On Monday morning, West Virginia Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito dashed five years of Republican hopes and announced she would not run against Senator Robert Byrd.
The formerly rock-solid Democratic state (52 percent for Michael Dukakis) gave President Bush a 13-point landslide last year, and Republicans had considered a Thune v. Daschle-style upset of the 87-year-old Byrd a top 2006 goal.
In July, the National Republican Senatorial Committee charged in with the cycle's first negative ad — $53,000 of airtime for a TV spot attacking the senator. But it couldn't get Capito in the race.
Coming only four days after North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven's decision not to challenge Senator Kent Conrad, Capito's bluff should wave a matador-sized red flag about Republican chances for 2006. In these crucial few months when candidates are entering races, raising money and recruiting staffs, Republican hopefuls are quietly keeping their hats out of the ring.
While GOP leaders have located some strong candidates in open seats like Minnesota and Maryland, they can't find strong candidates to challenge Democratic incumbents in red or swing states.
This is a marked change from the last two cycles, when Karl Rove used the power of the White House to cajole first-tier candidates into dozens of races.
In 2002, the White House encouraged Saxby Chambliss (Georgia), Norm Coleman (Minnesota), Jim Talent (Missouri), and John Thune (South Dakota) to run against incumbent Democrats, even though Coleman and Thune had originally wanted to run for governor.
In 2004, when southern Democratic retirements created open seats that favored the GOP, Rove greased the wheels for superior candidates like Mel Martinez (Florida) and Richard Burr (North Carolina).
But this year, Rove isn't getting what he wants. In Michigan, Rep. Candice Miller passed on challenging Sen. Debbie Stabenow despite polls that showed them neck and neck.
In Florida, Rep. Katherine Harris has refused to drop her Senate campaign even though she badly trails Sen. Bill Nelson. And in Rhode Island, conservative Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey brushed aside months of high-up pressure to challenge liberal Sen. Lincoln Chafee in the Republican primary — even though polls show Chafee could retain the seat but Laffey would lose it to Democrats.
There's one obvious reason why Republican candidates aren't listening to the White House and the national party: For the first time, Mr. Bush is an unpopular president.
In Virginia, which is holding state elections next month, Republican candidate Jerry Kilgore has notably failed to call in the president to stump for him. One reason might be a Washington Post poll released in September that put Bush's popularity at 47 percent in this state he'd easily won 10 months ago. Startlingly, 45 percent of the polled said that Bush's endorsement would make them "less likely" to vote for the Republican candidate, compared with 28 percent who'd be more likely.
This makes a stark change from 2002, when Bush may have been the most popular president ever facing a midterm election. The national exit poll put his popularity at 66 percent, with 71 percent of voters approving of his handling of terrorism and 58 percent supporting him on the then-foundering economy.
But now, according to the national polling outfit Survey USA, Bush's approval ratings outweigh his disapproval ratings in only 12 states, all in the Deep South and Mountain States. In Florida, Michigan, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Vermont — all states with potentially hot Senate races — his approval is mired in the 30s.