November 4, 2014
As Campaign 2014 winds down and voters make up their minds, Republicans are poised to make big gains in the Senate, probably enough to retake a majority of seats in that chamber. They currently have 45 seats, while the Democrats have 53 and count on two independents to vote with them, so the Republicans need a net gain of six seats. If it's a 50-50 tie, Vice President Joe Biden would cast the deciding vote. But if the Republicans do win, will it translate into any meaningful policy change in Washington, or will it merely lead to even more stalemated, dysfunctional government? Fortunately for the Republicans, voters seem deeply upset with President Obama and the Democrats, and memories of the infamous government shutdown last year seem to have faded.
The reason I highlighted the phrase "Winning Right" is because that is the title of a book which I have that was written by the Republican candidate for U.S Senate in Virginia, Ed Gillespie -- Winning Right: Campaign Politics and Conservative Policies (2006). I managed to get myself to Mrs. Rowe's Restaurant [on Monday]* afternoon to see Gillespie speak to party members. It was the first time I had been to any kind of political event since the first of March. If nothing else, I was hoping to get him to sign his book for me, and in that at least I succeeded.
At [yesterday's]* event, I met two local Republican leaders for the first time: Georgia Long, the recently-elected chair of the Augusta Republican Committee, and Marshall Pattie, a member of the Board of Supervisors who plans to run for the State Senate seat currently held by Emmett Hanger.
In some ways, Gillespie is an ideal Senate candidate. He has a tremendous amount of experience in politics, having served as Republican National Chairman from July 2003 to January 2005. (I met his successor, Ken Mehlman, at a local campaign event in October 2005.) Gillespie understands how Washington works, and he is pragmatic enough to make deals when necessary.
Gillespie's downside is related to his upside: as an old Washington hand, he is vulnerable to charges of being part of the cronyism that makes our government hostage to special interests. Ironically, incumbent Senator Mark Warner has tried to exploit that factor, claiming that Gillespie's work as a lobbyist for the defunct Enron Corporation reflects on Gillespie. But as Gillespie makes clear in his book Winning Right (pages 160-162), he had nothing at all to do with Enron's bookkeeping. When the Senate Government Reform Committee issued its report on the Enron scandal, Gillespie "was barely mentioned."
Another vulnerability of Gillespie is that he once advocated using the tax code to gain univeral health care coverage (pages 245-246). It was very close to the individual insurance mandate which is the essential feature of Obamacare (and Romneycare in Massachusetts) that has caused so much controversy. He has since retreated from that position, and now pledges to vote to repeal Obamacare if elected. Good.
Overall, Gillespie's strengths far outweigh his weaknesses. The incumbent Senator Mark Warner claims to be an independent voice seeking bipartisan solutions, but that it not how the signature accomplishment of the Democratic Party -- Obamacare -- was adopted. It was rammed down our throat, via an irregular "reconciliation" process, with not a single Republican vote. I saw Senator Warner at a meeting with local businessmen in September 2010, and he had a difficult time trying to explain his support for Obamacare. He needs to be held accountable for that monstrosity.
In Sunday's Washington Post, Dan Balz observed that "Obama, the focal point for Republican criticism, was on the campaign trail but avoiding states with the most contested Senate races." It's quite a dilemma for Democrats, who are awkwardly distancing themselves from the President, and in so doing, make themselves look like unprincipled cowards.
In Kentucky, incumbent Mitch McConnell seems assured of a victory against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, whose once-promising campaign has fizzled. Her biggest sin was claiming to forget whether she voted for Barack Obama for president. Ouch! McConnell, who faced a Tea Party challenge in the primaries, is not the most appealing candidate out there, but he is sensible and right on most of the issues.
In South Dakota, the threat of Independent (and former Republican Senator) Larry Pressler has diminished, and Governor Mike Rounds (Republican) is expected to win by a comfortable margin. Pressler served in the House and then the Senate from the 1970s through the 1990s, and earned a reputation as a squeaky-clean maverick. He was the only member of Congress who flatly turned down the offer of a bribe from FBI undercover agents in the Abscam scandal of 1980.
In Kansas, dull establishment incumbent Senator Pat Roberts struggled to fend off a Tea Party challenger in the primary elections last summer, and now he is coping with an Independent candidate named Greg Orman. He has not committed himself, so if he in fact wins, he could end up caucusing with either side. The Democrats were permitted to remove their candidate's name from the ballot, in hopes of helping Orson defeat Robertson. That one is too close to call.
In Iowa, Joni Ernst has taken a lead over [Bruce] Braley in the polls. Her TV ad in which she boasts of castrating hogs while growing up on a farm, as a useful skill to deal with all the "pork barrel" spending, is amusing. "Make 'em squeal," she cheerfully says at the end. (youtube.com)
In North Carolina, incumbent Kay Hagan was expected to win easily, but her Republican challenger Thom Tillis (currently the state House Speaker) has been closing the gap.
In Colorado, Democrat incumbent Senator Mark Udall has run a mediocre campaign, while challenger, Rep. Cory Gardner, has made it a neck-and-neck race. A Colorado reporter with whom I used to work on the high school newspaper, Lynn Bartels, was recently featured on the Rachel Maddow show (MSNBC.com), discussing the Udall-Gardner race. Lynn has earned high renown in her career as a journalist, and I'm proud to have known her.
Because of state laws requiring a majority, runoff elections are expected in Louisiana, where incumbent Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu is fighting for her political life, and perhaps Georgia. So we may not know whether the Republicans will have a majority in the Senate for a few more weeks.
In the first of the two political "earthquakes" that struck Virginia last June, when State Senator Phil Puckett announced his resignation, it appeared that the Republicans were the ones playing hardball. (The other "earthquake" was when Dave Brat defeated then-Rep. Eric Cantor in the GOP primary election.) Then last month the Washington Post revealed that Governor McAuliffe (or at least his office) was engaging in negotiations of their own. More recently, we have learned that Senator Mark Warner himself was involved in trying to make a deal with Puckett, strongly suggesting improper use of a Federal office. The Gillespie campaign has rightly zeroed in on this glaring misdeed, and we'll see as the votes are counted this evening whether enough voters are paying attention to make a difference in the election.
As I mentioned on Facebook, I am not exactly an enthusiastic supporter of the Republican Party these days. All too often, the otherwise sensible "mainstream" leaders have allowed themselves to be taken in by right-wing "grass-roots" activists who are sometimes lacking in basic political sense. And as anyone who follows politics closely knows, those "grass-roots" folks are often just pawns being used by certain powerful individuals who are trying to steer the party. Eventually, most people will realize what has been going on, but in the mean time we're likely to see a lot more clamor and disruption within the party organization. It's a real shame.
But I see those problems as only indirectly related to the races for the House and Senate. I'm wary of certain hot-headed populists leading the party astray (another government shutdown?), but for now I'm confident that a Republican victory today will be a big step in the right direction.
* I finished this post after midnight on November 4, hence the confusion over today/yesterday in the original post, which has now been corrected.