Evans-Novak Political Report

ENPR: Chambliss Blocks Democrats Path to 60

Outlook

  1. A 60-seat Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate is out of reach after Sen. Saxby Chambliss‘s (R-Ga.) comfortable win in the runoff election Tuesday. Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) also looks like the slight favorite in his recount effort. Having nearly 60 seats, though, will give Senate Democrats sizable power.
  2. Barack Obama continues to fill his administration posts with alumni of Bill Clinton‘s administration, including his recent picks of Hillary Clinton as secretary of State and Bill Richardson as Commerce secretary. Many Obama picks have serious liabilities, ethical and ideological, but it would be out of character for Republicans to put up serious resistance to high-level Democratic nominations.
  3. Obama’s immense political capital and popularity with his base are evidenced by the muted blowback to his picking hawkish Clinton and Bush-holdover Secretary of Defense Robert Gates for his national security team. These picks can be seen slaps in the face to his left-wing base that (naively) believed they were getting a peace president, but Obama doesn’t seem to suffer from them.
  4. Early signals from the GOP minority—on the auto bailout and in their leadership elections and conference rule changes—signal a party comfortable having little influence.

Senate

Alaska: Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who held a significant lead on Election Day, lost his re-election bid to Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich (D).

This gives Senate Democrats their 56th seat in the next Congress, not counting independents Joe Lieberman ( Conn.) or Bernie Sanders ( Vt.). While it looks like the Democratic Caucus will never reach 60 seats, effectively having at least 58 votes gives the Democrats a filibuster-proof majority on most issues, unless the GOP leadership can exercise unprecedented discipline to prevent rogue members, such as Maine liberals Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins or Arlen Specter (Pa.)—or "maverick" John McCain (Ariz.)—from splitting from their GOP colleagues on breaking filibusters.

Republicans will be spared the unpleasantness of voting on expelling Stevens from the GOP Conference, and the full Senate will be spared the possibility of expelling him from the chamber. Also, Alaska will be spared a special election.

Stevens had faced heavy pressure from his party to step aside when he was under investigation, and his refusal to do so has cost his party a U.S. Senate seat—something of a theme in the recent GOP collapse.

Delaware: Vice President-elect Joe Biden (D) is getting his way regarding the future of his Senate seat. Trying to avoid blatant nepotism in securing an appointment for his son, Delaware Atty. Gen. Beau Biden (D), to the seat, Biden and his allies turned instead to a Biden loyalist to serve as a placeholder.

Gov. Ruth Ann Minner (D) announced she will appoint longtime Joe Biden aide Ted Kaufmann (D) to Biden’s seat. Kaufmann was picked on the condition that he will not run in the 2010 special election. This leaves the door open for Beau Biden to win the seat in his own right, after he returns from national guard duty in Iraq.

To ensure the smooth transition of the seat in this manner, Sen. Biden had to back down from an earlier pledge to serve in the U.S. Senate until the moment before his inauguration as Vice President. That would have allowed Gov.-elect Jack Markell (D), set to be sworn in at midnight that same day, to name Biden’s replacement.

Snubbed in this whole process is outgoing Lt. Gov. John Carney (D). Carney was long considered the heir to the governorship, but he lost in an upset to Markell in the primary. Immediately after Biden’s election as Vice President, Democratic leaders in Delaware began lobbying for a Carney appointment to the Senate. Carney even said he would serve as a placeholder if that was asked of him.

But Minner passed him over, perhaps out of fears that Carney—ambitious and clearly seeking work—would go back on a promise to step aside in two years. Now, on the other hand, Carney is perfectly free to gun for this seat if he can upset Beau Biden in two years.

Joe Biden currently plans to be sworn in for a seventh term on January 5, and resign some time between then and January 20.

Florida: Sen. Mel Martinez (R) announced he will not seek a second term, setting off an early scramble for the 2010 election. Martinez was vulnerable, both in the primary and the general election.
The biggest name mentioned for this seat is former governor Jeb Bush (R), the president’s brother. Bush has hinted that he could be interested. The long list of potential GOP candidates includes Gov. Charlie Crist, Representatives Vern Buchanan, and Connie Mack, Atty. Gen. Bill McCollum (who has lost two Senate bids), and some current and former state legislative leaders.

On the Democratic side, the names mentioned include State CFO Alex Sink and Congressmen Allen Boyd, Kendrick Meek, and Ron Klein.
In the abstract, Republicans start with an advantage here, but for the GOP, it’s not pleasant to kick off the 2010 cycle with an open seat before the 111th Congress is even sworn in.

Georgia: Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) trounced former State Rep. Jim Martin (D) in the runoff Tuesday, preventing Democrats from attaining 60 seats and stopping the Republicans’ slow bleeding in their only strong region—the South.

With 97 percent of precincts reporting as of Wednesday morning, Chambliss was ahead 57 percent to 43 percent, and Martin had conceded. As with all special elections, this race hinged on turnout, and the GOP won on this score. Chambliss’s vote total fell by about one-third compared to the November 4 election, while Martin’s vote fell by nearly 50 percent. With no exit polls available, one has to assume that Martin—despite appearances with Atlanta rappers aimed at maintaining high black turnout—suffered from the black vote’s dropping from its strong Obama-driven numbers on Election Day.

Chambliss’s win is perhaps the first national notch in the belt of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R). While other GOP stars, such as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee all appeared in Atlanta for Chambliss, only Palin was called on to tour the state and rev up the GOP base.

On the Democratic side, many luminaries visited the state, but Obama stayed away. While he recorded robo-calls and donated staff, he didn’t put any political capital on the line by appearing in person. With such a huge margin of defeat for the Democrat, that looks like a prudent move.

Chambliss was in the position of having to go through a runoff because he didn’t gain a majority on Election Day—only because of his vote for the "$700 billion" bailout in October. Martin hammered away on that vote relentlessly, and the Libertarian nominee’s 3.4 percent of the vote was enough to bring Chambliss below 50 percent. With the runoff presented as providing a firewall against 60 votes for Reid and Obama, Republican donors, volunteers nationally—as well as voters in Georgia—were willing to forgive Chambliss’s less than impressive six years.

Illinois: Barack Obama’s Senate seat is vacant since he resigned shortly after the election, sparking a political drama in a state full of political intrigue.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) must name a replacement by the end of the year, who would serve out the remainder of Obama’s term, until the 2010 election. Many dynamics are at play.

Blagojevich is an immensely unpopular governor with approval ratings below those of President Bush. He is caught up in scandal, and Springfield political watchers expect he could be indicted at any minute. Nevertheless, Blagojevich still plans to seek reelection in 2010, when he is certain to face a serious primary challenge.

Also pertinent is the fact that this is "the black Senate seat"—having been held by a black Democrat for 10 of the last 16 years—and Obama’s resignation and the 2008 election results mean none of the current or incoming U.S. 99 senators is black.

Chicago obviously has a powerful and influential Democratic machine. The popular President-elect and his White House chief of staff both come from that machine, and Mayor Richard Daley (D) wields clout within the national Democratic Party—more than any other mayor, and more than many governors or senators.

But, oddly, the governor has little relationship with these power-brokers. Throw in his low popularity, and his precarious ethical situation and his course of action and motivations become even less predictable.

Will Blagojevich try to win over an influential constituency to rally behind him in case of a primary? He could keep the seat black by naming Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., former state Senate Majority Leader Emil Jones (who is Obama’s "political godfather") or Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White. Jones is a power-broker in Springfield, and if a white Democrat challenges Blagojevich on the grounds of the federal investigation into Blagojevich’s administration and family, a revved-up black Democratic constituency could line up behind a governor persecuted by The Man.

Along similar lines, Blagojevich could make his pick with an eye to influencing a potential jury pool rather than an electorate. The governor may be interested in using this nomination to help preserve his freedom rather than to preserve his job.

Jackson has some hurdles, too. He fought with Blagojevich years back over a third Chicago airport in his district, and his naked self-promotion could put off Blagojevich. Also, the son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson would have trouble winning downstate white votes, and could conceivably lose to a Republican in 2010.

If Obama, Rahm Emanuel, and Sen. Dick Durbin (D) had their say, Chicago and Springfield insiders presume they would push for failed 2006 House candidate Tammy Duckworth (D), an Iraq war veteran amputee currently serving as Blagojevich’s director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. Getting Duckworth in the Senate would save some face for Emanuel whose biggest political blunder was pouring so many resources into Duckworth’s long-shot candidacy. It would also earn Blagojevich glowing press—something he hasn’t seen much of.

Could Emanuel, Durbin, or Obama offer Blagojevich anything in order to influence his pick? Short of some audacious gift such as earmarks or pulling federal investigators off his back, probably not. Indeed, a Chicago Sun-Times article speculated that Durbin’s support for Duckworth could sink her chances.

For months, Illinoisans have speculated that Blagojevich might tap rival Lisa Madigan, the state attorney general. If she accepted, that would eliminate a top potential primary challenger while simultaneously giving Blagojevich another vacancy to fill—and having an ally at A.G. would be valuable for a governor in his position.

National Democrats, obviously, would be most concerned to get an appointee who would win in 2010. But with the governor’s dim political future, does anyone have any sway over Blagojevich?

Minnesota: Comedian Al Franken (D) looks like the loser as the statewide recount has padded the lead of Sen. Norm Coleman (R). While some counties were still counting Wednesday morning, and the state Canvassing Board has yet to review thousands of disputed ballots, Franken seems to be resting his hopes on absentee ballots with missing or invalid information.

Franken appears disposed towards skipping a full-out legal battle—he has lost so far in the courts—and taking the battle to the U.S. Senate. Of course, the Senate, under the Constitution, is the judge of its own elections, and a simple majority vote could throw out Coleman’s election, creating a vacancy. In the case of a vacancy, Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) would appoint a replacement—very possibly Coleman—and a special election in November 2009 would determine who would fill out the next five years of the term.

Would the Democratic majority seat Franken, even if the Minnesota secretary of state certified Coleman as the winner? That’s unclear.

Would Democrats be willing to play such Nietzschean hardball? Would they be willing to overturn an election just because they had the power to do so? Of course, they would frame such a move as "concern" over the "disenfranchised" absentee voters. This sort of talk is already emanating from the Democratic leadership.

Blocking Coleman would be a high-risk ploy by Senate Democrats. Even with friendly media, it might look too cut-throat. The reward would be small, too: With a GOP governor, Democrats wouldn’t even gain a seat—they would gain only a do-over in November 2009, when circumstances for Democrats won’t be as favorable as they were in November 2008. Perhaps Democrats would be better served by making a fuss, seating Coleman with show of graciousness, and spending six years denigrating his legitimacy.

Of course, it is also possible Franken could win without those absentee ballots, in which case there would be no more Senate "concerns" about the integrity of the vote.

New York: With Hillary Clinton‘s (D) nomination as secretary of State, Gov. David Paterson (D) has the job of filling the vacancy until a 2010 special election. His options are many, and the governor—who rose to his position thanks to the resignation this year of adulterous Gov. Eliot Spitzer—has given scarce hints.

His one clue: He wants to appoint someone from Upstate, or a woman, or a racial minority. Ruling out only white men from New York City and Long Island doesn’t narrow the field much—perhaps eliminating from contention Bill Clinton, Rep. Joe Crowley, or state House Speaker Sheldon Silver.

A sensible self-interested pick would be Atty. Gen. Andrew Cuomo (D) who clearly has his eyes on the governorship and could challenge Paterson in 2010. An outsider’s run for governor might be less desirable than an incumbent’s run for Senate in Cuomo’s eyes.

Other names listed include Representatives Gregory Meeks, Nita Lowey, or Nydia Velasquez. Lowey has some claim to being "next-in-line" having stepped aside from the open-seat Senate race in 2000 once Clinton announced her candidacy. The list of potential picks is long.

House

California-4: While Democrat Charlie Brown has yet to concede, State Sen. Tom McClintock (R) has—for the second time—declared victory. Vote tallies show him up by more than 1,000 votes, and results will be certified Dec. 13.

With Brown yet to concede as of press time, we will leave this in the undetermined column, but McClintock looks like the all-but-certain winner.

Louisiana-2: A GOP-commissioned poll suggests indicted Rep. Bill Jefferson (D) is seriously vulnerable in the December 4 general election.

With primary elections pushed back to November’s Election Day by Hurricane Gustav, the general election has not been held yet in this Louisiana-based district. On Saturday, voters will go to the polls, and previously we had considered this 58% black district unwinnable. But the Republicans’ poll shows attorney and Vietnamese immigrant Joseph Cao (R) leading Jefferson, as 40% of voters say they would vote against Jefferson no matter what.

And so, as always with oddly timed elections, it all comes down to turnout. Can Jefferson rally the black New Orleans Democratic machine to drive turnout on Saturday? Will the lack of Obama atop the ticket result in a white majority on Election Day? Will the shame of an indicted and apparently crooked congressman motivate an anti-Jefferson vote to turn out?

Jefferson has to be considered the slight favorite, but "Dollar Bill" could get left out in the cold. Leaning Democratic Retention.

Louisiana-4: Physician John Fleming (R) is caught in a tight race with former Caddo District Atty. Paul Carmouche (D) in the hurricane-postponed general election to be held this coming Saturday.

Only campaign-commissioned polls are available, with each campaign’s survey showing its candidate ahead. Low turnout is expected. Democrats are trying to motivate their base with Obama-taped radio ads. Leaning Republican Retention.

Ohio-15: In a near-perfect parallel to the Minnesota Senate recount, the open seat contest in Ohio’s 15th District hinges on the counting—or not counting—of a thousand improperly filled out absentee ballots. In both races, Democrats are confident they could win if these ballots are counted. In both races, Republicans currently are ahead.

State Sen. Steve Stivers (R) has a 594-vote lead over Franklin County Commissioner Mary Jo Kilroy (D). The state court had ruled that improper ballots should not be counted, but a federal court instructed the state to instead err on the side of counting more votes. A federal circuit court has since overturned that first federal ruling, declaring that the federal courts do not have jurisdiction here.

Stivers looks likely to hang on.

Virginia-5: Rep. Virgil Goode (R) has demanded a recount, despite losing by a convincing 745 votes to attorney Tom Periello (D) in this Charlottesville-based district. Taxpayers will foot the bill, but both candidates are raising money to fund their campaigns’ efforts during the recount.

It’s hard to see how Goode could pull this one out, but we will leave it in the undetermined column until Goode finally concedes.

Current and Probable Vacancies

Position
Why is it becoming vacant?
How will replacement be chosen?
Arizona Governor Gov. Janet Napolitano (D)
nominated as director of Homeland Security
Sec. of State Jan Brewer (R)
ascends to governorship; regular election in 2010
Delaware-Senate Sen. Joe Biden (D)
elected Vice President
Appointment by Gov. Ruth Ann Minner (D);
special election in 2010; regular election in 2014
Illinois-Senate Sen. Barack Obama (D)
elected President
Appointment by Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D);
regular election in 2010
Illinois-5 Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D)
named White House chief of staff
Special election date to be determined
New Mexico Governor Gov. Bill Richardson (D)
nominated as Commerce Secretary
Lt. Gov. Dianne Denish (D)
would ascend to governorship; regular election in 2010
New York-Senate Sen. Hillary Clinton (D)
nominated as Secretary of State
Appointment by Gov. David Patterson (D);
special election in 2010; regular election 2012


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