Week of September 6, 2006

September 6, 2006
Washington, DC
Vol. 41, No. 18b

To: Our Readers


  1. Republicans are in a better mood in the renewed congressional session than they were when they recessed a month ago. GOP strategists feel their key endangered House and Senate races all are in better shape than they were a few months ago. Speaking on a confidential basis, they concede the Democrats could win both the House and Senate, but believe that is unlikely.
  2. One reason for better Republican spirits is that the Democrats did not come roaring out of the August recess with a carefully calculated plan to tie the Republicans in knots during the September session. The no-confidence vote on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld looks a little weak.
  3. Nevertheless, the September session does not bode well for the Republicans. The supposedly hard adjournment date of September 29 now figures to slip at least to October 6. That is bad news for endangered Republican incumbents for two reasons: Not only would they have less time to campaign at home, but probably will have to cast more embarrassing votes in Congress.
  4. The White House’s high priority effort to confirm John Bolton as ambassador to the UN could hinge on whether he gets support from Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), second-ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee. Hagel and Bolton were scheduled to talk this week.
  5. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (R-Calif.) looks like a cinch to be elected Speaker of the House if the Democrats win control, but a fierce battle for Majority Leader is shaping up between Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), with Pelosi supporting Murtha.

Bush Administration

Immigration: Republicans have all but decided to scuttle immigration reform legislation that has become a noose around their necks. The perception that Republicans are doing nothing on immigration could be very damaging. This is why the House leadership’s decision to put some kind of border-security bill on the floor may be smart, even if it has no chance of becoming law. Meanwhile, Republicans may get some border enforcement provisions passed into law through the appropriations process, including a partial fence on the Mexican border.

  1. Both the Senate Republican leadership’s unofficial agenda for the last pre-election session of Congress (beginning this week) and a privately circulated White House legislative wish list are extraordinarily heavy. But immigration is not mentioned on either expansive list. The nail in the coffin for comprehensive immigration reform was probably the Congressional Budget Office report that detailed the $127-billion price tag for the Senate’s guest-worker program.

  2. In retrospect, the President’s decision to make immigration a big election-year issue was particularly unwise. This is not to say that the issue is permanently intractable, or that immigration reform should not happen — only that it has been handled as clumsily as possible by the White House. Bush could have called on Congress to pass tough border-security measures and then tinker quietly and gradually to raise legal immigration quotas, but he instead took head-on the task of implementing sweeping reforms that frighten many average Americans.

  3. But at the urging of the business lobby — whose need for many more workers is very real in today’s low-unemployment, high-wage environment — Bush has created the wedge issue that works against his own party, and it came to a head just months before an election. His forcing of the immigration issue has forced Republicans to take sides at a very inopportune time between an ugly nativism and an anti-populist position which — to rank-and-file voters of both parties — appears to favor open borders at the expense of American workers. In other words, President Bush created a lose-lose issue for his own party going into an already-tough election year. Now he’s abandoned it altogether, just as he abandoned Social Security and tax reforms when they failed as political issues.

  4. At this point, Republicans can approach immigration in one of three ways: (1) pass the lax Senate immigration-reform bill before the election, (2) campaign vigorously for stronger border security or against illegal aliens, or (3) set the issue aside until after the election. It is clear that after months of trying to force the first option, the White House is now being forced to adopt the third. Various House and Senate campaigns are moving to the second option, in order to create distance between themselves and an unpopular President.

  5. This summer’s legislative debate has also driven many Republicans to attempt option No. 2 because they fear the reaction of their base if they appear to be too accommodating to illegal immigration. This “nativist” posture, however, is political fool’s gold, except perhaps in a very limited number of local constituencies. Immigration is a local issue in some parts of the country, such as the San Diego district where Rep. Brian Bilbray (R) rode nativism to victory in a special election this year, and perhaps in some parts of Arizona. But it will fail in most places, and in the long run, it will hurt Republicans not only with the emerging Hispanic electorate but also with the business community and a wealthy, white suburban demographic that shrinks in horror from the specter of nativism.

  6. Still, the short-term loss from appearing to pursue an open-borders position could be just as bad for the GOP. If any single issue causes the Republican base to sit it out in 2006, this will probably be it. That Republicans have finally figured this out is a good sign for them, but it is perhaps too late to do them much good. Democrats, meanwhile, can only benefit from this fight, and all they have to do is stand by and watch, unless they are foolish enough to throw themselves in front of the “border security” train when these provisions come up for a vote.

Senate 2006

Florida: As we and everyone else expected, Rep. Katherine Harris (R) proved too strong in the GOP primary for any of her opponents. Her victory ensures that Sen. Bill Nelson (D) will have an easy re-election and that, if it becomes close, he will be provided with all the money he needs to produce strong Democratic turnout and perhaps affect other races as well on behalf of an anemic state Democratic Party. Strong Democratic Retention.

Pennsylvania: “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert moderated a nationally televised debate between Sen. Rick Santorum (R) and his challenger, State Treasurer Bob Casey (D).

  1. Most pundits started with extremely low expectations for Casey in the debate. As a result, they tended to cut him some slack after the debate was over, arguing that the burden of performance lay entirely on Santorum. But this may be a case of political writers’ being out of touch with voters. For voters who do not constantly follow politics, there was no such low bar at the beginning, nor will there be as the campaign progresses.

  2. Casey did not bomb in the debate, but he appeared to be out of his league in terms of debating skill and knowledge of the relevant issues. His statements were almost all culled from Democratic talking-points, with a few interesting exceptions — notably, his proposal to double the number of Special Forces in Iraq and his brief mention of a proposed corporate-welfare commission. But he was especially beaten, and Russert especially unforgiving, on the question of Social Security. The Casey campaign’s recap of the debate avoided these issues entirely.

  3. Santorum’s glaring weakness in the debate, on the other hand, was his open embrace of very unpopular positions — something already widely known. This explains why Santorum trails Casey in every poll taken this year. Santorum defended President Bush and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, neither of whom is terribly well appreciated in Pennsylvania. The positive spin on this is that Santorum did not refuse to own up to his record (though that record may sink him in November). Santorum would have looked a lot worse if he had run from issues he had previously embraced.

  4. This debate should not help Santorum or hurt Casey too much, but it shows signs of why Santorum has a history of coming back from behind, and Casey has a history of blowing large, early leads. This could still be a very close race, and Santorum can’t be counted out. Leaning Democratic Takeover.

Rhode Island: The unpredictability of who will vote in this race is evident from the fact that two new polls have almost opposite results. The independent poll has Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey (R) trouncing incumbent Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R). A National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) poll shows the exact opposite result.

Chafee is counting on support from liberal-leaning independents who cross over to vote in the GOP primary. The problem is that many of them may support Laffey in order to reduce Republicans’ chances of holding this Senate seat. Republicans will vote for Laffey, but their numbers in Rhode Island are so small that it is questionable how much influence they will have in their own primary.

The most revealing fact, however, is the defensive posture of Chafee’s campaign and the NRSC, which is backing him. At this point, the ads are numerous and negative against Laffey, something that usually happens when an incumbent feels he is losing.

If Chafee does lose, he joins this year’s growing club of defeated incumbents — Gov. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska), Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), and Representatives Joe Schwarz (R-Mich.) and Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.). After next Tuesday, the only remaining incumbent who could fall in the primaries this year is Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii). Leaning Laffey.

House 2006

Incumbent Tactics: Republicans cannot win by playing defense everywhere. However, in the cases of their best-funded endangered incumbents, they can employ their financial advantage in order to sap opponents’ strength early on.

In some districts, well-funded incumbents have succeeded in forcing their challengers to go on the air early. The idea here is to play a cat-and-mouse game in which the incumbent dries up his opponent’s limited resources early, only to bombard him with advertising in October, once he is unable to buy response time.

Two examples: In Northern Indiana, Rep. Chris Chocola (R), finding himself behind in the polls, successfully did so with an ad pointing out his opponent’s several late tax payments. Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) produced a memorable (if extremely silly) ad that repeats, over and over ad nauseam, the fact that her opponent, state Sen. Chris Murphy (D), voted “27 times!” to raise taxes.

Chocola’s opponent, Joe Donnelly (D), attempted a response lashing out at Chocola for making a late tax payment of his own. This is probably the wrong strategy, because it only gives more attention to Donnelly’s tax problem. More interesting is the unconventional response by Murphy. He does not exactly deny having voted “27 times!” to raise taxes, but in his response ad he asks voters to bear with him and ignore the “as usual” political attacks from his opponent, represented by the “27 times!” ad, which is referred to only in passing. Murphy promises that voters will see more of him in the coming weeks.

Our current analysis has Chocola trailing Donnelly for now, and Johnson leading Murphy.

Arizona-8: The National Republican Campaign Committee has taken the unusual step of backing a candidate in the primary — moderate former state Rep. Steve Huffman (R) — in order to keep out conservative former State Rep. Randy Graf (R), whom they believe is incapable of keeping the seat. Democrats feel the same way — they have responded by launching ads against Huffman prior to the GOP primary.

Although under-funded, Graf is in a position to win the primary over a divided field of moderates through strong, grassroots support. The other major moderate candidate is former state Republican chairman Mike Hellon (R). Leaning Graf.

On the Democratic side, former State Sen. Gabrielle Giffords (D) should handily defeat a crowded field whose other strong candidate is former TV anchor Patty Weiss (D). Likely Giffords.

Florida-13: Auto dealer Vern Buchanan (R) won over a large GOP field for the nomination to replace Rep. Katherine Harris (R), as we believed he would. He will face banker Christine Jennings (D) — the preferred candidate of the DCCC — in a district that leans heavily GOP. Buchanan will likely prove a stronger candidate in this district than Harris was in 2002. Back then, Harris’s indecision over making the race became a great frustration to NRCC staffers. In 2004, she underperformed President Bush. Despite a rough GOP year, Buchanan should have little trouble holding the seat. Likely Republican Retention.

New York-24: An early Republican poll shows an 11-point edge for state Sen. Ray Meier (R) over Oneida County District Attorney Michael Arcuri (D). Taken with the necessary five-point grain of salt, this suggests a Republican lean to the race to replace Rep. Sherwood Boehlert. This is in line with our view in the chart. Leaning Republican Retention.

Note: Due to a typo, we accidentally listed this district in last week’s chart as “NY-23.”

Governor 2006

Florida: Atty. Gen. Charlie Crist (R) and U.S. Rep. Jim Davis (D) fulfilled our expectations by winning their respective primaries and will face off in November. Crist is the early favorite to keep the position being vacated by Gov. Jeb Bush (R). Leaning Republican Retention.

Robert D. Novak