Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Why Republicans want to spend more time with their families

Mike Ferguson, a Republican congressman from New Jersey, announced yesterday that he would not seek re-election in 2008. Here's what he said: "I know that now is the right time to step away from public life to focus more on family life while our children are still young."

In translation, here's what he really meant: "Even though I have raised nearly $800,000 for a 2008 race, I'm bailing out anyway, because I don't want to be drowned in a tsunami. In fact, the Nov. 19 cover story in National Review, surveying our prospects as a party in 2008, is headlined, 'The Coming Cataclysm.' Like so many of my House Republican colleagues who are running for the exits, I fear that the '08 election will embalm us in the minority for the foreseeable future. As recently as 2006, I was an assistant majority whip. I had a little power of my own. But even if I manage to survive next year, I'll be powerless to do much of anything - especially if a Democrat wins the White House and sets the agenda. Better to just pull the plug right now, and hide behind my kids."

Ferguson is a metaphor for the national Republican miasma. He's bailing from a north-central Jersey district that was long considered to be a GOP bailwick - until 2006, when Ferguson, in his quest for a fourth term, had to scratch out a victory by less than one percentage point. He barely made it, even after distancing himself from President Bush as much as politically possible, and purging his website of all photos showing he and Bush in the same frame.

He clearly had no desire to risk that kind of ordeal again, especially since there is no guarantee that the '08 GOP presidential nominee will have any coattails in blue-state New Jersey. (Rudy Giuliani might have coattails, but his nomination is by no means assured, and Hillary Clinton, who is generally popular in New Jersey, might simply cancel him out.) And if you doubt New Jersey is blue, just remember what happened in 2006, when Dick Cheney showed up to campaign for GOP senatorial candidate Thomas Kean Jr. Somehow, Kean managed to arrive 15 minutes after Cheney had departed. Kean's ostensible excuse: the traffic was murder.

Anyway, in the wake of Ferguson's departure from a swing district, he is creating another open-seat opportunity for the Democrats - who have already been poised to capitalize on similar fortuitous openings nationwide. Another occurred two weeks ago, when longtime Republican congressman James Saxton, announced he would not seek re-election in his South Jersey district, which runs from Camden east to the Jersey shore. Saxton was ensconced a lot longer than Ferguson, and therefore cruised to an easy win in 2006, but his retirement opens a seat in a district that has been slowly trending Democratic. National House Democratic strategists are eyeing both these districts, and pledging to spend serious money; they have already settled on candidates for each, while the GOP has been scrambling.

All told, 18 House Republicans have either announced they're bailing out in 2008 or even earlier (ex-Speaker Dennis Hastert, for example). That's about nine percent of the current House GOP membership, and it speaks volumes about the current Republican mood. By contrast, only four House Democrats are leaving the chamber. Stuart Rothenberg, the nonpartisan Washington analyst of House races, succinctly sums up the GOP's potential '08 baggage: "damage to the Republican brand," thanks to President Bush, "as well as from a series of highly publicized scandals and ethical problems."

By definition, most of the departing Republicans are moderates who hail from swing districts (conservatives who represent deeply-red districts are not at risk next year). The GOP will now be forced to expend potentially scarce resources simply to defend vacated seats in Arizona, Ohio (at least two), Illinois, New Mexico, New Jersey, and Minnesota, among others. Ideally, the party would be able to target some vulnerable Democratic freshmen (for instance, Nick Lampson, who now occupies the indicted Tom DeLay's seat, in deeply-red suburban Houston), but it's tough to do that if you're stuck on defense without adequate funds.

It's rare to use the words "GOP" and "scarce resources" in the same sentence, but this is how life is during the waning days of the Bush era. The party is not flush with money the way it used to be; in the most recent federal filings, the GOP's House campaign strategy arm, the National Republican Campaign Committee, reported that it had only $1.6 million cash on hand - whereas the NRCC's rival, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, reported $28.3 million cash on hand. That is a stunning reversal of the usual pattern, and further evidence of a dispirited Republican community.

But perhaps the Republicans should not despair. One party strategist is offering these tips to '08 GOP House candidates: "Create a narrative that explains your life and commitments. Every presidential election is about change and the future, not the past. So show them who you are in a way that gives the American people hope, optimism and insight. That's the best antidote to the low approval ratings of the Republican president. Those numbers will not help the GOP candidate..."

There's the advice in a nutshell: Run as far away from Bush as possible.

What's ironic is that the advisor happens to be...Karl Rove, the Bush political architect who has done so much to debase the Republican brand and spark this Republican rush to the exits. When Bush's own Svengali (now improbably reincarnated as a Newsweek columnist) is advising candidates to distance themselves from Bush, that tells you all you need to know about the current Republican state of play.