Dear Politically Savvy Friends,
The name George W. Bush does not appear on any ballot in 2006, but, make no mistake, the day after the election the talk will be all about President Bush. If Karl Rove is correct and the Republicans maintain control of both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, prepare for non-stop heralding of another Bush mandate to govern as he sees fit for the remaining two years of his presidential term. If the Democrats take control of the Senate, the House, or both, their political mouthpieces will proclaim the country's humiliation of President Bush and its rejection of his policies, especially in Iraq.
In short, both sides will engage in the political diarrhea that we associate with 21st century political news on FOX, CNN, MSNBC, and radio talk. That's not to say the 2006 elections are unimportant -- they are critical in determining how this country's citizens feel about the leadership and direction of America -- it's just that I think both Republicans and Democrats are guilty of hyperbole as they depict what is at stake on November 7.
What fascinates me most is that the 2006 election appears to have become a national referendum on George W. Bush and his waging of war in Iraq. The election has been 'nationalized,' not because of anything clever the Democrats or their strategists did, but because of events on the ground that, arguably, the president had no control over. As we enter the last week before the election, my Politically Savvy Friends, read on for my take, then feel free to comment and criticize.
BEYOND THE BELTWAY
The Referendum on Bush:
History has it that the mid-term election during the second term of a president is always bad news for the party in the White House. [President Clinton was the exception to that rule in 1998 but, then, Republicans overplayed their hands in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, trying to impeach Clinton over a sexual tryst. The country rebuked the GOP by electing more Democrats to Congress that year]. But the general rule (Reagan in 1986, Nixon/Ford in 1974, Eisenhower in 1958, etc.) is for second-term presidents to pay a price in their sixth year in office. So from the beginning of this year, everyone thought the Republicans would lose a few seats in the House and Senate.
But nobody really expected a battle for control of both the House and Senate coming down to the wire just one week before Election Day. After all, the Republicans have had all the advantages -- the power of incumbency, more campaign dollars, gerrymandered congressional districts, and (all too often) weak opponents. Now you do have to credit the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee (led by U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer) and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (led by U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanual) with fielding just enough credible opponents to make a turnover possible. But missed opportunities still abound, as we shall surely note the day after the election.
Ironically, it may not matter. The public seems so unhappy with President Bush, the war in Iraq, the Congress and its leadership, and the general state of things, that perhaps the only thing that counts for voters is whether you are a Republican incumbent (and, presumably, part of the mess down there) or not. Now this is terribly unfair to many Republican members of the House and Senate who have been worked hard, brought home the bacon, and generally done a good job. But all that is swept away because almost every Republican has a strong support record for President Bush (85% and better) and, obviously, almost all backed the war in Iraq and failed to criticize (i.e., exercise 'oversight,' in Capitol Hill lingo) the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld management of the war.
The belief among many voters that party loyalty to the White House trumped any independent critique of the war and how best to protect American troops and extricate them from Iraq has been given an added boost by the whole Mark Foley scandal. This issue, nationally, is not Foley's emails to congressional pages, but rather whether GOP leaders in Congress from Speaker Dennis Hastert, Majority Leader John Boehner, National Republican Campaign Committee chair Tom Reynolds on down failed to act on earlier information in order to protect a fellow Republican. While the bipartisan House Ethics Committee sorts through what really happened, the public is left, again, with the overwhelming sense that party loyalty trumped the protection of teenagers. Toss in the few bad apples (like former Majority Leader Tom DeLay and U.S. Rep. Bob Ney) who have stained the Congress through their own personal culture of corruption with lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and it's no wonder that approval of the Congress is only 16% (Wall Street Journal/NBC Poll), a record low.
It would appear to be a perfect storm with President Bush right in the eye of it. If voters are unhappy about Bush, and the polls certainly suggest so (ranging from 36% approval/CNN poll to 40%/FOX poll) -- and if the voters are unhappy about the war in Iraq (64%/CNN to 66%/Gallup disapprove of Bush's conduct of the war), the only way to send a message is to toss aside some perfectly decent Republicans and vote Democratic. As noted below, individual Republicans are fighting hard to separate themselves from this equation. But in my view, the control of the Congress very much depends on how nationalized this year's election has become.
The U.S. Senate Battle:
In some ways, the race between incumbent U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and his Democratic challenger, state treasurer Bob Casey, both exemplifies the points I have made above and defies them. Nobody has been more identified in PA with President Bush than Rick Santorum. He has strongly advocated the president's views and chaired his reelection campaign in 2004. Unlike his colleage, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, over the years Santorum has rarely made a public display of his differences with Bush, although he does have them on a few issues. Nor has there been a more fervent supporter of the war in Iraq than Santorum. Indeed, Santorum has outlined a much more aggressive approach to dealing with what he calls "Islamic fascists," starting with Iran, than the administration has embraced, at least publicly. In short, Santorum epitomizes the two big issues that seem to be driving voters away from Republicans.
But elections are not held in a vaccuum. Santorum's opponent, Bob Casey, is a thoroughly likeable man from a great political family in PA, but as a series of four debates demonstrated Casey is hardly the passionate fighter that Santorum is. I have argued in this space that maybe Pennsylvania is ready for a more laid-back, conciliatory senator rather than one who is a polarizing firebrand. If so, Casey is a shoo-in for election on November 7. But the debates, if anyone was watching, also highlighted Santorum's uncanny ability to go on offense in a way that some people find endearing in a politician even when they disagree with him.
This frustrates the hell out of some Democrats who wish Casey was a Democratic version of Santorum, fighting back, spitting venom, and oozing the passion for Democratic ideals that Santorum does so well for the Republicans. But that is totally alien to Bob Casey's character, and when he tries to play tough (as he did a few times during the debates) it just appears awkward. Democrats need to recognize that Casey will never be Santorum on that level, and the great irony is that it's precisely because he's not Santorum that Casey appears likely to win election on November 7.
Going in to the last week, Santorum appears to be the loser. But I have said on this page many times that Democrats should never underestimate Rick Santorum. Certainly, under the radar, Santorum is working hard to bring out his base, especially Christian evangelicals who nearly delivered PA to President Bush in 2004. Last week, Dr. James Dobson (Focus on the Family) emailed Christian evangelicals. Asserting in a footnote that the group "does not endorse candidates," Dobson then implicitly did exactly that, urging evangelicals to "do everything in their power to vote" and ripping Bob Casey apart for "taking disturbing positions on key issues" like gays and abortion. You can be sure that churches within this network are doing everything they can to keep Santorum in the Senate.
In the end, as I have said frequently, this race comes down to suburban women, especially suburban Republican women in the Philadelphia region. In 2000, suburban Philadelphia voters supported Al Gore and Rick Santorum at the same time, political schizophrenia at its best. In Bucks County, Gore beat Bush by 11,000 votes, just as Santorum was beating Ron Klink by 41,000 votes; in Delaware County, Gore beat Bush by 29,000 votes, while Santorum beat Klink by 23,000 votes; and in Montgomery County, Gore beat Bush by 32,000 votes, and Santorum beat Klink by 34,000 votes. Now Casey is much better known and better funded than Klink was, but if these suburban voters opt for Rick over Bob, this race suddenly becomes very close.
My gut says this won't happen -- Santorum is much better known as a ideological conservative in 2006 than he was in 2000 -- but don't be surprised if this race is a whole lot closer than those double-digit margins in some polls suggest.
Has Rendell Clinched It?
It's hard to find anyone in PA who really thinks that Gov. Ed Rendell will lose reelection on November 7th. In PA, the incumbent has always won reelection since 1968 when governors got the right to a second term, and the tradition seems unlikely to be broken by Republican Lynn Swann. In my view, Swann's campaign got off to a weak start earlier this year and continued over the summer, but it has been much stronger this fall -- and, in some ways, the candidate himself has gotten better in the waning days of the campaign.
Still, despite some occasional gaffes from Rendell (what was that stuff about senior citizens and the slots?), he has run a pretty flawless campaign. That's easier to do when you have millions of dollars to overwhelm the other side. But Swann continues to hammer his points in some well-crafted TV ads that have also improved as election day got closer.
Conventional wisdom is that Rendell beats Swann with double-digits. I don't believe so. There are enough people unhappy with the governor, and still plenty of Steeler fans in western PA, that this is still a single-digit race. When National GOP Chairman Ken Mehlman was here in Pittsburgh last week, I asked if he was predicting an upset for Swann. He would not do so, only saying that Swann has put in place the groundwork for an upset. It was a weird way to put it, and, in any case, it's hard to see an upset one week out. But I still think this will be closer than most people think. Of course, a win is a win, and Rendell will take it any way he can get it!
The Congressional Battleground in PA:
The Democrats need 15 seats to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives, and one-third of those seats could come from the keystone state of Pennsylvania. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has its sights on five incumbent Republicans: U.S. Reps. Curt Weldon (opposed by Joe Sestak), Jim Gerlach (opposed by Lois Murphy), Mike Fitzpatrick (opposed by Patrick Murphy), Don Sherwood (opposed by Chris Carney), and Melissa Hart (opposed by Jason Altmire).
Now even Republican strategists in the state tell me that two of these five Republicans are likely to lose, but all five? Not likely, unless there is a national political tsunami to send a message to Washington about Bush and Iraq [see above]. Three of these races are in suburban Philadelphia, one is in northeastern PA, and one is in suburban Pittsburgh.
In some ways, Pennsylvania has had an imbalanced congressional delegation since 2002. Even though Democrats outnumber Republicans by a half million registered voters, 12 of the state's 19 districts are held by Republicans. That's because the GOP controlled both houses of state government and the governor's office after the 2000 Census. This allowed the Republicans to engage in some very extreme forms of gerrymandering to protect Republicans. [Mind you, the Democrats did the same for their Members of Congress in states they controlled]. So, Weldon-Gerlach-Fitzpatrick-Sherwood-Hart have some built-in advantages that generally befuddle Democratic challengers. That's why I am particularly conservative in predicting a sweep for Dems. Still, the fact that even five GOP seats are in play one week before this election tells you how much this year's election has become a referendum on President Bush and Iraq.
Altmire Makes It a Race:
A few weeks ago, only a few of us thought the race between U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart and Democrat Jason Altmire would move into the "up for grabs" column. This 4th Congressional District in southwestern PA stretches across six counties but its heart is the northern suburbs of Allegheny County and Beaver County. Hart has been a hard-working representative, focusing on lots of local issues and winning reelection with big margins in the past even though Republicans number only 39% of the district's political make-up.
Nobody really thought she was in reelection trouble until both party polls and independent polls showed a much closer race than expected. The Susquehanna Poll (and Altmire's own polls) show just a 4-point lead for Hart, while Hart's poll (Public Opinion Strategies) pegs the lead at 12 points. Regardless, both parties are engaged in slugfest, running negative ads attacking the other's candidate, and turning a virtually unknown Altmire into at least a familiar name. And it has quickly become Hart's first real challenge as an incumbent, since she won election in 2000 with 58% of the vote.
While Hart proclaims herself an "independent" when it comes to issues at home, down in the U.S. Capitol she is regarded as a very loyal Republican -- and an up-and-comer at that. Four days after she was first elected, Republicans picked her to give the rebuttal radio remarks to then-President Clinton. And she was later rewarded with a plum assignment on the House Ways & Means Committee, the committe that writes tax law. She was close to former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (taking campaign contributions from him) and even closer to the current Majority Leader, Jack Boehner. When the White House wanted to showcase President Bush's social security reforms in 2005, Hart hosted a "town meeting" in her district for Vice President Cheney to tout the privatization program. When the Republican leadership wanted a reliable ally on the House Ethics Committee, they named Melissa Hart. Monday the White House went to bat for Hart by sending First Lady Laura Bush into the district to campaign for her. In short, Hart's star is very much a rising one in Republican Party politics, unless, of course, Jason Altmire shoots it down.
From the beginning, Altmire's strategy has been to nationalize this election, comparing Hart's voting record to that of Santorum and Bush. Congressional Quarterly reports that in the years 2001 to 2005, Hart supported Republican Party positions 93% to 97% and President Bush's positions 88% to 100%. Altmire is relentless in suggesting that if you want to change directions in Washington and the war in Iraq, you have got to change the people you send to Washington. Hart responds with all the good things she has done for her district, and she can list a number. But, once again, the question for voters here, as elsewhere, is what is this 2006 election all about? If it's about local constituent service, Hart wins. If it's about Bush and the war, then Altmire clearly has a shot. I still give the edge to Hart, but an Altmire upset would not surprise me.
The Forgotten Race:
By every calculation, U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, the two-term Republican from Upper St. Clair, should cruise to reelection victory in the 18th Congressional District. This is another one of those gerrymandered districts, first created for Murphy, that stretches across three counties (Allegheny, Washington, and Westmoreland) with a Republican voting history (like voting for Bush over Kerry in 2004). Murphy's opponent is Democrat Chad Kluko of Monroeville, a rather unconventional, self-described 45-year old "Reagan" Democrat with no political background but strong beliefs about the war in Iraq and deficit spending. The bad news for Kluko is that, unlike Altmire, he was unable to raise any big money, while Murphy counts a campaign fund in the seven figures! Still, Kluko's one advantage is that Democrats outnumber Republicans by 75,000 registrants in the 18th District, more than in Hart's district. Hope springs eternal for Kluko and some of his allies that Democrats, outraged over Bush and the war, will send a protest vote when they cast a ballot for Congress. Murphy is a consistent Republican and Bush vote in the Congress, although not as reliable as Hart, and he has attracted some labor union support. Like Hart, he works his district very hard, appearing at every imaginable function. In short, he should be a shoo-in for reelection unless national politics take over.
Murphy has run into one potential snag when some of his employees, both current and former, accused the congressman of using his congressional office for campaign purposes. Reporter Gary Rotstein of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette first reported the story on Saturday (http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/06301/733740-177.stm). To local residents, it's all pretty reminiscent of former state Rep. Jeffrey Habay, a Shaler Republican, who was found guilty of similar offenses (divulged by his staff people) and spent time in jail this year. Murphy denies the charge and says he has asked the House Ethics Committee to investigate whether anyone did anything wrong. Of course, that won't happen until after the election. It's been an open secret that Murphy has had difficulty retaining staff people during his short tenure in Congress, losing 38 staff people in just 3-1/2 years. That's a 250% turnover, one former staff person told me. While Santorum's staff people are among the most loyal in this region, Murphy has a hard time keeping people on board, and when they leave him, they have very little good to say about him. Now I must admit that Tim Murphy has always been congenial and respectful with me, so I find the comments to be almost unbelievable. But the gist of the complaints is that Murphy is rude, inconsiderate, bullying, and unreasonable. One former staffer told me bluntly that the congressman, a PhD psychologist, "must have skipped his classes on interpersonal relationships." PoliticsPA has posted some of the more graphic comments about Murphy's staff problem [see http://www.politicspa.com/FEATURES/05murphyturnoversfocusgroup.htm].
Let me repeat, again, that I have never seen this kind of behavior from Tim Murphy, but obviously some people in his office feel otherwise.
Let me also add that I don't think staff turnover is a reason to vote against somebody, unless it affects the district. After all, the late U.S. Sen. John Heinz was once accused of throwing telephones at his staff people. But one lesson is clear. If your staff thinks you're a turkey and you do something really wrong, your staff are more likely to turn you in. Just ask Jeff Habay!
Will the State House Go Democrat?
Judging from all the emails I get from state Rep. Mike Veon's campaign team, the state House of Representatives is about to turn Democratic. Veon of Beaver Falls, who could become Majority Leader if that happens, thinks the Dems are poised to win the 8 seats they need for a Democratic victory in Harrisburg. I'm not so sure, but I am admittedly not as familiar with some of the contested seats back in eastern PA. In this region, Dems think they have the potential to pick up two seats, although Republicans see a chance to oust to Democratic incumbents. In the th District, incumbent Republican Michael Diven of Brookline faces a strong challenge from Democrat Chelsa Wagner of Beechview. Diven, a former city councilman, is the Democrat-turned-Republican whose nominating petitions contained the signatures of a number of dead people. He withdrew those petitions but went on to win his party's nomination on a write-in. Wagner, a local attorney, is the neice of state Auditor General Jack Wagner, and she has not missed a beat in attacking Diven over a variety of issues. I moderated a local debate between the two, and both of them went at each other for over an hour. The district is Democratic, which certainly helps Wagner, but Diven is much better known personally.
In the 42nd District, two newcomers are battling it out, Democrat Matt Smith and Republican Mark Harris. Harris is the 21-year old who slayed the giant, state Rep. Tom Stevenson, in the Republican Primary. The problem for Harris is that in so doing he antagonized House Speaker John Perzel by saying he would not support Perzel for leader. While that may have played well with the voters, it has kept Perzel and state Republicans from putting much money into Harris' campaign. In contrast, Smith, a 34-year old lawyer, is close to Allegheny County chief executive Dan Onorato who has cut TV commercials for Smith running on local cable TV. Moreover, the Dems in Harrisburg think this is a potential pick-up for them, and they have put their money behind Smith. This South Hills suburban district could go either way, but the odds are looking good for Smith. But even if the Dems pick up these two Republican seats next week, they could just as easily lose two Democratic seats. State Rep. Frank Dermody of Oakmont is in a real battle in the 33rd District with former Republican county councilwoman Eileen Watt of Cheswick. Dermody voted for that controversial pay raise, although he didn't take it, but it's enough of an issue for Watt to bruise him. Watt, the former political director for the county Republicans, is a strong campaigner, but in Dermody she's up against a practiced legislator who has been working the vineyards for many years.
Up in the North Hills' 30th District, state Rep. Shawn Flaherty (son of the late Mayor Pete Flaherty of Pittsburgh) is battling to keep the seat he just won last April in a special election. It's not that Flaherty has done anything wrong. It's just that this district has traditionally been Republican, and the GOP has fielded retired police officer Randy Vulakovich of Shaler to take on the Democrat. Vulakovich comes from the biggest community in this district -- Flaherty lives in Fox Chapel -- and this could be a real nail-biter on election night.
The Campaign for Mayor: Mayor Luke Ravenstahl didn't want to believe the "political pundits" when many of us pontificated last September about the City Charter's requirement for a special election for mayor in 2007. But it turns out that we were right and those in the administration who thought Luke could fill out the term of the late Mayor Bob O'Connor without facing the voters were just plain wrong. No surprise. The Allegheny County Board of Elections unanimously agreed that voters will nominate candidates in the May 15, 2007, primary and elect a new mayor in the general election of November 6, 2007. The new mayor will take office as soon as those results are certified and serve until the end of O'Connor's term in 2009. [There will be another election for mayor to a full 4-year term in 2009].
With the 2006 elections still ahead, nobody is ready to announce his or her candidacy. Indeed, formal candidacies may wait until after the holidays. But, at this stage, two candidates seem certain: Ravenstahl will run for a mandate in his own right, and city councilman Bill Peduto, who came in second to O'Connor in 2005, will almost certainly do the same. Allegheny County prothonotary Michael Lamb is thinking about another run -- he placed third in 2005 -- but seems more interested in running for city controller next year. Former Allegheny County Commissioner Mike Dawida of Carrick tells me that he is very serious about running, worried that the city's financial problems requires someone with more 'gravitas' than Ravenstahl and Peduto. It is a concern also shared by Auditor General Jack Wagner of Beechview, although Wagner seems less likely to take the plunge. No doubt other candidates will surface.
The political reality is that Ravenstahl is the odds-on favorite, but certainly no shoo-in. In the 2005 primary, just under 59,000 Democrats voted in the primary. O'Connor got 49% of the vote, and Peduto got just over 24%, or around 14,000 votes. Peduto is likely to get what he got before, but whether he can build on that base is uncertain. When Ravenstahl was last on the ballot in his Northside councilmanic district, he got nearly 5,900 votes. Of course, in the spring he runs city-wide. O'Connor's nearly 29,000 votes are clearly up for grabs, along with Lamb's 13,000 votes if he chooses not to run. With Ravenstahl north of the Allegheny River and Peduto in the city's Shadyside/Squirrel Hill area, regional politics could play a role as well, especially if a candidate south of the rivers like Wagner or Dawida gets into this. All in all, as soon as one election ends, another begins!
That's it for now. I do want to thank so many of you for joining in our "Politically Savvy Friends" talkcast. We have done six episodes on TalkShoe, and you can click on to Politically Saavy Friends Talkcast to listen to any of episode you want, including the most recent one from last week when Jason Altmire phoned in. We hope to do another wrap-up edition just before Election Day, so stay tuned. As always, I welcome your comments and off-the-record tips -- and hunker down for that last round of negative attack ads!
All the best,
H. John Heinz School of Public Policy & Management
Carnegie Mellon University
[As always, these views are my own and not those of the wonderful institutions with whom I am privileged to be associated].