ENPR: Teflon Obama; and More Democratic Senate Gains
- Buyer’s remorse (or maybe “borrowers’ remorse”) on the bailout is one factor in the resistance to releasing the second half of the bailout cash. Republicans and Democrats are lining up behind a resolution to block the second tranche, citing insufficient oversight. In all likelihood, the President (be it George W. Bush or Barack Obama) will get his way and get the money after some congressional sound and fury.
- The mood in Washington is transformed by Obama’s imminent arrival. The media are aflutter with talk of a new era and a changed town. Congressional Democrats are more self-assured with their huge majorities. Republicans are comfortably settling into a minority position.
- The controversy over seating Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) has come and gone, with some egg ending up on the face of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) (see below).
- Through the skill of his handlers, the fondness of the media, the distraction caused by the impending inauguration, and the passiveness of Republicans, Obama has weathered his first few storms without suffering even a flesh wound.
- The most recent flap, involving discoveries that Treasury Secretary-designee Timothy Geithner had a maid working for him illegally and failed to pay his own payroll taxes for a few years, has nearly faded away as quickly as it arose.
- In the past, illegal maids (recall Zoe Baird, Bill Clinton’s first pick for attorney general), or even providing shelter to an indigent illegal immigrant (recall Linda Chavez, Bush’s original nominee for Labor secretary), have sunk cabinet nominees.
- Why does Geithner look likely to emerge unscathed? For one thing, the actual violations are minor compared to Baird’s: (a) the Geithners’ household employee was never in the country illegally, and for most of her employ with the Geithners, she was a fully documented worker; (b) The Obama campaign has argued that Geithner’s tax mistake is common and understandable, and that Geithner corrected the mistake as soon as he learned about it (both times).
- Still, these very same problems could be devastating for a nominee—certainly Chavez’s transgressions, it could be argued, were far less—under other circumstances. The Obama team and Geithner have appeared forthcoming and unblinking, which has helped. Most important, though, is a huge and supportive Democratic majority in the Senate, and a compliant Republican minority, typified by the ever-accommodating Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), that needs to conserve its ammunition. Having a friendly media helps, too.
- Chavez, in comparison, faced a 50-50 U.S. Senate actually controlled by Democrats in the weeks of her hearing, because Al Gore was still Vice President. Also, her patron, Bush, had won the election by 537 votes in Florida while losing the popular vote, so he had nothing like the political capital Obama enjoys today.
- Another question: Why was Commerce secretary-designee Bill Richardson discarded so quickly (still maintaining total innocence in the investigation into his donor) while team Obama rallied around Geithner so aggressively and so quickly? One answer is that Geithner is more important to Obama’s plans. An architect of the Bush bailouts and a Wall Street insider, Geithner is key to management of the bailouts, which are central to Obama’s economic and regulatory plans. Offering Richardson the top post at Commerce may have been more a gesture of building the “Team of Rivals” than it was an actual desire to have Richardson on his economic team. Indeed, Richardson was excluded from the original presentation of Obama’s economic team.
- Secretary of State-designee Hillary Clinton also seems to be enjoying a honeymoon now that she has been tapped by Obama. There are so many improprieties and appearances of improprieties surrounding Clinton that it is reminiscent of the post-impeachment Clinton Scandal Fatigue: Nobody has the energy or attention span to focus on them anymore. Republican senators basically skipped the hearings rather than undergo another round of battle with the Clintons—similar battles in the past have left the GOP far more wounded than they left the Clintons.
Illinois: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) comes out looking silly after his handling of the appointment of Sen. Roland Burris (D).
- Overeager to appear tough on corruption or to poke to eye of arrested Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), Reid overreacted in December in declaring he would “never” seat Burris. Burris was never connected with Blagojevich’s alleged efforts to sell the seat, and Blagojevich is still the governor and has perfect authority to fill a Senate vacancy by appointment.
- The Democrats got cover in this skirmish from Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White (D) who, perhaps improperly, originally refused to co-sign Blagojevich’s appointment of Burris. That refusal by White made it legitimate for the secretary of the Senate to refuse to seat him when the rest of the new senators were sworn in.
- The misstep by Democrats was in declaring unequivocally that they would not seat any appointee of Blagojevich.
- The next question: Will Burris seek a full term in 2010? He’s leaving that option open, and there is nothing to prevent his winning.
Minnesota: Both sides continue to fight in the razor-tight Senate race, but the tension is subsiding as it increasingly appears inevitable that the Democrat will be seated.
- When comedian Al Franken (D) asked Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) to certify him as a winner, Pawlenty said no, pointing to the state law that prohibits the governor and the secretary of state from declaring a winner while an election contest is ongoing. The Democratic secretary of the state has agreed with Pawlenty. Franken has gone to the state supreme court to appeal this application of the law.
- Coleman, meanwhile presses forward with his contest of the election results. While possible improprieties were many and the canvassing board’s nearly unanimous record of coming down in favor of Franken looks suspect, it’s hard to see how Coleman could come out ahead. Indeed, some Republicans are quietly hoping Coleman will give up the fight.
- In the meantime, Minnesota has only one senator. Democrats in the upper chamber haven’t shown a rush to seat Franken, seeing his eventual certification as imminent.
Missouri: Sen. Kit Bond (R) shocked Missouri Republicans this week by announcing his retirement. This creates an open seat in a swing state where the recent trends have been Democratic. It also introduces the possibility of a bloody GOP primary.
Democrats are mostly lining up behind Secretary of State Robin Carnahan (D). Daughter of the late Gov. Mel Carnahan (D) and appointed Sen. Jeanne Carnahan (D), and brother of Rep. Russ Carnahan (D), Robin Carnahan has a well-known name and a powerful political apparatus behind her. She was considering a run against Bond—an ambitious undertaking—and now she is probably the frontrunner for the seat.
She may not face an open field, however. Missouri sources report that Rep. Lacy Clay (D) is feeling out a potential run. Clay is black and from St. Louis, meaning his chances at a statewide win in a general election are slim—a fact which would rally party leaders against him in the primary. As a long shot in the primary, though, Clay may come to his senses and step aside.
The Republican side is far messier. The top three contenders mentioned—each of whom has his or her own problems—are Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, Rep. Roy Blunt, and former State Treasurer Sarah Steelman.
Kinder, as the only Republican besides Bond holding statewide elected office, would be the natural pick. He and Bond are the two leaders of the state party, and Kinder’s ambitions for higher office are well known. He would prefer the governorship, and early this week he was sending signals that he would wait for a shot at Gov. Jay Nixon in 2012 rather than make a run for Bond’s seat.
Blunt may run for Senate for much the same reason Rep. Kenny Hulshof (R-Mo.) ran for governor last year—he’s tired of being in the House of Representatives. Blunt lost his bid to be party leader after the 2006 elections, and Republicans have no hope of returning to the majority any time soon. After his son’s rocky single term as governor was capped off by an abrupt decision not to seek reelection, the Blunt name is suffering a bit. The association among the GOP base of Rep. Blunt with congressional Republican failures over the past decade will also hurt the former majority whip in his efforts to build a campaign.
Steelman, fresh off a loss to Hulshof in the gubernatorial primary, looks eager to take another crack at a revolution within the state party. In contrast to the standard laudatory press releases issued by other Missouri politicians upon Bond’s retirement announcement, Steelman attacked Bond as “represent[ing] the old ways of Washington.” This is part of Steelman’s appeal, and her weakness. She could be called the Sarah Palin of Missouri: a conservative outsider with a reform message. She gets called a lot worse things by most elected Republicans in the state, however, and she would have little to no institutional support in a primary and begrudging support in the general election.
Aside from Kinder, Blunt, and Steelman, there are other Republican names floating around. Hulshof, out of office as of earlier this month, could try a second statewide bid in as many cycles, but the establishment would be far less enthusiastic to back him this time around. Former Sen. Jim Talent, who lost reelection in 2006, has been looking to get back into office. Especially if Kinder is planning to run for governor in 2012, this 2010 Senate race might be his best shot for a while. U.S. Atty. Catherine Hanaway, a former speaker of the state house, is also considered a possible candidate. Finally, Rep. Sam Graves (R) could run.
Carnahan starts off as the favorite here, and, fresh off a second consecutive drubbing, Republicans already start the 2010 cycle in the hole.
Ohio: Sen. George Voinovich (R) has become the fourth Republican senator this month to announce his retirement, meaning the first four open seat races in 2010 are on Republican turf: Florida, Kansas, Missouri, and Ohio.
Like Florida and Missouri, the Ohio seat is in a swing state where Democrats have surged lately. Since 2004, Republicans have lost one Senate seat, the governorship, as well as the offices of secretary of state, attorney general, and state treasurer. Also, Democrats have picked up four U.S. House seats, improving from a 6-to-12 minority in the delegation to a 10-to-8 majority.
The top Democrat on the list of possible is Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner. Other potential candidates include Representatives Tim Ryan, Zack Space, and Dennis Kucinich. Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher is also considered a potential top candidate.
Former U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman—also a former director of the Office of Management and Budget and a former congressman—is the first Republican in the race. The long list of potential Republican candidates includes former Secretary of State Ken Blackwell (who was defeated soundly for governor in 2006), former Rep. John Kasich, former Sen. Mike DeWine, and State Auditor Mary Taylor.