Downbeat mood hits GOP in pocketbook

August 03, 2008|By PAUL WEST | PAUL WEST,WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

WASHINGTON - An adviser to John McCain's campaign sums up 2008 this way: Republicans are "not going to elect dogcatchers, but we may have the presidency."

Pity those Republicans running in the other election, the one in the shadow of the McCain-Barack Obama contest. Their party is in the grip of a full-fledged Bush depression, and there's no sign of turning a corner anytime soon.

Deep and prolonged dissatisfaction with President Bush's performance has been amplified by pessimism about a sour national economy and high food and fuel prices. Every opinion survey shows American voters tilting against the Republican Party and saying that Congress should stay in Democratic hands under the next president.

At the moment, this downbeat mood is hitting Republican candidates where it hurts most: in their campaign accounts.

"It is the worst fundraising that I have ever seen," said Paul Wilson, a veteran Republican media consultant. "Candidates who were at $700,000 last time are now at $100,000. Those who should be at $350,000 to $500,000 are at $70,000."

National Republican House and Senate campaign committees, whose job is to help elect Republican candidates, had just one-third as much money in the bank, combined, as their Democratic counterparts at the start of last month, according to the latest financial disclosure reports.

The money gap was more pronounced on the House side, where Republican prospects continue to deteriorate.

A recent race-by race analysis by Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan specialist in congressional elections, concluded that Democrats "will gain House seats again this year. The only question is how many."

Rothenberg increased his estimate of Republican losses to 10 to 15 seats, and said a 20-seat shift "would not be all that surprising."

According to his ratings, 65 of 435 House seats nationwide are "in play," with Republicans defending about two-thirds of those. None of Maryland's eight congressional districts made the list.

The race to replace Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, who lost in the primary, is the only one regarded as potentially competitive. But Rothenberg rated the chances of a Democratic pickup as a long shot in the district, which covers the Eastern Shore, portions of Harford and Baltimore counties and a small part of Anne Arundel.

After losing the House in 2006, Republicans find themselves with 37 fewer representatives than the Democrats. Further losses would drive them deeper into the minority than at anytime since the early 1990s. However, the Senate, the last line of Republican defense at the Capitol, is a bigger worry.

Democrats owe their slim majority to one man: independent Joseph I. Lieberman. He continues to side with his former party, though he's such a strong McCain supporter that he could wind up on the Republican ticket as his running mate.

But Republicans have given up hope of gaining the seat or two they'd need to take charge. Instead, they're fighting to minimize their loses and remain an effective minority force.

Thirty-five states (not including Maryland) are holding Senate elections, and Republicans face the bad luck of defending 23 of those seats in what some are calling the worst climate for the party since the Watergate era.

With three months left in the campaign, independent analysts are forecasting Republican losses of five to seven seats. But if this turns out to be a 1980-style change year, as some expect, more Republican senators could be in trouble, including well-known figures like Elizabeth Dole and Mitch McConnell.

Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, who has the unenviable job of chairing the Republican campaign committee, says that anything less than 45 seats would threaten GOP leverage in the Senate. And that would make it easier for the Democratic majority to move legislation.

It takes only 41 of the chamber's 100 members to stop action on a measure. This blocking power goes a long way toward explaining how Washington works (or, critics would say, doesn't) in an age of divided government.

But "to get 41, you need 45, because you're always going to lose a few Republicans," Ensign said not long ago. There are 49 Republican senators now, and the hope is to limit losses to no more than four.

Chances of achieving that negative goal suffered a blow with the recent corruption indictment of Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, whose re-election was already in doubt. Alaska hasn't sent a Democrat to Washington in more than 30 years, but scandal has a way of prompting change.

In presidential election years, the selection of a new Congress gets no real national attention. But the stakes are just as high.

"The implications are pretty significant," said Martin Frost, a former Texas congressman who heads a national voter-registration drive by a coalition of liberal groups. "A new president gets a honeymoon period for the first two years. That's his best chance of passing sweeping legislation."

At the state level, where analysts are forecasting Republican losses in legislative contests, the results could influence the shape of redistricting maps drawn after the 2010 census. That, in turn, will affect the way power flows, at the state and national level, through much of the next decade.

McCain or Obama will soon grab the global spotlight as the new American president. But the other election in November will have at least as much to do with shaping the direction of the country.

paul.west@baltsun.com

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