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.
The White House's objectives for this term — spending projects, private accounts, and the war in Iraq — are weighing down Republican candidates and making the 2006 climate look increasingly ominous.
On the first issue, candidates who want to upset Democratic senators or take open seats in blue states would have a tough time arguing against the projects Democrats want to bring to their states.
The latter issues are simply unpopular with voters. Support for the war and Republican handling of terrorism has been faltering since January, and according to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll, support for private Social Security accounts fell from 57 percent in November 2002 — before the president's campaign — to 44 percent in June 2005.
Republicans who've expressed early worries about their chances have talked about shifting the agenda to more favorable turf, putting tax-reform and tax-cut extensions back on the agenda.
But that wouldn't be a cure-all.
The prominence of Social Security and Iraq in voters' minds might give Democratic candidates a foothold in arguing against another round of tax cuts. And a debate on tax reform could present its own problems.
Minnesota Senate candidate Mark Kennedy, one of the GOP's few remaining hopes for a pickup, is on the record supporting a national sales tax, which always polls poorly. While sales-tax booster Jim DeMint won a Senate seat last year in South Carolina, he squandered a huge early lead and finished with 4 percentage points fewer than Mr. Bush. A Republican running 4 points behind Bush in Minnesota wouldn't be so lucky.
As Republicans have faltered, Democrats have had an easy time convincing candidates that this is the year to run. Pennsylvania Treasurer Bob Casey, who has long wanted to run for governor, was recruited easily as polls showed him crushing Senator Rick Santorum. Claire McCaskill, the auditor of Missouri who'd lost a close 2004 governor's race and wanted a rematch, entered the Senate race as polls showed incumbent Jim Talent looking weaker. Montana's shaky Burns, formerly seen as a safe bet in a red state, is being challenged by two Democrats with statewide support, John Morrison, the state auditor, and Jon Tester, president of the state Senate. And on Monday, about 12 hours after Capito gave up on her Senate race, popular Marine Major Paul Hackett entered the race against Ohio Senator Mike DeWine.
The polls will keep shifting over the next year, and Republicans not named Newt Gingrich will put on their game faces when asked about their party's chances for 2006. So far, though, their best candidates are taking a look at the battlefield, sizing up their opponents — and running the other way.
David Weigel, a journalist based in Fairfax, Va., is a regular contributor to Campaigns & Elections magazine. His blog can be read at davidweigel.blogspot.com.
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved