With Nov. 7 just four weeks away and the Republican Party looking less and less likely to hold on to its dual control of Congress, it’s a good time to check in with political handicapper Stuart Rothenberg.
Rothenberg edits and publishes "The Rothenberg Political Report," a Washington newsletter known for its nonpartisanship that reports on and analyzes congressional and gubernatorial elections, presidential politics and other political developments. I talked to Rothenberg Wednesday, Oct. 4, by telephone when the Mark Foley scandal was still rocking the Beltway:
Will the Foley scandal add significantly to the Republican Party’s troubles this fall?
Stuart Rothenberg: Well, we won’t know until we see some poll numbers on that. But I think it certainly could. Obviously, a Democratic wave was already building. There is a desire for change. The president is not held in high regard. And Congress is not held in high regard.
It at least raises significant questions in my mind whether it will depress some conservative voters or lead to some conservatives staying home or whether it will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and convinces more independents and even some Republicans that there is a need for an across-the-board change. I think it has the potential to add to the Republicans’ considerable pre-existing woes.
Is 2006 looking like it will be a rousing success for Democrats the way 1994 was for Republicans?
Rothenberg: The short answer is yes. The longer answer is we don’t know how big it’s going to be. We didn’t know how big ’94 was going to be until it happened. But it’s going to be a very good Democratic year.
Is it that Republicans are weak or that Democrats are stronger?
Rothenberg: It’s not about the Democrats at all. It’s just about the Republicans. People want change. They are dissatisfied with the performance of their elected officials. They are dissatisfied with the direction of the country. This is not about the Democrats. Voters are not looking for any particular kind of change. The Democrats are not really offering any kind of particular change. Voters just want something different. The last time I looked, we have only two parties. So if one party is unpopular, the other party is the beneficiary.
Is Iraq the Republicans’ biggest problem issue?
Rothenberg: I think it has been and continues to be the kind of cloud that hangs over the party. Heck, it’s the cloud that hangs over the country. It’s probably the single reason why people feel things are not going well and frankly the single biggest reason they have lost confidence in the president — in what he has told the country, in his policy. The news from Iraq weighs on the public and is the major reason why people are in a pessimistic mood.
Have hard-core Republican voters been turned off by the Bush administration’s liberal sins — big spending and soft on immigration?
Rothenberg: It’s not clear. There are a lot of Republicans and fiscal conservatives who are disappointed in the administration for not vetoing spending bills and not taking a tougher line on spending and the size of government. Having said that, at least up until recently the president’s numbers among Republicans weren’t bad. Actually, they were bouncing back in terms of attitudes of Republicans about the president. A lot of what you hear is complaining from conservative activists, which doesn’t necessarily reflect widespread grass-roots feeling but is more an effort to get publicity for individuals who may not be in the limelight but want to show that they are still important. I’m not sure that there is a lot of grass-roots conservative or Republican anger at the president. More than anything else, frankly — in terms of Republicans, and this probably also holds for many conservatives — there is more of a feeling of disappointment. They were hoping for a very popular, successful president. They were hoping to achieve more. They wanted to feel good about George Bush. Now some of them may still feel good, but for a lot of them I just feel like it’s not what they had hoped.
Where are Republican incumbents weakest or in most jeopardy?
Rothenberg: Starting in the House, they are most vulnerable in districts that are basically Democratic or swing districts. That includes a lot in the Northeast — Connecticut and Pennsylvania — but also some individual districts that are very competitive districts. In New Mexico and Florida there are a number of open seats. Not surprisingly, the first group of voters who are defecting to the Democrats are Democratic voters who have voted for Republican candidates, as well as independents who have voted for Republican candidates. We’re not seeing yet large numbers of Republicans in Republican districts who are in huge trouble. There are some aberrant examples and some open seats, but the people who are in trouble mostly are in very competitive or Democrat-leaning districts.
Is the power of incumbency still going to work its magic and trump some of these issues?
Rothenberg: In some districts it will. But the value of incumbency is somewhat diluted this cycle because people hate Congress. They don’t hate their own congressman as much as they hate the institution, but that was before the Foley stuff hit. There’s some danger of the public’s overall view of Congress infecting some individual member. Is incumbency no longer a factor? No, I wouldn’t say that. If you look at some Republican candidates they have raised some incredible war chests, and that’s in part from incumbency. And many of them have established reputations that are positive. So incumbency is still an asset, but it’s not as much of an asset as it is in most cycles when voters prefer the status quo.
Sen. Rick Santorum (of Pennsylvania) is famous for never losing despite the odds, yet he seems to be everyone’s pick to be overthrown. Does he have any chance to pull off a victory?
Rothenberg: He hasn’t given any indication so far that he has a chance of pulling it off. The biggest problem for Santorum is that when you look at polls from around the state, he is stuck around 40 percent. Sometimes Casey goes up to 50. Sometimes Casey goes down to 46 — and the race is portrayed as "closing." But it’s not because of anything Santorum is doing. It’s not as if voters are suddenly gravitating to Rick Santorum.
In many respects, Santorum is a better candidate than Bob Casey. He’s quicker. He comes across as kind of sharper. But some people think he comes across as too political. There’s an "Aw, shucks" quality to Bobby Casey. Santorum may seem brighter and sharper and quicker. But he also seems like more of a politician. And it’s a bad year to be a Republican in Pennsylvania and it’s a bad year to be part of the party leadership.
Will we see any big surprises Nov. 7?
Rothenberg: I’m expecting surprises. As a handicapper, I don’t look forward to surprises. I try to avoid surprise. But this is the kind of year where voters are angry and we have these late-breaking events that could change things. As we head toward November, we may start to frantically add seats to the list of races we are watching, because when you get people dissatisfied with the status quo, you get pretty strange results. People you didn’t think were in trouble, like (Chicago Democrat House member) Dan Rostenkowski in 1994, find themselves losing. This is the kind of year that makes me as a handicapper very nervous.
What data should lay people watch or ignore to get a more accurate reading of what’s likely to happen Nov. 7?
Rothenberg: They should certainly watch not one poll but try to look at half a dozen polls about how the president is doing. Don’t focus on one — you heard one survey, so now you think that’s how the country is. I will never take one survey on face value and assume that it’s right and things have changed. I look for a number of surveys to get a sense where the country is. I look at presidential job approval and I certainly look at whether the country is headed in the right direction or is it headed off track. I look at this question of generic ballot — who are you going to vote for Congress? But you’ve got to remember, these races are race by race. And while this is more of a national referendum than most midterm elections, it’s still going to be fought district by district.
As of Oct. 4, what’s your prediction for the House?
Rothenberg: Our latest estimate in the newsletter — and this could change based on events, based on poll data I hear about, based on the reaction to Foley or some event I have no idea is going to occur — is that if the current trajectory of the election holds, the Democrats will take 15 to 20 seats in the House, which would be a majority, and 3 to 5 in the Senate, which would fall just short. But I have to tell you, more Senate seats have come into play in the last few weeks.
I think increasingly you have to think that the Senate is in play as well. I think Republicans are going to have to fight to hold both houses of Congress, but one of them right now looks certainly poised to go Democratic and the second one is kind of moving that way.