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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - Larry Sabato and David Wasserman

RealClearPolitics - Articles - Larry Sabato and David Wasserman

Last Build Date: Fri, 06 Oct 2006 08:30:15 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2007

October Surprise (And a Leadership Demise?)

Fri, 06 Oct 2006 08:30:15 -0600

From the perspective of one month out from Election Day, it's difficult to imagine how Republicans could suffer losses in a range anywhere near what Democrats suffered twelve years ago. But it's still a familiar picture: this year, the GOP has been giving away seats in Congress as if they were extra pairs of upper-deck Washington Nationals tickets. Ohio GOP Rep. Bob Ney's fall from grace and eventual withdrawal gave the weak Democratic nominee in his district an opportunity as wide as a barn door. Former Majority Whip Tom DeLay's fumbled timing of withdrawal from his Texas race left his party with a write-in candidate whose name is difficult to spell and Democrats with a distinct edge. And Republicans in southern Arizona nominated a fire-and-brimstone conservative over a moderate state legislator in the district currently held by GOP Rep. Jim Kolbe, virtually ending their hopes of retaining the seat against the strong Democratic nominee. The latest free gift for Democrats in the Sunshine State, of course, tops them all. And what an ironic gift: in 1994, the crowning achievement that added the exclamation point to Republicans' romp to power was upstart George Nethercutt's toppling of Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley in his eastern Washington district. Twelve years later, another Foley is (as we can all agree, thankfully) out of his job, and though he did not hold the speaker's gavel, his name might well come to memorialize Speaker Hastert's downfall, if such a downfall comes to pass as either the result of resignation or the election. In the Crystal Ball's estimation, a leadership shakeup is much more likely to happen than not when the odds of those two possibilities are combined; the ongoing Republican free-for-all in the wake of scandal seriously threatens not only Hastert but GOP election efforts. When the Crystal Ball warned of an "October Surprise" in last week's article, no one apart from those who knew of Florida ex-Rep. Mark Foley's horrendous transgressions had any idea that a scandal of such salaciousness and with such power to enrapture voters could break. But it did, and the disturbing truth couldn't have exploded at a worse time for congressional Republicans. If Democrats ride a tsunami to massive victories and operational control of Congress in November, we now know what tectonic unrest will have fomented its swift and violent propagation across an already stormy sea. And what a difference a week makes! Just when it seemed like Republicans were catching a few breaks in the run-up to October, the congressional page scandal joined leaked reports of poor progress in Iraq and Bob Woodward's portrayal of the President Bush as a clueless war wager to deliver Bush and Republicans their worst, most catastrophic week of 2006 (and yes, it may be somewhat sad commentary on the state of both the media and the public's news sensibilities that the latter two items have received much lower billing.) So can it only go up from here for Republicans? Unfortunately for the GOP, we believe things could get even uglier in the coming weeks, but let's first assess some of the damage left behind in the wake of this October Surprise: * In an election year that could see the switch of just fifteen seats flip control of House and six seats flip control of the Senate, the gravity of any seat's instant three-column jump (in this case, from "Likely Republican" to "Leans Democratic") cannot be understated. Under an unusual legal precedent set two years ago by courts to resolve a withdrawal situation in a neighboring district, Florida Republicans find themselves in a serious rut in Foley's newly vacant 16th District: Foley's severely tarnished name must remain on the ballot, even if his votes will be counted towards the replacement nominee. Automatically, Democratic businessman Tim Mahoney is the favorite to win the seat over GOP State Rep. Joe Negron in November, and plenty of Republicans will admit that their best shot of winning the district again will present itself in 2008. So for Democrats, how much distance lies between needing[...]

The Lay of the Land in 2006

Fri, 29 Sep 2006 00:25:29 -0600

Since around the time of the fifth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks upon America, Republicans have clearly caught a few breaks. First and foremost, the rebound in President Bush's approval ratings over the last few weeks has struck us as both stable and perceptible, if tiny, across the average of reputable national surveys. Whereas his job performance approval mark lingered in the mid-to-high 30's all summer, we suspect the figure is now hovering more closely around 40 percent--still dismal within the historical context of presidents in their sixth year, but slightly less calamitous than before. The slightly improved ratings have given many Republicans new hopes that the campaigner-in-chief will be able to reappear on the campaign trail to help soothe the sixth-year itch. Such an up-tick, though small, reflects the perpetuation of a trend we have now seen at work in each of the three most recent federal election cycles: a modest-to-severe sharpening of national focus onto terrorism and national security, clearly Bush and the GOP's most dependable strong suit, during the second-to-last month of each campaign season. Regardless of congressional Republicans' ability to pass the most sacred provisions of their terror bill during the recent month-long session billed as "Security September," the slogan more appropriately describes the month's biennial election agenda-setting tendencies. To many a Democrat's chagrin, "Security September" has fairly or unfairly become a fixture of our early 21st Century politics. The Crystal Ball would also note that within the framework of the month's predominant theme of national security, President Bush may have been shrewd to intensify and increase his rhetorical linkage of the War on Terror to the fight against Nazi Germany in World War II. The association is bound to strike a chord with older Americans for whom a costly and prolonged military struggle with an abhorrent enemy is a familiar and powerful memory. As the president's political advisors are well aware, older voters turn out to vote at a much higher rate than younger voters to begin with, but the resonance of such an appeal in 2006 is especially critical: voters over age 50 account for an even larger percentage of the electorate in midterm years than they do in presidential years. So how important is a jump in Bush approval from mid-to-high thirties to high thirties-to-low forties? The difference may seem miniscule, but it cannot be overlooked. For one, it represents a stabilization and possible directional change in his popularity. But 40 days out from Election Day, it seems that 40 percent approval may be the very watermark at which control of Congress is determined in a "wave" election year. The phenomenon can also be thought of as a tug of war in which 40 percent may be a line of demarcation for control: even a tiny change in approval could be enough to shift the votes necessary to move the determinative seats in our "Ferocious Forty" toward one party or the other (Oh, and by the way, have we mentioned the number 40 enough today?). Another modest boost for Republican congressional prospects promises to be the falling price of oil, the high price of which has contributed to voter unease on a grand scale throughout the 2006 cycle. The relatively precipitous decline coinciding with the conclusion of the summer driving season has helped the GOP in two ways. First, it has helped to calm many voters' nerves and has contributed to increased public confidence in the general strength of the economy. Second, it has blunted the potential impact and effectiveness of Democratic ads attacking incumbent Republican legislators for "siding with big oil" and not doing enough to combat price gouging. Make no mistake: the emergence of sub-$2.00-a-gallon gasoline comes as a very welcome development for just about everyone except Democratic candidates and campaign committees, who have "pumped" a fortune into independent expenditure ads to seize on oil anxieties. To be sure, the list of potential d[...]

Angry Politics: 'Voters Gone Wild' in 2006

Sun, 17 Sep 2006 00:45:18 -0600

DEMOCRAT vs. DEMOCRAT The rarest public form of anger this year, yes, but it has produced the greatest cataclysm of 2006 so far, in the seemingly never-ending Lieberman versus Lamont epic. (See the Crystal Ball's August article [link] on the Connecticut Senate primary for more details.) Just under the surface, there have been pitched wars between the national Democratic Party committees on the one hand, and liberal anti-war, anti-establishment activists and bloggers on the other. As primary season progressed, we saw more and more intra-party contests transform from snoozers to bruisers. On Tuesday, Reps. Al Wynn (D-MD) and Ed Towns (D-NY) both came within single digits of losing re-nomination following eleventh hour surges by hard-driving challengers from the left, and one prominent long-serving Maryland state senator (Democrat Ida Ruben) even lost her reelection bid handily. The most consequential Democratic fault lines, however, run right through Washington, DC. Strategically, Howard Dean's DNC and the leaders of the party's congressional campaign committees seem to be operating on different planets, with the former entity reluctant to sacrifice any territory for the sake of targeting the most competitive races---the latter entity's raison d'etre. All of a sudden, Election Day is less than two months away, and many Democrats genuinely worry that this tabloid-worthy organizational feuding will severely hinder the party's chances of fully capitalizing on the angry storm of anti-GOP resentment. Sure, a modest deal was recently struck between these groups to coordinate on getting out the vote, but if the unified and reliable Republican turnout machine succeeds at cutting party losses, the Democrats' unenthusiastic attempts at collaboration may best be remembered for coming a few days late and a few bucks short. REPUBLICAN vs. REPUBLICAN This version of '06 fury appears to be breaking out all over. From Arizona to Rhode Island, very heated struggles between moderates, conservatives, and ultra-conservatives were Tuesday's chief exhibit, a continuation of a trend we had seen developing in Texas, Michigan, and elsewhere over the past few months. And make no mistake--even right-leaning grassroots GOP ranks are irascible in 2006. Tuesday's 47 percent showing by charismatic conservative mayor Steve Laffey against Sen. Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island and the plurality victory of Minuteman enthusiast Randy Graf in a southern Arizona House primary are more than just borderline evidence of the GOP base's flammability. Conservatives are deeply upset with the Bush administration and the GOP Congress about the lack of fiscal discipline, corruption in the ranks, immigration, and a host of other subjects. A dangerous thesis has taken hold among many in the GOP: that it might be better to lose the '06 election and re-group. In American history, when a faction in the majority party decides the party is tired and could benefit from some time in the wilderness, the voters usually oblige. Most recently, the latest issue of Washington Monthly includes a cover story [link] featuring seven such articles from prominent Republican strategists, insiders and commentators. Voters Gone Wild Some analyses have improperly categorized 2006's rage as solely "anti-incumbent;" and though the electorate is more anti-incumbent than it has been since 1994, the anger we witness is multi-dimensional. Certainly, incumbents of all stripes have a lot to lose this year, and Democrats can be targeted as well as Republicans: just ask the endangered Democratic Governors in Michigan, Wisconsin, and other states. But frontrunner challengers in primaries can feel the wrath, too: voters ultimately deep-sixed the bids of candidates whom retiring representatives Jim Kolbe (R-AZ), Joel Hefley (R-CO), Marty Sabo (D-MN), and Major Owens (D-NY) had endorsed (and in some cases hand-picked) to succeed them. When voters go wild, when they want to lash out, they can strike any available target. Since the Republicans contro[...]

The 2006 Midterms: Moving Towards Democrats

Fri, 04 Aug 2006 00:49:55 -0600

As national discontent over gas prices, Iraq, and general instability in the Middle East percolate, approval ratings of Congress, the president, and the national direction continue to languish at torrid depths. But as the Crystal Ball has cautioned again and again, Democrats cannot truly capitalize on the withering political climate faced by the GOP unless they succeed in convincing large numbers of voters to evaluate their home-state Republican candidates through the powerful lens of national displeasure. In other words, the size of Democrats' gains will be contingent upon how well they play the game of guilt by (Bush) association as Republicans seek to escape the shadow of their unpopular chief executive. To be certain, the 2006 midterm election cycle promises to feature the most strongly anti-incumbent mood since 1994, a fact Republicans might argue cuts both ways, though the Crystal Ball maintains it will disproportionately debilitate the ruling party. Furthermore, Democrats will have the advantage of a more angry and motivated base to boost turnout. Just how fired up is the liberal Democratic base this year, you ask? Fired up enough to practice guilt by association on its own party's moderates! Ironically, nowhere is this year's anti-Bush, anti-incumbent phenomenon more palpable today than in Connecticut, where Sen. Joe Lieberman is fighting for his political life in a Democratic primary after having been tagged one of the White House's favorite Democrats, whether he likes it or not (Read More). The problem for Democrats, however, has always been that a remarkable number of the GOP's targeted moderate incumbents are personally very well-liked in their states and districts. For example, moderate Connecticut GOP Reps. Rob Simmons, Chris Shays, and Nancy Johnson have all earned strong reputations for paying attention to local concerns, and GOP veterans such as Pennsylvania Rep. Curt Weldon and Florida Rep. Clay Shaw have even been able to count on a slew of local Democratic endorsements in past years. For all of the broad, national reasons the party in power should be politically radioactive right now, Democrats know that none of them will matter if they don't come into focus in districts like these that will decide the balance of power beyond 2006. But there are already strong indications that this year is different: more voters and local Democratic leaders than ever before seem ready to cast aside their personal affections for longtime GOP incumbents for the sake of sending Congress and the Bush administration a message. Possible Democratic takeover seats such as Rep. Johnson's and Virginia GOP Rep. Thelma Drake's, which seemed implausible targets as recently as a year ago, have slowly moved down the pipeline into contention, are now fully engaged by party committees alongside the nation's most competitive. These are the kinds of movements that are characteristic of "macro-wave" elections, the only kind of election that would flip the leadership of Congress to Democrats this year. Over all, given the most recent evidence, it's not difficult for the Crystal Ball to observe which party can now claim the momentum in the guilt by association game. In the past month or so, it's appeared as if Democrats have been on the upswing almost effortlessly as members of the GOP have suffered under the burden of the administration's sagging numbers. More individual races are attracting the attention of voters and donors as Election Day comes into closer view, the overwhelming preponderance of finance reports and voter surveys released in the last month have shown races moving in principally one direction--towards Democrats. Here's some perspective: The Money Chase Much has been made of the Democrats' success at winnowing the GOP's traditional advantage in national party committee funds. But a fresh look at aggregations of individual candidates' funds following second quarter fundraising reports reveals that Democrats are performing even better o[...]

The 4 T's in '06 House Battle

Fri, 30 Jun 2006 00:01:08 -0600

And earlier this month, veteran western Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. John Murtha made a splash by preemptively announcing a bid for House majority leader should his party take the body, only to suspend his campaign next week after acknowledging he had jumped the gun. Murtha, who at age 74 only recently soared to celebrity status in the eyes of rank and file anti-war Democrats across the country thanks to his November 2005 surprise call for troop withdrawal, expressed zero uncertainty in his initial declaration that Democrats would end the GOP's 12-year congressional reign in 2006. But a little more than four months out from the election, the Crystal Ball is not yet ready to view the GOP majority as a flimsy house of cards, nor in our estimation should Murtha fast-forward to helping Pelosi hand out committee gavels to the ranking members of his caucus. The Republican margin in the House of Representatives may be more tenuous this year than it has been in any election cycle since its inception in 1994, but a larger wave than currently exists must build in order to completely erode the GOP's 15-seat edge, and by no means has the party in power already been swept out to sea. Given President Bush's upside-down approval ratings just about everywhere except Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho, we have always sung the tune that Democratic chances of capturing Congress in 2006 depend entirely on the party's ability to nationalize the midterm election and capitalize on voter discontent over Iraq, oil, and scandal among other issues. And of course, there's also the flip side: Republican chances for keeping control depend on the GOP's ability to stress incumbent attention to local concern, and in many cases, independence from the administration. So what, then, of this wisdom? In the first six months of 2006, how have each of the parties succeeded or failed? The Crystal Ball has observed something remarkable taking shape: a unique split decision. Democrats have succeeded in placing national issues of great consequence front and center in individual races for the House, but they have thus far failed to establish a truly national narrative to frame the battles in each of their targeted districts within a single, compelling context. Iraq has dominated neck-and-neck horse races in districts such as Connecticut's 4th and Pennsylvania's 7th, but ethics has (rightfully) trumped other contests in districts that have grown to know congressional scandal all too well, such as California's 50th and Ohio's 18th. Immigration has dominated still more campaigns, especially where districts are in close proximity to borders (again, CA-50, among others). This variegation of the 2006 issue landscape complicates Democratic efforts a great deal. But there is little the party out of power can do in this respect--the diversity of competitive districts and candidates greatly reduces the party's ability to craft anything close to a simple, powerful banner under which all of its candidates could run. Yes, generic congressional ballot tests indicate startling weakness for the GOP, but Republicans can take heart in the difficulty of their opponents' challenge. For all of the GOP's very serious woes, the Democratic search for a national message and an electoral wave seems unlikely to produce anything quite as potent as the "Contract with America" and the tsunami of twelve years ago. Then again, even on a race-by-race basis, Democratic prospects seem brighter by the day in large part because of the president's unpopularity, which appears to have settled somewhat, and the salience of issues with which the president and his party continue to struggle in the polls. A look at our updated Dirty Thirty list of competitive House races immediately reveals an unlucky number for Republicans: 13 races can now be considered "toss-ups," and 12 of those districts are currently held by Republicans. In February, we rated only 11 races as "toss-ups," and only 8 of those races w[...]

Better Watch a District!

Fri, 17 Feb 2006 14:42:07 -0600

Still, each federal election year we usually see some surprising outcomes on election night in districts that had eluded pundits' pre-November radar screens. Whether it's simply an unexpected close call for a veteran incumbent, such as GOP Connecticut Rep. Nancy Johnson's 50 to 49 percent squeaker over Democratic newcomer Charlotte Koskoff in 1996, or a David vs. Goliath-style toppling of an incumbent, such as Democratic physicist Rush Holt's 1998 stunning upset of GOP New Jersey Rep. Mike Pappas, observers always tend to miss a couple "sleeper" races. Last week, we rolled out our updated list of the top "Dirty Thirty" races we consider extremely likely to experience strong inter-party competition in November. So then where might these "sleeper" districts be located in 2006? At this point, we've nominated twenty districts to keep a close watch on. And while we're willing to bet that several of these races will end up in the "Dirty Thirty" before all is said and done, it is just as likely that a good number of these races won't end up being very competitive at all. By the same token, we expect that a few races not even listed in our twenty-member "Watch List" will find their way into our picture before the fall. In many respects, our list of the 31st through 50th most competitive seats is just as remarkable for the races it leaves out as it is for the races it includes. The Crystal Ball is going out on a limb by predicting that in a Democratic-leaning 2006, several seats that seem to host perennially close matchups (especially very "red" Democrat-held districts such as Utah-2, Kansas-3, and South Dakota-AL) might actually be less competitive than several seats where pitched battles against established incumbents have been rare occurrences as of late (Kentucky-2, Pennsylvania-7, and Connecticut-5 come to mind). In the end, veteran incumbents who have taken little for granted in the off-season--as evidenced by fundraising and time spent in their districts--are much less likely to be caught asleep at the wheel on November 7th. The watchword for parties holding borderline-competitive seats? Be on the lookout! Fratricide Watch: Incumbents Fight for Survival You may be surprised--not all the House action in 2006 is reserved for districts where one party may be poised to add a seat to its totals! We're covering these primary races now because they're happening soon, and in many cases there exists hard-to-read potential for incumbents to lose. In fact, at least one almost always does! Is there any possibility an upset of an incumbent will lead to the out-of-power party becoming competitive in any of these districts? Unlikely. But in these types of volatile situations, alliances can shift and almost anything can happen. The Top 5 California (51) - Longtime southern San Diego County Democratic Rep. Bob Filner may face his toughest electoral fight yet in 2006 for several reasons. First, although his district was altered prior to the 2002 elections to include more Democrats, its Hispanic percentage increased markedly, making him susceptible to a challenge from a Hispanic candidate. Second, Filner has received his share of unfavorable press attention this year on the heels of neighboring GOP Rep. Duke Cunningham's indictment: he has been criticized for hiring his wife as a paid fundraiser for his campaign committee. Both of these factors promise to increase the viability of Hispanic Assemblyman Juan Vargas, who has wasted no time in blasting the incumbent over a variety of matters. We give an ever-so-slight advantage to Filner at the outset, but predict this one will be very close. Outlook: Toss-up Michigan (7) - Moderate freshman GOP Rep. Joe Schwarz won the open 2004 Republican primary with merely 28 percent of the vote in a six-candidate field to claim this seat, which is home to the birthplace of the Republican party and is true to its roots in general elections. The third-place finisher [...]