Monday, August 29, 2005

Robert Novak Says '06 Could Be A Tough Year For GOP

The preznit's tanking poll numbers, the consistently low marks voters give to both political parties in the Congress and an unpopular war rapidly approaching Vietnam levels of support should concern members of both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party.

But as the party in power holding majorities in both the Congress and the Senate and a preznit who's approval ratings are hovering around 40%, the Republican Party has a lot more to lose next year in the midterm elections. Even Beelzelbob himself, Robert Novak, seems to think so:

Mired in August's dog days, the National Republican Senatorial Committee last week released a four-page opposition research paper on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. The female Democratic senator deserving greater scrutiny, however, was Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. A vulnerable Stabenow appears headed for a second term, pointing to broad GOP failure.

The hard truth is that the NRSC's 2006 recruitment under Sen. Elizabeth Dole's chairmanship has mostly failed. The remote possibility of Rudy Giuliani running was the only conceivable threat to Clinton. Stabenow offered a more realistic target, but recruitment of a viable challenger fell short. That has been such a familiar pattern in this election cycle that once-high hopes for expanding the Republican Senate majority have given way to apprehension about losing seats.

The summer after a president's re-election often brings anxiety for the party in power; that is particularly true this year because of an unpopular war.


While the NRSC was Hillary-bashing, Stabenow was getting off the hook. She is a non-charismatic reflexive liberal (100 percent by the Americans for Democratic Action's measurement last year) who received only 49 percent of the vote while barely unseating Sen. Spencer Abraham in 2000. Furthermore, Stabenow was slipping in the polls as this summer began. She looked like the best incumbent target for Republicans in any ''Blue'' state.

But Republican regrets poured in from Michigan. Rep. Candice Miller, the strongest GOP challenger, bowed out early. So did Rep. Mike Rogers, another potential star challenger. Secretary of State Terry Lynn Land indicated she is running for re-election. Jane Abraham, the former senator's wife, thought it over but then said no. The latest to regret was Domino's Pizza CEO David Brandon. The probable nominee is black clergyman and former Detroit City Councilman Keith Butler, who faces a steep climb against an incumbent senator.

The NRSC did not get the candidates it wanted in the two ''Red'' states with the weakest Democratic incumbent senators: Ben Nelson in Nebraska and Bill Nelson in Florida. In Nebraska, President Bush named Gov. Mike Johanns, who seemed a sure winner over Nelson, as secretary of agriculture. The two strongest remaining GOP possibilities -- Gov. Dave Heineman and Rep. Tom Osborne -- are running against each other for governor. That leaves former state Attorney General Don Stenberg, who lost to Nelson in 2000, and a self-financed political neophyte, Peter Ricketts, among others.

In Florida, the Republican establishment tried and failed to find an alternative to Rep. Katherine Harris. But now that Harris is clearly the candidate against Nelson, the NRSC still has not embraced her.

It remains to be seen if two other vulnerable Democrats in ''Red'' states -- Robert Byrd in West Virginia and Kent Conrad in North Dakota -- will have a free ride. The credible challengers -- Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.) and Gov. John Hoeven (N.D.) -- may not wish to risk uphill races in a climate negative for Republicans. If they do not run and win, the Republicans could be looking at an overall loss of two seats that could climb to four.

When Dole made a late run after the 2004 elections to overcome Sen. Norm Coleman's lead for the NRSC chairmanship, Coleman backers expressed doubt she would succeed at recruiting. But it would be unfair to make Dole the scapegoat. Recruiting responsibility is shared by the White House and the Republican National Committee. Beyond a recruiter's skills is widespread fear that 2006 will not be a good year to run as a Republican. That mind-set should worry strategists more than Hillary Clinton's ideological aberrations.

At most, there are five Republican Senate seats in danger: Conrad Burns (Mt), Rick Santorum (PA), Mike DeWine (OH), Lincoln Chafee (RI), and perhaps Jon Kyl (AZ).

Santorum already trails his challenger, Bob Casey, Jr., always a bad sign for an incumbent. Santorum also has higher dispproval ratings than approval ratings and Democrats are pretty confident they can knock him off in 2006.

DeWine also polls low (42% approval rating; 43% dispproval rating) and will be dragged down by the Coingate and Pensiongate scandals plaguing Ohio's Republican Party. The Democratic message in Ohio in 2006 is going to be "The Ohio Republican Party is crooked" and DeWine is going to have a tough time winning reelection even if Democrats are not successful in recruiting Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett for the '06 race.

With various allegations swirling about his ties to Republican uber-lobbyist Jack Abramof, Montana Senator Conrad Burns has ethical problems of his own to deal with next year. Burns is polling at 48% approval and 42% disapproval, so a strong challenger will be needed to take him out. But if more damaging revelations of Burns' ties to Jack Abramoff/Tom Delay come out, Burns could go down.

Lincoln Chafee is a fairly popular Republican in Rhode Island (55% approval; 37% disapproval). Nonetheless Chafee is no shoe-in for reelection. Chafee's problems are twofold: as a "liberal" Republican, he is facing a challenge from the right in a primary, then will be tied to Preznit Bush by his Democratic challenger in the general election. Preznit Bush is really unpopular in Rhode Island (29% approval rating; 68% disapproval rating) and Democrats are already spreading the message that Chafee is controlled by Karl Rove and Preznit Bush in tough Senate fights like the John Bolton vote. This Democratic message could be undermined, however, because Chafee joined the "Gang of Fourteen" in defeating the "nuclear option" vote in the Senate to kill judicial filibsuters.

Jon Kyl of Arizona polls under 50% (49% approval: 33% disapproval), which is why he is considered a possible risk in '06. Arizona voted for Preznit Bush in '04, but he currently polls at 45% approval and 52% disapproval, so Kyl may have to run away from the preznit to win reelection.

On the Democratic side, if Novak is correct and both Nelsons are safe, then Democrats should have an easy time defending both Robert Byrd in West Virginia and Kent Conrad of North Dakota. Both Democrats are popular (Byrd has 65% approval and Conrad has 69% approval). Republicans would really need to recruit strong challengers to make these races truly competitive.

Maria Cantwell of Washington polls under 50% (47% approval; 37 disapproval), so Democrats do need to keep an eye on her releection bid as well as Debbie Stabenow's chances (46% approval; 38% disapproval).

Democrats also have to defend three open Senate seats (Minnesota, Maryland, and Vermont) while Republicans only have to defend Bill Frist's open seat in Tennessee. All three states with Democratic open seats voted for John Kerry while Tennessee supported Bush. If the preznit's popularity is any indication of party support in '06, Republicans are in trouble. Bush's highest poll rating in all four states is 43% in Tennessee; he polls in the low 30's in the other three states.

As the Preznit's poll numbers continue to slide (40% in Gallup and Harris; 36% in ARG), Republicans will be running as far away from the preznit as they can in all but the reddest of red states. The war, gas prices, stagnant wages, jobs, ethical problems (Coingate, ), and Plamegate (especially if two top Bush aides - Karl Rove and Scooter Libby - are indicted) all create problems for the Republican majority. If the Housing Bubble bursts in the next year and the economy slides into a recession as a result (which some economists are now whsipering), then all bets are off for the party in power maintaining its majorities, no matter how flawed the oppostion party is.

You know Republicans have to be concerned about the way the numbers of shaping up when even Beelzelbob Novak is saying '06 could be a bad year for the GOP.

NOTE: Poll numbers used in this post come from SurveyUSA's August 2005 tracking polls.

Novak's voice to God's ear, but that's a one-time only thing.

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