With all the problems besetting President Bush and his party’s leaders in Washington, Republicans must be doing poorly around the country this year, right?
Well, not exactly. An examination of the political terrain in this year’s off-year elections and beyond suggests that it’s the Democrats who are in trouble.
True, inside the Washington Beltway things look problematic for Bush and Republicans. His polls are way down as a result of among other issues Iraq, gas prices, plunging consumer confidence and a bearish stock market, and there is rebellion in his conservative base over his Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers.
Elsewhere, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is being investigated by the Securities Exchange Commission for insider stock trading and the House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has been indicted in Texas for alleged money laundering in a campaign-finance transaction. And to top it off, Bush’s chief political strategist Karl Rove, among others, is under investigation in the CIA leak scandal.
But things are a lot different out in the real world where next month the Democrats could suffer back-to-back gubernatorial defeats in New Jersey and Virginia that would send a powerful message that the GOP is still very much alive and kicking.
New Jersey is by far the most stunning political development in months. Sen. Jon Corzine, the liberal Democrat who was considered a shoo-in for governor, is suddenly in a dead heat with his opponent Republican Doug Forrester, according to an independent WNBC/Marist poll of 600 registered voters.
That poll, following an earlier one that showed Corzine ahead by just four points, showed Forrester pulling virtually even — 43 percent to 44 percent. Notably, Forrester, a businessman and the GOP’s 2002 Senate candidate, is drawing support from 20 percent of the Democrats and 33 percent of Democratic-leaning independents.
The latest numbers, along with other corroborating internal polling data, has stunned political professionals and shaken the Corzine campaign that once seemed to have a lock on the election in this heavily Democratic state.
"What was supposed to be a coronation is actually turning into a bloody duel," independent pollster John Zogby told me. "Two weeks ago, I had Corzine ahead of Forrester by seven or eight points, so there isn’t a doubt in my mind that this latest poll is accurate."
The race is being driven by two huge issues: Democratic corruption in Trenton and punishing property taxes — issues on which Corzine looks weak and that Forrester has been hammering since day one.
"It’s corruption, it’s property taxes, it’s Jon Corzine’s connection to our former disgraced Gov. Jim McGreevey and former disgraced Sen. Bob Torricelli," said Sherry Sylvester, the Forrester campaign’s spokesman.
"Even in this bluest state, it’s a perfect storm for Republicans," she told me.
The climate of scandal and corruption has hit critical mass even for a state that is known for it. McGreevey resigned the governorship last year after admitting to a homosexual affair with a top aide. Torricelli dropped out of the 2002 Senate race five weeks before the election as a result of an ethics scandal.
In the wake of all this, a spate of news stories about Corzine giving large sums of money to well-connected union officials and other special interests has tarnished his image.
New Jersey voters have had it and right now seem to be saying that they want a change. One of the questions in the Marist poll asked who would "do a better job as governor" to clean up government corruption. Forrester wins on that issue 41 percent to 36 percent.
Even so, this is a diehard Democratic state and New Jersey voters are famous for last-minute swings, but for the time being Republicans appear to be making inroads deep into Democratic territory.
The GOP is also poised to win back the governorship in Virginia, the only other state house race in November. While polls show the race there is tight, former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore has the edge over Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine.
The big issues in that race — taxes and the death penalty — again favor the GOP. Kaine supported Democratic Gov. Mark Warner’s tax hikes, Kilgore did not. Kaine opposes capital punishment, Kilgore supports it. Overwhelmingly, so do Virginia’s voters.
The only other major race is for New York City’s mayoralty where GOP Mayor Michael Bloomberg leads in all the polls.
Next year’s elections are a long way off, but no one is predicting with any certainty that Republicans are going to suffer any significant losses as a result of their transitory troubles in Washington.
Indeed, right now it looks like Republicans could pick up Democratic Senate seats in Maryland, where Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, an African American, could draw strong support from black Democrats, and in Minnesota, which has been showing signs of leaning Republican.
It is common in a second term for the chattering class to focus on the president’s lame duck status and suggest that he is losing his powers. But thus far this year Bush is poised to put a second nominee on the Supreme Court and, possibly, to score some surprising political victories on Nov. 8.
Doesn’t sound like a lame duck, to me.