Good Monday morning Fellow Seekers,
Apologies for neglecting the blog for several days last week. I was working on a piece explaining some of the reasons that Norm Coleman is considered one of the most vulnerable of the 32 senators seeking reelection in 2008.
A shortened, toned-down version of the piece ran in the Sunday paper but rather than link to that, here is the unexpurgated version (with special features and an interview with the cast on the second DVD). Before you click the “read the rest of this entry” button, be forewarned. It’s quite a bit longer than a haiku.
ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s official. Norm Coleman is one of the most vulnerable Senate incumbents up for reelection in 2008.
The word-choice is facetious. We are coming out of a cycle when MinnesotaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s U.S. Senate was universally decreed to be one of the closest in the nation and it ended up as a 20-percentage point blowout for Amy Klobuchar.
Ã‚Â So beware the consensus of the punditocracy (yes, including me, if you consider me a pundit, which I believe is Hindi for “a learned man”).
Ã‚Â But if any such designation of official vulnerability were truly possible, Coleman would qualify by the normal measures of such things. How so? A quick catalog:
Ã‚Â To what does MinnesotaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s senior senator owe these honors? Several factors, including geography, timing, Bushiness, ColemanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s iffy approval ratings, the Iraq war and the direction of the national political winds.
1. Location, location, location
It starts with this map of the 33 states that have ’08 Senate races. The red and blueness indicates the party of the incumbents. The pinkness of Colorado indicates thatÃ‚Â Republican incumbent (Allard) isn’t seeking another term.
Although the Repubs have 21 seats up in Ã¢â‚¬â„¢08, only four are in states that Kerry carried in Ã¢â‚¬â„¢04. The four are Coleman, Collins, Sununu and Smith.
Except for the narrow re-election of Gov. Pawlenty, the 2006 election results suggested that Minnesota was trending blue. Dems won the U.S. Senate race, picked up a seat in the U.S. House, gained seats in both houses of the Legislature, held the attorney generalship, and took the state auditor and secretary of state positions from GOP incumbents.
In the Election Day 2006 exit polls of actual Minnesota voters, those identifying themselves as Democrats outnumbered Republicans by not overwhelming 40-36 percent. Survey USA (which uses the robo-dialing polling method) andÃ‚Â takesÃ‚Â monthly samples in Minnesota) found last month that 38 percent of Minnesota adults identify with the DFL, 25 percent with the GOP and 28 percent consider themselves independents.
All of this adds up to the punditocratic view that Minnesota may be an unfriendly political environment for a Republican in Ã¢â‚¬â„¢08.
2. ColemanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s ratings
Any incumbent senator approaching reelection time whose approval ratings are below 50 percent are assumed to be wearing a scarlet letter of vulnerability.
Survey USA, whose monthly sounidng of Minnesota includes Coleman’s ratings,Ã‚Â had ColemanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s ratings at 53 percent on April 16, after measuring him in the high 40s in five of the six previous monthly readings.
If the April reading means Coleman is starting to climb, the pundits will take notice. But the longer trendline suggests Coleman has been flitting just above and just below the dreaded 50 percent mark for many months. Vulnerable, vulnerable, vulnerable.
3. National political environment
If 2008 was shaping up as a year when the wind was at the RepublicansÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ backs, the pundits would be looking at the list of Democrats running in states that Bush carried in Ã¢â‚¬â„¢04 (five of the 12 Dems up in Ã¢â‚¬â„¢08 are in that category).
But based on the Ã¢â‚¬â„¢06 elections, and on polling trends since then, the national political wind seems to be blowing in the face of the GOP.
Potential voters are unhappy with the direction of the country and want change. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a problem for incumbents, and especially for GOP incumbents, because while Bush holds the White House, their party represents the status quo in votersÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ minds.
In poll after poll, on issue after issue, more Americans say they trust the Democrats to deal with the nationÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s top problems and issues than say the same about the Republicans.
In Mid-April, Gallup asked for overall favorable/unfavorable views of the parties. The Republican Party came out unfavorable by 51-42 percent; The Dems favorable by 55-38.
Coleman will, of course, ask for MinnesotansÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ votes on the basis of his own attributes, records and issue positions, not as a generic Republican.
But, as University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs put it, in an era of partisan polarization in Congress, where the tendency to vote along party lines is very strong, Ã¢â‚¬Å“the party you belong to is a very powerful brand, and if the name brand is damaged, it drags down all of the product lines.Ã¢â‚¬Â
4. Bad Timing
Coleman is completing his first term. A political rule of thumb holds that the first reelection is the diciest.
2008 is also a presidential election year. Minnesota currently has the longest streak in the nation for giving its electoral votes to the Democratic ticket (eight straight, dating from 1976).
During that span, there have been 12 U.S. Senate elections. The GOP is 7-5 in those races (tell that to your friends who think MN is a Dem. bastion.)
But if you break those Senate races down by presidential vs. midterm years, the Repubs are 5-2 in non-presidential years, but 2-3 in presidential election years, when turnout tends to be higher.
5. The Bush/Iraq taint
Pres. BushÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s popularity is in the toilet. His approval ratings nationally have been mired in the disastrous 30s all year. Although no recent Minnesota numbers are available, BushÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Minnesota approval rating has generally run 2-4 percentage points lower than his national rating.
Rep. Mark KennedyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s inability to escape the image of a Ã¢â‚¬Å“loyal BushieÃ¢â‚¬Â played large in his landslide loss in the 2006 Minnesota Senate race.
Coleman will present himself as an independent Republican, more likely than most of his party cohorts to break ranks with both the party line and the Bush White House line. With the exception of his first year in the Senate, the statistical measures tend to back him up (more than they did Kennedy when he tried to portray himself as independent).
But other powerful facts and images tie Coleman to Bushiness.
The Iraq war continues to dominate the electorateÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s list of the number one issue or problem facing the country and Coleman has been a steady supporter of the now deeply unpopular war.
As a candidate in 2002, Coleman endorsed the resolution authorizing the invasion of Iraq. He remained a strong supporter BushÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s war policy until recently expressing doubts about the idea of sending additional U.S. troops to Baghdad.
Even as he created that first bit of distance from the Bush Iraq line, he repeated the main war supporter themes about the central front in the war on terror and the likely dire consequences of U.S. withdrawal. ColemanÃ‚Â opposed the recent efforts to use the supplemental appropriations bill as a vehicle for setting a goal of removing U.S. combat troops.
In a story about Republican senators who were shifting their Iraq positions away from the White House line on the issue of benchmarks and deadlines, the L.A. Times quoted Coleman thusly: Ã¢â‚¬Å“I think weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re still in a fairly toxic political environment. And I think it will continue like this for a while. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the reality.Ã¢â‚¬Â
If Coleman fundamentally revises his position, it will cause problems with his base and with his image. But stay-until-victory is, at the moment, a politically hazardous stance. Democrats planning to run against Republicans in bluish states probably wouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t choose the word Ã¢â‚¬Å“toxicÃ¢â‚¬Â to describe the current political air and waters.
Dehyping ColemanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s vulnerability
But letÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not overstate anything. Vulnerable doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t mean political dead meat, far from it. And toss-up doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t mean leans Democratic.
Two other respected political rating services Ã¢â‚¬â€œ Congressional Quarterly and the Cook Political Report Ã¢â‚¬â€œ say that the Minnesota race Ã¢â‚¬Å“leans Republican.Ã¢â‚¬Â This is not the category in which incumbents hope to find themselves, and it is reserved for races that the pundits expect to be close.
A “leaner” rating says about theÃ‚Â incumbent: HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s vulnerable, but if you had to get a bet down today, bet on the incumbent.
So, given the laundry list of factors that imperil Coleman politically, what are his advantages heading into the election year?
1. Track record
Coleman is a proven winner with a lifetime 3-1 record as a candidate. He was elected mayor of St. Paul as a DFLer in 1993, reelected as a Republican in 1997, then won the Republican nomination for governor in 1998 but lost in the wacky three-way general election to Jesse Ventura (even then, he finished solidly ahead of DFL nominee Skip Humphrey.)
ColemanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s third victory, his race for the Senate in 2002, was marked by tragedy, then by surprises and a narrow win in a bizarre emotional environment that will never replicated.
Amy Walter of the Cook Report said Ã¢â‚¬Å“Coleman has had a target on his head since the day he got elected, just because of the circumstances of that race.”
That may be true for Democrats. But Republicans remember it as a case where an extremely talented candidate rose to the occasion and overcame significant odds.
2. Oppositional question marks?
ColemanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s likeliest Democratic opponents — Al Franken and Mike Ciresi Ã¢â‚¬â€œ have a combined lifetime record of no wins and one loss (CiresiÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s unsuccessful 2000 Senate run) between them.
Political insiders see electability issues with both of them. Democrats are palpably worried that they havenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t yet found a candidate who can take advantage of ColemanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s vulnerabilities.
Walter of the Cook Report said that unlike many cycles, when the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee believes it has found a viable candidate and discourages other Democrats from entering the race, the DSCC has Ã¢â‚¬Å“an open door policyÃ¢â‚¬Â and is encouraging other Democrats to think about geting into the race.
Several lesser known Democrats are already campaigning while others, especially several legislators, have promised to make their plans known soon.
Jacobs current analysis of the race relies heavily on the identity of the DFL nominee. Democrats would like the race to be a referendum on the incumbent candidate, the incumbent president and the overall Republican Party and the status quo. ColemanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s best hope is to make the race a referendum on the challenger, Jacobs says.
If ColemanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s challenger brings some baggage into the race Ã¢â‚¬â€œ the leading example FrankenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s past as a comedian and author and some of the rude remarks he has made in those capacities Ã¢â‚¬â€œ ColemanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s supporters may be able to frame the election around the question of whether the challenger has the temperament of a senator.
A horserace poll 21 months before election is almost laughably unreliable, but Survey USA did pose the horserace question to 632 registered votes in February. Coleman bested Franken by 57-35 and he led Ciresi by 57-34.
3. Party Unity
Coleman has no known Republican challenger for the partyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s endorsement or nomination.
A clear path to renomination — without having to spend money on an intra-party battle, without having to tack to the right to reassure the base — is a big, recognized political plus.
The ultimate DFL nomineeÃ‚Â will have to survive a tough intra-party fight at least through the endorsing convention and possibly a primary.
And bear in mind, the reason that Sen. Ensign listed the four most vulnerable Republican incumbents was to organize fund-raising events for them around the country.Ã‚Â Being on the vulnerable list means the national party will focus its resources on helping you survive.
Ã‚Â 4. The Pawlenty scenario
KlobucharÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s 20-point rout of Kennedy is among the reasons the pundits see Coleman as endangered, sort of the short-cut to the argument that Minnesota is an inhospitable environment for Republicans.
But applying the Klobuchar-Kennedy template to ColemanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s situation is problematic. The Ã¢â‚¬â„¢06 Senate race became a perfect storm for the GOP. A stronger-than-expected DFL nominee, a weaker-than-expected Republican candidate, a powerful Democratic tailwind on Iraq and the collapse of BushÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s popularity combined to create a landslide that no one had predicted a year or even a few months out.
But Coleman has the advantages of incumbency. He has more appeal to moderate swing voters than Kennedy did. His likely opponents may lack KlobucharÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s likeability, her political sure-footedness and her unexpected success at shrugging off all Republican attacks on her record.
The brightest spot in the Minnesota GOPÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s dismal 2006 was the narrow reelection of Pawlenty, a likeable incumbent with some appeal to swing voters who capitalized on questions about his opponent Mike HatchÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s temperament, and may have benefitted by the presence of Independence Party nominee Peter Hutchinson.
There has little talk about who will be the Independence candidate for Senate,Ã‚Â but there will be one. In a close race, that could make a difference. There is a lively debate on this point, but the most common view of the post-Ventura races is that the Independence factor has benefitted Republicans.
While it would be too much to say that time is on ColemanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s side, with Election Day 18 months ahead there certainly is a lot of time for the political environment to shift in ways that could enhance his reelection prospects.
Might the Iraq war recover of its lost public support if the level of violence declines and might that lead to an improvement of the overall political environment for Republicans?
Might Coleman find a politically advantageous middle ground between set-a-deadline-for-withdrawal and stay-until-victory?
With BushÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s term in its final weeks by November 2008, might ColemanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Bushiness become less of a political deadweight?
Might the Republicans nominate a presidential candidate, maybe one of the relative moderates, who would do well in Minnesota?
Of course, each of those questions raises a possibility that the environment could become less favorable for Republican incumbents. If you believe the old saying that a week can be a lifetime in politics, then the span between now and Election Day 2008 would be measured in geologic time.
The Coleman spin
I called Cullen Sheehan, ColemanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s campaign manager, and read him the list of factors that put Coleman on the vulnerable list and the why-heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s-not-toast factors. He didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t dispute any of them. His response at every turn was roughly the same and goes like this:
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Clearly Minnesota is a toss-up state in almost every election. If youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re going to run for office in Minnesota, you have to work hard and let people know what you stand for and what you want to do in office.
Ã‚Â Ã¢â‚¬Å“I like our shot there. [Coleman]Ã¢â‚¬â„¢s a proven leader whoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s proven he can work with people of all stripes to get things done and ultimately thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s what Minnesotans want.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Ultimately this race is going to boil down to what Senator ColemanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s has done and what he wants to do and what his opponent has done and what he wants to do.Ã¢â‚¬Â
On Iraq, Sheehan said that while it will ultimately have an impact on the election, Ã¢â‚¬Å“you canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t politicize an issue like that. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s about doing the right thing, fighting and winning the war on terror. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the senatorÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s concern and thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s his focus.Ã¢â‚¬Â