Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is being targeted for defeat by the Democrats this November. (Photo: Getty Images)
With the party already struggling to generate enthusiasm for its brand, Republican strategists fear that an outpouring of public anger generated by Congress's struggle to pass a rescue package for the financial industry may contribute to a disaster at the polls for the GOP in November.
"The crisis has affected the entire ticket," said Jan van Lohuizen, a Republican consultant who handled the polling for President Bush's reelection campaign. "The worse the state's economy, the greater the impact."
Republicans are trying to defend at least 18 House seats in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, economic trouble spots that double as election battlegrounds. Rising unemployment, the meltdown in the housing market, and a credit crunch besieging consumers and manufacturers alike were factors in Sen. John McCain's decision Thursday to pull campaign resources out of Michigan. The McCain campaign's exit from the state leaves a pair of vulnerable Republicans, Reps. Tim Walberg and Joe Knollenberg, with a weakened party infrastructure heading into Nov. 4. Attempting to sound optimistic, Knollenberg, who opposed the bailout bill on Monday but supported a revised version yesterday, said simply, "I am going to fight harder."
In the Senate, where Democrats have been on offense all year as they try to attain a filibuster-proof, 60-seat majority, Republican incumbents are suddenly teetering in North Carolina, Kentucky and Georgia because of the economic crisis, according to several GOP strategists closely tracking the contests.
The pessimism in the GOP ranks reflects a striking shift in momentum in the four weeks since the Republican National Convention, when Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin made her national debut and rallied conservatives, helping to fuel the perception that longer-shot Democratic targets were drifting out of reach.
"If you turn the clock back two or two and half weeks, you could make a plausible argument that if a couple of things go our way we will lose three to four Senate races," said one Republican strategist. "Now we will lose six to eight." Polling in most Senate races over the past 14 days has shown a five-point decline for the Republican candidate, the strategist said.
The picture in the House is similar. The generic ballot test -- a traditional measure of broad voter attitudes -- has also moved decisively in Democrats' direction in recent days. The latest NBC-Wall Street Journal and Associated Press polls showed voters favoring a generic Democratic candidate for Congress over a generic Republican by 13 points, while a recent Time magazine poll gave Democrats a 46 percent to 36 percent edge.
GOP operatives said the party's declining fortunes are rooted in a series of events over the past two weeks, including McCain's decision to suspend his campaign in order to help broker a deal on the rescue plan and Republican opposition that doomed the bill in a House vote on Monday. Those incidents helped reinforce voter impressions that Washington is broken and that Republicans bear the brunt of the blame, the party insiders said.
In the most recent Washington Post-ABC News national poll, more than half of all voters said they were "very concerned" that the failure of the first bailout vote would cause a "severe economic decline." By a ratio of 2 to 1, they blamed the legislations' defeat on Republicans.
Neil Newhouse, a partner in the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies, echoed van Lohuizen's sentiment. "The bailout crisis has had a corrosive effect on the national political environment, and that impacts not just John McCain, but GOP candidates up and down the ticket," he said.
The proximity to the election added to the chaos on Capitol Hill this week as lawmakers sought to pass a $700 billion package to stabilize banks and financial markets. In the House, most vulnerable Republicans opposed the version that failed on Monday, as well as the revamped legislation that passed easily yesterday. But in the Senate, which voted Wednesday, just two vulnerable Republicans, Sens. Elizabeth Dole (N.C.) and Roger Wicker (Miss.), opposed the bill (along with the only Democrat who is seen as endangered, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu).
Seven Republicans who are being targeted for defeat by Democrats backed the plan: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), and Sens. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Ted Stevens (Alaska); Norm Coleman (Minn.); Gordon Smith (Ore.), Susan Collins (Maine) and John E. Sununu (N.H.).
Some states that have been hit particularly hard economically saw fractures within their delegations. In Michigan, Knollenberg switched his vote from no on Monday to yes on Friday, while Walberg voted no both times. Asked whether he changed his mind out of concern for his reelection, Knollenberg shrugged and responded, "This is politics." But he added that supporting the bailout "is really what's best for the community."
In North Carolina, the package was opposed by both vulnerable GOP incumbents, Dole and Rep. Robin Hayes. Dole's Democratic challenger, state Sen. Kay Hagan, also announced her opposition. Rep. Sue Myrick, one of the few Republicans in the state whose seat is considered relatively secure, was one of 25 GOP members who switched from no to yes. "I may lose this race over this vote," Myrick said. "But that's okay, because I believe in my heart that I'm doing the right thing."
Phil Singer, a former aide to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign who is currently advising several Democratic Senate candidates, said the current financial crisis provided a new opportunity to remind voters that President Bush remains the leader of the Republican Party. "The 'GOP candidate equals George Bush' argument was growing stale in the absence of any fresh proof points," said Singer.
Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), the GOP's chief deputy whip, urged Republicans to go home and talk about kitchen-table issues such as the price of gas. "That's what this election is going to be about," he said, "and people are going to ask, 'Whose vision do we ascribe to?' " But it could take time to change the subject, Cantor acknowledged, depending on how quickly the crisis shows signs of easing.
Compounding Republican problems is a continued fundraising deficit that has left the party largely powerless to defend its congressional candidates against a televised Democratic onslaught. At the start of September -- the last time financial figures were available -- the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee held a $40 million cash-on-hand edge over its GOP counterpart and was advertising in 41 House districts, compared with just two districts in which the National Republican Campaign Committee was on the air.
The gap was less daunting on the Senate side, where the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee held a $7 million cash edge over the National Republican Senatorial Committee at the start of September. However, the DSCC spent $13.6 million in August -- largely on television ads -- while the NRSC dropped just $3.6 million.
That spending deficit and the economic reverberations are being felt most strongly in North Carolina, where Hagan appears to have moved into a lead over Dole. The DSCC has spent more than $3.5 million on ads painting Dole as out of touch with average North Carolina voters, and even Republicans acknowledge that the attacks have taken their toll. Independent polling puts Hagan's lead at three to eight points.
In Oregon, state House Speaker Jeff Merkley (D) has taken to the television airwaves to attack Sen. Gordon Smith (R) for his vote in favor of the rescue plan. "In this economy, who is really on your side?" asks the narrator in Merkley's ad, saying that Smith supported a "trillion-dollar blank check for Wall Street." Polling in that race shows a virtual dead heat.