ENPR: Republican Disaster at Hand
- An Electoral College landslide is in the offing, paired with Democratic tsunamis in congressional races.
- Riding the wave triggered by the economic collapse, Sen. Barack Obama‘s adept campaign, and Sen. John McCain‘s hapless candidacy, Democrats will come close to 60 seats in the Senate, and perhaps cross that threshold. In the House, Republicans are retrenching, trying to prevent Democratic gains of 20 or more.
- Republicans desperately need some sort of catalyst to turn things around. The GOP, however, has ceded economic and fiscal issues to the Democrats by embracing the bailout.
Overview: The good news for McCain is this: The election is still 20 days away. The bad news is that none of the tacks he’s likely to take will carry him to victory.
- Obama’s Electoral College lead right now is huge, as almost all of the swing states have swung into his category. Obama has significant poll leads in Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota, and Virginia, and has pulled away in New Hampshire, Iowa, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. In previously strong McCain states such as Florida, Ohio, Missouri, Nevada, and North Carolina, the race is now very tight.
- While "it’s over" has become the resigned refrain of many Republicans, the race certainly is not over. Three weeks is a long time, and anything can happen.
- Still, McCain does not seem to have a clear tack that could carry him to victory. Assailing Obama’s character (by playing up his alliance with unrepentant terrorist Bill Ayers) comes too late. Americans have already seen Obama in the debates and the convention, and he came across as serious and trustworthy. McCain, by playing nice until the fall, missed his chance to define Obama.
- Can McCain make this a race about national security? It’s hard to imagine the nation’s attention diverting from the economic mess right now, but again, we have nearly three weeks until Election Day. An al Qaeda terrorist attack timed for the election, unfortunately, is not unthinkable. That could be what it takes for McCain to win.
- The final debate tonight is not McCain’s last chance to change the race, but it’s his best chance. Given McCain’s charisma shortcomings, it may take a major Obama stumble to turn the race around.
Bailouts: As the Bush Administration wades even deeper into an ocean of state control over the finance industry, many Republicans who backed the bailout are beginning to show buyer’s remorse.
- Specifically, backing the $700 billion bailout, rather than leading a populist crusade against corporate cronyism and big government, increasingly looks like a missed opportunity for McCain. With both presidential candidates taking the side of the Bush Administration and the Democratic Congress, the bailout has been taken off the table in the presidential contest. On all remaining economic battlefronts, Obama is far outperforming McCain.
- Arguing over what form this newly expanded socialism will take is not a winning fight for any Republican. Fighting over economic details is a loser specifically for McCain. Had he taken the fight to a higher level by resisting Washington’s rush to "do something," McCain might have been able to turn the economy into a winning issue instead of the clear loser it is today.
- With the "stabilization" details from the administration constantly shifting, some lawmakers and lobbyists are racing to figure out the new rules of the game, but increasingly, this looks like a hopeless task. Either Obama or McCain will enter the White House with full discretion to set whatever new rules they want. This causes trepidation among some Beltway conservatives.
- Treasury Department official Neel Kashkari, the 35-year-old Wharton MBA running the bailout operation, has a reputation among Capitol Hill staff as a "greenie," possessing the same strong of environmentalist leanings as Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. Both Paulson and Kashkari could find a job in an Obama administration.
- The clearest effect of Washington’s vastly expanded role in our economy: an acceleration of the lobbying boom, and a dramatic increase in lobbyists’ clout. Since 2001, spending on lobbying has grown at a rate of $200 million per year, with 800 new lobbyists every year. Expect a serious spike in 2009.
Top Tier: The economic meltdown and John McCain’s struggles have dragged down poll numbers in all four of the top-tier Senate races. Democrats currently lead in each of these contests.
- Former Rep. Bob Schaffer (R-Colo.) is certainly the underdog in his race against Rep. Mark Udall (D), but he is not out of the race. October has not been kind to him in the poll numbers, as he has fallen from within the margin of error in one Rasmussen poll of 700 likely voters. A Suffolk University poll and a Quinnipiac poll both show Udall with double-digit leads. That margin is inflated, and Schaffer still looks as if he could pull off the biggest GOP upset of the year.
- Supporters of Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) have long held onto the notion that Sununu is the comeback kid who can never be counted out. But we’re now 20 days from Election Day, and the junior senator from the Granite State has yet to make his move. He trails former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen by 5 to 9 points in October’s polls. The economic turmoil has hurt Sununu, and he needs to somehow turn the crisis into his advantage if he is going to win.
- The bad economy has tag-teamed with independent former Sen. Dean Barkley to drag Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) down from his lead over liberal comedian Al Franken (D). All October polls show Franken ahead, and Coleman well below 40 percent. This has been a very fluid race, and Coleman could certainly surge ahead again but, right now, Franken holds the upper hand.
- Oddly enough, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) could come out of this whole thing unscathed. Stevens runs a fair chance of beating the federal criminal charge he faces, and a jury could acquit the senator in a week or two. The court plans to finish the trial before Election Day. An acquittal could boost Stevens to a 20-point win over Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich (D), while a conviction would probably catapult Begich to Washington.
Second and Third Tier: Not only are the top-tier races looking worse for Republicans, a few second- or third-tier challengers have moved to within striking distance.
- Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) has taken a dip this fall. After consistently posting 10- to 20-point leads over former State Rep. Jim Martin (D), Chambliss has not broken 50 percent in about a month, and his leads are within the margin of error in four of the last five polls. Martin has hit Chambliss hard for his support of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout, and it could become the central issue in the election.
- Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) knew he would have to work hard to win reelection, just as he did in 2002. Smith is the only Republican senator on the West Coast, and he rarely breaks 50 percent in polls. But recently, Smith’s numbers have dropped closer to 40 percent, and State House Speaker Jeff Merkley (D) has led in the recent Survey USA and Research 2000 polls.
- We dismissed the summer polls showing Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) trailing State Sen. Kay Hagan (D), but as Hagan remains strong, and Dole remains weak, North Carolina Republicans have become seriously worried. Since the economic meltdown came to the forefront, Hagan has lead in every poll but one, posting sizable leads in many. Dole certainly has the ability to turn things around, but she doesn’t have much time.
- Only two polls have come in about the Maine Senate race since mid-September, and they show Sen. Susan Collins (R) well ahead of Rep. Tom Allen (D). This one could tighten, but if Allen hasn’t surged yet, it’s hard to imagine what could push him over the top.
- Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) certainly doesn’t benefit from the current economic turmoil. Former state Commerce Secretary Bruce Lunsford (D) is staying close in the polls, holding McConnell near or below 50 percent, and even polling within the margin of error. Here’s the question for McConnell (and the GOP broadly): Can things really get worse than they are right now? If this is the bottom, which it might well be, then McConnell will win in November.
- The strongest Republican open seat is in Nebraska, where former Gov. Mike Johanns (R) is the favorite over college teacher Scott Kleeb (D). Johanns still looks like a safe bet to replace retiring Sen. Chuck Hagel (R).
- Mississippi is giving Republicans more headaches. Appointed Sen. Roger Wicker (R) has yet to pull away from former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D) in the special election to fill out the remaining four years of the current term. We haven’t seen a poll in October, and Wicker might find himself playing catch-up.
- Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) continues to post strong leads over State Rep. Rick Noriega (D), but hovering around 50 percent, Cornyn could see a real race in the light of all the bad economic news.
- We haven’t seen a poll out of South Carolina in more than three weeks, and there’s a chance commercial pilot Bob Conley (D) could pull ahead of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R). Conley performed strongly in a recent debate, hitting Graham and Washington on the bailout. Graham, tied more closely than any lawmaker to McCain, could take a bigger hit than most from McCain’s struggles.
- Former Gov. Mark Warner (D-Va.) looks as safe as ever in his open-seat race against former Gov. Jim Gilmore (R). Indeed, Obama is polling ahead in this state, and Democrats are poised to pick up a House seat.
- Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) is still the prohibitive favorite over Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) in New Mexico’s open-seat Senate contest.
- Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) looks to be in fine shape against state Treasurer John Kennedy (R). One potential GOP sleeper race is State Rep. Joel Dykstra‘s (R) challenge to Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.). Dykstra is hitting Johnson hard for opposing tougher Fannie Mae regulation from his perch on the Banking Committee.
Overview: The McCain/economy contagion is spreading to House GOP candidates — both incumbents and challengers.
- Surveying the election battlefield, Republicans have sounded the retreat, and are scurrying back to their bunkers in hopes of holding House losses to no more than a dozen, and to protect "safe" incumbents.
- Politico reported this week that the National Republican Congressional Committee has shifted funding from competitive open seats to previously safe incumbent races. This is an effort to avoid the surprise defeats they suffered in 2006.
- The ballast being tossed overboard includes open-seat candidates Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White in New Mexico and State Rep. Erik Paulsen in Minnesota, both with decent chances to retain GOP-held open seats. These candidates can win without NRCC money, but the committee’s retrenchment reveals a party running for cover with its tail between its legs.
- A Research 2000 poll showed Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.) 7 points behind arboretum director Kathy Dahlkemper (D).
- Rep. Randy Kuhl (R-N.Y.) trails retired Navy officer Eric Massa (D) by 7 points in two recent polls, meaning Republicans may be left with only two House seats in New York State.
- Rep. Chris Carney (D-Pa.) looks likely to hang on in his very Republican district, as recent surveys show him with a double-digit lead over businessman Chris Hackett (R). Carney’s fellow freshman, Rep. Jason Altmire (D), is also pulling away from former GOP Rep. Melissa Hart.
- In Florida, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R) and his brother, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R) are both polling below 50% in tough Miami-area reelection battles, as that state swings towards Obama.
- Other incumbents taking a hit in recent weeks include Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) in the Chicago suburbs and Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) in Cincinnati.
- The NRCC is scrambling to protect Representatives John Shadegg (Ariz.), Henry Brown (S.C.), Lee Terry (Neb.), and Dan Lungren (Calif.) according to Politico.
- The upside for Republicans: Rep. Tim Mahoney (D-Fla.), who won his seat thanks to disgraced Rep. Mark Foley (R), has been exposed as an adulterer who offered a six-figure buyout to his mistress. This close race now leans Republican.