone for Democrats either. Ronald Reagan in 1982 and Bill Clinton in 1994, whose parties suffered big losses midway through their first terms, had lower approval ratings than Obama.

“If Obama holds on to a 50 percent approval rating through the summer and into the fall, then that would be good news for the Democrats,— Newport said.

Another factor that could complicate the Republican Party’s comeback campaign this year is the internecine warfare within the party. Nowhere was that more evident than in a special election last November in New York’s 23rd district, where Democratic lawyer Bill Owens was elected as the beneficiary of a split between conservative Republicans who backed Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman and centrist Republicans who backed state Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava (R), who withdrew shortly before the election and endorsed Owens.

Some conservatives are angry about what they see as meddling by the GOP campaign committees in contested party elections. In Florida, establishment GOP figures are backing Gov. Charlie Crist in the Senate primary over former state Speaker Marco Rubio, who is a darling of national conservative groups.

Republicans “have got to unite all the elements of their party under one banner,— said Tom Davis, the former House Member from Northern Virginia who headed the NRCC in the 2000 and 2002 election cycles. “It’s going to take some leadership to try to hold everything together and make sure there is room for everybody.—

Democrats on Offense, Maybe

Though the Democrats will be waging the 2010 election almost exclusively on defense, what limited opportunities they have to win Republican-held seats could help offset larger losses elsewhere in the country.

Democrats are favored to unseat Rep. Anh “Joseph— Cao (R-La.), who was elected in 2008 in a staunchly Democratic and black-majority New Orleans district because the Democratic nominee was scandal-plagued Rep. William Jefferson. Democrats also have the early edge to capture the districts that Reps. Mike Castle (R-Del.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) are giving up to run for the Senate.

House Democrats’ more promising candidates include Nebraska state Sen. Tom White, who is challenging six-term Rep. Lee Terry (R) in Omaha, and John Callahan, the mayor of Bethlehem, Pa., who is waging a well-funded campaign in the Lehigh Valley district defended by three-term Rep. Charlie Dent (R).

In the Senate, Democrats will wage highly competitive campaigns in four, and perhaps five, of the six states where Republican Senators are retiring.

In this quartet of tossup races, the Democrats’ best shot probably is in Missouri, where the November matchup will pit Secretary of State Robin Carnahan (D), a member of her state’s most prominent political family, against Rep. Roy Blunt, formerly a member of the House GOP leadership.

The Democrats also have a presumptive nominee for the New Hampshire seat that Sen. Judd Gregg (R) is giving up after three terms. Rep. Paul Hodes, in his second term representing the western half of the state, should face former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte (R) in November, provided she can fend off intraparty opposition on her right flank.

In Kentucky, state Attorney General Jack Conway and Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo are seeking the Democratic nomination for the seat of retiring Sen. Jim Bunning (R). The Republican nominee will be either Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson or eye surgeon Rand Paul, a son of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).

In Ohio, where Sen. George Voinovich (R) is retiring, either Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher or Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner will be the Democratic nominee against the winner of a Republican primary in which former Rep. Rob Portman, a former Bush administration budget and trade official, is the favored candidate.

The late and potentially bloody GOP Senate primary in Florida gives Rep. Kendrick Meek (D) an outside shot at victory, but Republicans merit a strong early edge.

The only open Senate seat that the Democrats have no chance of wresting away from the Republicans is in Kansas, which last elected a Democratic Senator in 1932.