Tapping the Piggy Bank
You may have come across a reference to this item in the Washington Post today, in which the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Judd Gregg is ranked high on a list of seats likely to change party at the midterms. The item focuses primarily on former New Hampshire Attorney General Kelly Ayotte’s fundraising numbers for the fourth quarter, and suggests that she is turning out to be somewhat less competitive as a candidate than Republicans had initially hoped.
Although the item implies that Ayotte’s fundraising numbers are a bit lackluster, she is still far outpacing her primary opponents, in terms of an ability to bring in money from donors (we’re waiting for Ovide Lamontagne’s numbers). It is also true that Democratic Congressman Paul Hodes is over $1 million ahead of Ayotte for the fundraising year, but he had a nice head start, and the two were reasonably close with their third and fourth quarter totals.
The bigger issue for Ayotte is that two of her primary opponents, businessmen Bill Binnie and Jim Bender, were willing to kick in a combined $1.7 million of their own money to fund their campaigns, and that probably won’t be the last of it. While both are running early ads to build name recognition, they could create a whole lot of mischief with that kind of money, especially with attack ads against Ayotte, should they decide to run them. That kind of intra-party battle could derail her candidacy, or instead make her a tougher candidate for the general election. It’s really too soon to tell, but this race now seems headed for an interesting spring and summer.
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State of Mind
In its modern televised incarnation, the State of the Union address is typically designed to reassure Americans that the president has the situation at hand under control. With recent polling showing that a large majority of citizens believe the policymaking process in Washington is fundamentally broken, last night’ edition of this annual ritual took on the added imperative of demonstrating that our system of government is still capable of operating in the ways we expect it to function.
So, that was the frame of mind with which I approached President Obama’s first State of the Union address last night. As the president often does, he gave a good speech. Obama was able to rally Democrats, extend an offer of bipartisanship to Republicans while simultaneously putting them on notice, and throw in some populism for the many citizens who feel caught in-between, both economically and politically.
But I have to say that I came away from the experience with a surprising sense of gloom, and after listening to a wide range of reaction to the speech over the past 12 hours that feeling has only intensified. I think what hit me was the realization that for all of the appropriate notes struck by Obama in his speech last night, nothing much is likely to change in practice. It is pretty clear that Republicans believe they have already found a winning strategy for the 2010 midterm elections, and if the president’s agenda items are truly as unpopular as they claim, then perhaps they are correct and will be rewarded at the polls. But with a little more than nine months to go before Election Day, I don’t expect their approach to change much.
This leaves Obama and the Democrats to basically go it alone, as whatever bipartisan rapprochement emerges from the speech will be short-lived. The president still needs some sort of legislative victory on health care, and we can now also throw in bank regulation and a jobs bill to boot. If he can’t get at least some of these through the legislative process, given his majorities in Congress, then he will have to hope that voters are really angry at Republicans, rather than disappointed with him.
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Gender Bender
I have been watching the Carol Shea-Porter gender brouhaha play out over the past few days, as her Republican opponents have attempted to gain some political traction off of her comments. You may have already heard Shea-Porter’s suggestion that women in Congress would be much more likely to reach a bipartisan consensus on health care without Congressmen around to complicate the negotiations. I’ve now seen the episode pop up on the national cable news shows and heard it decried on conservative talk radio. My favorite moment was when Frank Guinta implied to WMUR-TV (clip here on right) that the remarks were somehow of sufficient magnitude to prevent Shea-Porter from legislating.
Those of you who follow my analysis regularly know that I have been tough on Shea-Porter on a number of occasions, and I’ve been quick to point out silliness from the New Hampshire Democratic Party when it arises. But the Republican outrage over her comments is equally ridiculous. I’ve watched the original clip several times, and it’s clearly just a clichéd throwaway line about the differences in temperament between men and women. That being said, I actually know a number of women, Republican and Democratic, who would probably agree with the sentiment, if that is any consolation to Shea-Porter. So, here’s hoping that tonight’s State of the Union Address by President Obama gets us back to focusing on more serious matters.
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A Stimulating Conversation
I will be a guest tomorrow morning on New Hampshire Public Radio’s The Exchange. We will be doing a first-year assessment of President Obama’s handling of the economy. We’ll touch on it all – the stimulus package, bank and auto industry bailouts, cash for clunkers, home buyer tax credits, and much more – only hours before Obama delivers his first official State of the Union Address. You can listen live at 9 a.m. here (top menu), or catch the show later here.
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Beau Knows
For evidence of just how much the political landscape has changed for Democrats in the past year, you need look no further than today’s announcement by Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden that he will not seek election to his father’s former U.S. Senate seat in 2010. A little over a year ago, the decision to run for the Senate seemed like a no-brainer for Biden. He had already been elected to statewide office, was about to do a tour in Iraq with his National Guard unit, and has a father who had just been elected vice president, after holding the Senate seat for 36 years. It seemed like a foregone conclusion that Beau Biden would take the next step in his political career by following in his father’s footsteps to Congress.
It is true that Biden, who turns 41 in early February, still has plenty of time to run for Congress in the future, and he plans to stay in electoral politics by running for another term as Delaware’s attorney general. But Democrats have to be concerned that as more high-profile Democrats take a pass on various difficult races in 2010, candidate recruitment will become a serious problem. Then fears about holding onto a majority in Congress will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which the party experiences greater losses at the midterms than might otherwise be the case.
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You Rang?
With respect to Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts yesterday, the question that I’ve been asked most frequently over the past twenty-four hours is “what is the big lesson to be learned from this remarkable political upset?” For me, the answer is actually pretty straightforward – voters are angry – about the economy, about the cost and accessibility of health care, and about a generally dysfunctional policymaking system in Washington, D.C. that can’t seem to extract the country from its current existential rut. These voters were angry when they voted President Obama into office in 2008, and they are still angry about many of the same issues one year later.
We will be talking about this anger in the context of independent voters for some time to come, although it is fair to say that progressives and conservatives are angry for their own reasons, as well. But there is no denying that the steady movement of independents away from Obama over the past year poses a real problem for the administration as it tries to keep its agenda on track heading into the 2010 midterm elections. We saw this phenomenon in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races, and it was front and center again last night in Massachusetts.
If we think about this voting behavior as the search for a political comfort zone, part of the problem is that while a big chunk of the electorate votes as a slightly center-right or center-left nation, it is governed by a policymaking system in which partisan polarization causes policy outcomes to lurch back and forth between polarities on the left and right. Independents unhappy with President George W. Bush are now unhappy with President Obama.
While there is a pragmatic streak in Obama’s political persona that could help him reconnect with these independent voters, right now they seem largely lost in the pitched battle being waged between progressives and conservatives for control of our government’s institutional prerogatives. It certainly seems like their anger and frustration at the situation boiled over once again last night.
Note: I have to step away from the website for a few days. Sorry for the truncated posting schedule this week. I will be back on Monday, January 25th with a full week of new content for you. See you soon. -Dean
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Mass Communication
Last summer, Granite State politicos told national Republican institutional elites like those populating the National Republican Senatorial Committee to abstain from meddling in the state party’s competitive primary. At the time, I argued that changes in technology, and in the way campaigns are assembled, funded, and covered, have combined to make this butt out rejoinder an admirable, but ultimately futile, sentiment. You need look no further than the U.S. Senate race now reaching a crescendo in Massachusetts to understand the extent to which Congressional elections have been nationalized.
It is true that the Massachusetts example is somewhat unique, due to its status as a stand-alone special election with the potential for an outsized impact on President Obama’s policy agenda and the Kennedy Family’s political legacy. But take a look at the speed with which millions have been spent on advertising by national groups, and at the scope of the grassroots support that has flooded into the state from all around the country, just in the past week or so. Add in saturation coverage on cable news and the internet, and you get a good sense of how fundamentally the political culture of campaigns and elections has changed.
With the U.S. Senate race in New Hampshire likely to be one of the most closely watched contests of the 2010 midterm elections, what we are seeing in Massachusetts is not all that far off from what we could experience here in the Granite State come next September and November. It is why I continue to believe that all politics is no longer local.
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January Thaw?
A January thaw could be on the way, but if you are still cold this weekend, you can at least catch me discussing some hot political topics on Sunday morning, as a guest on WMUR-TV’s Close Up. I’ll be on during the second half of the show, following what should be a spirited debate over the State House gun ban.
Note: I will be back posting on Tuesday, after the Martin Luther King holiday. See you soon. -Dean
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If the Suit Fits
With two years still to go before the earliest contests of the 2012 presidential election cycle, there is only so much talking you can do about presidential hopefuls like Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty, which is why we get stuck talking about others like Newt Gingrich, Haley Barbour, and Rick Santorum, who have no chance of winning the Republican nomination. Maybe Bobby Jindal will come back around at some point, but he still seems to be doing penance for his now infamous primetime debut as a spokesman for the Republican Party.
So, I was eager to see South Dakota Senator John Thune get the full speculative profile treatment in a piece today at Politico. Best known for unseating Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle in 2004, Thune is someone whose name is occasionally on the tip of various well-respected tongues as an individual who could potentially change the party’s internal leadership dynamic in the next two years.
At this early stage in the process, however, Thune’s name pops up largely because he fits the suit. To be clear, I don’t mean this in a disrespectful way. If the Republican Party’s goal for 2012 is to find a conservative version of President Obama, in terms of physicality, demeanor, and generational appeal, then at least on the surface Thune seems like he could be that guy.
I have seen Senator Thune on television on a number of occasions, and my initial gut-level reaction is that he is a definite maybe as a candidate. The Politico profile is correct in pointing out that perhaps the biggest drawback to a Thune candidacy is that he doesn’t appear to have an angle on the presidency. Even if he looks like he is right out of conservative central casting, Thune will need an angle (or a theory, as Politico says), in order to propel his candidacy forward. I will certainly be watching to see if one starts to take shape in the coming months.
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A Bulging Vein for McCain?
Another new insider’s book on the 2008 presidential campaign, another opportunity to see whether John McCain will blow a gasket when asked yet again about whether he regrets the choice of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate. This time the occasion was a Matt Lauer interview on NBC’s Today show about claims in the new book Game Change by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann that Palin was not sufficiently vetted for vice president.
Since his loss in the general election, I have seen McCain asked about the choice of Palin as his running mate so many times that I have lost count. It is usually in the context of whether she was sufficiently qualified, prepared, vetted, etc. McCain has adopted an almost zombie-like response to all variants of the Palin question, typically responding that he is proud of both Palin and his entire campaign. The Lauer interview was no different in that respect, but McCain was noticeably testier than his usual shrugging reply to the question.
We will probably never know what McCain truly thinks of Palin, but the media seems intent on getting him to one day admit that he made a mistake in choosing her. It is as though they are hell bent on assigning someone culpability for bringing Palin onto the national stage, especially since she seems to have no intention of leaving anytime soon. For all of his unwillingness to take the media bait, I’m guessing that McCain is privately disappointed that this is shaping up to be the lasting legacy of his ten years spent running for president.
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You've Got Quayle!
New Hampshire businessman Bill Binnie may be rolling out his first television ads in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate this week, but fellow candidate Ovide Lamontagne can say that he just snagged the endorsement of former Vice President Dan Quayle. I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall when that phone call came into Lamontagne campaign headquarters. Lest you think that staffers would contemplate letting that one go straight to voicemail, Lamontagne actually served as state campaign chairman for Quayle’s failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000.
It is true that Quayle has been the butt of many jokes over the years. But he does maintain a reservoir of goodwill with some social conservatives in the party (ever since this), even considering his eighth place finish in the 1999 Iowa Straw Poll, an informal tally which is usually taken as a good initial gauge of conservative support in the presidential race.
In all seriousness, it is not the Quayle endorsement per se that carries much clout, but if other former elected officials and political elites start coming out of the woodwork to endorse Lamontagne as the true conservative alternative to former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, then we could conceivably reach a tipping point that gives Lamontagne some momentum. We’re certainly not there yet, and I am not a huge believer in the power of endorsements. But the meme that Ayotte is a captive of Republican institutional elites in Washington hasn’t gone away, which could provide additional impetus for the channeling of these kinds of endorsements to Lamontagne.
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Upon Further Review
During the confirmation battle over Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, I wrote about the inevitability that Republican opposition to her nomination would center on the concept of judicial activism. This is the criticism that judges use court rulings to interject themselves into the legislative process, and it has become a well-worn avenue of attack in the bitter partisan battles that typically rage around confirmation to the federal bench. In the case of Sotomayor, Republicans argued that as a Supreme Court Justice, she would legislate from the bench, in order to balance court outcomes in ways that consistently favor the policy agenda of the Democrats who appointed her.
With that particular confirmation battle over, I hadn’t thought much about this recently, until I saw this item suggesting that Republicans may increasingly turn to the courts, where they have an advantage in numbers, in order to roll back the Obama agenda in areas like health care. In essence, they would be filing lawsuits looking for some conservative activism from the bench to balance President Obama’s legislative advantage. Putting irony aside for the moment, if this strategy plays out, it could make for an interesting second (legal) act to the remarkable legislative drama we’ve witnessed over the past year.
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Money, It's a Gas
We now know that New Hampshire businessman Bill Binnie is serious about making a run in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate. Recently released campaign finance totals show Binnie rounding up a respectable number of donors for someone who has largely been on the periphery of the race until now, and demonstrating a willingness to kick in a serious chunk of change from his own personal fortune.
I continue to believe that the prevailing dynamic in the Republican primary will be a competition to claim the mantle of preferred alternative to former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte. So, while we may see Binnie run ads to soften up Ayotte a bit, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him go after Ovide Lamontagne with as much, if not more, energy. All of this would have to be part of a broader strategy to significantly increase his name recognition.
I recently found myself standing in WMUR-TV’s waiting room with Mr. Binnie, which provided me with an impromptu opportunity to chat with him in-person about his campaign plans. Binnie is still a relative political unknown in comparison to Ayotte and Lamontagne, but he struck me as a serious candidate with a pretty compelling biography, one which underscores his focus on fiscal conservatism and managerial competence.
While I’m withholding final judgment until I have had more time to observe Binnie on the campaign trail, and in head-to-head match-ups with the other candidates, we could potentially end up with a real three-way race on our hands. The wild card in all this (in addition to Binnie's willingness to self-finance) is the potential negative impact of his pro-choice and pro-gay marriage stances on New Hampshire’s Republican primary electorate.
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The Name Game
Many of you know that one of my favorite aspects of the invisible primary is watching political elites and the media engage in the kabuki ritual of mentioning as potential presidential candidates a number of individuals who have no chance of ever winning their party’s nomination. The practice is considered good manners for political elites, and also provides additional journalistic fodder for the media’s instantaneous news cycle. For the 2012 presidential election cycle, it will be Republicans (and the media covering them) who will partake in this time-honored political tradition.
I came across a brilliant example of this in today’s Union Leader, courtesy of veteran New Hampshire political strategist Mike Dennehy. When asked about the presidential potential of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who will be speaking in the Granite State later this month, Dennehy provided this assessment:
Dennehy said Gingrich "should always be considered a potential presidential candidate because of his history as Speaker of the House, his leadership in electing Republicans and his continued involvement in public policy."
I have written previously about why Gingrich has no chance of winning the Republican nomination in 2012, even though we hear his name mentioned with some regularity. Dennehy is a veteran political strategist who likely understands that Gingrich has zero chance of getting his party’s nod, but he is also shrewd enough to know that he cannot say so publicly. I do think, however, that we would agree on the proposition that Gingrich will certainly have an impact on the party’s campaign discourse, even as he inevitably bows out, just as he has done in the past.
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Travelin' Man
Since I did some traveling over the holidays, I thought that an item on former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney traveling to Iowa as part of his upcoming book tour would be an appropriate way for me to kick off a new year of posts. By including stops in Iowa on his itinerary, Romney follows the well-worn path of other 2012 presidential hopefuls, most notably former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who has journeyed to the Hawkeye State to sell his prose on several occasions.
I’m not surprised to hear that Romney will be passing through Iowa on his book tour. I would expect him to make periodic trips there during the invisible primary period, and a new book provides a perfect opportunity to do so. The omission of New Hampshire from the list is a bit unexpected, however, so I will be interested to see whether stops here are added at some point in the future. As I wrote before the holidays, the next presidential election cycle could see Romney actually spending much less time trying to woo social conservatives in Iowa, and much more time talking fiscal and foreign policy in the Granite State.  Perhaps he is saving us for a second printing.
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