TOPICS > Politics

Senate Races in South Gain Momentum as Election Nears

September 20, 2006 at 5:10 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: To take control of the Senate, where Republicans now enjoy a 10-seat majority, Democrats would have to pick up six seats on Election Day. While the polls are constantly shifting, the 10 races that appear to us right now to be most competitive are: two in New England, Rhode Island and Connecticut; two mid-Atlantic states, New Jersey and Pennsylvania; two in the South, Virginia and Tennessee; two in the Midwest, Ohio and Missouri; and two in the West, Montana and Washington State.

Tonight, we’ll look at two of those in more detail. But first, for a national overview, we turn to Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

And, Stu, welcome back.

STUART ROTHENBERG, Editor, Rothenberg Political Report: Thanks.

MARGARET WARNER: When you were here two weeks ago, you said you saw a national wave developing that was affecting these Senate races that was beneficial to Democrats. Has that continued? Has anything changed in the last two weeks?

STUART ROTHENBERG: I don’t see any evidence that there’s been a dramatic change, Margaret. It’s still about a mood for change, people dissatisfied with the direction of the country, the performance of Congress, and the performance of the president.

Of course, there has been a survey within the last couple days, USA Today-Gallup, that suggested that there was a surge, a Republican surge. We’ve had a lot of talk about a Republican surge. I have been cautioning for weeks, months, even years, it seems, for people not to overreact to a single survey.

If we see further evidence, two or three other surveys suggesting the president’s numbers are moving up, fine, but I just wouldn’t overreact. I don’t think that at this point we can say there’s been a dramatic change.

MARGARET WARNER: And so how are the Democrats going about trying to take advantage of this, say, dissatisfaction with the president? Does there seem to be a national playbook that these Senate candidates in these competitive races are following?

STUART ROTHENBERG: In race after race, they are seeking to link the president with the Republican candidate, Republican senator, in most cases. They’re doing it in ads with photographs of the president, arm in arm, when they can. If they can’t, they simply talk about Senator Michael DeWine and the Bush agenda or the like. Over and over again, it’s an attempt to make this election a referendum on George W. Bush and on change.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. And so what are the Republicans doing then to defend against that? Again, is there sort of a national playbook or is it race-by-race?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Yes, there is a national playbook, and I think it is localize or, in cruder terminology, beat the stuffing out of your opponent. And in this case, it is making the opponent the issue.

So in Ohio again, for example, both the DeWine campaign, and the Republican Senate Campaign Committee, and the Republican National Committee have been beating up Sherrod Brown arguing he’s a liberal, he’s too liberal for the state.

So it’s not a question so much of, boy, the voters have got to love Mike DeWine. Some voters may indeed love Mike DeWine, but it’s a choice that the Republicans are trying to force.

And you may recall that Ken Mehlman has been talking for a long time about a referendum versus a choice, that if it’s a referendum, the Republicans are in trouble. If it’s a choice, they do much better. They’re trying to make it choices in individual races.

MARGARET WARNER: Are the Republican candidates going so far as to really run away from George Bush? Is it that overt?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, they talk about their independence an awful lot. They emphasize how they have not always seen eye-to-eye with the president or their party. They’re talking in some cases — Jim Talent all the time talks about how he works with Democrats, reaches across the aisle. This is very commonplace.

MARGARET WARNER: And certainly very different than, say, in ’04 or ’02?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Oh, you know, if you do this long enough, it’s like the teams change jerseys, they change uniforms, but they run the same plays. I’ve seen this over and over again. And often I’ve seen the Democrats trying to distance themselves from an incumbent president.

It’s the nature of the race. Look, these are professional campaign consultants and operatives who are running races. They’ve learned lessons from previous cycles, and they’re trying to apply them now.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, now, money. Usually Republicans have a huge money advantage.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, the Democrats, I think, have done a very good job this cycle in cutting into that advantage. And if you compare the campaign committees, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee versus the Republican Senate Campaign Committee, the DSCC has done a bang-up job.

Democrats, I think, are going to be better funded this time. There are 527 outside groups. The Republicans — you know, there are lots of ways to look at money. You have to look at the candidates. You have to look at the national party committees, the congressional party committees…

MARGARET WARNER: Where the Republicans still have an advantage.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Right, right. So, overall, there’s more Republican dollars than Democratic dollars, but I think the Republican financial advantage has been eroded this cycle. The Democrats have done a good job raising money.

MARGARET WARNER: And on advertising, are they spending this money heavily on advertising yet? Are voters already be deluged with political ads?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Yes, absolutely. I mean, in some places, Montana, months ago there were ads running. And now we’re at the point where voters are seeing ads in virtually every state. We’re seeing aggressive ads, not just the early name I.D. ads.

Absolutely. This is still about TV advertising. We hear a lot about the organization and knocking on doors, and that’s important. But most campaign money gets spent on TV advertising, and it’s happening around the country.

Midterm elections in Virginia

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Stu, thanks. We'll try to get back to you.

But now, a closer look at the two competitive Senate races in the South. First, to the Commonwealth of Virginia. There, the Republican candidate is first-term incumbent Senator George Allen. The Democrat is James Webb, former secretary of the Navy.

And for the latest on this race, we turn to Mark Rozell, professor of public policy at George Mason University.

Mark Rozell, welcome.

MARK ROZELL, George Mason University: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, how does the race stack up right now between Allen and Webb?

MARK ROZELL: Well, the latest polling data show that it's a very, very tight race, with George Allen perhaps with a slight lead, but most of the polls show a statistical tie. Now, that's a real big surprise, because George Allen is a very popular senator, popular former governor, longstanding tenure in Virginia politics for many years, and very few people expected this to be the close race that it has become today.

But events, of course, changed a lot of that, particularly a campaign gaffe, the kind of thing that campaign consultants absolutely hate to see their candidate do, one of these spontaneous moments that the candidate should not have allowed to have happen.

MARGARET WARNER: You're talking about George Allen here?

MARK ROZELL: George Allen in this case, who was then in a pretty, you know, good position, had a substantial lead in the polls and a huge lead in money in this campaign, as well. And now we have a very tightened-up race, in large part because of that one event.

MARGARET WARNER: And you're talking about the one event where he called the campaign aide who worked for Jim Webb at his event "Macaca."

MARK ROZELL: Yes, right. And some have alleged that this is a racial slur. George Allen has said he didn't know what the word meant, that it just kind of came out. He was referring to the young man's haircut, which looked like a Mohawk, but it came out "Macaca." Now a lot of other people saying they don't really believe that explanation.

But the problem for George Allen is he's been spending the past month explaining himself and explaining himself and constantly on the defensive.

MARGARET WARNER: Give us a quick thumbnail sketch for people who haven't watched the race perhaps as closely as we have in Washington of each of these candidates.

MARK ROZELL: OK. George Allen, the incumbent senator, a lot of people were talking about him as a potential presidential candidate in 2008, but now he's in the race for his political life.

Jim Webb, the former secretary of the Navy for Ronald Reagan, a former Republican, actually, who had endorsed George Allen for Senate in year 2000, and multi-decorated war hero, best-selling author, playwright, you know, somewhat of a celebrity in his own right, but a first-time candidate for a public office.

And what was interesting is a lot of people didn't know what kind of campaign this guy, Jim Webb, would run as a novice politician. And he's turned out to be a pretty good candidate. So we've ended up with a much closer race than anybody had expected going into this election.

MARGARET WARNER: And George Allen has a little bit of stardom in his background, too.


MARGARET WARNER: His father was a very well-known figure in at least Northern Virginia.

MARK ROZELL: Yes, that's right. Of course, he's the son of the famed former coach of the Washington Redskins. And so that certainly has brought him some very positive repute in Virginia, given that background, that family name.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, are they any -- other than the personal gaffes -- and Jim -- well, let's talk about -- Jim Webb has also had something to explain in the last couple of weeks.

MARK ROZELL: Well, that's right. Some people have gone back and seen some of his past writings and, in particular, a 1979 article in which he had written that women should not be admitted to the Naval Academy where he had been teaching at the time. And some women who were then students at the academy have alleged that this created an environment of hostility toward women.

And some of the things he wrote in the article were clearly over-the-top and, in this day and age, would get a candidate booted out of an election campaign. But he said, "Well, this was the equivalent of a youthful indiscretion. It was almost 30 years ago."

The Iraq war

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you have one candidate, the Republican, the incumbent, who voted for the war. And as you said, you have in Jim Webb a decorated veteran and former secretary of the Navy. Virginia is also quite a big military state, given the Pentagon, given all the bases down in Newport News.

How is the Iraq war playing? And to what degree is it dominating, to the degree any issues are?

MARK ROZELL: Well, it's been a big issue in this campaign, as it is throughout the country. And if you've watched some of the debates, the candidates talked quite a good deal about the Iraq war and their differences between one another, particularly the "Meet the Press" debate last Sunday, in which George Allen was pretty much on the defensive, trying to explain his support for the war, his support for President Bush, which as Stu was pointing out, in this current environment of a Democratic surge, not a very good place for a Republican incumbent to be.

And then Jim Webb trying to explain how he thinks the war was a mistake and how the United States should be trying to get involved with some of the other major players in the Middle East to take over this role in the future.

MARGARET WARNER: And finally, also George Allen in the last few days has been explaining something else having to do with his mother's background.

MARK ROZELL: Yes. Well, yes, this came up in the next debate that happened the following day, in which a reporter had asked George Allen a question about his possible Jewish heritage. And George Allen took offense to the question that this was somehow casting aspersion on his religiosity...

MARGARET WARNER: That was the word he used.

MARK ROZELL: ... his religious background. That's the word he used. And the reporter really didn't intend it to be a casting of aspersion on this at all.

But what ultimately happened in this particular case is it was revealed --and George Allen acknowledged for the first time that he does have Jewish roots in his background. And a lot of people are wondering why he didn't know that before. I really don't think this is a big campaign issue, to be quite candid.

MARGARET WARNER: And very briefly, are they pretty equal in money or does Allen have the advantages as an incumbent?

MARK ROZELL: Well, as I understand it, the next campaign report comes out October 15th, so we don't know what that says. But up until this point, George Allen has had a very substantial advantage in campaign fundraising.

The Tennessee Senate race

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Mark Rozell, thank you.

Now, for the second competitive southern Senate race, and it's in Tennessee, for an open seat, due to the retirement of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

The Republican candidate is former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker. The Democrat is Harold Ford, a five-term congressman from Memphis. For a closer look at this race, we turn to Bruce Oppenheimer, professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. And he joins us from Nashville.

Bruce Oppenheimer, welcome. How does this race stack up right now?

BRUCE OPPENHEIMER, Professor, Vanderbilt University: Well, I think, to the surprise of a lot of people nationally, this race is now neck-and-neck. Polls done at the end of August and early in September show that it's within one or two points either way. And I think that surprises a lot of people.

MARGARET WARNER: And give us the same kind of brief thumbnail sketch of each candidate and what kind of candidate they are.

BRUCE OPPENHEIMER: Harold Ford is a five-term congressman from Memphis who's 36 years old. He got elected to the House of Representatives at age 26, replacing his father.

He is a Blue Dog Democrat. He comes from a district which is a majority minority district. He's an African-American candidate who takes a range of, I'd say, pragmatic views, and some of them quite socially conservative views. Nevertheless, the Republicans are trying to label him as a liberal.

The Republican candidate, Bob Corker, most recently was mayor of Chattanooga. He ran in the Senate primary against Bill Frist in 1994. He later served in the Finance Department in the state administration, and his longer- term career is as a successful businessman who made money in the construction business. And he's very prosperous, was able late in the contested Republican primary to dump $2.25 million of his own money into the campaign.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, watching it from the distance, we read a lot about Harold Ford's charisma and how he's going into a lot of non-traditional areas for a Democrat to go to in Tennessee. Is there a noticeable difference in their campaign styles?

BRUCE OPPENHEIMER: Yes. I think Harold Ford has a broader repertoire as a politician. He's more comfortable with it, more comfortable on the media. He has a presence when he walks into a room that I think serves him very well.

It's not to say that Bob Corker isn't a successful politician or without political skills, but Harold Ford is somewhat of the same mold of a Barack Obama -- he actually comes on the political scene earlier than Barack Obama -- and is not what you'd think of in sort of the very different than, let's say, the Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton mold of a Democratic African-American candidate.

Key issues

MARGARET WARNER: And what about issues in this race? Is Iraq as big an issue as, say, it is in Virginia?

BRUCE OPPENHEIMER: I think it's not as big an issue as yet. If you go on Bob Corker's Web site, you cannot even find a mention of Iraq, as far as I could tell. But on Iraq, he has basically supported administration position. He says it is not a civil war yet; he says he would not fire the secretary of defense.

On the other hand, Harold Ford, who is against a timetable for withdrawal, has said that he favors sort of a tripartite governing of Iraq, I think very similar to the position advocated by Senator Biden.

MARGARET WARNER: But I did notice that Ford did have already one ad, I think, talking about the number of Americans killed in Iraq and being critical of the current prime minister of Iraq. Is Ford trying to use the Iraq war to tie Corker to the president and to a, quote, unquote, "failed" policy? Is he making that kind of centerpiece?

BRUCE OPPENHEIMER: I think it's part of an overall set of media buys he's done which each emphasize a different set of issues: education, energy, homeland security, military sorts of issues. And on each of those issues, he's sort of emphasizing that he's of a new generation of leadership.

So it is critical of the Bush administration without overtly often mentioning the Bush administration. And I think that's been his attack. I suspect in the debates, which are upcoming -- there are going to be three debates -- that he's likely to go more directly at an effort to tie Bob Corker to the administration.

On the other hand, Corker's strategy has been one which has largely, with the exception of mentioning immigration recently and attacking Ford as a liberal, has been largely one which has de-emphasized issues. His main commercial that he's had out in recent weeks shows him in front of a bridge which he helped build when he was a young man, and poured concrete, and he talks about, "I'm a successful businessman." It really is not very issue-composed.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Bruce Oppenheimer, thank you.

And, Stuart Rothenberg, back to you. A cautionary note here: What does history tell us about how good a predictor the state of play in, say, tight Senate races in September is of what's going to happen on Election Day?

STUART ROTHENBERG: It tells us we'd better expect change or be prepared for change. Events could happen between now and November. The president's standing could rise or fall. There could be something happen internationally and in the individual race that we don't know about.

And in terms of these two races -- just to give you an example, given what Mark said about the closeness of Virginia, I agree -- a month ago, six weeks ago, we had that as almost a safe Republican race. We then moved it to clear advantage. Now it's narrow advantage.

Tennessee, we are expecting Corker to unload on Harold Ford and change the dynamics. But if it doesn't, this race could go down to the wire. Events really matter in these races.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. And we'll be watching. Stuart Rothenberg, Mark Rozell, and Bruce Oppenheimer, thank you all.