Sabato's Crystal Ball

What Were They Thinking?

Dumb and Dumber in 2006

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics April 12th, 2006

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Every election season some candidates, officeholders, and party pooh-bahs make classic errors on their way to the general election. A few such decisions cost them seats. If an election is close, those losses can be decisive. Some mistakes are national and massive in scope; the name “Tom DeLay” more or less makes our point. Others attract national attention but primarily affect one state or district–let’s all say “Cynthia McKinney” together. (The congresswoman already lost her seat once, in 2002, and she’s begging to be defeated a second time–with many of her Democratic colleagues hoping for just that.)

Seven months out from November, no one knows how tight the 2006 contests will be. But it’s already obvious that some major goofs and gaffes are affecting many races. If we listed them all, this Crystal Ball would be book-length. So we’re just going to pick a few personal favorites, starting with a lengthy inquiry into the political choices made by a major presidential candidate.

VIRGINIA SENATE: If U.S. Senator George F. Allen (R) is as serious about running for the White House as he seems to be–and that’s been his obvious ambition for years–then why didn’t he forgo reelection and step down from the Senate at the end of this term? The Senate is a terrible place from which to run for President, and the dozens of senators who have lost the Presidency in modern times can attest to that fact. (Only two U.S. Senators, Warren Harding in 1920 and John Kennedy in 1960, have been elected directly to the Presidency in American history.) Instead, Allen’s running two contradictory campaigns at once. He’s dashing around the country, showing up constantly in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and elsewhere, taking very conservative stands for the GOP activists that don’t always sit well with the voters in a moderating Virginia. Allen is also making statements that will come back to haunt him this year. In Iowa, the California native says he wishes he’d been born in the Hawkeye State instead; Virginians were under the mistaken illusion that the Old Dominion, where he’s been entrusted with the Governorship and a Senate seat, was his second-favorite state. To the New York Times, Allen all but yawned when describing his job, leading to the now-infamous “Allen-is-bored-in-the-Senate” lede to the Times’ article on March 26, 2006. Expect to see that one in a TV spot come fall.

At the very same time, Allen is asking Virginians for another six-year term in the Senate–except that he’s really asking for a two-year term. He’s hoping to resign the seat in 2008 to become the next Republican President or Vice President. Not incidentally, Democratic Governor Tim Kaine would then get to appoint a Democrat to Allen’s seat. Wonder how Republicans will view that prospect, especially if the Senate is closely divided by 2008? As for 2006, the combination of a Democratic trend in Virginia, the potential for an energetic opponent (whether Harris Miller or Jim Webb is chosen in the June Democratic primary), and the inherent contradictions in Allen’s quest for another Senate term nearly guarantee a basket of problems for the Republican. While Allen is still favored to win a second term, the size of the victory might be smaller than once expected. Allen will also have to spend more money than he had planned, reducing the transfer of funds to his presidential committee, and his opponent is bound to leave him somewhat battered and bruised. In politics, you can lose while winning.

There are significant advantages to running for the Presidency outside of public office. Allen’s chosen role model, Ronald Reagan, was a private citizen both in 1976, when he almost captured the GOP presidential nomination, and in 1980, when he grabbed the big prize. Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter were also in the “ex” club when they won in 1968 and 1976, respectively. Allen’s in-state rival, former Democratic Governor Mark Warner, made the wise choice when he decided against challenging Allen for the Senate in 2006, even though a host of public and private polls showed that Warner was likely to defeat Allen.

Even after September 11th, it’s questionable how much Americans care about a presidential candidate having extensive national or foreign policy experience. The Beltway media think it’s vital, of course, but most evidence suggests that U.S. voters are more likely to trust a potential President if he or she hasn’t been tainted by too much contact with D.C. or international elites. And then there’s the heavy burden of hundreds of Senate votes to defend, which Allen wants to continue right up to election day of 2008. Who needs it? And if you don’t show up for the Senate votes, you’ll be criticized for your lousy attendance record!

And that leads to the real question: What was Allen thinking when he decided to run for the Senate back in 2000, instead of waiting a year and running again for a job he enjoyed, the powerful Virginia Governorship? Allen finally appears to recognize the obvious, that the Senate is not all it’s cracked up to be, operating at the speed of “a wounded sea slug,” as he colorfully put it to the Times. A second term as Governor, which he very probably would have won in 2001, would have kept him out of the Potomac swamp and renewed his executive credentials–arguably, a much better qualification than a Senate seat for the ultimate Executive Office. Allen would have left the Governor’s Mansion in early 2006 with as much executive experience as Reagan, and more than Carter and both Bushes. He would then have had two full years to run flat-out for President. Oh, and did we mention he would have beaten Democrat Mark Warner in ’01, thus eliminating someone who has now emerged as one of the strongest White House candidates in either party? Back in 2001, Warner ran against a weak, under-funded Republican from a divided party, yet he only won 52 percent of the vote. Virtually the only statewide figure who rallies all factions of a deeply split state GOP, Allen would have been the well-funded quasi-incumbent favorite of a united party.

Allen has been exceptionally lucky in his political career, and it may all work out for him still. But he’s chosen a much tougher path to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue than he had to. Allen naturally wants to keep what he’s got, but successful presidential candidates are often gamblers who ignore the ‘safe’ options and bet it all on the roulette wheel of history.

Allen is hardly alone in the “What Were They Thinking” category. Let’s add some other nominees:

NEW YORK GOV. GEORGE PATAKI: One of Allen’s putative opponents for the GOP nomination for President is retiring three-term Governor Pataki. Is there anyone running for President in either party who has done a worse job of creating a farm team in his home state? There is a Democratic landslide building in the Empire State this November. Elliot Spitzer (D) will be taking Pataki’s job by such a large margin that Republicans fear their down-ticket will be swamped. The only question about U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton’s reelection is whether she will top 60 percent to win her second term. (The Crystal Ball bets that she does.) Where has the Republican Governor been in recruiting a strong GOP ticket? Yes, he’s been sick of late, but he had twelve years to find some talent. Pataki is a social liberal on abortion and gay rights, which should be enough to kill his presidential ambitions, but if that’s not sufficient, Republicans should focus on his dismal party-building skills.

PENNSYLVANIA GOVERNOR: Both party nominees win our dubious award. Running for a second term in a state that has never denied an incumbent Governor reelection, Ed Rendell is tied with a celebrity novice, Steelers’ football great Lynn Swann. Rendell is a Democrat in a Blue State in a good year for most Democrats. What was he thinking when he played a role in a massive salary increase (since repealed) for the state legislature? The political history of salary grabs by public officials isn’t pretty, as the experienced Rendell surely knew at the time. Swann’s problem is the opposite of Rendell’s–complete political inexperience. In his national candidate debut on ABC’s “This Week,” Swann flubbed the most basic question about a post-Roe v. Wade world. A campaign with a babe in the woods as its candidate really ought to spend some time and money preparing issue briefings for Swann.

MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR: Attorney General Thomas Reilly (D) was once on a glide path to the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, and he had a good chance of ending his party’s sixteen year drought in the Bay State’s Governor’s office. Then, in a move reminiscent of some presidential candidates’ choice of a Vice President, Reilly bypassed his good options for a running mate (including one poor fellow who had been led to believe he was Reilly’s pick) and selected state Representative Marie St. Fleur. Among other problems, she hadn’t paid her taxes, and within a short period, had to withdraw. In Reilly’s first and most important executive decision, he might have bombed himself right out of the Governorship. Reilly’s lucky it is so early.

OHIO-6 U.S. HOUSE: In a highly competitive open district, Democratic state Senator Charlie Wilson seemed to have the edge in November–until he failed to file a mere fifty valid signatures of supportive registered voters by the deadline. Now he’s not even on the Democratic primary ballot, and he has to wage an expensive write-in campaign for the party nomination. Because of strong national party backing and a Democratic tide in Ohio this year, Wilson may still get to be the congressman, but it’s hard for a nonpartisan observer to believe he deserves the job.

NORTH DAKOTA SENATE: The North Dakota GOP is on our bipartisan list of Top Five Least Impressive State Parties. Here’s why. The state is at least 60 percent Republican, yet it has Democrats filling all three of its slots in Congress, and the party consistently fails to find impressive challengers for the Democratic incumbents. This year, Senator Kent Conrad (D) is the one running easy. He might as well be unopposed for all the danger posed by the state GOP. Yes, the Republicans claim they’ve just found a winner for the U.S. House seat of Congressman Earl Pomeroy, but we’ll believe it when we see it.

NEBRASKA SENATE: As everyone has noticed, the Republicans are in trouble in the 2006 midterm elections. But the Cornhusker State is 70 percent GOP, and it has a one-term Democratic Senator, Ben Nelson, who barely beat an unimpressive GOP opponent in 2000. Finally, an easy pick-up for the Republicans, right? Well, it could have been just that. Popular GOP Governor Mike Johanns was going to run against Nelson, and he led Nelson in all the polls. But newly reelected President Bush decided to choose Johanns for Secretary of Agriculture in 2005, thus removing a near-sure winner. Weren’t there at least a hundred other competent people who could have filled the Agriculture slot? Of course there were. No doubt, Nelson will never be safe, even against the second-tier alternatives running for the GOP Senate nomination. Yet the Republicans could have used a “gimme” in 2006, and Bush foolishly took it away.

MONTANA SENATE: It’s the Democrats who have a golden opportunity to take out scandal-singed Senator Conrad Burns (R). After three terms and a close shave in 2000 against now-Governor Brian Schweitzer (D), Burns was facing a very difficult battle against State Auditor John Morrison (D). Maybe the burden of Jack Abramoff will be enough to sink Burns, but Morrison will now be lucky just to gain the Democratic Senate nomination against State Senate President Jon Tester (D). It has been revealed that Morrison had a messy extramarital affair with a woman who–follow this closely–interceded with Morrison to help her fiance who was being investigated by Morrison’s office. (Morrison hired an outside attorney to handle the case, but arguably he shouldn’t have been taking private calls from an interested party.) So Morrison’s candidacy has become a soap opera of scandal, precisely what Conrad Burns needed to share the pain and take the heat off of him. A Morrison-Burns contest may be a battle of yells: “Abramoff!” versus “Infidelity!”

We could go on, but dear readers, you get the point. Errors aren’t just made in baseball, and the errors in baseball and politics can push key games from one team to the other. Only one thing is certain. If we issue an update on this Crystal Ball tally of mistakes in a few months’ time, our list will be much, much longer! That is the nature of our rough-and-tumble sport.