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A View from the Starting Gate: The 2008 Campaign

WDPAC Insider's Bulletin

As the 2008 Congressional election cycle matures, now is a good time to make a quick scan of the political environment and describe the starting point at which both parties and their candidates will begin the coming marathon. The Democrats no doubt like what they now see.

After the dust settled from the 2006 mid-term Congressional shootout, it was clear that the then-Republican majorities were fatally wounded by political buckshot fired from a triple-barreled shotgun: Iraq, economic anxiety, and corruption. Little if anything has changed: although the GOP has gained some political ground in the wake of General Petreus’ report, the war in Iraq remains a major issue for them. The apparent economic anxieties of middle income Americans, driven largely by wage growth that is outpaced by rising healthcare, energy and education costs, have not abated. And “corruption” or at least “ethics” remain on the front pages of many newspapers. Indeed, the fallout over the strangely infamous firings of seven United States Attorneys that provided the final shove out the door for former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales may have been a factor in the announced retirement of a senior Republican U.S. Senator. Ethics/legal issues will drive another senior Republican Senator from office, quite possibly before his current term ends. And the political fortunes and future of yet another powerful Republican Senator is seriously threatened by an ongoing FBI investigation.

When it comes to the U.S. Senate, even a neutral political environment would spell trouble for the Republicans for the simple reason that they must defend 22 of the 34 seats up next fall. Five Republican Senators have already announced their retirements (Senators Allard (CO), Craig (ID), Domenici (NM), Hagel (NE) and Warner (VA)), and it is possible that number will grow. Thus far, no Democratic incumbent has announced his/her voluntary departure. Of the five open GOP seats, only one currently seems certain to remain in Republican hands. Worse yet, five Republican Senators who are or at least appear to be running for re-election will find themselves in highly competitive races.

The Democrats face no such troubles: of the 12 incumbent Democratic Senators who are or, again, appear to be running for re-election, just one seems likely to face a credible challenge.

The early odds clearly point to an expansion of the Democrats’ current two-seat majority in Congress’ upper chamber, with the $64,000 question being “how many?” Democrats need to net a nine seat pickup to reach the filibuster-proof 60 vote majority. Even if the Republicans can hold the Democrats below that “magic” number, they are assured of future relevance in the Federal legislative process only if they can prevent any GOP Senators from defecting on key votes. It is likely that the balance of power in the Senate will be more lopsided than it has been in 30 years.

The prognosis for GOP electoral success in the 2008 Congressional elections doesn’t really improve … at least not at first glance … when one looks at the House of Representatives, where the Republicans need to net a gain of 16 seats to recapture the six-term majority they lost in 2006.

Make no mistake: the Democrats’ House majority cannot be described as “safe” in ’08 … what frequently gets lost in all the conversation about President Bush’s anemic approval rating is the reality that approval of Congress is even lower than the President’s – a recent poll showed approval of Congress at an all-time low of only 11 percent. In light of that reality, that 125 House Members won their 2006 races with 60 percent of the vote or less cannot be overlooked in attempting to handicap upcoming House races. Republican hopes are clearly fanned by the basic arithmetic … if anti-incumbent sentiment is burning through 2008 into next fall, the Democrats have more to lose simply because there are more of them.

As one drills down into the competitiveness of House races at this point, however, the math takes on a different hue. There appear to be approximately three dozen Republican-held seats in some degree of vulnerability, about a half-dozen more than the Democrats have at risk. And the number of highly vulnerable Democrat-held seats (a dozen) does not appear to be large enough to topple the Democratic majority even were the Republicans to win them all and hold all of their own highly vulnerable seats (+/- 20). Obviously, the odds of the Republicans sweeping all of the highly vulnerable Democratic seats or of the GOP holding all of their own vulnerable seats are not even remotely realistic.

What cannot be known at this point is what effect the race for the White House will have on these “down ticket” races. While the Democratic race continues to feature eight candidates, the race seems to be gaining clarity as New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s lead both in national and early primary and caucus state polls widens. Senator Clinton tops 50 percent in recent polls against all opponents. Even in ratings of personal attributes over 50 percent of likely Democratic voters say she “best represents the core values” of the Democratic Party. She falls short only when judged on personal honesty and trustworthiness.

Senator Clinton is a highly polarizing figure, and the clarity that appears to be emerging in the polls for the Democratic presidential nomination cannot now be seen as generating real momentum for the general election contest in November 2008: some Democrats worry that her candidacy may generate a greater sense of urgency and enthusiasm among the GOP faithful.

The Republican race for president remains crowded with nine candidates on the stage. In fact, the GOP ranks of presidential candidates recently grew with the addition of former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson not only to the race but to the campaign’s top tier of candidates. As the addition of Senator Thompson suggests, the GOP presidential contest is far from decided. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani continues to lead in national polls, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney continues to lead polling in early primary and caucus states, and Senator Thompson is consistently among the frontrunners despite a campaign that is, at least in formal terms, only weeks old. Beyond that, the campaign of Arizona Senator John McCain has stopped its precipitous slide and appears to be moving up, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee is showing some new-found strength, particularly in Iowa (the first caucus state), and Texas Congressman Ron Paul continues to surprise observers with his internet-based fundraising strength.

Against this backdrop, we are still far from being able to even guess at how, let alone the extent to which presidential “coattails” will affect races for the Senate and House of Representatives. What we do know is that the outcome of the 2008 Congressional races will have profound policy consequences for wholesaler-distributors in the 111th Congress and beyond. As was indicated in this column when analyzing the 2006 elections and looking forward to the ’08 cycle:

“Effectively engaging the 2008 elections on behalf of the wholesale distribution industry will require WDPAC (the Wholesaler-Distributor Political Action Committee) to raise … and spend … an unprecedented amount of money over the coming two year cycle. The prospective retirements of several Senators, particularly on the Republican side, could serve to make the battle for the Senate the most competitive in memory, and WDPAC will need to have the resources to generously participate in an unusually large number of Senate races. Beyond needing resources to ‘play’ in races for the 75 House seats referenced above (editor’s note: those in which the current incumbent won with 55 percent of the vote or less), WDPAC will need to contribute financially in another 50 competitive House races where the 2006 winner polled between 55 percent and 60 percent of the vote.”

More specifically, for the remainder of 2007 and through the first nine months of 2008, WDPAC needs to raise at least double what was raised in the first nine months of 2007. That means we need to raise a minimum of $150,000 in personal, voluntary contributions that may be contributed to WDPAC-endorsed candidates for Federal office in 2008. We urgently need your help to succeed because the executive personnel of wholesale distribution companies are the only sources of those funds.

Please watch your mailbox for opportunities to help and respond by making your contribution to WDPAC as generous as you possibly can.