Politics & Policy

Maybe Rain, Maybe Category Five

Tom Davis sees a storm in America's political future.

When discussing the outlook for the Republican party in the 2010 election cycle, Tom Davis, former congressman from Virginia, makes sure to give all the proper caveats about predictions: “Nobody knows.” “A year in politics is an eternity, and this is even longer.” “Nothing is automatic in this business.”

But elaborating last week on his outlook for the 2010 midterms, Davis didn’t seem very worried that his party would endure a third straight miserable election. As head of the Republican Main Street Partnership — the principal organization for non-conservative Republicans — Davis is tasked with building a “pragmatic and inclusive governing majority” and with keeping tabs on the prospects for Republican moderates and the GOP as a whole.

Davis was one of those Republicans elected in the Contract with America tsunami year of 1994, and he’s analyzing the eye-opening momentum shift in the few months since last year’s election. While a multitude of ever-changing political factors will remain in motion until next November, Davis believes that the combination of the outlook for the economy, the domestic and international issues that will dominate the debate, and the challenges of governing could generate outcomes for Democrats ranging from the disappointing to the catastrophic.

“There’s a tropical depression out there, and there’s warm water in front of it,” Davis says. “It hits shore in November 2010. Is it a Category One? Category Five? Or just rain?”

Some may find the hurricane metaphor a bit dramatic, but given the limited prospects for a turnaround in the national mood over the next 14 months, Democrats are likely to face stormy weather. Unemployment is significantly higher than last November, and housing prices did not begin to rebound as soon as Obama took office. Perhaps most important, President Obama has not governed as the sensible, budget-minded, centrist conciliator he sold to voters on the campaign trail.

“Americans are not about to rehire Republicans to run the government — but that’s not what midterms are about,” Davis says, explaining that midterm swings are often driven by a desire to check the excesses of the party in power. He suggests that in races across the country next year, Republicans will be running on the theme, “Is this the change you wanted?”

Davis also notes that Democrats will have an awkward transition to make, from promising the moon to justifying what they’ve done — defending a record that is almost certain to be very poor in the eyes of many of the party’s grassroots supporters. “Governance has a cost,” Davis observes. For eight years, George W. Bush was the “energizing source” for the Democratic grassroots, and that energizing source is now gone. Democratic candidates for governor in New Jersey and Virginia this year have repeatedly invoked Bush’s name, with little or nothing to show for it. And besides the strong position of the GOP gubernatorial campaigns in those states, Davis mentions the New Jersey State Assembly, where the Republicans look set to make gains.

Davis, who represented Virginia’s northern suburbs of Washington, D.C., from 1995 to 2008, tells of receiving his initial polling numbers at the beginning of the 2008 cycle. He was used to starting the campaign season with an approval rating around 60; he started that one around 50 and ultimately decided not to run for reelection. (His seat is now occupied by Democrat Gerry Connolly.) He suspects that a lot of Democrats today are feeling that “knot in the stomach” when they start thinking about their reelection prospects. He analyzed the upcoming Senate race in the most Democratic state in the South, Arkansas. Democratic incumbent Blanche Lincoln as the same senator she’s always been, Davis says, but polls of hypothetical matchups suddenly have her running even or losing against almost-unknown challengers.

For what it’s worth, history is on the GOP’s side. A new president’s party has gained seats in Congress in the subsequent midterms only three times in the past 150 years. The most recent case was in 2002, which Davis attributes to a unique set of circumstances: the political impact of 9/11, the aftermath of redistricting from 2000, and the fact that Democratic control of the Senate divided the public’s targets of frustration with incumbency. The latter two won’t be a factor in this cycle, and, even if there should be another major terror attack, it is difficult to predict what impact it would have in today’s heavily polarized environment.

Davis doesn’t see passage of a health-care bill as alleviating the Democrats’ headaches. “When it comes to health insurance, 15 percent don’t have it, and 85 percent do — in some form,” he points out, and they are at least mildly worried about Congress messing around with it, or taxing something that they currently get tax-free. He thinks any burst of momentum from Obama’s speech will be short-lived:  “Three weeks from now, I doubt anyone remembers the speech, or Joe Wilson, or anything else from that night.” Nor does he think any significant bipartisan compromise will emerge: “Any health-care bill that Republicans would be willing to vote for requires provisions that a lot of Democrats wouldn’t vote for,  and vice versa.” He finds it interesting that two of the Blue Dogs who were key to getting health-care legislation out of the Energy and Commerce Committee in July — Bart Gordon of Tennessee and Mike Ross of Arkansas — both sounded during the August recess as if they were unlikely to vote for that bill.

Davis mentioned a few Senate candidates who are good bets, including former state attorney general Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, former lieutenant governor Jane Norton in Colorado, Gov. Charlie Crist in Florida, Rep. Mark Kirk in Illinois, and (although he hasn’t officially announced) Rep. Mike Castle in Delaware. Davis describes former Ohio congressman John Kasich, who hopes to be the next governor of Ohio, as “one of the most attractive candidates” in the GOP.

As our discussion winds down, Davis mentions a variety of issues that could affect the 2010 campaign, concluding with the observation that “we don’t even know how things will be going in Afghanistan.” At first glance, American weariness with Afghanistan would seem to be an advantage for the recently less hawkish party, the Democrats. But asked to elaborate on how Afghanistan could affect the midterms, Davis notes that it’s not hard to imagine Democrats splitting on whether the war in Afghanistan warrants continued commitment of U.S. blood and treasure. Division between the president and his grassroots could very well depress Democratic turnout. That is especially important in a non-presidential year: “Midterms are all about who shows up,” Davis says. After two years of complete Democratic control of the federal government, it may well have trouble getting its people to the polls.

As with the weather, long-term political forecasts are notoriously unreliable. But the GOP’s outlook — at least for this midterm — is looking sunnier.

Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.

 

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