Everyone from the National Review‘s Jim Geraghty to non-partisan Congressional prognosticator Stuart Rothenberg predicts big gains for the GOP at the federal level this fall. In fact, Real Clear Politics’ Sean Trende says he “wouldn’t be shocked to see Democratic losses eclipse 100 seats” in the House.
While the opportunity exists for the GOP to make large gains — yes, gains greater than 1994, in fact more akin to 1894 (when the GOP picked up 130 seats in the House) — Republicans are likely to leave a lot of opportunities on the table come November, for several reasons:
The dismal poll numbers of both parties highlights the gap between this opportunity for electoral success and the reality on the ground. Yes, according to Gallup, public approval of the Democratic Party is hovering near an all-time low, and President Obama’s job approval rating has dropped below 50 percent. All of this should be considered good news for Republicans. Yet, voters haven’t exactly fallen in love with the GOP brand, either. Although Republicans may be leading on the latest generic ballot for Congress, public approval of the GOP is seven points lower than the Democratic Party. The low public opinion of both parties is reflected in the number of voters who call themselves independents — voters who don’t identify strongly with either party is reaching record levels.
With both parties struggling to make inroads with voters, weak candidates who expect to ride the coattails of the party brand are in for a rough slide. Unfortunately for the GOP, the dissatisfied independents of 2010 care little about which party controls Congress, so the typical game plan of running against the party in power is unlikely to be effective. These voters will not hold their nose and vote for weaker candidates just for the sake of “change.” Although candidates who present themselves as shock jocks in pin stripes can grab the early headlines, they need to do more than just peddle this year’s version of “hope” if they want to keep these voters engaged through Election Day. The cynical voter of 2010 is looking for competent candidates who have ideas to back up their message.
Take the situation of Rand Paul in Kentucky. Voters took a chance on the Tea Party-backed eye doctor in the state’s GOP Senate primary. Less than a week later, he proceeded to publicly question the authority of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, then state on Good Morning America that President Obama’s criticism of BP for its handling of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill was “un-American” at a time when most Americans are suspicious of corporate America. Paul needs to realize GOP candidates get no honeymoon period; their opponents and the media are poised to exploit any error or gaffe. Paul’s high-profile missteps only add to the questions over whether he is ready for prime time.
Even when the candidate has ideas and a plan, Republicans also must guard against “Lazy Candidate Syndrome” — the tendency to believe money or demographics or past voting trends predetermine results. “Vote Republican because I’m not the other guy” didn’t work for John McCain in 2008, and it won’t work for unprepared, undisciplined candidates in 2010. For all the changes that have come to politics and campaigning in recent years, pressing the flesh and appearing at festivals, ball games, and community events remain the most effective ways to build support. Retail politicking can make winners of underdogs and ensure frontrunners don’t get caught from behind.
Ask Virgil Goode about the power of retail politics. In 2008, the Republican six-term Congressional incumbent, Goode seemed safe even in a bad year for the GOP and with President Obama at the top of the ticket. But his opponent, Democrat Tom Perriello, didn’t accept the conventional wisdom. He raised enough money and connected with enough voters to pull off one of the biggest upsets of 2008. Goode underestimated his opponent, and it showed. The 2010 candidate can take nothing for granted.
The final wild cards in the 2010 contest for control of Congress are the third party (or no-party) candidates. The Rubio-Meeks-Crist three way contest is an extreme example of this dynamic, where the third-party candidate (Crist) could win in the general election. More typical is the situation that is likely to occur this year in Virginia’s 5th congressional district, where the passions that have animated multiple insurgent candidates could continue past the primary season and become independent bids in the general election. The self-funded third-party candidate who siphons just 1 or 2 percentage points could save the incumbent Democrats in more than a few House swing districts come Election Day.
Certainly the electoral map remains fluid. As Scott Brown demonstrated, no party or candidate “owns” a seat. Let’s leave the sense of entitlement to Democrats and get out there and work for the votes this fall. If we want change in Congress, WE need to play our A game now, not the blame game come November.