Tag Archives: Christine O’Donnell

Learning the Right Lessons

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

Politicians, like generals, often look backward for guidance rather than to the future. Just as generals, as the saying goes, always fight the last war, politicians tend to take the perceived lessons from the last campaign as inspiration for the next one. Democrats and Republicans alike are pouring over the results of last Tuesday’s election to glean nuggets upon which to base strategy for the 2022 midterm elections.

But, are they drawing the right lessons?

No one elected Biden to be the second coming of FDR

Virginia Democratic Representative Abigail Spanberger said of President Joe Biden after the election: “Nobody elected him to be FDR, they elected him to be normal and stop the chaos.” Spanberger is a two-term member of Congress from Virginia. In 2018, Spanberger defeated David Brat, an ultra-conservative Republican incumbent, to become the first Democrat to represent her district since 1971. She is understandably nervous about her political fortunes in a district that Biden carried narrowly but which voted for Donald Trump for president in 2016 and which Glenn Youngkin won handily in his victory in last week’s gubernatorial election.

Spanberger is wrong historically and politically. Nobody in 1932 elected FDR to be FDR! Those who voted for Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not have any inkling of the scope and extent of the New Deal. Roosevelt ran a cautious campaign, partly because he and his advisers did not fully understand the structural causes of the Great Depression and had not yet fully developed plans to combat the economic catastrophe. Also, Roosevelt realized how unpopular Herbert Hoover, the incumbent was, so he said little of substance, hoping to not commit any gaffes.

Politically, Spanberger is wrong. Now, it is possible that Democrats in Spanberger’s district played down Biden’s progressive agenda, but in deep blue parts of the country voters knew exactly for whom they were voting. Biden’s campaign was not shy about touting guaranteed family and medical leave, lower cost prescription drugs, universal preschool, free community college, expanded broadband, and a vigorous attack on climate change. 

In other words, all the progressive measures in the Build Back Better Bill were part of Biden’s campaign. 

The 2021 election was a defeat for progressivism

Maybe! But, it is also possible to look at the results and conclude that Republican gains came because of Democratic dithering in Washington. After all, the infrastructure package passed Congress after Election Day, and Democrats are still struggling to enact the Build Back Better Act. Terry McAuliffe, the defeated Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia, begged Democrats in Washington to “get their act together” and pass Biden’s agenda. 

Would it have made a difference? Who knows? But, this we do know: Individual parts of the Biden program are very popular with voters. Passage of most of the president’s agenda, coupled with a vigorous campaign to inform voters that Democrats are legislating on their behalf (yes, working on behalf of their constituents — what a novel idea!), might have an impact next November. Part of that campaign must be to highlight the contrast between Democrats and their do-nothing Republican opponents. After all, former President Donald Trump kept promising an “infrastructure week,” but it never happened. Democrats passed a significant infrastructure bill a “mere” 11 months into Biden’s presidency. 

Democrats must compete for the rural vote

Yes, the urban-rural vote divide is real and getting worse for Democrats. And, yes, Democrats should be competitive in all demographic and geographic groups and areas. But, it is easy to over-analyze the Virginia results.

Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin outperformed Donald Trump’s 2020 showing in even the reddest counties, winning rural Virginia counties by record margins. But, that is not the whole story of the Virginia election. McAuliffe won voter-rich Fairfax County, a Washington suburb, by 30 points. Biden beat Trump in Fairfax by 42 points. Same in Loudon County, which Biden carried by 25 points in 2020, but McAuliffe won by only 11. 

The lesson here? The rural vote should be contested, but McAuliffe lost in 2021 because he bled suburban voters.

Youngkin won because he handled Trump correctly

Yes, Youngkin ran a smart campaign, cleaving close enough to the discredited former president so as not to alienate Trump’s base, but keeping Trump far enough away in order to lure moderate suburban voters. But, it takes two to tango, and Youngkin’s strategy worked because Trump cooperated, staying out of Virginia and not saying anything too damaging. Will the irrepressible former president cooperate in 2022? His track record indicates he will intervene in many races.

Republicans should nominate moderates

Youngkin is hardly a moderate, but he ran a campaign that appealed to the particular concern of Virginia voters in 2021: Outrage over the teaching of race in public schools. This is an issue drummed up by conservatives who want to push so-called cultural issues over actual policies that benefit voters. In his campaign, Youngkin succeeded in avoiding some of the more damaging pitfalls that have torpedoed conservative Republicans in the past. (See Ken Cuccinelli, an ultra-conservative candidate who ran an unsuccessful race in 2013 against McAuliffe for governor of Virginia.)

Youngkin became the Republican nominee for governor by winning an unusual ranked-choice vote implemented by the Virginia Republican Party to prevent the nomination of a right-wing kook (again, see Ken Cuccinelli). But, the Virginia template will not be the electoral structure in other states. Much more likely will be primary battles in which ultra-conservative candidates try to outrun each other to the far right to please Donald Trump. Republicans who can win primaries may not be strong candidates in general elections (see Christine O’Donnell in Delaware in 2010, Todd Akin in Missouri in 2012, and Richard Mourdock in Indiana in 2012.)


There are valuable lessons to be learned from the 2021 off-year election. But, it is easy to draw the wrong conclusions. Besides, the electoral environment may be starkly different in 2022. The recovering economy may be booming by next November, thanks in part to implementation of the Biden agenda. Voters may be in the mood to reward Democrats for legislating on their behalf. 

Posted November 9, 2020


What Are They Thinking?

Republicans — President Donald Trump and his colleagues in Congress — put forward two major legislative initiatives this year. First, came healthcare — an attempt to repeal Obamacare, which has become increasingly popular, and replace it with a travesty of legislation that no one liked. Fortunately, for Republicans, they failed to secure the votes to pass their unpopular bill. Then, the GOP tackled so-called tax reform with a bill the public interprets as a boondoggle for the wealthy. Imagine: A tax cut no one likes (except corporate leaders and the very wealthy)! Unfortunately, for Republicans, and the majority of tax-paying U.S. citizens, for that matter, the party managed to ram the tax bill through Congress.

What are Republicans thinking? Assuming, that is, that the mashed up bills on healthcare and taxes — written hastily (at one point, the tax bill upon which the Senate voted had illegible, handwritten modifications in the margins) and with no input from Democrats, the public, or affected interest groups — reflect thinking. A better interpretation of what the Republicans tried to do on healthcare and succeeded in doing on taxes is that Republicans reacted reflexively and did what they said they would do — without any real thought about the complexities of the nation’s healthcare system and tax code. In other words, the GOP acted to satisfy its wealthy constituents and donors.

Oh, and by the way, Republicans surreptitiously slipped into the tax bill a repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate — the part of the system most unpopular but necessary to make healthcare insurance work. Trump for once told the truth when he boasted, “I shouldn’t say this, but we essentially repealed Obamacare.” No, he probably should not have said it since premiums are likely to rise dramatically in the future, for which Republicans will be blamed. Health insurance, whatever is left of it, is now Trumpcare, and the GOP owns it.

Consider this: The GOP heads into the 2018 midterm elections saddled with an unpopular president who has historically low approval ratings, ownership of a broken healthcare system, and authorship of a tax bill largely beneficial only to the wealthy. That is not a recipe for electoral success, and Republican leaders know it, especially following the stunning November results in Virginia and the recent special election in Alabama, which placed a Democrat in the Senate from one of the most reliably red states. As House Speaker Paul Ryan said recently, “I see a historical trend cutting against us.… We’ve got the wind at our face.” Or, as a GOP operative said graphically and anonymously (for obvious reasons), “I think we’re totally fucked.”

Republicans evidently are gambling that passing the tax bill will shield them from being drowned in a wave election next year. One part of the gamble is to bet on the illusion of motion, that is, it is better to do something than nothing, even if the something is terrible, horrible, rotten. If Republicans stand for anything, it is tax cuts, so passing a bill that they have labeled (deceptively) tax reform, gives the sense to the Republican base that the party is delivering on its promise. At the same time, the GOP is betting that its cynical ploy of giving most of the middle class a temporary, albeit, small tax cut will pay dividends next November. To satisfy budgetary rules in the Senate, the bill eliminates tax cuts for the middle class, but not for corporations and the wealthy, after 2025. Republican leaders promise to extend the tax cuts, but most voters are savvy enough to understand that one Congress cannot guarantee action by another. In any event, a small, temporary tax cut may not assuage voter anger over the huge giveaways to people and corporations with no need for more money.

Republicans also hope voters do not realize — at least before November 2018 (and, perhaps, Trump’s reelection bid in 2020) — that the massive increase in the national debt caused by the tax cuts will require huge cuts to entitlements and other programs beneficial to the poor and middle class. Indeed, for many conservative Republicans — Paul Ryan, for instance — that is one of the points of cutting taxes: Drive up the deficit so as to provide a rationale for cutting Medicare and Social Security. Ryan has already vowed to slash entitlements next year, and President Trump, who ran for the presidency promising to protect Medicare and Social Security, says, “We’re going to go into welfare reform.”

And, who knows, but party leaders may really believe the nonsense they spew about tax cuts unleashing a huge economic boom. The historical evidence does not back up that belief, and virtually all economists argue that tax cuts do not lead to a surge in economic growth. But, why should Republicans believe economic experts when the Trump administration informed the Centers for Disease Control that “evidence-based” and “science-based” are among the terms the agency should no longer use?

Mostly, Republican leaders are betting that steady job growth, with unemployment at a 17-year low, and a booming stock market will trump the president’s unpopularity (and the party’s) and carry the GOP to victory in the midterm elections (or, at least, minimize losses). But, if history is any guide, a good economy does not overcome an unpopular president. In 1966, Lyndon Johnson’s approval rating was in the mid-40s with unemployment at a low level, and Democrats lost 47 House seats. In 2006, George W. Bush’s approval rating was below 40 percent (Trump territory) with low unemployment, and Republicans lost 30 seats in the House. Trump has defied historical expectations before, so make of these precedents what you will.

But, Trump is not on the ballot next year, and Republicans may find that his unpopularity drags them down at the ballot box (think low turnout due to lack of enthusiasm, for one). Add to that the party’s penchant to nominate unelectable candidates (Christine “I am not a witch” O’Donnell and Todd Akin, to name two), and Republicans may well find themselves in a minority on Capitol Hill in 2019.

Now, that is something to think about!

Posted December 22, 2017

Republicans at War — with Each Other

Remember Christine “I’m not a witch” O’Donnell, a radical and whacky Republican who won a primary for the U.S. Senate in Delaware in 2010, only to lose in the general election? Or Todd Akin of “legitimate rape” fame, who lost a winnable Senate seat in Missouri in 2012. Or Richard Mourdock, who claimed that if a woman is impregnated during a rape “it’s something God Intended,” a comment that may have cost him Indiana’s Senate seat in 2012?

What these three candidates had in common was the ability to win low-turnout primaries by appealing to ultra-conservative Republicans, only then to fail to attract broad support in general elections. They all lost Senate seats that more moderate Republicans — or at least Republicans who did not alienate the moderate elements of the party and independents — might have won. O’Donnell, Akin, and Mourdock come to mind following the victory of Roy Moore — a far-right candidate who openly has defied court rulings — in Alabama’s GOP primary this week.

Moore will face Democratic candidate Doug Jones in the general election in December to fill the seat of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Jones is an attractive candidate, a former prosecutor of moderate views whom Democrats believe could be competitive against the far-right, radical Moore. But, beating Moore in the general election may be too high a mountain to scale. Alabama, after all, is Alabama, a state where Democrats have not been competitive in Senate races in more than 20 years.

The calculations may be different in states like Nevada and Arizona, where far-right candidates are challenging Senators Dean Heller and Jeff Flake, respectively. Upsets of the incumbents in those states might well give Democrats a chance to pick up GOP-held seats. Moore’s victory over an opponent who had the backing of President Donald Trump and the Republican establishment, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, may encourage other extremists to run against incumbent Republicans who are deemed too moderate or too “establishment.”

Moore’s victory once again illustrates just how divided the modern Republican Party has become. The Republican base distrusts the GOP establishment, which suffered two other stunning setbacks the day Moore walloped Luther Strange by 10 points in Alabama. First, Republican Senate leaders threw in the towel on repealing and replacing Obamacare, tacitly admitting that the party cannot govern and deliver on its long-standing campaign promise. Then, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee announced that he would retire at the end of his term in 2018. Corker is the respected chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and, more importantly for the GOP, his leaving the Senate puts Tennessee in play next year.

It is arguable who dislikes McConnell more, Republicans or Democrats. His endorsement of Strange against Moore, and his willingness to pour millions into the Alabama race, may have been the kiss of death for “Big Luther.” Long judged a wizard of parliamentary maneuvering, McConnell now oversees Republican control of the Senate at a time when long-standing intra-party conflicts render the GOP unable to govern. The failure to repeal Obamacare left McConnell looking incompetent. Imagine how disillusioned Republicans will be if he fails to usher tax reform though the upper chamber (a possibility).

The Alabama primary weakened Trump, who backed Strange at the pleading of McConnell and the urging of Trump’s political aides. Trump’s support of Strange always was lukewarm at best. Still, Trump favored the wrong horse, and the Alabama election shows that Trumpism may be stronger than Trump. Moore’s triumph reflects the same kind of insurgency that propelled Trump to the presidency.

Alabama also showed Trump the dangers of ignoring his right flank, for the primary pitted Trump against Steve Bannon, who campaigned for Moore, and the right-wing nationalist icon and former White House chief strategist won. Bannon viewed the Alabama election as a chance to demonstrate to Trump that there are limits to Trump’s control of his base. Trump believes his supporters will follow him anywhere, but Bannon’s intercession on behalf of Moore was intended to teach Trump that Trumpism reflects a rebellious right-wing ideology that is bigger and more powerful than the president.

Trump against Bannon and the GOP base challenging the establishment are the cross-currents devastating the Republican Party, preventing it from effectively governing despite its control of the White House and both houses of Congress. Trump’s presidency, after all, is based on a hostile takeover of the Republican Party. GOP leaders ignored all of Trump’s outrages because they assumed, falsely, that his agenda was their agenda and that he was interested in the party’s success, when in fact all Trump cares about his own popularity. The Republican establishment also assumed, again falsely, that legislative victories would follow if the party controlled the White House. Instead, the fact that Trump is not a “traditional” Republican (he may not be a Republican at all) made governing that much harder.

A divided Republican Party that cannot fulfill any of its campaign promises is ripe for more hostile takeovers. Expect ultra-right, nationalist challenges to “establishment” Republican incumbents in many primaries for Senate and House seats in 2018. But, if victorious, how would those candidates fare in the general elections? Will they share the fate of O’Donnell, Akin, and Moore and cost the GOP winnable seats?

Posted September 29, 2017

Mitch, You Should’ve Been Careful What You Asked For

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is known as a smooth political operator, more interested in the arcane rules governing the working of the Senate than in the ideological substance behind individual pieces of legislation. McConnell’s reputation as a master of the legislative process is so large that it was a shock to many — including, presumably, President Donald Trump — that he proved so incompetent in ushering a repeal and replacement of Obamacare through the upper chamber.

Regardless of that failure, it remains true that McConnell’s reputation as a long-standing member of the Senate rests more on his skill as a politician than in his beliefs. Many senators become associated with one issue or another: Elizabeth Warren with consumer protection and John McCain with a robust foreign policy and a strong military, come to mind. But, not McConnell, except in one area: Opposition to campaign finance reform.

McConnell has long maintained that limits on campaign spending, by individuals or corporations, amount to restrictions on free speech and, thus, are a violation of First Amendment guarantees. In 2003, McConnell lent his name to a lawsuit (McConnell v. Federal Election Commission) in which the Supreme Court upheld the McCain-Feingold Act banning certain types of campaign donations.

McCain-Feingold subsequently was overturned by the Supreme Court in its 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case, which led to the creation of super PACS, political organizations entitled to raise unlimited amounts of undisclosed “dark” money. When Democrats tried, two years later, to require corporations and unions to disclose their spending on political advertising, McConnell responded, in a speech before the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, “Government-compelled disclosure of contributions… is far more dangerous than its proponents are willing to admit.” Disclosure, he went on to say, “is nothing less than an effort by the government itself to expose its critics to harassment and intimidation, either by government authorities or through third-party allies.”

Now, it could be argued that Mitch McConnell, a Republican, dislikes limits on campaign spending because Republicans — as the party of the wealthy — benefit more than Democrats from big money in politics. That proposition may or may not be true, but let us give McConnell the benefit of the doubt and concede that on campaign finance reform, at least, he holds principled convictions. Let us also, for the sake of argument, overlook the corrupting influence of money in politics, a problem ignored by McConnell and his allies, including a majority on the Supreme Court. The legal system has tended to view corruption as an exchange of cash for a vote, what can be called “quid pro quo corruption,” ignoring the influence on policy of large sums of money coming from one source, or a few sources, with a specific ideological perspective and the possibility that money enables the use of public office for private ends and enrichment (viz., President Trump and the emoluments clause).

Regardless of the sincerity of McConnell’s convictions, what is most interesting in 2017, a year or so before the mid-term elections that will determine control of Congress, is the possible result of McConnell’s opposition to campaign finance reform. In an instance of “be careful what you ask for, because you might get it,” McConnell may be on the cusp of losing his position as Senate majority leader because of unlimited campaign spending or find that being majority leader does not amount to controlling the Senate.

For a variety of reasons — mostly stemming from the fractious nature of Republican politics and the divisive influence of Donald Trump — establishment Republicans, McConnell’s kind of Republicans, are under attack. In Alabama, Luther Strange, appointed to the Senate when Jeff Sessions became attorney general, is in danger of being defeated by Roy Moore, a very untraditional Republican politician, in a runoff election on September 26. As the elected chief of the Alabama Supreme Court, Moore gained fame for twice defying court orders to remove a statue of the Ten Commandments from a public space and refusing to allow same-sex marriages. Strange is the choice of the Republican establishment, including McConnell and, officially, Trump, but polls show Moore in the lead. McConnell is too astute not to know that Moore would not be a contented member of the Republican caucus in the Senate.

The prospects are worse for McConnell in a number of Senate races next year. Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, a vocal critic of President Trump, is being challenged by former state senator Kelli Ward, a far right-winger who already has received $300,000 from the wealthy Mercer family. The Mercers also have contributed $50,000 to an archconservative in Mississippi who may challenge incumbent Senator Roger Wicker.

Republican incumbents in the Senate (and the House, too) who are loyal to McConnell (and Speaker Paul Ryan) face the potential of well-financed primary campaigns. While any Republican is likely to win in Alabama and Mississippi, the changing demographics and politics of Arizona endanger the chances of a far-right candidate who wins in a bruising primary battle. Remember the fate of far-right Republicans like Todd Akin in Missouri, Richard Murdock in Indiana, and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, all of whom defeated more centrist primary opponents only to lose winnable seats in the general elections.

McConnell may find that a sufficient number of his senatorial GOP allies are challenged by well-financed right-wing primary opponents to cost Republicans control of the Senate in 2018. And, even in cases where a right-wing Republican triumphs, as is possible with Roy Moore in Alabama, the result could be a senator who is not easily swayed by McConnell’s control of the GOP caucus. Mitch, you should’ve been careful what you asked for, because getting it could result in your ouster as majority leader. And, even if Republicans remain in control of the Senate, you may preside over a caucus even harder to control than the current one. Have fun, Mitch!

Posted September 19, 2017


What Do They Do Now?

Remember that telling last scene in The Candidate, when the newly elected senator from California, played by Robert Redford, says to his campaign manager, “Marvin, what do we do now?”

With a change in pronoun, it’s a question voters might be asking Republicans now that the party controls the Senate and has an even larger majority in the House.

Republican candidates for office provided little clue as to their goals. “This is not the time to lay out an agenda,” Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell said four days before the election. On another occasion the likely new majority leader said, “It’s never a good idea to tell the other side what the first play is going to be.”

That’s true of football coaches and politicians who are selling ideas rejected by the voters, as are Republicans. An increase in the minimum wage — which congressional Republicans have repeatedly blocked — passed by huge two-to-one margins wherever it was on the ballot, including in die-hard red states Alaska, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Arkansas. Exit polls showed voters endorsing Democratic positions on climate change, immigration, abortion, same-sex marriage, and health care.

So why did the Republicans do so well Tuesday? No doubt the single biggest reason is the current standing of President Obama in public opinion polls. His unpopularity, some of it due to his standoffishness and seeming lack of passion, some of it due to things beyond his control, undermined the entire Democratic electoral effort. The Democrats always figured to do poorly in 2014: First, the electoral map favored the GOP, with far more Democratic than Republican seats up for reelection in the Senate; second, the traditional dip for the party of the president in his sixth year meant inevitable losses; and, third, the usual low turnout in midterm elections gave an edge to Republicans.

But the shellacking (to borrow a word the president used in 2010) was far worse than expected or predicted. The renewed terrorist threat from ISIS, the spread of Ebola (modest as the numbers have been in this country), the sense among voters that an improving economy was improving for someone else, and the overwhelming belief that Washington is broken all conspired to render the president unpopular and poison the electorate against his party. Never mind that Republican contributions to gridlock exceed the president’s and his party’s; when things don’t work, the president gets the blame.

The Republicans played their hand well. They avoided running the kind of whack jobs, like Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, Christine O’Donnell, and Sharron Angle, who torpedoed their efforts in the last two electoral cycles. The Republican establishment poured the necessary resources into Mississippi to insure that incumbent senator Thad Cochran defeated tea party-darling Chris McDaniel in the GOP primary. In Colorado, party regulars persuaded moderate-sounding Cory Gardner (who repudiated his support for a personhood amendment, sort of) to run for the Senate instead of ultra-conservative Ken Buck, who lost a Senate bid four years ago.

While Republicans managed to keep the kookiest candidates off the ballot this year, they did it largely by moving the party to the right. The tea party may have taken a hit operationally, but ideologically the faction’s ultra-right message went mainstream within the GOP.

Many of the new faces in the Senate and the House are on the far right, which will make governing more difficult for Republican congressional leaders. Mitch McConnell will soon find out that the only thing more difficult to manage than a Republican minority is a Republican majority. (Just ask John Boehner. His problems may have gotten even worse with the election of newer, more conservatives members of the House. And he won’t have Eric Cantor around.)

Texas Senator Ted Cruz — bolstered by the presence of new rightwing senators — is likely to be a thorn in McConnell’s (right) side. McConnell may be sincere in promising no more government shutdowns and in vowing not to use the debt ceiling for political purposes, but there’s no guarantee Cruz will agree. If Cruz pushes the agenda to the right, that will turn off senators like Rob Portman of Ohio and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, both of whom are up for reelection in 2016 in politically moderate states. Portman and Toomey won’t want to appear before their constituents saddled with Cruz’s hardline position on immigration and his promise to abolish the EPA and the Education Department.

And then there are the myriad Republican senators jockeying for a run at the presidency. All of the putative candidates will have their own agendas; they will be reluctant step in line behind McConnell’s goals, whatever those may be.

McConnell will find out, as has Boehner, that governing is the hard part. The problem for Republicans is that this time they are in the majority and, since Obama won’t be running in 2016, they will get the blame for Washington dysfunction.

That might make Hillary Clinton the ultimate winner. Assuming she runs and snares the Democratic nomination, she can wage a campaign against a do-nothing Congress.

Posted November 7, 2014


Too Close To Call

It’s a given that Republicans will retain control of the House in the upcoming midterm elections, though the latest Rasmussen poll finds Democrats holding a small lead in the so-called Generic Congressional Ballot (for whom would you vote if the election were held today?).

The Senate is a different matter. There, Republicans need to win six races to gain control 51-49 (the vice president votes if the chamber is split 50-50). The GOP’s chances of picking up at least six seats are good, given the dynamics of the midterm elections.

Democrats hold 21 of the 36 seats up for election, giving Republicans more opportunities to pick up seats. The president’s party historically loses seats in congressional midterm elections, especially in a president’s second term and especially when an incumbent is as unpopular as Barack Obama. Turnout also favors Republicans, as the GOP’s base is more likely to vote in midterms (the opposite is true in presidential elections). And the GOP’s ability to escape the primary season without nominating goofy candidates like Christine O’Donnell, Todd Akin, and Sharron Angle further increases the party’s chances of wining the Senate.

It’s no wonder Republicans have been optimistic about winning control of the Senate. Yet recent polls show Democrats with a better chance of fending off the GOP. The Washington Post’s Election Lab gives Democrats a slight chance to hold on the Senate on November 4. Other forecasters, such as FiveThirtyEight and The New York Times, still give Republicans an edge, but with much narrower routes to winning control of the Senate.

Various electoral maps differ as to which states are in play and by how much, but the most contentious races appear to be in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, New Hampshire, Kentucky, Louisiana, and North Carolina. Democratic incumbents seem likely to win three of these states, with Mark Udall holding a comfortable lead in Colorado, Kay Hagan up in North Carolina, and Jeanne Shaheen running ahead of Scott Brown in New Hampshire. Conversely, Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell is very unpopular in Kentucky, but the Bluegrass State is reliably red and it’s tough to defeat an incumbent, and in Arkansas Tom Cotton has a healthy edge over the incumbent Democrat, Mark Pryor, as of now. Georgia, where the seat is open, also is trending Republican, though a few polls give the edge to Democrat Michelle Nunn.

Deep-red Kansas is the big surprise on the up-in-the air list. Long-time Republican Senator Pat Roberts — dogged by reports he no longer retains a residence in the state and clearly not at the top of his electioneering game so far — is in trouble. Most recent polls show Roberts trailing Greg Orman, an independent who has been coy as to the party with which he would caucus should he win.

Polls in Alaska are notoriously unreliable, and Louisiana is a wild card: Since no candidate is likely to win a majority, state law mandates a runoff in December. Iowa is a tossup, though the Democrat, Bruce Braley, seems to have weathered the missteps of his early campaign and has taken a slight lead in the polls. Joni Ernst, the Republican challenger in the Hawkeye State, ran to the right in the primary but has since moderated some of her positions.

Ernst’s move to the center may provide a clue to the dynamics of the tightening battle for control of the Senate. As has been said before, Americans are ideologically conservative but operationally liberal. They favor small government in the abstract, but support specific government-run programs. The dichotomy of ideologically conservative/operationally liberal forces Republicans to the right in primaries, to the middle in the general election.

Ernst is a case in point. She made a splash in the Iowa GOP primary, with one political ad describing castrating hogs as a child on an Iowa farm and another showing her stepping off a motorcycle, leather-clad and pointing a pistol at the camera. As to the issues, she favored privatizing Social Security, opposed a federal minimum wage, and supported abolishing the Education Department. As an Iowa state senator she sponsored a “personhood” measure stating life begins at conception.

For the general election, Ernst speaks of protecting Social Security and insuring good schools and good-paying jobs. Ernst trails Braley by 57 percent to 41 percent among likely women voters, a glaring gap that dictates less talk about “personhood” and more focus on so-called pocketbook issues.

Ernst typifies the Republican dilemma. The party avoided having extremist, tea party candidates foisted on it in the primaries, but the price paid was to nominate either ultra-conservative candidates like Ernst or for incumbents to move further to right, as Mitch McConnell did in Kentucky to fend off a tea party challenger. Now, those candidates have to move to the center, a move that risks alienating the party’s base.

All of which explains why the race to retain control of the Senate suddenly is too close to call.

Posted September 19, 2014


Death of the Tea Party?


A majority of House Republicans shrugged off ultraconservative opposition Wednesday to vote for  a $1.1 trillion spending bill for the current fiscal year. The measure won the support of 166 House Republicans, with only 64 voting against.

The 1,582 page bill reached the House only two nights before the vote, making it the poster child for the kind of legislation the tea party has opposed since its formation, a huge bill delivered to Congress in the dark and voted on before legislators could read it. It predictably was opposed by such conservative groups as the Club for Growth and Heritage Action. Jenny Beth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots said the spending bill proves the need for “members in the House and Senate who are willing to keep their campaign promises, stand up of the people and protect Americans from Washington’s tax, borrow, spend and spend and spend mentality.”

Despite all that, more than 70 percent of House Republicans voted for the spending bill, a degree of independence from the strictures of the far right that would have been unthinkable a few months ago. The vote marked the culmination of what may be the marginalization of the extreme right in Republican politics, a process that began with the vote to reopen the federal government after the politically disastrous 16-day shutdown. That vote won the support of 87 House Republicans.

The reopening of the government led to the broad budget deal reached in December. Though ultraconservatives denounced the agreement, 169 Republicans supported it. The budget pact paved the way for the this week’s spending bill, backed by a similar number of Republicans. “Our people learned a lot of tough lessons in the last year, and I think you’re seeing the tough lessons applied,” said Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma, in defense of his vote for the spending bill.

Speaker John Boehner appeared to learn those lessons when he lashed out against conservative groups last December. He criticized organizations such as the Club for Growth, Heritage Action, FreedomWorks, and Americans for Prosperity for attacking the budget deal reached by Republican Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington. “You mean the groups that came out and opposed it before they ever saw it?” Boehner fumed.

Does all this mean that these conservative action groups have lost power and influence? Does it presage the end of tea party extremism and the reassertion of moderation in the Republican Party?

Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, says his group is still influential, but concedes recent House votes show that “we’ve got work to do.” He added, “We’d love to put ourselves out of business, but until you get a majority of economic conservatives, you’ve got to keep fighting.”

Don’t expect tea party groups to roll over, either. Indeed, an indication of the direction of the Republican Party likely will come in the 2014 elections, especially in the primaries, where right-wing groups are challenging incumbents accused of alleged moderation. Such stalwart conservative Republicans as Senators Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, John Cornyn of Texas, and Thad Cochran of Mississippi, face tea party-backed primary opponents.

Establishment Republicans are fighting back for the first time in several election cycles. Of particular note is the role of the Chamber of Commerce, which appears to be abandoning tea party candidates in favor of pro-business Republicans who encourage trade, favor immigration reform, and support infrastructure construction.

The Chamber has not always been anti-tea party. “When the Tea Party first came out with who they were and what they believe, they talked about things that the Chamber very much supports,” said Thomas Donohue, the organization’s president, who pointed to shared values such as lower taxes and spending cuts. “Then,” he continued, “we had a lot of people who came along who had different views and they tried to hitch their wagon to the Tea Party engine, and those are the people that wanted to not pay the federal debt and to shut down government and to take more radical approaches to try and get where we all really want to get.”

Establishment Republicans know that such tea party-backed candidates as Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Todd Akin in Missouri, and Sharron Angle in Nevada cost the GOP possible control of the Senate.

The mainstream GOP is determined to prevent a repeat of such disastrous candidates. Wether they can control the nomination process, where the tea party has strong grassroots supports, is the key question of 2014.

Posted January 17, 2014

Republican Civil War

Imagine this: Karl Rove, alias “Turd Blossom” in George W. Bush’s infelicitous phrase, on his white horse riding to the rescue of the Republican Party.

Only the Republican Party does not want to be rescued.

Rove, of course, hardly seems to fit the image of the GOP’s White Knight, given his track record in the 2012 elections in which the former Bush adviser separated more than $300 million dollars from Republican donors, only to see most of his candidates lose. According to the Sunlight Foundation, Rove’s two super PACs earned a one percent and a 14 percent return on investment.

Rove’s big money backers are used to a better return on their money than that.

But a lack of chutzpah has never been a Rovian fault, so Rove has donned his armor and girded for battle again, this time forming a new super Pac, the Conservative Victory Project, pledged to enter Republican primaries in 2014 to support “electable” candidates.

Rove has a point: There is no question that being what Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal calls “the stupid party” cost Republicans a number of Senate seats in the last two elections. Richard Mourdock in Indiana and Todd Akin in Missouri snatched defeat from the jaws of victory last year by their bizarre and ill-informed comments on rape, and two years earlier, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Sharron Angle in Nevada, among others, squandered excellent Republican chances to win.

Primaries rather than general elections are often the main event these days, given the distribution of the current electorate. Primaries place a premium on the participation of committed voters, who frequently are politically extreme. The result for the GOP is an ideologically pure candidate who can’t win the general election.

Rove wants to change that. He claims he merely wants to better position the Republican Party: “This is not tea party versus establishment. I don’t want a fight.”

Yet a fight he has, with tea party leaders and media commentators pushing back, saying Rove and his allies the GOP establishment are the problem, not the solution.

The fissures are deep. According to David Bossie, president of the conservative group Citizens United, the civil war in the Republican Party has begun. “This battle,” he says, “will be a long, hard slog against the establishment.”

And Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, the ultraconservative organization that has backed many right-wing primary candidates, says: “It’s those pesky voters. They get to decide who the nominee is.” And in primaries, the nominees often is on the far right of the political spectrum.

Stephen Law, who will run Rove’s latest effort, counters: “There is a broad concern about having blown a significant number of races because the wrong candidates were selected. We don’t view ourselves as being in the incumbent protection business, but we want to pick the most conservative candidate who can win.”

Some in the GOP claim the problem isn’t too conservative candidates or candidates not conservative enough, but rather a failure to reach voters with the proper message. Tweak the message by removing the rough edges, so the argument goes, but leave the core arguments intact, and Republicans will win.

It’s an argument that may explain Marco Rubio’s rising star. The junior senator from Florida has been selected to give the response this evening to President Obama’s State of the Union Address because he’s Hispanic, favors some kind of immigration reform, and is an articulate spokesman. And oh, yes, he’s a tea party darling who hans’t alienated the establishment.

All of which ignores what recent elections have shown: Voters no longer are buying what Republicans are selling. The problem for the GOP isn’t the message; it’s the product.

It’s only going to get worse. Demography reveals part of the GOP’s problem: A failure to attract Hispanics, the nation’s fastest growing segment. And now polls show that young voters embrace the Democratic view of the proper size and scope of the federal government. A New York Times/CBS News poll reveals that 59 percent of Americans aged 18-29 believe government should do more to solve problems, while only 35 percent of those over 65 agree on the role of government.

That doesn’t auger well for a party favoring limited government.

Posted February 12, 2013