Fast-forward to 2008: The president’s approval ratings aren’t any better than they were in 2006. But with the ascendancy of John McCain, vulnerable congressional Republicans think they’ve got a new GOP standard-bearer they can run with rather than from, someone who can help them lure independent voters in what might otherwise be an election bloodbath for GOP incumbents.
Blue-state Republicans such as Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Susan Collins of Maine, John Sununu of New Hampshire and Gordon Smith of Oregon are all happy to have McCain appear on the stage with them as congressional campaigns heat up. They have embraced McCain to a much greater extent than they might have embraced more conservative candidates such as Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee — and to a much greater extent than they would have embraced Bush if he were at the top of the ticket again in 2008.
“I’m in a unique position to substantially benefit,” said Coleman, who may face a challenge from comedian-radio host Al Franken in the fall. “Independent voters will be critical to the Minnesota election. McCain will be out there for me. ... You look at the targeted Republicans, and John McCain is a huge plus.”
While even the most optimistic Republicans won’t predict an actual coattails effect of picking off Democratic seats, they hope McCain will at least serve to slow the bleeding that began in 2006, when Democrats took control of both chambers of Congress. Moderates like Coleman, Collins and Sununu — among the top targets of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — are embracing in McCain exactly what has turned off the conservative wing of the GOP: his independent streak.
Collins, who endorsed McCain for the Maine caucuses, says his willingness to buck the GOP establishment could appeal to undecided voters in a state Bush lost by 9 points in 2004.
“I’d be glad to have him campaign for me,” Collins said.
But like many lawmakers, Collins wonders whether endorsements matter in an election year in which conventional wisdom has already been turned on its ear.
“What we’ve learned from the results so far in New England is popularity is not transferable,” Collins said. She noted that she “couldn’t deliver Maine” for McCain — Romney won the state — and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama wasn’t enough to keep Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton from winning the Democrats’ primary in Massachusetts.
It’s also an open question whether McCain’s general election campaign — which will be heavily focused on national security and the war in Iraq — will encourage independents to back the Republican senators or whether it will send voters fleeing to the Democrats. The war is still extremely unpopular in states such as Oregon, Maine, Minnesota and New Hampshire — all states where Democrats hope to knock off the GOP incumbents.
“In a change election, McCain is the face of the status quo, particularly on the war,” said Matthew Miller, a DSCC spokesman. “That’s going to be a major issue for these candidates. It’s too early to tell, but in the early primaries, independents were turning out to vote in the Democratic primary.”
Indeed, the New Hampshire primary results might give some moderate Republicans pause before they rush to embrace McCain. Forty-two percent of New Hampshire Democratic primary voters were independents. Only 34 percentof the state’s Republican primary voters described themselves as independents.
Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who has the unenviable task of defending 23 Senate seats as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee this year, said McCain’s appeal will work in some states with plenty of independents, but he might not help in Republican states where more voters are suspicious of McCain.
“In some states, he really helps,” Ensign said. “He’s definitely our best general election candidate. We lost independents in 2006, but he helps us with independents.”
Whether McCain helps or hurts vulnerable Republicans will be tested in House elections as well. The first real insights into McCain’s pull in congressional elections will be a March 8 special election for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s Illinois seat. McCain is holding a $1,000-a-person fundraiser for GOP candidate Jim Oberweis on Wednesday in what has become a surprisingly competitive race.
Other targeted Republicans say that McCain’s effect on congressional races depends on whether Clinton or Obama wins the Democratic nomination. A Clinton candidacy would unify Republicans and put independent voters in play, while Obama would make matters much more complicated, they say.
“McCain has a great deal of appeal in crossover Democrats,” said Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.), who faces a competitive race in his blue-collar Erie-area district. “I don’t think McCain brings the same liability to the race that some members of the current administration would. ... Having McCain on the ticket is appealing to veterans, to reform voters, and will have a positive effect on my race.”
Democratic campaign operatives warn that moderate Republicans might be writing their own political obituaries by aligning themselves with a presidential candidate who supports an unpopular war and isn’t embracing a populist economic message during a downturn.
“Riding McCain’s Doubletalk Express means rubber-stamping a third Bush term, supporting someone who admittedly doesn’t understand the economy and is fine with America being in Iraq for 100 years,” said Doug Thornell, press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“Independent voters are going to have a difficult time stomaching those positions.”