Evans-Novak Political Report

ENPR: Republicans Demoralized But Presidential Race Still Close

Outlook

  1. From the standpoint of morale, enthusiasm, and confidence, the presidential election can be called no contest—Sen. Barack Obama over Sen. John McCain. The Republican candidate has not used the long period since he clinched the nomination to establish an effective campaign strategy. The level of depression among Republicans outside the McCain inner circle is worsening as Obama inches his way rightward, toward the middle of the road (at least rhetorically).

  2. Actually, it still looks like a close race on a state-by-state basis. Despite the enthusiasm gap, this remains a winnable race for McCain in a terrible Republican year. The truth is there remains voter resistance to Obama that to some degree is based on race.
  3. While Obama has been inching rightward carefully (most recently on his “I am patriot” speech), almost overlooked is his announced opposition to the California initiative on same-sex marriage. That could mobilize social conservatives nationwide.
  4. Another impetus to energize the social right may be the announcement of support for “equal time” legislation by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)—the so-called fairness doctrine. This represents a threat to the very existence of small religious radio stations across the country that could stir Christian conservatives out of their political lethargy.
  5. On the surface, the meeting at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel of some 150 financial supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton with Obama was a love-fest. Beneath the surface, though, Clintonistas were unimpressed. The candidate who is so overpowering in football stadium rallies did not capture the hearts of his former opponent’s fund-raisers, who deemed his performance “underwhelming.”
  6. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark talked his way out of what was shaping as a serious chance to be Obama’s running mate when he delivered a mindless blast against McCain’s war record (in the process, eclipsing Obama’s carefully crafted patriotism speech). Clark improved as a candidate during his 2004 presidential race, but not enough obviously.
  7. House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) shut down the entire appropriations process to protect Democrats from having to vote on oil drilling. Republicans feel they are winning the national debate with their argument that insufficient supplies rather than speculators cause spiked oil and gasoline prices. The GOP leadership has instructed their troops to press for more drilling without defending speculators.
  8. However, it looks like a case of the operation being a great success but the patient dying. All indicators point to the Republicans being blamed for the gas price explosion (see New Hampshire, below). That kindles more talk of a change in the House Republican leadership after the ’08 elections.

States

Louisiana-Jindal: Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) has been hit by the first political firestorm of his tenure, and he has come out intact, but wounded.

  1. The crux of the matter was a 123% pay raise for Louisiana’s part-time legislators—from $16,800 to $37,500 per year. Jindal had campaigned against legislative pay raises. But in exchange for some of his proposed reforms, he promised lawmakers he would approve their raise by not vetoing it.

  2. The public eruption of outrage was surprising. Conservative radio hosts and other media outlets assailed the raise, and attacked Jindal as lacking a spine. There was little sympathy for his justification that he needed to make concessions to win the trust of lawmakers.
  3. Jindal did not help himself with the explanation he gave for his acquiescence: Although he thought the raise was a bad idea, legislative pay is a legislative matter and he would not interfere. Conservatives and other reformers objected that it was a taxpayer matter.
  4. Jindal’s popularity plummeted, from around 70% down to about 50% in one survey. Jindal’s willingness to sign the pay raise even compelled two of his former supporters to launch a recall drive—even though a recall would elevate Democratic Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu to the governorship. Many of the legislators approving the raise were also targeted with recall petitions.
  5. Jindal’s about-face in recent days was the result of this intense public pressure. Some conservatives had planned a rally at the state capitol.
  6. His veto message was extraordinary in its contrition. He wrote that his original deal with lawmakers “was a mistake on my part,” and he apologized to the lawmakers for breaking his promise.
  7. Legislators were upset, but their reaction was surprisingly tame. They had felt the public pressure, too.
  8. The strength of the anti-Jindal reaction had a few sources. Mostly, too many voters, especially Republicans, had put too much faith in Jindal after years of corruption and incompetence—their desperation was compounded by Hurricane Katrina, and continued corruption scandals. Nobody could have lived up to those expectations.
  9. Already, Jindal had earned some resentment. The mentions of him as a running mate for McCain, and his constant mugging for national media made some of his Louisiana supporters feel he was simply using this suffering state for his own advancement.
  10. Interestingly, the unrealistic Republican and conservative adulation towards Jindal upon his election resembled the current liberal adulation towards Obama.

Senate

New Hampshire: Right now, Sen. John Sununu (R) is the most endangered member of the U.S. Senate, but some Republicans are not too worried. Sununu consistently trails former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D) in polls, and one American Research Group survey last month of 600 likely voters showed Shaheen ahead 54% to 40%, with a +/- 4% margin of error. Comparisons to Sen. Rick Santorum’s (R-Pa.) 2006 embarrassing thrashing have been popping up for months.

President Bush is the millstone around Sununu’s neck. One ad from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee calls Sununu “Bush’s Senator,” attacking him for joining Bush on Iraq, even on the successful surge. Shaheen, meanwhile is attacking oil companies and tying Sununu to the companies.

These are bad times to be a Republican in New Hampshire. For six years, the state GOP has been in decline. Although Sununu personally doesn’t have very high negatives, he suffers as a Republican senator.

This is the cause for some Republican hope. Shaheen and the DSCC have been up on the air, hitting Sununu, but he has only just begun campaigning. The most recent FEC data (three months old), showed Sununu with $4.3 million on hand to Shaheen’s $1.8 million. Sununu has been saving up.

The GOP hope is that once voters are reintroduced to Sununu as a person, they will like him again. Similarly, once the presidential campaign is in full swing, McCain—popular in the Granite State—will replace Bush as the face of the national GOP.

Along the same lines, Sununu hopes he can remind voters of the Shaheen they rejected in 2002: the former governor who tried to institute a sales tax. Without the sales-tax line of attack six years ago, Sununu probably would have lost.

How far can Sununu ride personal likability and intelligence? How much of a deficit can he overcome with a late surge? This race will almost certainly tighten, but unless New Hampshire shows it is shedding its anti-Republican sentiment, Sununu will lose. Leaning Democratic Takeover.

House

Idaho-1: Congressional Republicans need to worry about every corner of the map this year, from Cuban districts in Miami all the way to Alaska, and Idaho’s 1st District is no exception.

Freshman Rep. Bill Sali (R) faces the double threat of an antagonistic relationship with his party and a well-funded Democratic challenger. Businessman Walt Minnick (D), who ran for Senate in 1996, had outraised Sali $711,000 to $495,000 as of May 7, with twice as much cash on hand. The other leading Democrat in the primary contest, Larry Grant, who lost to Sali two years ago, stepped aside and endorsed Minnick.

Sali’s problems with his own party are widespread. His House colleague, Rep. Mike Simpson (R), reportedly once threatened to throw him out the window. His former floor leader in Boise once said of him, “That idiot is just an absolute idiot.” Sali won a contentious, crowded primary in 2006, and then barely pulled out the general election to replace former Rep. Butch Otter (R), now governor of Idaho.

As an indicator of his Republican problem, Sali’s low-profile primary challenger this year, Matthew Salisbury (R), garnered 40% of the primary vote while spending less than $50,000. Sali will benefit from the McCain-Obama battle atop the ticket, but if Minnick can win over anti-Sali Republicans, this will be another GOP loss. Until we see evidence of that, Sali looks like the slight favorite. Leaning Republican Retention.


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