October 12, 2003


Republicans Run From Risk in Some Senate Fights (CARL HULSE, 10/12/03, NY Times)

On paper, Harry Reid looks beatable, not least because he won his last United States Senate race in Nevada by 428 votes. In a recount.

He is a fierce partisan, the No. 2 man in the Senate Democratic leadership, providing Republicans plenty of fodder for their conservative base in a state President Bush won easily in 2000. Mr. Reid has even received some bad press lately about his relatives' lobbying in Washington for Nevada interests.

He seemed a good bet to draw a strong opponent in 2004, as Republicans are looking to pad their majorities in Congress and have Mr. Bush to lead the way. Yet Representative Jim Gibbons, the party's top choice to challenge Mr. Reid, chose to seek re-election to the House, choosing a sure thing over rolling the dice. Mr. Reid, at this point, has little to worry about.

Nevada is not the only state where Republicans are having trouble recruiting strong Senate candidates. In a handful of states where incumbent Democratic senators would seem vulnerable — including the Dakotas, Arkansas and Washington — big-name Republican prospects are bowing out, reducing the party's hopes for big Senate gains.

Democratic analysts say the Republicans' hesitancy suggests nervousness in the ranks about the party's momentum going into 2004. But it is a simple truth that professional politicians are reluctant to commit to a campaign unless they know they have a good chance of winning. The promise of party support is not enough to coax officeholders out of safe seats into difficult races, even when Republicans are supposed to be ascendant.

The problem with the failure to recruit excellent candidates doesn't come in the election year--the GOP will win the seats in NV and AR regardless of how marginal their actual candidate is--but when it comes time to run for re-election. Thus, Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980 enabled a group of genuinely underwhelming Republicans to knock off some of the Democrats most powerful and respected senators, but nearly half of them lost in their first bid to hold their seats.

The GOP seemed to have learned this lesson when it recruited such outstanding candidates for the mid-term election last Fall -- including even former presidential hopefuls, like Liddy Dole and Lamar Alexander. If anything, the prospects for winning those races seemed even bleaker, so it's hard to figure why they're struggling now.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 12, 2003 6:33 AM

OJ and I disagree on this - I believe you need a decent candidate even if Bush romps in '04. OJ believes in Bush having big coattails. We'll have to wait until '04 to find out.
Any word on Thune in SD? I've heard both that he's in and he's out

Posted by: AWW at October 12, 2003 12:56 PM

I'm a novice at this sort of thing, but I really don't think it's that hard to come up with reasons for the Republican success in recruiting big names for '02 but not for '04. Start with your basic assumption--candidates like to run when their chances of winning are good. A cursory look at the proportion of incumbents who ran unopposed in the last few elections should be enough to validate the idea.

So, whose chances were good in '02? Bush's wave of post-9/11 popularity had subsided, but not completely, and his team had shrewdly moved war with Iraq onto the political radar screen to keep the public distracted from their more unpopular policies. Notwithstanding that, there were no coattails from '00 to deal with; the election was simply too close (in point of fact, Bush actually lost the election both nationally and in Florida, so if there was a rebound in store, it was in the Republican direction anyway). The Democrats were disorganized and dispirited, having to work too hard just to prove their patriotism before being able to concentrate on actual platforms.

Compare to '04, at least as it looks now: Bush's popularity has faded to roughly the levels he held before 9/11 (roughly 50%). A guerrilla campaign in Iraq (never a crowd pleaser) coupled with a bad economy and a scandal or two has the executive branch looking vulnerable for the first time since the tragedy. Highly publicized, unconventional power grabs (mid-decade redistricting efforts, the California recall, etc.) have given the impression of a party in power that has reached a bit too far, too fast. The Democrats, for whatever reason, are more organized and coherent.

The dearth of high-profile Republicans willing to run is the surest sign that '04 may be a Democratic year. There's a lot of time left, though, and Bush may yet turn public opinion around--or, more likely, a Democrat will do his work for him--and develop coattails worthy of the name.

Posted by: M. Bulger at October 13, 2003 12:24 PM


That's ahistorical in the extreme. It was the first time a President's party won seats in his first mid-term in forever. Meanwhile, no incumbent has been defeated in his re-election bid this century unless he had a strong challenger for his own party's nomination. Bush's popularity is on a par with that of Reagan and Clinton at the same time in their first terms and both costed to victory. Inplaces like AR, SD, etc., where Bush will win by 2o% it seems odd that no one is trying to ride his coat tails, though, as you note, it's early yet.

Posted by: OJ at October 13, 2003 1:18 PM

It would be silly for me to try and argue your points, OJ, since all we're doing is prognosticating. I'm not confident enough a seer to proclaim that anything is necessarily going to happen. There are precedents both for Bush's reelection and for his unseating; there is also a rather small sample size to pick the trends from. If the economy recovers, or Al Qaeda manages to hit something in the U.S. again, Bush could easily recover from his current slump. But after a while, I start to hate talking about that sort of thing as though it's just an element in the horse race.

As for ahistory, as I understand it, the basis for the midterm slump for the President's party is the lack of coattails that came into play in the previous election. Gore won the 2000 election. He won nationwide by 500,000 votes, and in Florida by 130-500 votes, depending on which standard was used (he nevertheless won regardless of the standard). Thus, in '02, any presumed coattails would have to have been Gore's, no matter who was sitting in the Oval Office. '02 didn't violate the pattern; it fit perfectly.

Posted by: M. Bulger at October 13, 2003 2:44 PM


I eagerly await your precedent for a president losing his re-election bid after being unopposed in his own party selection process. The only one I'm aware of in recent times is Herbert Hoover. I know Democrats think this is yet another "worst economy since Herbert Hoover", but you seem smarter than most (the '02 election being Gore's midterm is particularly brilliant--wish I'd thought of it), so I imagine you recognize that as nonsense?

Posted by: OJ at October 13, 2003 4:15 PM

OJ: You have nothing to anticipate. I am not a presidential historian, or a campaign buff, so I know of no such post-Hoover example. As for "worst economy since Herbert Hoover," anyone who lived through the '70s knows better than that. So far, anyway.

Don't take that "Gore's midterm" thing too far. My actual point is that the '00 election was too close to assign coattails to anyone. The '02 midterms were up for grabs. Rove's ingenious September "product rollout" (the unbelievably cynical political case for war with Iraq) did the grabbing.

As for the incumbent precedent, this would only have meaning if you believe (and a reasonable case can be made) that the absence of serious primary opposition is of direct benefit to the incumbent in the subsequent campaign. Certainly in the money-driven elections we now have, it is. But to me, the sample size on that precedent is just too small. If '02 broke a longstanding pattern in some people's minds, there is no reason not to expect something similar in '04. Bush is, after all, an arguably more divisive president than any who came before him.

Posted by: M. Bulger at October 14, 2003 12:56 PM

It has nothing to do with Bush or Gore. This essay is extremely helpful in that regard:


Posted by: oj at October 14, 2003 2:26 PM