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A Recipe For Republican Recovery

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This column was written by Jim Geraghty.

Gloom hangs over Republicans when they think of next year's elections - but it shouldn't. The sea change in political fortunes between 2004 and 2006 should not remind Righties only that the winds can change quickly - from a supportive breeze at your back, to a gale-force wind in your face - they should also be reminded that the political landscape can get better fast, too.

Next year could be a surprisingly good one for the GOP, though it's clearly not guaranteed. The party will need good candidate recruitment, message discipline, a clear, unifying agenda, and a bit of good luck. But on a wide variety of fronts, there are pieces of good news that are overshadowed by the mainstream media's preferred "Democratic-Tsunami Part Two" narrative.

Presidency

The Democratic party faces a choice: Their field includes one of the most charismatic and likeable figures to come along in politics in a long time, who attracts thousands at every campaign stop, and has generated enormous enthusiasm among young people. It also includes a smooth-talking populist who could go to any red-state district and campaign with the Democrat and help that candidate, whose wife has the rare 'two-fer' appeal of being beloved by the hardcore antiwar base, and simultaneously the subject of enormous public sympathy for her fight against cancer.

Naturally, the Democrats appear set to nominate the woman who can't top 50-percent in a head-to-head match-up against Ron Paul.

Can Hillary Clinton win a red state? In spite of Howard Dean's insistence that the party needs a 50-state strategy, and that Democrats should contest as many states as possible, it's unlikely she'll put more than a handful of states that voted for Bush in play.

Ohio? She could win, but it will once again be down to the wire. Pollster Scott Rasmussen finds that against each of the four leading Republican hopefuls, Clinton's support from Ohio voters is in the mid-forties, ranging from a low of 42-percent against John McCain, to a high of 46-percent against Mitt Romney. In the latest batch, she beats Fred Thompson and Romney, and loses to Rudy Giuliani and McCain. Forty-eight percent of Ohio voters have a favorable opinion of Clinton while 50-percent have a negative view. Barring any sudden changes, the Buckeye state will be as competitive as 2004.

Florida? It, too, will probably be competitive down to the wire. A Survey USA poll, released on November 1, has Hillary leading all of the GOP contenders, but Giuliani and McCain are within the margin of error. Quinnipiac's late October poll found essentially the same results with Giuliani leading her narrowly, McCain within one percent and Thompson within five percent.

Maybe Hillary will outperform John Kerry in a couple of the Southwestern states that were relatively close last time around. Though, if most of the map stays the same, without Ohio or Florida, the Democratic nominee would have to sweep New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada.

(In an October memo aiming to persuade folks that Clinton can win the West, Mark Penn wrote, "Hillary is winning the general election in New Mexico, a state which Bush won in 2004, and in California, Oregon and Washington. Together with Hawaii, this means Hillary Clinton is starting with two-thirds of the electoral votes in the West." Yes, but Al Gore won all of those and Bush won New Mexico's five electoral votes by 1-percent, so she's doing about the same as either losing Democratic candidate of the past two cycles. The same memo notes that she leads Rudy Giuliani by two points in Oregon, and contends "because of her unique ability to take advantage of changing demographics, Hillary can also turn Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, and Montana from Red to Blue" without citing any polling numbers.)

There are two upsides to Hillary's nomination: First is that she's beatable; the second is that a figure so thoroughly disliked by half the country is just about incapable of a winning in a landslide, barring some third-party faction breaking away from the GOP. Hitting 270 electoral votes is extremely achievable for any of the top tier Republican candidates.

House of Representatives

The Democrats won back the majority in the House in 2006 by doing well in districts that are unfamiliar territory for them: Two Arizona seats, which Bush carried by 52.9 and 54-percent in 2004, and Kansas seat that Bush carried with 59-percent of the vote. In addition, there was Heath Shuler's North Carolina-11 seat that Bush carried with 57-percent. They had a couple of right-leaning districts fall in their laps because of scandals - Mark Foley's Florida-16 seat, Tom DeLay's Texas-22 seat, Don Sherwood's Pennsylvania-10.

There are a couple of House Democrats who won reelection by the skin of their teeth in 2006, when they had a gale-force wind at their back. In Georgia, John Barrow won the 12th District race by just 864 votes of more than 142,000 cast, and Jim Marshall secured the 8th District seat by only 1,752 votes of nearly 160,000 votes cast.

A massive chunk of the House Democratic caucus is running in Bush country, heartland communities that Hillary probably won't sell well in: In 2008, 70 Democrats will be running for reelection in districts Bush won in 2004. Four House Republican-held seats are in districts won by Kerry.

How would you like to be one of these freshmen House Democrats seeking your first reelection bid with Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket? While all of the GOP candidates have their strengths, how would you feel seeing a southern or western GOP nominee Fred Thompson, Mike Huckabee, or John McCain coming in for a rally for your Republican rival, blasting away the Democrats as the party of gun control, taxpayer-funded abortion, driver's licenses for illegal immigrants and activist liberal judges?

(There are also a few Hillary-vulnerable Democrats in blue state districts, too.)

You think the Democrats planned on having an 11-percent approval rating? This is now way beyond some short-lived swoon. Only one poll since May has had Congress' approval above 30 percent.

The Democrats have thrown away most of the reform issues that helped them a lot with independents: lobbying reform, ethics rules, earmarks, lack of disclosure, junkets, etc. The "culture of corruption" narrowly outranked terrorism on the list of voter concerns in 2006. Barring any last-minute passage of rules changes, no Democrat will be able to run for reelection on the message, "we cleaned up Washington" without triggering derisive and skeptical laughter from voters.

How many independents and soft Republicans decided to give the Democrats a shot after a year in which scandals consumed Duke Cunningham, Bob Ney, Tom DeLay, etc.? Keep in mind, Republican challengers will be running against Washington, and declaring inside-the-Beltway Republicans as part of the problem. The NRCC is telling them to do this.

The Democrats will not enjoy the advantage of being the party of reform this cycle; mystifyingly, they're not acting like they're worried.

Senate

Are there big challenges here? Sure. Keeping the open seat in Virginia will be supremely tough. Retirements in New Mexico and Colorado put the GOP on defense more than they would like.

But if 2008 were shaping up to be the year of the Second Democratic Tsunami, why is Colorado - a state in which Democrats have had success for two straight cycles - a dead heat? (Also note the state has 130,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats.)

In New Hampshire, John Sununu will have a tough reelection fight, but challenger Jeanne Shaheen has gone from a big 15 point lead to 5 points. Sununu's a savvy enough veteran campaigner to keep this race close.

Democrats blew their shot at Nebraska when Bob Kerrey declined to run for the open seat left by Chuck Hagel. In New Mexico, the Republicans are likely to have a divided two-candidate primary, while the Democrats have a three-way primary.

In Maine, Susan Collins was supposed to be vulnerable, but an October poll commissioned by Daily Kos put her ahead of Democratic challenger Tom Allen 56 percent to 33 percent.

The Democrats are likely to nominate a comedian, Al Franken, in a blue state seat in Minnesota. With a real candidate - even with your standard issue Democratic House member with some serious legislative accomplishments - Republican Norm Coleman would be seriously vulnerable. Instead, the state's Democrats appear hell-bent on nominating a guy known for being funny with a 27-percent approval rating. (Coleman's at 52 percent.)

But there are opportunities for pickups, too. We're all happy Sen. Tim Johnson is on the mend, but the guy has had a near-fatal health scare and long, arduous recovery. There's room for a gentle, "it's time for Tim Johnson to focus on his recovery, and for South Dakotans to get a senator who can focus full-time on their needs" campaign in the state in which Republicans knocked off Tim Daschle in 2004, and Johnson squeaked by with 524 votes in 2002.

In Arkansas, Mark Pryor will have trouble with the Hillary factor, and if Huckabee's presidential aspirations fall short, and he's not the nominee's running mate, he would be an extraordinarily strong Senate candidate. In Louisiana, Mary Landrieu is running in a state with vastly fewer registered Democrats than it had before Hurricane Katrina.

In 2006, Democrats got every break they could in their Senate races, often coming in states that would ordinarily be rough territory for them. Jim Webb just barely beat George Allen in Virginia by 0.38 percent; Jon Tester just barely beat Conrad Burns in Montana by a little over 3,000 votes out of nearly 400,000; and Claire McCaskill beat Jim Talent by about 49,000 votes out of more than 2 million. Maybe the Democrats will get all of the breaks next year, too, but everybody's luck changes eventually.

Issues

Iraq: Put aside the positive results in the surge, even though the results are so striking that the Washington Post finally had to put it on the front page.

How, exactly, is Hillary Clinton supposed to campaign as the candidate who will get the U.S. out of Iraq, when she couldn't say she would get the troops out by 2013? Do even Gen. David Petraeus or John McCain want a U.S. troop presence five years from now?

A Republican candidate can and should come out and say,

Do I want to see U.S. combat troops out of Iraq by 2013? Yes. I'd like to get all the duties turned over to the Iraqis long before that. Is my aim to do that? Yes. Can I guarantee it? No, no candidate truly knows what the future holds. But Hillary Clinton can't guarantee it either.

Katrina: Remember when Democrats were supposed to use Katrina as a bludgeon against GOP candidates as the ultimate failure of Republican government? Tell that to Louisiana's new Republican governor Bobby Jindal. Tell that to Haley Barbour, who cruised to re-election as governor of Mississippi. In the Democracy Corps poll, when independents and Democrats were asked separately why the country was moving in the wrong direction, "Government failed on Katrina" came in last among independents at 13-percent and last among Democrats at 15-percent. The issue has come and gone.

Immigration: This is an issue that has only gotten bigger and more passionate for the past five years. It mobilizes the Republican base like nothing else - witness the grassroots efforts against the amnesty deal this year - and the Democrats are absolutely split on this; Democratic pollsters/strategists Stan Greenberg, Al Quinlan, and James Carville call it "a real wedge issue." They found that "even with the reassurance on [border] control and [denying] benefits, 40 percent of Democrats and a majority of African Americans favored the tougher Republican alternative that provided no path to legalization."

While Iraq and Katrina are fading as issues, this one only gets bigger: Independents rank "the border left unprotected" their top concern, higher than "Doing nothing about dependence on oil/global warming" by nine points, higher than "losing jobs to China and India" by thirteen points, higher than "government is running record budget deficits" by fourteen points, and higher than "bogged down and spending billions in Iraq" by 17 points.

Why did Hillary equivocate and dance so much when she was asked about New York Governor Eliot Spitzer's plan to offer driver's licenses to illegal immigrants? Because she knows the issue is political nitroglycerin, and she and Spitzer are on the wrong side of three quarters of Americans.

As Michael Barone says, it's not 2006 anymore. That doesn't guarantee that 2008 will be better, but it's a possibility.
By Jim Geraghty
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online