Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The uphill Democratic challenge that cannot be spun

The winner of today’s Most Transparent Spin Award is Democratic senator Charles Schumer. Even though national Democrats took a big hit last night in Rhode Island – where moderate Republican incumbent Lincoln Chafee survived a GOP primary challenge and hence made it much more difficult for the Democrats to capture that critical seat in November – Schumer purports to believe that things turned out swell for his side.

He stated: “When Lincoln Chafee - an incumbent Republican Senator - can barely win his own primary, you know he'll have trouble in the general election. Rhode Islanders, more than voters in any other state, know we need a new direction and real change in this country which is why (Democrat) Sheldon Whitehouse will be the next U.S. Senator from Rhode Island."

Actually, contrary to what Schumer says, Chafee did not “barely win” his primary. By definition, an 8.4-point victory margin with high turnout is quite solid; it is therefore a leap of logic to conclude that such a margin portends “trouble” in November. Quite the contrary, potentially. Chafee handily defeated an outspoken conservative challenger, Stephen Laffey, with strong support from independent voters (who, under Rhode Island law, are allowed to vote in party primaries).

It’s those independent-minded Yankees who might well save one of their own in November – or, at the very least, keep Chafee so competitive that Schumer, who is helming the Democrats’ national bid to recapture the Senate, will have to spend serious money in Rhode Island in order to win a seat that is pivotal to his national ambitions.

Schumer and his lieutenants were rooting hard for conservative Laffey, knowing that he would have been far easier (and cheaper) to defeat. (If Laffey had won, they also would have argued that right-wing extremists had captured the Republican party.) But with Chafee’s primary win, their bid for Senate power just became much harder. Here’s why, in the context of the national map:

The Democrats need to post a net gain of six seats. They can do this by defeating six GOP incumbents, and successfully save all their own incumbents. Theoretically, this can be done by ousting the Republicans in Pennsylvania (Rick Santorum), Montana (Conrad Burns), Ohio (Mike DeWine), Missouri (Jim Talent), Virginia (George Allen), and Rhode Island (Chafee)…or ousting five of them, and picking up the Tennessee seat being vacated by Republican leader Bill Frist. Then they need to defend their five most vulnerable Democratic seats, especially New Jersey’s Robert Menendez. (More on Menendez in a moment.)

For Democrats, this is a tall order, even assuming that something close to an anti-Republican tsunami develops this autumn. Chafee’s win last night doesn’t help. Now they have to pump big money and resources into Rhode Island, where Chafee’s moderate-to-liberal record is actually in sync with the voters; every dollar and staffer that goes to Rhode Island is a dollar and staffer that can’t go to Ohio, Virginia, Missouri, or Tennessee.

Especially Tennessee. In the contest for that open GOP seat, the Democrats have nominated congressman Harold Ford. He is African American. Name the last time that a southern state elected a black Democrat in a statewide Senate race. You can’t.(Harvey Gantt came closest in North Carolina, in 1990, against winner Jesse Helms.) In other words, Ford will need all the national party help he can get, especially since his opponent, Bob Corker, is a millionaire. Chafee’s GOP win in Rhode Island was not good for Ford in Tennessee.

Nor is the Senate race in New Jersey boosting the Democrats’ national prospects. Once again, New Jersey Democrats potentially face a sleaze issue, as they did in 2002, when the ethically-challenged incumbent Senator Bob Torricelli was forced to step down just weeks before election day. This time, Bob Menendez (who’s only a semi-incumbent, having been appointed last winter to fill the seat vacated by Jon Corzine) is under a cloud, in the midst of a tight election against Thomas Kean Jr.

Menendez has been targeted in a federal criminal investigation of his financial dealings. He has already denounced the U.S. attorney as partisan (a politician’s standard defense), but that investigator has a long track record of targeting people in both parties. The bottom line, for Democrats, is that now they will also need to spend precious money and resources defending a blue-state seat - especially given the fact that Kean is a popular New Jersey brand name, which evokes warm memories of the senior Kean’s scandal-free gubernatorial reign.

And I haven’t even mentioned the imminent release of Jim McGreevey’s tell-all memoirs. Jim McGreevey, the Democratic governor who resigned a few years ago after he disclosed that “I am a gay American,” is releasing his book in the midst of this autumn campaign.

Forget Tony and Silvio and Paulie Walnuts. Who needs The Sopranos, when you’ve got Jersey reality?


Good cop/ bad cop, Washington style...

President Bush, in his Monday night speech: "We must put aside our differences and work together" in the war on terror.

House Republican leader John Boehner, speaking yesterday about the Democrats: "I wonder if they're more interested in protecting the terrorists than protecting the American people."