Balloting Sets Tone for '08 Presidential Race
Updated 11/8/06, 2:35 p.m.
Yesterday's elections didn't just determine control of the House and Senate. The balloting also set the tone for the 2008 presidential campaign, created a potential new political geography for the next two years, and winnowed the presidential field a bit.
Voters endured one of the most negative campaign seasons in memory, featuring television ads, debates, and candidate broadsides that went relentlessly on the attack. Political analysts say Americans got tired of the negativity and may demand a more civil tone the next time. At least that's what Washington insiders were saying last night.
There were outright casualtiesand near-death experiences. Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts wasn't on any ballots, but he did himself grave harm as a 2008 hopeful with his "botched joke" in which he said the danger of not making the most of one's education is that one can "get stuck" in Iraq. GOP Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, thought to be a potentially strong conservative presidential candidate, was eliminated as a serious contender when he lost his seat to Democrat Bob Casey (although some conservatives would still like to see him run because he makes the conservative case so passionately).
Most dramatic, GOP Sen. George Allen of Virginia seems to have fallen out of the top tiers of the Republican field. His Senate race against former Navy Secretary Jim Webb still hung in the balance Wednesday, but win or lose, Allen damaged himself with a series of gaffes that raised doubts about whether he is ready for prime time.
The status of the presidential front-runners remained unchanged. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York emerged from Election Day with considerable momentum. She won a large majority in her bid for re-election, demonstrated her prowess as a fundraiser, and even captured moderate and conservative areas in the New York suburbs and in rural areas of her state.
"She showed she's a popular senator, and that was an important thing for her to do in advance of a presidential run," says an ally. Clinton hasn't announced her intentions but is expected to make the race.
Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois also was a big winner. Obama wasn't running for anything, but his campaigning for fellow Democrats demonstrated extraordinary charismaso much that even Obama was saying at the end of the campaign that he would evaluate whether to run for president in 2008. His problem is that his views on many issues aren't known, and his political and government experience is minimal.
On the GOP side, Sen. John McCain of Arizona kept his position as a GOP front-runner, even though he has not yet announced his presidential intentions. He is widely considered a maverick in GOP circles and is distrusted by some hard-line conservatives, but he did convince many that he is a loyal party man. That, combined with his independent streak, could be just the right combination for a party in need of a makeover. Straight Talk America, McCain's political organization, issued a summary of his political activities in the 2006 election cycle, showing that McCain attended 346 events and raised more than $10.5 million for Republican candidates and party organizations across the country. The senator flew 137,747 miles, "enough miles to fly 5.29 times around the globe," according to his spokesman.
McCain has been campaigning as a backer of President Bush and the war in Iraq, even though he has criticized the administration for not sending enough troops there and for underestimating the difficulty of the war. But despite his attempts to curry favor with Bush, he was part of an incident that embarrassed the White House on the day before the balloting. Florida GOP gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist was a no-show at a scheduled joint appearance with President Bush in Pensacolaa snub that particularly annoyed White House political czar Karl Rove. It turned out that Crist attended a separate event with McCain in Jacksonville instead of joining Bush. (Crist also won.)
Also remaining a contender, if he runs, is former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose performance in dealing with the crisis of 9/11 gave him a reputation as a strong leader. Giuliani told MSNBC's Tucker Carlson on Election Day that he was still considering whether to run for president. Among his questions, he said: Could he raise enough money? Could he set up an effective organization? "Is there," he asked during his MSNBC interview, "a purpose for you?" Another question for Giuliani is whether his liberal views on social issues, including gay unions and abortion, would be tolerated by conservative Republican voters. "Rudy plays well in the boroughs of New York but not in the Republican heartland," says a critic. Although the tea leaves are still being read, Tuesday's results are mixed for Giuliani, with gay-marriage bans, for instance, prevailing on a number of state ballots, while South Dakota's strict abortion ban failed.
More broadly, some Republicans are looking to California's re-elected Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as the model for a new, less polarizing GOP approach.
A year ago, Schwarzenegger was in danger of being terminated by voters. He had alienated key California groups such as teachers, unions, state employees, and nurses, with a series of controversial policy initiatives that were eventually defeated at the polls. Just as important, the former movie star seemed arrogant and confrontational, such as when he called his opponents "girlie men." Yet, after mending his ways and his fences, Schwarzenegger utterly dominated his Democratic challenger Phil Angelides in his bid for re-election yesterday.
One reason for the governor's turnaround, says Matthew Dowd, a Schwarzenegger strategist who advised President Bush in 2004, is that he took responsibility for his past mistakes and started to work closely with Democrats. Arnold's advantage is "his ability to reach across the aisle and get things done," Dowd told U.S. News.
Many Americans, especially Democrats, said they wanted the midterm elections to be a referendum on Bush and the war in Iraq. But that picture was more than a bit complicated by a CNN exit poll on Election Day showing that voters were about equally concerned with other issues. About 40 percent of voters said four issues were very important to them: corruption, terrorism, the economy, and Iraq. Several of the seats that Republicans lost could be directly tied to various scandals, including Mark Foley in Florida and Bob Ney in Ohio. Earlier, many pundits had argued that Iraq would be the dominant issue. What this apparently means is that voters felt things were not going well in basic parts of their lives and in the country, and they blamed the Republicans, who control Congress and the White House. The CNN exit poll found that 62 percent of voters disapproved of the job Congress is doing, and only 36 percent approved.
In terms of political geography, the Democrats now have big new opportunities in the West. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean has a theory that the Democrats can compete effectively for Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada. Those four states have more electoral votes than Florida. If Dean's theory is accurate, it would reduce the need for the Democrats to invest so heavily in winning Florida, which is always an uphill struggle for them.