TOPICS > Politics

As Election Nears, GOP Heavyweights Tout Message of Change

October 18, 2010 at 5:28 PM EDT
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With just 15 days until the midterm elections, candidates are pounding the campaign trail in hopes of getting voters to the polls on Nov. 2. Gwen Ifill talks to Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report, about the strategies being used to per sway voters.

GWEN IFILL: With Election Day closing in fast, both parties are ramping up their efforts to drive their voters to the polls, one part of the strategy, getting the political heavyweights out front and center.

SARAH PALIN (R), Former Alaska Governor: Thank you so much.

WOMAN: Thank you. God bless you.

PALIN: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: The final push for money and momentum is under way.

SARAH PALIN: Whoo! Nevada!

GWEN IFILL: Today, Sarah Palin was on the campaign trail, part of a 15-day Tea Party bus tour, rallying Republicans.

SARAH PALIN: You’re Tea Party Americans. You’re winning.


SARAH PALIN: You’re winning.


SARAH PALIN: And the left, they just don’t know what the heck to do with you or to do about you. And this is beautiful. You’re turning this country’s political landscape upside-down and inside-out. And it’s all good. It’s a beautiful thing, this grassroots movement of the people, for the people. It’s we the people again. The left just doesn’t know what to do with you, so keep up the good work. November 2 is coming.


GWEN IFILL: Yesterday, the president and first lady were in Ohio, trying to excite lagging Democrats.

MICHELLE OBAMA, first lady: The last time Barack and I campaigned together was two days before that little election, and we were right here in Ohio.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The biggest mistake we could make right now, Ohio, is to go back to the very same policies that caused all this hurt in the first place.


BARACK OBAMA: I mean, think about it for a second. It just doesn’t make sense. The — the — the other side is counting on all of you having amnesia, just forgetting what happened here. We can’t return to a philosophy that nearly destroyed our economy and decimated the middle class right here in Ohio.

And I say this not to relitigate the past. I say it because we can’t relive the past.

WOMAN: My two grand kids.

MAN: That’s right.

GWEN IFILL: In polling and fund-raising, Republicans appear to have an edge. The Wall Street Journal reported today that, in the top 10 closest Senate races and 40 most competitive House contests, Republicans have outraised Democrats by $15 million in three months.

And they’re using much of that cash to tell the flip side of the president’s story, arguing that Democrats have ruined the economy. House Republican Leader John Boehner released this new Web video today.

MAN: Do you any question more often than, where are the jobs?

WOMAN: No. That is the single most important question right now.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), House minority leader: The American people are still asking the question, where are the jobs?

GWEN IFILL: In the closest races, the candidates are getting testy. In Kentucky, Democratic Senate nominee Jack Conway is airing this critical ad targeting Republican Rand Paul.

NARRATOR: Why was Rand Paul a member of a secret society that called the Holy Bible a hoax, that was banned for mocking Christianity and Christ?

RAND PAUL (R-KY), senatorial candidate: Jack, you should be ashamed.

GWEN IFILL: Their dispute spilled over on to a debate stage this weekend.

JACK CONWAY (D-KY), senatorial candidate: He still hasn’t answered the two fundamental questions. Why did he join a group that was known for mocking Christianity and Christ. Why did he join it?

RAND PAUL: You just out-and-out lie because you have nothing to stand on. Run a race as a man. Stand up and be a man, instead of just calling me names.

GWEN IFILL: When the debate ended, Paul walked off the stage without shaking Conway’s hand.

And Arizona Senator John McCain, campaigning in California for Republican Senate nominee Carly Fiorina, took a direct shot at her opponent, who is also his Senate colleague.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-Ariz.): Barbara Boxer is the most bitterly partisan, most anti-defense senator in the United States Senate today. I know that because I have had the unpleasant experience of having to serve with her.

GWEN IFILL: As the campaign enters its final weeks, at least a dozen Senate races and 100 House races are still considered competitive.

For a closer look at those competitive races, we are joined by Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of “The Rothenberg Political Report.” So, Stu, let’s start with those 100 closest House races. Which ones are you watching most closely?

STUART ROTHENBERG, editor and Publisher, “The Rothenberg Political Report”: Well, Gwen, there are so many, I — I generally break them up into different categories.


STUART ROTHENBERG: So, we’re looking at Democratic members who are in their first or second terms, people who came in, in the waves of 2006 and 2008, haven’t seen any kind of neutral environment, let alone this kind of environment, and to see whether they can survive.

And many of them can’t and won’t. In Colorado, in Florida, in Ohio, they’re having a tough time. The second kind of category we’re looking at is some — some veterans, people who have been around a long time, who haven’t had close races in years, if ever. And now their longevity is proving to be a problem, not an asset. In many years, it’s an asset.

They brought home the bacon. They’re powerful. They’re influential. They’re senior members, John Spratt, Chet Edwards, Congressman Pomeroy from North Dakota, and Oberstar from Minnesota. These are names that are never on our lists.

And then there are a number of Democrats in the South. And these are Democratic incumbents, also Democratic open seats that opened up, open seats in Louisiana and Arkansas, for example, but also Jim Marshall in Georgia, Gene Taylor in Mississippi, who we never talk about.


STUART ROTHENBERG: These are Southern districts that have lots of conservative voters, Republican voters. And, in the past, these members have been able to personalize their races, localize them. It’s about them. They have been moderate enough to hold Republican voters.

In this cycle, those Republican voters are saying: I don’t care. Maybe we like you. Maybe we like what you’ve done in the past, but we have got to change things.

GWEN IFILL: Well, that’s what I was going to ask. Whatever happened to the thing we say every couple of years, which is, polls show people say, I don’t like Congress, but I like my congressman? That used to ensure kind of a safe incumbency.

STUART ROTHENBERG: That’s true. It’s true, except when it isn’t true, when it doesn’t work.


STUART ROTHENBERG: And it didn’t work for Republicans in 2006 and 2008. And I always point to two great examples, I think, of Republicans who were very popular in their districts, but lost, Jim Leach in 2006 in Iowa and Chris Shays in Connecticut in 2008.


STUART ROTHENBERG: And voters in those districts, after a while, in those two years, said, you know, we have to change the leadership of Congress. So, maybe we like you. Maybe we think you’re a good guy. But reelecting you does not do what we need, which is fundamental change. And Democrats are seeing that this cycle.

GWEN IFILL: We have been paying a lot of attention, obviously, to these Senate races, these statewide races. And we see a lot of the same, but about a dozen or more, more or less, seats which are really in contention. We have a map. We can take a look at them and you can walk us through…

STUART ROTHENBERG: Right, about a Democratic-held Senate seats. There are still a handful of Republican seats we are looking at.

But the Republicans have put most of their own seats away, into the bank, in Ohio, Missouri, New Hampshire, Florida looking quite solid.

So, the focus is mostly on Democratic districts, plus the Kentucky race that you mentioned.


STUART ROTHENBERG: And a number of the races that are…

GWEN IFILL: Those yellow states are the ones we’re talking about that are..

STUART ROTHENBERG: That are still crucial states…


STUART ROTHENBERG: … some of the Republicans have an advantage in, like Wisconsin, but states like Pennsylvania, West Virginia certainly absolutely up for grabs, and on the West Coast, Washington State, go down to Nevada. Colorado is a very competitive state as well.

Some of these — there are a handful of Democratic states that the Republicans need to win, two or three of these Democratic states. And I’m talking about states like Illinois, like West Virginia, either Washington or California. These are states with strong Democratic blood lines.

To get to 10 seats, the Republicans need — are going to need to win two or three of those.

GWEN IFILL: What has changed? Is it the candidates who have changed who are running for these seats? Or is it that the environment has changed, which has made these seats gettable?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Oh, it’s the environment, definitely.

In fact, some of the candidates the Republicans have are making it harder for them to win these states. But, no, the fundamental shift is the environment. Voters who wanted change in 2006, 2008 still want change, but now the Republican Party has become the party of change.

And it’s interesting. Looking at the package that we opened with, the president is talking, do you want to go back? Well, if you look at national polling, first of all, people do — don’t blame the president primarily for the current economic circumstances.

On the other hand, they think that, if they vote Republican, they won’t be going back. They will be getting something different. But if they vote Democratic, they will be getting more of Barack Obama’s economic policies. And those policies haven’t turned things around.

GWEN IFILL: Well, and, in fact, I wonder if that’s what is driving so much of the discussion, not only the president’s campaigning schedule, but also what we have seen in the Rust Belt and the Great Lakes states, where so many of these tossups are.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Exactly. Take a state like Wisconsin, which again has been a reasonably good Democratic state.

GWEN IFILL: Russ Feingold.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Russ Feingold, long-term Democratic incumbent — longtime — known as a kind of quirky independent Democrat. His longevity is now a problem.

And Republicans are saying, look, you want change? If you really want change, even Russ Feingold has got to go. And they have a candidate, Ron Johnson, who is a businessman, never run for office before. He is extremely good at articulating a message of change.

GWEN IFILL: How dangerous is it in — especially in House districts in these kinds of vulnerable places, how dangerous is it to be pegged as a Pelosi Democrat, after the House speaker?

STUART ROTHENBERG: It’s a huge problem, particularly in the South. The South is where Democratic pollsters tell me they’re really worried about the surge of voters.

GWEN IFILL: For instance?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Oh, Travis Childers in the 1st District of Mississippi, Bobby Bright Alabama, Jim Marshall in Georgia’s 8th Congressional District.

If you’re in the South and if there is a drop-off in the African-American vote — and Democrats are concerned about young voters and African-American voters dropping off after 2008 — you combine that with independents voting Republican and a surge, strong turnout among conservatives and Republicans, you have got big problems.

GWEN IFILL: Flip side, does it help to linked, if you are one of these Republicans, to Sarah Palin or to John Boehner, if anyone knows who he is?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, I don’t think it helps to be linked to either one necessarily.

I was amused — or confused, actually — when the president went after John Boehner a number of weeks ago, because people just don’t know who he is.


STUART ROTHENBERG: And so setting him up as the straw man, as the opponent, seemed to me to be a strange kind of strategy.

No, I think the Democrats are trying to get mileage out of this idea that the Republicans have nominated extreme candidates, but also kooky candidates. So, what we saw in Kentucky, with Rand Paul being attacked, whether you believe the attack or not, it is a very strong attack about character and integrity and values.

And we are seeing this in a number of districts, both state races and congressional — House races around the country.

GWEN IFILL: Stu, welcome back. We will see you election night.


GWEN IFILL: It’s going to be a long night.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Thank you. I hope so.