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Week of July 19, 2006

July 19, 2006
Washington, DC
Vol. 41, No. 15a

To: Our Readers

Outlook

  1. With virtually unanimous bipartisan support for Israel in the new Mideast crisis, optimistic Republicans think they will get a badly needed boost from their base by what amounts to a new war front. That is based on the premise that Israel’s war is "our war," the view of the GOP governing class that we doubt is fully shared by its rank and file.
  2. The big topic of conversation on Capitol Hill was less the momentous consequences of war and peace than the poor performance of the U.S. government in evacuating Americans from Lebanon — with angry lawmakers calling it another Katrina in betraying lack of competence by the government.
  3. As we go to press, there is Republican talk about wedding the estate tax bill with increasing the minimum wage. That would be difficult to pull off, but the significance is that Republicans have given up on blocking the minimum wage hike because they consider the issue a political loser. The minimum wage increase will be passed one way or another, but Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is determined that no estate tax legislation will be approved.
  4. The Republican split on immigration is no closer to reconciliation, even though important people in the party view the issue as their greatest political problem. The biggest complaint we hear among Republicans is that President George W. Bush‘s support for the Kennedy-McCain bill is devastating to the party base.
  5. Animosity between the two top Democrats in the House — Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) — is worse than ever. Hoyer aides even speculate privately that it would be better for the party if the Democrats fail to regain control of the House in this year’s elections and thus avoid a Pelosi speakership.

Bush Administration

Middle East War: As the Middle East erupted into war, beginning with the kidnapping of three Israeli soldiers and the murder of at least two others, as well as rocket attacks on Haifa, Washington’s pro-Israel consensus stepped up its intensity.

  1. The Israelis have been free from American interference for years now, beginning just before the 2000 election with the intifada. Newly installed Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is intent on Israel’s unilaterally drawing boundary lines creating a desiccated, non-contiguous, economically non-viable Palestinian state. With no negotiations taking place and Washington pressing for none, thoughtful Israelis outside the government believed that a return to violence, one way or another, was assured, sooner or later. It came sooner.
  2. One Israeli diplomat expressed hope that a "new paradigm" is developing, under which Israel will be able to take further aggressive action in order to defend its position.
  3. Using military force to achieve the "new paradigm" wins support across the ideological and partisan spectrum in Washington. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), second-ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is a voice in the wilderness, because he merely suggests that U.S. policy is dangerously isolated by the Israeli alliance.
  4. Support of Israel is universal among American politicians, which inhibits the leverage that Bush is able to exercise as an honest broker seeking a peaceful solution in the Middle East. He is seen as Israel’s uncritical supporter.
  5. Hagel was one the first public figures to propose sending a prestigious former Republican Secretary of State — either James A. Baker III or Colin Powell — to the Middle East as a presidential envoy. Implicit in that suggestion was the belief that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was not up to mediating the Israeli-Palestinian struggle and that outside assistance was needed.

Stem-Cell Research: Conservatives have no way to win politically on this issue. Either they stand on principle against killing embryos and, thus, choose their hill to die on, or they endorse the research and anger a very active portion of their base. Their best hope, generally speaking, is that people in favor of embryo-killing research don’t feel intensely enough about it to make it the big issue that decides their vote.

  1. That’s why it’s a setback for Republicans that President Bush must now veto the bill funding the research, which passed the Senate on Tuesday with 63 votes. This is an embarrassing first veto for the Bush presidency, because it highlights Bush’s position even more on an issue he’d rather stay away from. Democrats will note that he vetoes this now, after letting so many bad policies through.
  2. The real fault on this vote, it must be remembered, lies with the House Republican leadership. They were so eager to pass a budget in 2005 that they allowed a vote on the embryonic research funding in order to sway moderates to support the budget. The result is this political disaster, with no bill for the moderates after all. The moderates’ demands, and the leadership’s acquiescence to them in support of lesser goals, have caused a political setback for the GOP.
  3. Importantly, the bill that will definitely be signed into law is the one preventing fetus farming, which we described last week. It passed both houses unanimously.
  4. A bill promoting alternative methods of producing pluripotent (embryonic-type) cells passed the Senate unanimously, but failed narrowly to get 2/3 support in the House and pass under suspension of the rules. Now, there is a fight in the rules committee over the bill, and the House leadership is expected to let it die rather than keep it alive and suffer through two more hours of embarrassing debate on stem cells.

Congress

Judicial Nominations: Remember when Senate Republican leaders were pushing to confirm judicial nominees and complaining that Democrats were holding them up with unprecedented filibusters? Republicans would complain that the Senate was not getting a chance to vote — "up or down" — on President Bush’s appellate court nominees, and Democrats would respond, with numbers and charts, that nearly all of Bush’s nominees were being confirmed. Now it appears that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is pulling away from the issue of judicial confirmations and resting on the laurels of the Senate’s successes to date.

Since the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, the Senate seems to have suddenly gone quiet on the topic of judicial nominations. Even more bizarre, Frist is now sounding a lot like Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) sounded a few months ago as he downplayed the Democrats’ obstruction of judges. A recent press release from Frist’s office notes: "Currently 94.4% of all judgeships are filled, including 91.1% of all circuit court judgeships and 95.3% of all district court judgeships. Under Senator Frist’s leadership, the Senate has made considerable progress on President Bush’s judicial nominees, including confirming two Supreme Court justices, 28 circuit court judges, and 112 district court judges and decreasing the number of circuit court vacancies by 36%."

Republican used to counter this by pointing to the large number of appellate nominees whom Democrats were blocking.

But the Frist of today not only sounds like Leahy, but also sounds like he is using the theme of judicial success in order to boost his prospective presidential run in 2008.
Frist fears a "nuclear" confrontation over some of the current nominees — particularly appellate nominees Terrence Boyle and William Haynes. His very legitimate problem is that he may not have the votes to pull the so-called "nuclear" trigger and confirm either of them with a mere 50 votes.

Still, he can always try, and Democratic intransigence on judicial filibusters could once again become their party’s undoing. True, much of the problem this time is Republicans — namely Senators McCain and Lindsey Graham (S.C.), who are holding up Haynes because of a memo he authored on the treatment of Guantanamo detainees. But McCain wants to be President, and Graham faces a potentially difficult primary in 2008.

The 2002 and 2004 election cycles made Janice Rogers-Brown, William Pryor and Miguel Estrada into political talking points — just in time to sour the heartland on Democratic obstructionism. This played no small part in huge GOP gains those years. The diffusion of this issue in 2006 is not good for the GOP.

Meanwhile, the 55-Republican-member Senate now has a similar confirmation rate for appellate judges as former Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) had long ago on confirming Clinton nominees to the appellate court. Hatch had been bottling up Clinton judges in the Judiciary Committee.

House 2006

Georgia-4: A surprisingly strong performance last night by DeKalb County Commissioner Hank Johnson (D) puts the career of Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D) at risk once again. A heavy Republican crossover vote spelled doom for her in 2002, but McKinney managed to recover and return in 2004 without a runoff, thanks in part to a GOP Senate primary that drew away thousands of Republican voters.

This year, many Democrats showed their frustration with McKinney, who had recently assaulted a police officer and skipped two televised debates against her primary opponents. Also, the few Republicans in the district were not interested enough in the Lieutenant Governor’s race — the only major race seriously contested — to stay away from the Democratic primary.

Given her recent behavior, McKinney would have been fortunate to take 40 percent in most districts, but in South DeKalb, she can do little wrong. She managed to finish with 47 percent, enough to outpace Johnson (who took 44.5 percent) and reach the runoff stage.

Neither candidate has much money left at this point, but Johnson has just $13,000 and has a debt of $23,000. McKinney has $43,000 on hand. She is also the rare "troubled incumbent" whose supporters are actually more fervent than those of her challenger and therefore probably more likely to show up in the upcoming runoff election. Johnson won the anti-McKinney vote, but will it show up again in such strength in the August 8 runoff? Leaning McKinney.

Oklahoma-5: The GOP primary to succeed Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) as he runs for governor will likely go to a runoff between two of the top three candidates — Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin (R), Corporations Commissioner Denise Bode (R), and Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett (R). The seat has a Democratic registration edge, but like all of Oklahoma, it votes strongly Republican. Likely Runoff.

Texas-23: Uncertainty still reigns over the possible outcome of a new congressional gerrymander here, as it has ever since the Supreme Court forced the re-map. But one thing is for sure, incumbent Rep. Henry Bonilla (R) is sitting on a campaign war chest of $2.24 million, an astounding amount for a House candidate. Despite having no serious opponent at the moment, Bonilla raised that amount this cycle, perhaps anticipating the legal troubles with his district.

His neighbor in the 28th District, moderate Rep. Henry Cuellar (D), reports just $50,000 on hand after a fierce primary against former Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D). Cuellar could conceivably be thrown together with Bonilla in the new re-map, which could then apply to the November election or perhaps a special election next year.
The various Texas maps being considered would put all of Webb County (Laredo) into one district — probably Bonilla’s. But Webb County is Cuellar’s base. An alternative is to give Bonilla more Hispanic constituents farther north — closer to San Antonio — and give Cuellar all of Webb County.

This could conceivably victimize any of the surrounding congressmen, including ultra-liberal Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D).

Senate 2006

The National Republican Senatorial Committee has lagged behind its Democratic counterpart since the beginning of this cycle. But after the release of campaign finance data, Republicans are hopeful. The NRSC will receive a huge boost of $12 million from the President’s dinner last month. This will bring it almost even in cash on hand. (Those numbers will become available later in the month.)

More immediately, Republicans point out that the Democrats’ top seven targets in the Senate — George Allen (R-Va.), Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), Jim Talent (R-Mo.), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) — hold a collective financial advantage of $24.2 million over their challengers. (Allen, perhaps the least endangered of the bunch, accounts for $6.2 million of that gap.)

It isn’t as simple as that, though. Santorum looks more and more likely to lose, falling further behind in the most recent polls after appearing to close his gap last month. If he cannot show some tangible progress soon, the money could dry up and go elsewhere. Burns suffers from particular problems surrounding the Jack Abramoff scandal, so his future may also have little to do with the amount of money he raises. Chafee could still lose his primary, and either way he already polls slightly behind his Democratic challenger, former State Atty. Gen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D).

Florida: This race has really become painful for Republicans to watch. We don’t believe it is worth following too much, but it is still probably worth mentioning the exodus of Rep. Katherine Harris‘s (R) three top campaign staffers.

This is yet another high-profile defection from her campaign, and this time all the staffers involved are saying nasty things about her tantrums and fits of screaming. The embarrassing revelation comes at the same time Harris’s campaign paid back a loan to Harris so that she could spend it on home renovations. Even before she got in, Florida Republicans were telling us that Harris was wrong to believe that she could win this race in the first place. She continues her delusion as long as she continues her campaign. There is probably no hope here for Republicans anymore.

Minnesota: A Minneapolis Star-Tribune poll showing Hennepin County attorney Amy Klobuchar (D) leading Rep. Mark Kennedy (R) by double digits is probably not credible, after months of polling showing a very tight race. Kennedy has done nothing specific to put himself so far behind, and the poll in question has been inaccurate in nearly every statewide race in the last decade.

New Jersey: This is not merely a case of name-confusion anymore. Republican challenger and State Sen. Tom Kean, Jr., son of the former governor, now runs even with the appointed incumbent, Sen. Robert Menendez (D).

Republicans have not won here since 1997, when Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R) survived to serve a second term. Since then, a series of Democratic corruption scandals has done nothing to convince voters to support Republicans. Indeed, some of the most blatant corruption — including the 2002 ballot switch from Bob Torricelli (D) to Frank Lautenberg (D) — has come just recently. Gov. Jon Corzine (D) won his race last year after his opponent, Doug Forrester (R), surged in the last three weeks. Corzine responded to the surge by burying Forrester in extremely aggressive negative television advertising, and it worked. This allowed Democrats to hold on to the governor’s slot despite some of the worst corruption in the state’s history.

For reasons like these, many Republican observers find it difficult to become excited about any race in New Jersey. But Kean is showing that he is worth watching anyway, and state Democrats have given him fuel with their recent saga that resulted in the shutting down of the state government, as well as a new scandal involving Menendez-supported Atty. Gen. Zulima Farber.

Kean continues to lag in resources — as of the primaries in mid-May, Menendez had $6.3 million to Kean’s $1.8 million — but separate, independent polls now show that the race is genuinely even after an excellent week for Kean. Quinnipiac has Kean up by two points, and Monmouth has him trailing by one point. He needs to step up the fundraising, but he has a very real chance.

Kean, a moderate, enjoys the good fortune of the Menendez appointment. Menendez is a weak candidate with so many skeletons in his closet that it is still surprising Gov. Corzine appointed him. A former member of the House Democratic leadership, Menendez came to the Senate with a huge war chest for defending the seat — but he also came into office amidst accusations that he had promoted an employee whose main qualification was her "special relationship" with him.

Kean has shown that he is a fighter, willing to sling mud fiercely when necessary, just like the Democrats, including accusations against Menendez involving old mob ties and testimony he once gave. With the press sympathetic to Menendez, he has an uphill road. Leaning Democratic Retention.

 

Governor 2006

Georgia: As we anticipated, Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor (D) won the primary for governor, and now has the right to face off against Gov. Sonny Perdue (R). Georgia is among the last of the Southern states to realign, and it has shifted quickly to the GOP column since 2002. Likely Republican Retention.

The other important point in this race is the failure of Ralph Reed (R) to make the statewide ticket as the GOP candidate for lieutenant governor. He was defeated decisively — probably a good thing for Republicans because his presence in the race would have been a liability for Perdue.

Reed’s fall deserves a special note. The former head of the Christian Coalition once famously compared himself to a guerilla warrior: "I paint my face and travel at night. You don’t know it’s over until you’re in a body bag. You don’t know until election night."

He was a fantastic and effective political warrior, and his work paved the way to a Republican Georgia in 2002. The problem is that the Godfather never gets to become "Sen. Corleone" — he usually has too much baggage for popular acclaim, and so he must content himself to wielding the greater power behind the scenes. Reed, however, was not content.

Reed announced his candidacy for the No. 2 spot in February 2005 and immediately frightened away most of his opponents by raising a record amount of money. But he was probably arrogant to enter this race right on the heels of his work for the disgraced ex-lobbyist whose specter has put one political appointee in jail (David Safavian) and a handful of Republican incumbents in jeopardy: Jack Abramoff.

The $5.3 million that Reed took to fight casino gambling, on behalf of Abramoff’s Indian gamers fearing competition, made him the defendant in an embarrassing lawsuit filed just six days before Election Day. His victorious opponent, obscure State Sen. Casey Cagle (R), ran forceful attack ads against him related to Abramoff, and in one debate he even hinted that Reed might be charged with a crime (not likely at this point).

Cagle is now the easy frontrunner for the lieutenant governor job, and Perdue is happily Reed-free as he seeks to become the first Republican governor in Georgia history to serve two terms. Likely Republican Retention.

Oklahoma: Rep. Istook will easily win the Republican primary and go on to face Gov. Brad Henry (D). This will be a very competitive race. Henry won his position in 2002 with a plurality over Rep. Steve Largent (R), an easy favorite at first who hurt himself with profane public remarks and odd behavior. Likely Istook.

 

  Sincerely,
  Robert D. Novak
Written By

Mr. Novak was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report, a political newsletter he founded in 1967 with Rowland Evans. He passed away August 19, 2009. Read tributes to Robert Novak and his legendary work, as well as memories from Novak alumni and the Human Events family.

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