Just four years ago, when Bush was re-elected and Republicans gained seats in both houses of Congress, the party was flying high. Bush political adviser Karl Rove was hailed as the architect of what appeared to be a looming Republican "permanent majority."
But as public disenchantment grew with the Iraq War and Bush's repeated insistence on "staying the course" there, as well as a series of scandals that tarnished the Republican "brand," Democrats made huge gains in the mid-term elections which gave them majorities -- albeit relatively slim ones -- in both houses of Congress for the first time since 1994.
"With scandal after scandal involving House Republicans in 2006, the party became the target of voter fury," wrote Fred Barnes in the neo-conservative 'Weekly Standard' magazine recently. And while Democrats have since been unable to use their majority to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq or make much progress in enacting their own priorities, "Republicans have made little headway in improving their tarnished image," Barnes added, citing the judgement of a senior Republican lawmaker.
As the economy has ever-so-slightly ticked up over the past month and violence stays relatively low in Iraq due, according to the administration, to the new U.S. counter-insurgency strategy, Republicans think that they may be able to salvage at least something from the November elections, particularly with a presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain, whose maverick image could appeal to crucial independent "swing" voters.
It's still going to be an uphill fight, they concede. The president -- usually a symbolic head of the party -- is so low in opinion ratings that he will likely be an albatross around the neck of most party candidates this fall.
A Quinnipiac poll from May 8 to 12 gave Bush a dismal 28 percent approval rating, with 67 percent disapproving -- a nearly 40 percent spread. A USA Today/Gallup poll in late April yielded a 69 percent disapproval rating, the highest since Gallup first began polling on the question more than 60 years ago.
While Republicans have dismissed the recent special-election losses as resulting from choosing poor candidates, their plan-of-attack -- particularly in Mississippi -- has raised the eyebrows of many analysts.
Democratic Congressional Committee Chairman Rep. Rahm Emanuel is largely credited for having picked a good candidate in Childers for Mississippi's first district, but the flawed Republican strategy may have handed the race to the Democrat.
In an expensive television advertising campaign, the Republicans tried to tie Childers, a social conservative who, like many Republicans, upholds gun-ownership rights and opposes abortion, to the presumed Democratic nominee, Sen. Barack Obama, and Obama's fiery former preacher, but the imagined connections never took.
Conversely, Davis' connections to the beleaguered Bush administration were on full display on the eve of the election when he brought in Vice Pres. Dick Cheney to campaign on his behalf.
Despite the troubles, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol wrote in his New York Times column that presumptive presidential nominee John McCain, who is running roughly even with Obama in the most recent national polling, could yet be elected.
"The Republican Party is in bad shape," wrote Kristol. "But John McCain -- despite a rather haphazard campaign so far lacking in thematic coherence -- is doing pretty well."
But that notion dismisses some major problems for McCain.
Democrats plan on hanging the Bush presidency around the neck of McCain, which will not be difficult given their closeness on both Iraq and economic policy -- the voters' two greatest concerns.
The recent slight up-tick in the economy and tactical successes in Iraq, for example, are touted by both McCain and Bush, but both are tenuous and fragile improvements that may not be sustainable in the nearly six months that remain before the election.
Moreover, McCain, who has long been distrusted by the Christian Right for some of his more libertarian inclinations, will have to continually reassure its followers about his fidelity to their core beliefs in order to ensure their turnout on Election Day. But that reassurance risks pushing the independent swing voters toward the Democrats.
Even if he can squeak into the White House, McCain will likely be faced with an even greater Democratic majority in the Congress.
Nearly two-thirds of Republican "Congressional insiders" polled by the National Journal last week said they believe Democrats are likely to gain from one to 19 seats in the 435-member House of Representatives, while more independent analysts predict the gain may go as high as 25, reducing Republicans to "a state of powerlessness reminiscent of (their) long wilderness years in the 1960s and '70s," the 'Politico' newspaper wrote this week.
In the Senate, Democrats could gain as many as seven seats, placing them very close to the 60-seat Democratic majority necessary to cut off Republican filibusters.
Furthermore, the polls cited by Kristol have come at the tail-end of a still divisive primary process where Obama has been thoroughly challenged by his rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton. But the divisiveness will not likely last all the way into November.
"Watch for Hillary and Bill Clinton to work their tails off for Obama, allowing no one to say that they didn't do their part," wrote Cook. "If Obama wins, they will be seen as team players."
The heated primary has also contributed greatly to soaring numbers of self-identifying Democrats who registered to vote -- with the Republican contest ending relatively quickly, the remaining primary states were given little attention.
The spectre of a unified Democratic Party aside, one major Republican disadvantage is clear: they have far less money. And Obama, presuming he wins the nomination, has broken all records for fund-raising in his primary campaign.
The National Republican Congressional Committee spent about three million dollars -- more than 40 percent of its available funds -- in losing efforts for the three special elections. With morale in the party so low, expecting lost seats in the fall and perhaps the presidency, fundraising can become problematic -- donors don't want to give to a losing cause.
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Albion Monitor May
19, 2008 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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