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Financial Hurdles

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The last thing I wanted to do this week was to write yet another "President Bush and the Republicans are going down the toilet, and their majorities are doomed" column. But then two things changed:

First, a sequence of six polls indicated that Bush's popularity may have fallen through what many observers had thought was its floor. Second, some top Republican strategists updated me on how they're calculating that their financial advantages will be sufficient to counter the increasingly anti-GOP political environment.

In the six major national polls released over the past two weeks, the president's job-approval ratings (in chronological order, beginning with the oldest) were 39 percent (Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg), 36 percent (Gallup), 35 percent (Pew Research Center), 33 percent (Fox News), 32 percent (CNN/ORC), and 36 percent (NBC News/Wall Street Journal). Although the NBC poll, taken April 21-24, breaks the pattern, Bush has never been so low in that survey before.

The overall downward trend is clear enough to make any Republican candidate or consultant reach for an air-sickness bag. Simply put, there is no reason not to expect that the political environment will be as hostile to Republicans this fall as it was to Democrats in 1994, when a rout cost them control of both chambers of Congress.

So, what could save Republicans? In the Senate, if the tidal wave is gigantic and every seemingly vulnerable incumbent Republican is swept out -- Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania, Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island, Conrad Burns in Montana, Mike DeWine in Ohio, and Jim Talent in Missouri -- and if Democrats hold all of their seats, the GOP would still have a one-seat edge.

To take over, Democrats must win the open seat in Tennessee, where the winner of the August 3 Republican primary will face Democratic Rep. Harold Ford. If Republicans hold Tennessee, they hold the Senate. If they have a truly horrible night and lose Tennessee, they lose the Senate.

But should the GOP's chances of picking up the open seat in Minnesota be dismissed so casually? Yes, even though Republicans have an excellent candidate in Rep. Mark Kennedy. And the same is true for the party's chances in Washington state, where the GOP is fielding a formidable challenger to Sen. Maria Cantwell. The fact is, if the political environment is so anti-Republican that five incumbents lose, then the GOP won't be able to gain ground in any Senate race. So, under the Republican apocalypse scenario, the Senate comes down to Tennessee.

In the House, where the GOP is more vulnerable, Democrats don't quite have to run the table, but they must gain 15 seats to take control. In the 35 House races that The Cook Political Report rates as competitive, Democrats need to hold all 11 of their own seats while winning 63 percent (15 out of 24) of the GOP seats. That doesn't sound nearly as daunting as the task facing Senate Democrats, who must win all 13 competitive races.

House Democrats have the momentum; Republicans will have the cash. Although the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has narrowed the cash-on-hand gap to $1 million -- down from $4 million at the end of 2005, Republicans are virtually certain to end up outspending their Democratic counterparts. The National Republican Congressional Committee is also likely to get a $20 million to $25 million transfusion from the Republican National Committee. The DCCC cannot expect similar aid from its less wealthy national committee.

Many of the House contests that Democrats must win are in very expensive suburban districts, where investing $1 million to $2.5 million in party money will probably be necessary to be truly competitive. Can the Democrats possibly keep up if the GOP starts pouring in millions?

Bottom line: Democrats have the political environment on their side, but with so many of their targeted states and districts located in expensive media markets, will they have the money they need to take advantage of the wind at their backs?

 
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