Sabato's Crystal Ball

October Surprise! (And a Leadership Demise?)

Bombshell Leaves Republicans with Unwanted Fall "Foley-Age"

David Wasserman and Larry J. Sabato, U.Va. Center for Politics October 5th, 2006

One sign that a party is heading downhill is when it literally gives away seats in Congress. In 1994, the Democrats did so. Twelve years later, the Republicans are following suit.

Democrats seemed capable of just about one thing in 1994: hemorrhaging seats in Congress. Powerful Illinois Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D) blew it in a district typically safe for his party after his indictment in a check kiting scandal, Nevada Rep. James Bilbray (D) was felled after it was revealed days before the election that his aide stood to profit millions from lands legislation he had sponsored, and Democrats frittered away more open seats than we care to count by clumsily nominating the weaker (and typically the more liberal) of two candidates in primaries. After all the wreckage had been surveyed, Democrats had lost a grand total of 54 seats, more than enough to forfeit their House majority.

From the perspective of one month out from Election Day, it’s difficult to imagine how Republicans could suffer losses in a range anywhere near what Democrats suffered twelve years ago. But it’s still a familiar picture: this year, the GOP has been giving away seats in Congress as if they were extra pairs of upper-deck Washington Nationals tickets. Ohio GOP Rep. Bob Ney’s fall from grace and eventual withdrawal gave the weak Democratic nominee in his district an opportunity as wide as a barn door. Former Majority Whip Tom DeLay’s fumbled timing of withdrawal from his Texas race left his party with a write-in candidate whose name is difficult to spell and Democrats with a distinct edge. And Republicans in southern Arizona nominated a fire-and-brimstone conservative over a moderate state legislator in the district currently held by GOP Rep. Jim Kolbe, virtually ending their hopes of retaining the seat against the strong Democratic nominee.

The latest free gift for Democrats in the Sunshine State, of course, tops them all. And what an ironic gift: in 1994, the crowning achievement that added the exclamation point to Republicans’ romp to power was upstart George Nethercutt’s toppling of Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley in his eastern Washington district. Twelve years later, another Foley is (as we can all agree, thankfully) out of his job, and though he did not hold the speaker’s gavel, his name might well come to memorialize Speaker Hastert’s downfall, if such a downfall comes to pass as either the result of resignation or the election. In the Crystal Ball’s estimation, a leadership shakeup is much more likely to happen than not when the odds of those two possibilities are combined; the ongoing Republican free-for-all in the wake of scandal seriously threatens not only Hastert but GOP election efforts.

When the Crystal Ball warned of an “October Surprise” in last week’s article, no one apart from those who knew of Florida ex-Rep. Mark Foley’s horrendous transgressions had any idea that a scandal of such salaciousness and with such power to enrapture voters could break. But it did, and the disturbing truth couldn’t have exploded at a worse time for congressional Republicans. If Democrats ride a tsunami to massive victories and operational control of Congress in November, we now know what tectonic unrest will have fomented its swift and violent propagation across an already stormy sea.

And what a difference a week makes! Just when it seemed like Republicans were catching a few breaks in the run-up to October, the congressional page scandal joined leaked reports of poor progress in Iraq and Bob Woodward’s portrayal of the President Bush as a clueless war wager to deliver Bush and Republicans their worst, most catastrophic week of 2006 (and yes, it may be somewhat sad commentary on the state of both the media and the public’s news sensibilities that the latter two items have received much lower billing.) So can it only go up from here for Republicans? Unfortunately for the GOP, we believe things could get even uglier in the coming weeks, but let’s first assess some of the damage left behind in the wake of this October Surprise:

On American history’s long list of sensational political scandal, the Foley name will eventually be entered prominently below those such as Mills, Hart, Robb, Packwood, Condit, and McGreevey. But the fall-out from the tawdriest scandal to rock Washington in years leaves us with many questions as we enter the final month of the campaign season. For now we’ll ask just one, and we’re very curious as to the answer: what will the November surprise be?

Stay tuned!

Republican Lowlands – The States MOST Vulnerable to a Democratic Wave

In predicting the outcome of the 2006 midterm madness, it’s critically important to point out that some states’ Republicans seem far more likely than others’ to ride out a strong Democratic wave unscathed. The uneven lay of the political land in this volatile year means that while only a national “micro-wave” would be needed to wash away Republican seats in some states, a “macro-wave” would be necessary to engulf Republicans and sweep Democrats to gains in others. Last week, the Crystal Ball began this “topographical overview” of the 2006 elections with a list of the five states in which Republicans are LEAST likely to suffer the consequences of a national, anti-Bush Democratic surge (read more here). This week, we offer a look at five states on the flip side–the states MOST vulnerable to a Democratic wave:

  1. OhioSince last year, analysts have referred to the Buckeye State as “ground zero” for anti-GOP anger so many times that one might believe a tornado had already swept all of its Republican voters elsewhere. After all, anger at President Bush over job losses was only compounded by more extreme anger at GOP Gov. Bob Taft over the state’s coin investment scandal, and voter desire to “lash out” was certainly on display when Democratic Iraq veteran Paul Hackett stunned everyone by nearly upsetting currently embattled GOP Rep. Jean Schmidt in an August 2005 special election. Republicans thought that might have represented a low-point, but in our estimation, matters have only gotten worse for the party currently in charge of every major statewide office. Not only is Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland on pace to capture the governor’s mansion in an absolute romp, Democratic Rep. Sherrod Brown is currently on pace to edge out moderate GOP Sen. Mike DeWine, who was once considered safe but now is struggling to give the state’s conservative base a good reason to show up for him on Election Day. That the Jack Abramoff scandal claimed the career of GOP Rep. Bob Ney only added to the swirl of scandal encircling Republicans here, and wildly successful write-in House nominee state Sen. Charlie Wilson (D) can now actually be considered a safer bet to win a ticket to Washington than incumbent GOP Reps. Steve Chabot, Deborah Pryce, and even Jean Schmidt. In fact, one of the least impressive candidates of 2006, Democrat Zack Space, seems to be maintaining the slightest of edges over GOP replacement candidate state Sen. Joy Padgett in the race for the disgraced Ney’s seat. What a massacre!
  2. Indiana – If a contest were held to determine who is exhibiting the most displeasure with Republicans at the state and national levels, Hoosier voters would appear to be giving their Buckeye neighbors to the east a run for their money. GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels’s job disapproval rating may be on its way to rivaling Colts Quarterback Peyton Manning’s passer rating thanks to state-level controversies over private leasing of Indiana Toll Road management and time zone changes, and though Daniels is lucky he isn’t up for reelection until 2008, Democrats challenging three incumbent GOP congressmen seem to be the beneficiaries of the electorate’s rage. Republican Reps. John Hostettler, Mike Sodrel, and Chris Chocola are all in deep trouble. In southern Indiana, Hostettler and Sodrel had always expected to face tough reelection fights this year against their strongest possible Democratic challengers, but the toll road and time zone fiascos are unexpectedly endangering Chocola in his race against a 2004 Democratic loser, even though as a federal officeholder Chocola has little to do with the matter. One sure sign of a “wave” election is that voters take little time to discriminate between the candidates and discern responsibility–they simply last out at the nearest available target. That’s what seems to be taking place in the Hoosier State.
  3. Pennsylvania – With important races for Senate and Governor and four critical races for House, Pennsylvania stands out as the “other” big battleground state alongside Ohio in 2006, and congressional Democrats are hoping the state will be their keystone as they seek to reclaim majorities. Voter anger here was apparent this year when seventeen–count ‘em, seventeen!–state legislators were defeated in primaries amid outcry over a pay raise measure, and the electorate seems ripe to turn its anger south towards Washington in five weeks. Republicans aren’t helped at all by the fact that political neophyte ex-Steelers star Lynn Swann is going absolutely nowhere in his much-anticipated bid for governor, as Democratic incumbent “Fast Eddie” Rendell seems to be cruising more comfortably towards reelection every day despite a mediocre first term. In fact, Rendell’s political machine in his southeastern Pennsylvania base further complicates the already difficult reelection prospects of the “suburban trio:” area GOP Reps. Jim Gerlach, Curt Weldon, and Mike Fitzpatrick. As if matters could not get any worse for the Keystone State GOP, did we mention that two-term Sen. Rick Santorum is approaching sure-goner status in his reelection race against popular Democratic State Treasurer Bobby Casey, Jr.? And that Casey’s home base is northeastern Pennsylvania, where GOP Rep. Don Sherwood is now a slight underdog against Democratic novice Chris Carney thanks to his mistress-choking episode and the prevalence of the personal scandal issue in the wake of Foley-Gate? We’re running out of breath, and the GOP is running out of votes!
  4. ColoradoRepublicans clearly cannot catch a break in the Centennial State, where a special ballot referendum on taxation is dividing moderate and conservative Republicans and emboldening Democrats, who support what is turning out to be a reasonably popular measure. It has put GOP gubernatorial nominee Rep. Bob Beauprez in a very tough spot, and with a bickering party behind him, he faces a tough Rocky Mountain climb back into contention with Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter, who is on the verge of putting Democrats back in the governor’s mansion for the first time since 1998. What’s more, Beauprez is currently not even favored to win in his home district, which encompasses most of Denver’s northern suburbs. As a result, it’s unlikely that the GOP congressional nominee there, education think tanker Rick O’Donnell, can secure the open seat for a Republican retention. So far, O’Donnell has taken a pummeling from Democratic State Sen. Ed Perlmutter over social security, and has even taken to the airwaves to apologize for his earlier calls to nix the program. We’ll admit it’s not the most tantalizing topic for a mea culpa ad this year, but it’s a clear indication he’s well behind. To the north, GOP Rep. Marilyn Musgrave seems much more vulnerable than Democratic Rep. John Salazar, the opposite of what seemed to be the case a year ago. If Democrats win big in Colorado in 2006, you can be sure Democrats will make a major play for this decreasingly red state two years later in the contest for the White House.
  5. New York – Democrats are on the verge of becoming an empire in their own right this year in New York. Not only will Democratic Attorney General Eliot Spitzer win election comfortably, he now seems more likely to win upwards of 70 percent of the vote each passing day and likely will win the highest share of the vote of any non-incumbent running to lead a state in 2006. More polarizing Democratic junior Sen. Hillary Clinton will likely trail slightly behind Spitzer’s totals but will still win with a hefty share of the vote, demoralizing the Republicans who still live in the state and detest her views. Such demoralization is a haunting specter for down-ballot Republicans, who will have to muster their own resources to bring their partisans to the polls in key congressional races. Voter discontent with the Bush administration runs high in nearly every part of the state, and GOP Rep. Sherwood Boehlert’s open Utica-area seat and GOP Rep. John Sweeney’s 20th District seem most endangered, though it is unclear what column NRCC Chair Rep. Tom Reynolds’ Buffalo-area seat will fall into once fallout from the Foley scandal settles, if it ever does. GOP Reps. Peter King, Randy Kuhl, Sue Kelly, and Jim Walsh are also facing spirited challenges, though the Crystal Ball doubts they will ultimately lose. What’s remarkable is that only two of New York’s nine Republican members of Congress can be considered truly safe this year–another typical characteristic of a national “wave” election. If a killer wave strikes on November 7th, could New York be to Democrats in 2006 what Washington State was to Republicans in 1994?

Coming next week: Newly updated “Crystal Ball HotRace Readings” for House, Senate, and Governor