Evans-Novak Political Report

ENPR: Blagojevich arrest causes headache for Obama

Outlook

  1. The arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) provides a welcome distraction as Congress and the Bush Administration hammer out a bailout of Detroit. But for President-Elect Barack Obama, the distraction from his well-scripted transition combined with the attention on the corruption of his political birthplace makes the Blagojevich arrest a headache.
  2. Democrats, as we went to press Wednesday, appeared ready to go along with President Bush’s pared-down auto bailout, presumably ready to offer the carmakers more money with more conditions in the new year. It is support from Republicans in Congress that’s questionable.
  3. Republicans are three-for-three in post-Election Day elections—a streak capped off by an upset in New Orleans. Not too much should be read into these wins. They do not portend a GOP comeback, but they do inject some optimism into a depressed base.

Senate

Illinois: The indictment of Gov. Blagojevich injects a colossal dose of uncertainty into an already unpredictable situation. Who will fill Obama’s Senate seat, for how long, when will we get a replacement, and how?

There is nothing to keep Blagojevich—tomorrow, or at some later date from a jail cell—from appointing the U.S. Senator to fill the seat Obama vacated last month, shortly after his election as President. The Senate’s Democratic leadership, however, has made it clear they might refuse to seat any senator appointed by the governor, in light of his indictment and his alleged intention to sell the seat. Further, any politician with any political aspirations would be very hesitant to accept a Blagojevich appointment.

Lawmakers in Springfield are considering changing the law, stripping the governor of appointment power—which, under the U.S. Constitution, is vested in state governments broadly, and not specifically in governors—and calling for a swift special election early next year. Washington Democrats advocate such a course of action.

Who would benefit from a February special election? If Obama decides to back a candidate—say, state Veterans Affairs Secretary Tammy Duckworth or even developer Valerie Jarrett, who withdrew herself from consideration in November—that support of a popular favorite-son President could be enough to at least raise huge amounts of money in a short period of time.

A quick special election would help Republicans, benefiting from the lower turnout of an off-year special and from the immediate stain of Blagojevich. If Obama was willing to expend political capital on such a race, however—as he wasn’t in Georgia or Louisiana this month—it could present the new President with a great opportunity to show and burnish his strength.

Who are the unnamed candidates in the prosecutors’ reports? Either Jarrett or Duckworth is likely Senate Candidate 1, who comes out looking good, as the favorite of Obama for whom Obama was unwilling to offer the governor any favors. Another unnamed Senate hopeful allegedly offered fundraising on Blagojevich’s part in exchange for an appointment. Will his name come out?

Minnesota: We inch closer to a conclusion of the contest between Sen. Norm Coleman (R) and liberal comedian Al Franken (D). Coleman won the election by 215 votes, but the massive statewide recount continues.

Three issues remain for the state canvassing board to settle—the board’s decision on any of these issues is likely to be challenged in court.

First, the canvassing board meets on Friday to discuss the issue of improperly filled out absentee ballots. Some of these ballots are improper only on a technicality, while on some, it is impossible to tell if it is a valid vote. Franken is pushing for the inclusion of these votes, while Coleman wants them excluded.

Second, the canvassing board needs to count a few thousand challenged ballots—votes on which the campaigns disagreed on the voter intent or objected that the vote had not been properly accounted for. The canvassing board hasn’t offered a timeline on how long it will take to count the disputed ballots.

Finally, there are the “133 missing votes.” In one Minneapolis precinct, the election night results showed a higher vote total for both candidates than the recount total has shown. The recount numbers are, on net, 44 votes worse for Franken than the election night results. By precedent and statute, it appears the state could elect to either (a) use the election night result, or (b) count the votes they know exist.

The only outcome that would likely avert a court challenge would be a Franken win without the 133 missing votes and without the improper absentee ballots. With any other result, expect a lawsuit.

House

California-4: Retired Air Force officer Charlie Brown (D) finally conceded a month after the election. Last Wednesday, he called State Sen. Tom McClintock (R) to congratulate the frequent candidate on his victory.

McClintock won a competitive primary in March after clearing the other conservatives and setting up a conservative-vs.-moderate primary against former Rep. Doug Ose (R). This seat was left open by the retirement of scandal-clouded Rep. John Doolittle (R), who barely edged out Brown two years ago.

Louisiana-2: There was shock and celebration Saturday night as nine-term indicted Rep. William Jefferson (D) fell in the general election to political unknown Joseph Cao (R). This New Orleans district is only about 15% Republican, and Cao (pronounced “gow”) won on the strength of low turnout and the embarrassment of an indicted congressman.

Jefferson won in a runoff two years ago, even while he was known to be the target of a federal bribery investigation, and after federal investigators found a brick of marked bills in his freezer. This year, a slew of Democrats challenged him in the primary, but he survived that challenge, buoyed on the Election Day primary runoff by inflated black turnout thanks to Barack Obama.

We considered Jefferson a shoo-in for reelection, but we overestimated his political machine, which—deprived of cash—had fallen to shambles. Members of his family, including his fund-raiser/brother, also have been indicted. While he seems to have had the quiet backing of Mayor Ray Nagin (D), no national Democrats and few local Democrats were willing to publicly support him. Without money, and without Obama atop the ticket in the December 6 general election, Nagin couldn’t turn out his base for Jefferson.

After the loss, Nagin complained that voters were confused: Louisiana changed the way it conducted its congressional elections this year, replacing October primaries and December runoffs with two-stage primaries in the early autumn followed by an Election Day general election. Hurricane Gustav pushed back the Sept. 6 primary, which, in the end, pushed the general election back to December. Jefferson’s congressional career may be a casualty of Gustav.

Contrasting with Jefferson’s weak turnout was an enthusiasm, especially among white voters, to vote their indicted congressman out of office. Turnout was much higher in white precincts than black precincts according to local media.

Already, Cao, the first Vietnamese-American member of Congress, is considered a top Democratic target for 2010—reminiscent of Rep. Michael Flanagan (R-Ill.) who was basically a dead duck the moment he knocked off ethically troubled Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D). Interestingly, Flanagan lost to Rod Blagojevich (D), who was replaced by Rahm Emanuel (D).

Louisiana-4: Physician John Fleming (R) knocked off attorney Paul Carmouche in the other contest postponed by Hurricane Gustav. Fleming replaces retiring Rep. Jim McCrery (R).

Carmouche received some support from President-Elect Obama in the form of a radio ad, but Fleming edged him out by a few hundred votes, handing the Republicans their third consecutive competitive victory since Election Day.

Louisiana will now have six Republican congressmen to one Democrat. That number is four-to-three GOP at the end of the current 110th Congress, and Democrats were gunning for a majority of the delegation.

Ohio-15: Franklin County Commissioner Mary Jo Kilroy (D), after a long count, has defeated State Sen. Steve Stivers (R) by a surprisingly large margin of 2,311 voters after Stivers had held a small lead throughout the counting process.

Provisional and absentee ballots broke heavily in Kilroy’s favor, and on Monday, she was declared the winner. Kilroy replaces retiring Rep. Deborah Pryce (R) meaning Democrats picked up ten of the 25 seats left open by Republican retirements in 2008, in addition to walking away with two of four seats vacated by early resignations.

 

Coming after Brown’s concession in California and the late Louisiana races, this leaves only one outstanding race—the Virginia recount in the 5th District.

Virginia-5: Rep. Virgil Goode (R) refuses to concede, waiting for the results of a recount in a race he lost by 745 votes to attorney Tom Periello. This will be settled this month, likely giving Democrats their 257th seat in the U.S. House.