Monthly Archive for October, 2009

What an end: Conservatives triumph as Scozzafava withdraws

Once the heavy favorite to win NY-23’s special election, Dede Scozzafava will not be the district’s next representative. Plagued by the collapse of her poll numbers, by a lack of funds and by her inability to respond to hard-hitting ads attacking her, the Republican nominee took the stunning move of suspending her campaigns just 3 days before Election Day!

For weeks, conservative activists insisted they would not mind if Owens won; as long as they managed to prevent Scozzafava from winning, they would have succeeded in sending a message to the GOP establishment. As such, they got just what they wanted: No matter what happens on Tuesday, Scozzafava’s demise will be remembered as an unlikely conservative triumph, embolden the hard-right and put establishment-backed candidates - from Charlie Crist to Kelly Ayotte - on notice.

But in her last act as a candidate, Scozzafava chose to help her tormentors score an outright victory. In a two-way race, it’s tough to see Bill Owens’s path for victory  - and this for a very simple reason: Most voters who had remained faithful to Scozzafava were Republicans rather than independents. The latest Research 2000 and Siena polls (both of which have Hoffman trailing Owens by just 1%) show 34% and 29% of Republicans opting for Scozzafava compared to only 11% and 15% of independents.

As such, when wondering where Scozzafava’s voters will go, we are talking first and foremost about Republican voters, a group that gave Barack Obama a 25% approval rating in the Research 2000 poll. Those voters are more likely to move to Hoffman’s camp than to cross over to the Democratic Party.

Democrats are left hoping that Scozzafava’s voters will be repulsed by Hoffman’s conservatism and run to Owens; but that hope is hard to reconcile with the simple fact that Hoffman has been dominating both of his rivals among independents - i.e. a group of moderate voters that gave Barack Obama a positive approval rating in the Research 2000 poll. (Hoffman received 47% in Research 2000 and 40% in Siena.)

Scozzafava’s might be ideologically to Hoffman’s left, but that was not reflected in their respective electoral coalitions. That means we cannot treat the former’s voters are centrists who will split equally between the two remaining contenders. Now that he is both a third-party candidate and de facto GOP nominee, Hoffman should win a large majority of Republican voters while also strengthening his hold among independents.

Owens’s saving grace could be the fact that Scozzafava’s name will still appear on the ballot. Given how late she announced her decision, that many voters have seen her ads and received her mailers, I would be surprised if she receives less than 10% of the vote. Since she will appear as the GOP nominee, I would expect many of those who stick by her to be Republican voters, which could be a major obstacle for Hoffman.

Whatever happens on Tuesday, conservatives will be embolden

Does that mean Republicans should rejoice? Since Scozzafava’s withdrawal, most of the GOP establishment - including the RNC and NRCC - have jumped on the Hoffman bandwagon while those who were on it from the start, like Sarah Palin, are celebrating their victory. Newt Gingrich is a rare holdout refusing to walk back his endorsement for Scozzafava. He told the New York Times:

This makes life more complicated from the standpoint of this: If we get into a cycle where every time one side loses, they run a third-party candidate, we’ll make Pelosi speaker for life and guarantee Obama’s re-election… I think we are going to get into a very difficult environment around the country if suddenly conservative leaders decide they are going to anoint people without regard to local primaries and local choices.

Gingrich’s characterization of the dispute is somewhat flawed. What conservatives have been upset about in many races  is the lack of local choice: They blame national Republican leaders for anointing establishment candidates - not all of them moderates, for instance Charlie Crist, Kelly Ayotte, Jane Norton, Roy Blunt and Carly Fiorina. (Among major Senate candidates, only Rob Portman looks to have mostly escaped base discontentment.)

But Gingrich’s overall point remains a valid one, and you can be sure many Republicans are thinking the same thing. With a blueprint for victory, conservatives will be emboldened in their quest to beat back the candidates favored by establishment; the Club for Growth will point to NY-23 as its highest-profile triumph; and it will be much harder to accuse these forces of playing spoiler when Hoffman so dramatically vanquished Scozzafava.

This should first and foremost be a problem for the GOP insofar as primaries go: It’s hard to see how Sean Mahoney mounting as strong a Senate campaign as Kelly Ayotte. But the “extremists are taking over the party!” argument shouldn’t be taken too far:  There were many dire warnings about Democrats setting themselves up to lose independents when Ned Lamont beat Joe Lieberman in the summer of 2006, and we know what happened just 3 months later.

What is so different in NY-23 is that conservatives explicitly said they couldn’t care less if the GOP lost - a major difference with Connecticut, where liberals were trying to win within the Democratic Party. While Lieberman ran as an independent to save his personal career, here conservatives formed a third-party bid to advance their ideological cause at the obvious risk of hurting the party to which they’re often affiliated.

While third-party candidates are rarely a factor, part of the reason is that so few attract media and donor attention. The post-Hoffman landscape could be very different, and at the moment we cannot rule out a movement to get conservative candidates to bypass the GOP’s nominating process all around the country.

Needless to say, the proliferation of 3-way races - Democrat, Republican, conservative - would be a nightmare for the GOP.

(Sure, NY-23’s intraparty fight might not help Democrats, but this special election’s occurred in special circumstances that will rarely be duplicated. First, it took place in an electoral vacuum, which means it monopolized conservative attention. Second, Scozzafava’s record was uncommonly easy to characterize as liberal; how many Republicans have cast a vote to legalize gay marriage? And third, her decision to withdraw is one few trailing candidates take.)

While the race is still competitive, the NRCC is now more likely than not to keep NY-23 - but you can bet some Republican officials would have rather lost the seat than defend it through such a nightmarish sequence, one that will leave a durable mark on the GOP.

In California, Gavin Newsom leaves Jerry Brown in control

So much for the all-out, high-stakes primary that was supposed to pit California’s most prominent Democrats for a chance to be the state’s next governor. Yet, they’ve one by one left the field.

Senator Diane Feinstein or Treasurer Bill Lockyer never even tried to create any buzz; Rep. Loretta Sanchez announced she’d run for re-election; Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi dropped out to enter CA-10’s special election (he should be elected to Congress this coming Tuesday); Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was widely expected to jump in, but he oped out shortly after winning a second term; and today, San Fransisco Mayor Gavin Newsom sent an e-mail to his supporters announcing his withdrawal.

And just like that, Jerry Brown is the last man standing. With still 8 months to go before the primary, he has gained full control of the Democratic nomination. If a new contender were to enter the race today, he’d be rather late fundraising and infrastructure building-wise; only Feinstein would be in a position to immediately endanger Brown.

Newsom’s letter presents his decision as a personal one (”with a young family and responsibilities at city hall, I have found it impossible to commit the time required to complete this effort”), but there is no question that the primary reason he is withdrawing is Brown’s insurmountable strength. It’s not that Newsom thought the Attorney General would be easy to defeat; it would be foolish to think of a two term-governor in the 1970s, a former presidential candidate and a former Mayor of Oakland as anything but a formidable political force. But few expected Brown to be quite so dominating.

The man, after all, has his critics. Bill Clinton, with whom he shared very tense moments during the 1992 primaries, had endorsed Newsom, who was hoping to count from strong support (electorally but also financially) from the Bay Area. Also, should Brown’s longevity not play against him at some point? He has occupied so many posts, been at the center of state politics for so many decades that one would think he would see his support erode - especially in a state like California where the political class is largely discredited.

And yet, Brown has been in control of all polls that have been released, and Newsom has had to face not only widening margins (he trailed 47% to 27% in the latest Field poll) but also the realization that he faced a massive demographic challenge: Thanks to his Northern California connections, Brown was highly competitive in the Bay Area while crushing his rival in SoCal. Furthermore, Newsom was facing quite a stark fundraising gap, which was obviously a huge obstacle given California’s size and expensive markets.

Newsom was also plagued by weak general election numbers in some polls, which found him significantly underperforming compared to Brown. The perception of a clear electability gap was not helping him convince donors to contribute and elected officials to endorse him.

I doubt it’s a good thing for California that the state’s dominant party will select its nominee with little competition. Neither does it look like it should be the most exciting news for progressives: While there were no clear ideological fault lines between Brown and Newsom, The American Prospect’s must-read September story on Brown’s gubernatorial days and his responsibility in Prop 13’s passage and implementation highlighted the fact that there are questions surrounding his economic outlook that he should have to answer. Yet, Newsom’s withdrawal means Brown won’t have to offer many specifics for the struggling state, let alone be held accountable to its many liberal voters, until next summer.

As such, Newsom’s decision is quite good news for Brown. Not only because he is now the presumptive Democratic nominee, but also because this should help his general election prospects. The Attorney General gets to save millions of dollars he would have used in the lead-up to the primary, which should allow him to pummel whoever emerges of the GOP primary in June (while Whitman and Poizner can always self-fund, their 3-way race with DeVoreCampbell promises to be so brutal that it should burn up much of the resources they’re willing to invest).

Also, Brown will enter the general election with his reputation intact, whereas he would likely have taken some powerful hits in a primary against Newsom (especially if Clinton had gotten involved).

On the other hand, it would have been a good rehearsal for Brown to have to come up with specific prescriptions for California’s dire situation before having to face a Republican. Also, Brown should worry about fading out of the public view in the springtime. A race against Newsom would have allowed him to stay in the news (without facing much pressure given his advantages over the mayor) and get a wave of favorable stories once he vanquished his opponent; now, he’ll have to fight for media coverage while Whitman, Poizner and DeVoreCampbell monopolize the airwaves in the lead-up to their June primary.

Governor’s races: Heather Wilson will not run, Andre Bauer makes his move

Believe it or not, there is some electoral news this week that does not concern New Jersey, New York and Virginia: Heather Wilson’s announcement that she will not run for Governor next year is a crucial development, since it increases Democrats’ prospects of holding on to New Mexico’s governorship while shuffling up the Republican primary.

Not only have Democrats long already lined up Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish as their presumptive nominee (in fact, Denish thought she would run as the incumbent since incumbent Governor Bill Richardson was supposed to be appointed to Barack Obama’s Cabinet until ethical questions forced him to step down) but New Mexico has been trending blue: Few states swung as dramatically in 2008, with Obama scoring a double-digit victory and Tom Udall cruising to an easy triumph in a Senate race the GOP was never able to contest.

That’s to say that Republicans were not going to have it easy in next year’s gubernatorial race even if they had fielded their top candidate - and Wilson’s withdrawal takes care of that possibility: Until she lost a Senate primary to Pearce last year, Wilson was as battle-tested a Republican as any, since she had survived multiple Democratic assaults on her swing district (NM-01). Combined with her name recognition, her record of appealing to independents would have made an interesting get for the GOP.

All of this said, Wilson would have come to the race with her own glaring problems. Beyond potentially facing a conservative challenge in the primary, she would have taken the GOP back to an era it’s trying to forget, especially given her connections to the U.S. Attorney’s scandal that agitated New Mexico politics more than that of other states. Testifying to the possibility that Wilson was no longer electable given her involvement in the GOP debacle that was the 2008 Senate race, a springtime DGA poll has her trailing Denish by 22%.

As such, her exit might be an opportunity for Republicans to see whether new faces might have better luck turning the page of the Bush years - and the exit of such a heavyweight should allow other politicians to stay or jump in the race: State Rep. Janice Arnold-Jones and Dona Ana County District Attorney Susana Martinez are already running, an former state party chairman Allan Weh has formed an exploratory committee.

Of these, Martinez is attracting the most attention as a potentially highly competitive general election nominee. For one, she is a Hispanic woman, which might help the GOP address a big reason it’s falling behind in New Mexico: The combination of demographic transformations and of the party’s unpopularity among Latinos. Second, she has been a District Attorney in the state’s second biggest county since 1996, winning three terms. Third, she is relatively moderate, which should help her in the general election of a blue state; in fact, she was a Democrat until the early 1990s.

Of course, Martinez’s moderate profile should also mean trouble in the Republican primary, so we’ll have to watch what happens there. That contest will be held in June.

In other gubernatorial news, Bauer makes his move

No one doubted that South Carolina Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer would enter the open Governor’s race, but his weird offer to Governor Mark Sanford (’I won’t run in 2010 if you agree to resign’) had raised eyebrows as to what exactly Bauer was up to. There are now no more question marks: Bauer has started to file paperwork in preparation for a gubernatorial campaign.

Bauer’s move means two things. First, the Republican primary will be even more confusing and complicated than it already is: There are now 5 candidates who could have a shot at winning especially given how small a share of the vote is needed in such a crowded field: Besides Bauer are running Rep. Greshman Barrett, Attorney General Henry McMaster, state Rep. Nikki Haley and state Senator Larry Grooms.

Second, Bauer’s entry ensures that much of the primary debate gets framed around Sanford’s legacy since he is viewed as one of the Governor’s leading political rivals.

In fact, the multiplication of candidates who are positioning themselves in opposition to Sanford (Barrett had called for his resignation over the summer, McMaster has also distanced himself) could give Haley an opening: If she can coalesce whatever share of South Carolina Republicans are still supportive of their governor, it could give her a large enough plurality to clinch victory. (Update: A commenter points out that the primary will be decided by a runoff if no candidate receives 50%, so this analysis does not hold. At least coalescing pro-Stanford voters could help Haley to the runoff?)

Of course, the primary’s stakes will be high because the winner will start the general election as the clear favorite: Democrats might nominate a credible candidate of their own (Superintendent of Education Jim Rex is running, as well as two state Senators) but South Carolina has drifted rightward enough that the GOP will have a clear edge.

For the first time, a public poll shows Scozzafava in 3rd place

I’ve spent the past two days wondering whether conservatives are bluffing in acting like Dede Scozzafava had become irrelevant: are they genuinely convinced that Bill Owens is their only worthy opponent or are they trying to convince the media of that?

We didn’t have to wait that long to get a response: Earlier today, we learned about the very first poll to find the Republican nominee falling in third position - and not just by a small margin: Research 2000 has Scozzafava at 21%, trailing both of her rivals by double-digits! Just as shocking is that Hoffman is now almost tied with Owens: the Democratic nominee gets 33%, the Conservative Party nominee 32%.

That’s quite a turnaround from the Research 2000 poll released last week: Owens was at 35%, Scozzafava at 30% and Hoffman at 23%. The poll’s internal give a clear picture of what’s happening: While Scozzafava was still ahead among Republicans last week (46% to 27% for Hoffman), the conservative now leads 41% to 36%. And it will be hard for Scozzafava to recover: Under a deluge of attack ads, the once popular Assemblywoman’s favorability rating is now very negative (32-46) - including among Republicans.

Hoffman, meanwhile, has positioned himself ideally: He is using his conservative message to become the de facto Republican while also riding his third-party status to dominate the independent vote (he gets 47%, to 28% for Owens and 11% for Scozzafava). The DCCC now has to hope it can fire ads quickly enough to lower Hoffman’s popularity among both groups - and consider that he has a higher favorability rating among independents (53/14) than among Republicans (48/16)!

Now that NY-23 has become a showdown between Owens and Hoffman, the time has come to wonder who of those two will be more damaged by Scozzafava’s presence on the ballot! For now, the answer still seems to be Hoffman since Owens has a far stronger hold on the Democratic vote; whether the conservative can win next week will thus partly be determined by whether he can make Scozzafava a bigger burden for Owens.

That is confirmation to me that yesterday’s Common Sense in America ad is a dirty trick first and foremost aimed at the Democratic candidate - and not at Scozzafava, as most analyses are suggesting. What conservatives now need is for Owens to lose support, but that won’t be easy to do: That he’s only gathering a third of the vote means that a huge share of his supporters are partisan voters who would go for the Democratic nominee no matter what. The best way to damage him would thus be to convince some of his liberal supporters to vote for Scozzafava - and that’s where an ad that seems to praise her progressive credentials and tie her to Barack Obama comes into play.

But then why is Doug Hoffman’s campaign airing an ad tying Owens to Nancy Pelosi? “Nancy Pelosi hand-picked Bill Owens for Congress and bankrolls his campaign. You know what that means,” warns the ad. “So when Pelosi wants Owens’ vote for her massive energy taxes, government-run medicine and a trillion dollar deficit, where would Bill Owens stand: With you or with her?”

Such attacks might be useful to prevent Hoffman from reaching 50% - but they will do nothing to keep him under the 35%-38% range, quite the contrary: They will only solidify Owens’ identification as the Democratic nominee and ensure that many voters who approve of Barack Obama’s action vote for Owens rather than get confused about which of the 3 candidates best represents them. That’s all the better for Owens considering we’re talking about a district that voted for Obama by 5%. Research 2000 finds Obama’s approval rating in NY-23 is solid: 50% to 42%.

The good news for Owens is that he can spend more of his time appealing to independent voters if Hoffman takes care of instructing Democratic voters that Owens is their guy. Don’t forget that at the beginning of this race it was absolutely not obvious that Owens would be a factor or whether Democratic-leaning voters would join Scozzafava’s camp because she had emerged as Hoffman’s main liberal alternative.

That threat failed to materialize, Owens solidified his position as liberals’ champion and that allows him to dream on. Had he fallen in third position, the DCCC would not have lifted a finger to help him at this late juncture. But now that national Democrats know they have a clear shot at victory, it is no longer foolish of them to get involved: Obama held a fundraiser for Owens last week, and Democratic officials are telling Politicker that the party is “going all in.” That will include some heavy last-minute spending and perhaps even a robo-call recorded by Obama.

A final note: Scozzafava still has enough support that it wouldn’t be shocking for her to storm back - at the very least to climb back enough to endanger Hoffman’s momentum: The Watertown Daily Town just endorsed her, which could at least help her retain strong support in her home county.

Also for the first time, Corzine reaches 47%

With only 5 days to go, the two gubernatorial races are more stable than NY-23’s roller-coaster - though the trendlines we have been observing are getting sharper.In Virginia, a Roanoke College Poll is the latest to find Creigh Deeds plunging: He trails 53% to 36%. In New Jersey, Democratic Corps confirms Quinnipiac’s result from yesterday: Corzine is ahead by 5%, 42% to 37% if Daggett is included (he gets 12%) and 47% to 42% if he is not.

That two-way match might not reflect what we’re going to see next Tuesday, but the results are still fascinating.That 47% of respondents would as much as consider voting for Corzine is the best evidence we have yet gotten that something fundamental has changed in the electorate.

According to’s compilation of all New Jersey surveys, never before had Corzine gotten more than 44% - even in the 10-month of polling during which Daggett was not included since he wasn’t running yet. Democracy Corps has been friendlier to Corzine than other pollsters, but this is undoubtedly the trace of a significant shift in voters’ willingness to vote for the incumbent - a mark of Corzine’s ability to move the race away from a referendum on his record and turn the spotlight on Christie.

The stakes just keep rising in NY-23

It’s one thing for Republicans with presidential ambitions to get involved in NY-23’s special election. It’s also not that puzzling that Fred Thompson and Michelle Bachmann endorsed Hoffman: both do have a national audience. But what does it say about the contest’s unbelievably high stakes that a former Republican state legislator running for the House in Oklahoma took the time to endorse Hoffman’s candidacy, hundreds of miles away?

We thought the Perry-Hutchison and Crist-Rubio primary would be the medium through which Republicans would let all of their internal dissensions out in the open. (By the way, Dick Cheney endorsed Hutchison today.) Instead, NY-23 has become the stand-in for the party’s broader ideological battle - and this doesn’t feel like just a dress rehearsal for the Texas and Florida primaries: It’s the real deal.

For one, party figures are already deploying their entire argumentative arsenal. The election has now extended beyond the initial ‘establishment Republicans versus movement conservatives’ schema into a full-out war between contrasting views of how the GOP can get back on a winning foot. As such, former NRCC Chairman Tom Cole (a conservative, but not particularly committed to sticking it to centrists) is now backing Hoffman.

We saw the other day that Sarah Palin used this opportunity to blast all forces who are committed to diluting the GOP’s identity. We didn’t have to wait for long for Newt Gingrich to offer a direct response:

I say to my many conservative friends who suddenly decided that whether they’re from Minnesota or Alaska or Texas, they know more than the upstate New York Republicans? I don’t think so. And I don’t think it’s a good precedent. And I think if this third party candidate takes away just enough votes to elect the Democrat, then we will have strengthened Nancy Pelosi by the divisiveness. We will not have strengthened the conservative movement…

This idea that we’re suddenly going to establish litmus tests, and all across the country, we’re going to purge the party of anybody who doesn’t agree with us 100 percent — that guarantees Obama’s reelection. That guarantees Pelosi is Speaker for life. I mean, I think that is a very destructive model for the Republican Party.

The similarity between Palin and Gingrich’s comments is that both are framing the Hoffman-Scozzafava confrontation in terms of a far broader battle over what the Republican Party should be - should it move to the center, to the right, embrace moderates, run after the conservative base? This sort of ideological and strategic disagreements grip all parties after a series of electoral defeats, we just didn’t expect them to reveal themselves in a House special election.

(By the way, Gingrich has really managed to come out of this saga looking the most moderate potential presidential candidate. Or is it the most faithful to the establishment? the most respective of state differences? the most realistic in terms of the party’s electoral challenges? While Gingrich can certainly argue for any of the latter 3 options, it does look like conservatives are going to stick to the former if the former Speaker attempts a national run in 2012.)

Second, Hoffman-Scozzafava could be far more important than any of 2010’s Republican primaries because it’s going to set a power dynamic within the party: If Hoffman wins the race, and even (albeit obviously to a lesser degree) if he loses but comes in in front of Scozzafava, it will embolden conservatives to take on non-movement Republicans next spring. If they’re accused of playing spoiler, they’ll point to NY-23 or simply disavow their allegiance to the GOP. That would be quite a nightmare for congressional Republicans.

In fact, it looks like this dynamic is already playing out: In Ohio’s 16th15th District, Republicans have been excited that state Senator Steve Stivers is seeking a rematch against Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy. But Ron Paul-supporter David Ryon just announced he was dropping out of the GOP primary in order to run in the general election as the Constitution Party nominee. Why? Because Stivers is pro-choice. “The lines between the two major parties have become blurred to the point they represent the left and right wings of the same party,” Ryon said.

Of course, third-party candidates are nothing new, and they rarely reach double-digits - let alone the level of support Hoffman is experiencing. But that’s exactly the point: Depending on how NY-23 turns out, conservatives could turn their attention to candidates like Ryon to try and turn them into the next Hoffman. Most such attempts are unlikely to be successful (the Club for Growth only has so much money); but if Palin goes around the country helping them, some of these races could get quite heated!

(”I will go around the country on behalf of candidates who believe in the right things, regardless of their party label or affiliation,” said Palin on July 13th. We interpreted this statement as Palin opening the door to backing Democratic candidates, but the remark now appears under a new light: Meet Sara Palin, the supporter of conservative candidates who aren’t affiliated to the Republican Party!)

As if all of this wasn’t enough to heighten the tension, NY-23 is now home to bizarre electoral maneuvers. Yesterday, I was trying to figure out whether the Club for Growth and the DCCC sincerely think that Dede Scozzafava has fallen to a distant third or if they are merely bluffing in order to make the Republican nominee irrelevant in the campaign’s closing week. And today came a 30-second ad by a newly constituted group called Common Sense in America. It portrays Scozzafava the  “best choice for progressives:”

On Tuesday, progressives have one candidate to vote for with pride: Dede Scozzafava… Dede supports President Obama’s efforts to stimulate our economy. Dede supports organized labor’s drive to expand membership. And Dede is the only candidate for Congress who supports marriage equality. Dede Scozzafava: the best choice for progressives.

Politico dug a bit to find out more about Common Sense in America: The organization was created on October 23rd, and it is headed by a Club for Growth board member. Politico concludes that the ad is a “dirty trick” against Scozzafava because it pretends to be an endorsement for the candidate when it is fact trying to sink her prospects. I slightly disagree with that analysis. For one, I’m skeptical the ad is pretending to be an endorsement; it looks to be framed as a clear parody to me - and it’s not like the spot is lying in listing Scozzafava’s positions.

More importantly, I think the ad is a dirty trick against Owens rather than against Scozzafava: By making Scozzafava sound like the ideal progressive, Common Sense in America might be looking to confuse Democratic voters as to who they should vote for and who is the true Democratic/progressive in the race. Sure, it might be weird for Hoffman allies to try to boost Scozzafava but they’re going to have to take Owens down a notch if they’re aiming for victory rather than just for second place.

As I’ve noted many times before, it’s not like Owens has done much to court the liberal vote and I had mentioned the possibility that there might at some point be some competition between him and Scozzafava to be the truer alternative to Hoffman. But Owens has less to worry about now that he can count on strong union support. Yesterday alone, AFSCME dumped $200,000 in the race - a significant sum when combined to more than $200,000 the DCCC poured in.

Poll watch: Corzine’s rise, gay rights’ strong support and Specter with dismal re-elect

6 days to go: Corzine grabs significant lead while Deeds sinks

If PPP and Rasmussen had brought some worrisome news to Jon Corzine’s camp yesterday, today’s Quinnipiac poll all but takes cares of their worries. The reputable pollster, which has been polling the contest monthly since August 2008, finds Corzine ahead for the first time since last November - and we’re not talking about a tiny edge: Corzine leads 43% to 38%, outside of the poll’s margin of error. Chris Daggett is at 13%.

If we forget about the recent Suffolk poll’s bizarre results, this is the largest lead Corzine has enjoyed since the first week of January. What is just as important as the margin of his advantage is the level of support he reaches: Corzine is finally able to rise above the 42% ceiling he’s been stuck under for months, with Rasmussen and Quinnipiac now both showing him at 43%. That doesn’t look like much but it should be enough for him to clinch victory as long as Daggett stays in the 12%-14% range.

One caveat: Quinnipiac’s poll was conducted from the 20th to the 26th, so it’s more dated than the two surveys released yesterday (Rasmussen’s was conducted on the 26th only, PPP’s from the 23rd to the 26th). That period corresponds to the intensification of Chris Christie’s attacks against Daggett, and both PPP and Rasmussen found that those attacks were succeeding in hurting the independent and by extension helping the Republican. Quinnipiac has Daggett still more popular than not (21-16), so we shall see what polls say in the coming days.

Meanwhile, Virginia polls are all finding the same result: Bill McDonnell leads Creigh Deeds by double-digits. The SUSA poll that had him up 19% two weeks ago looked like an outlier at first, but it doesn’t look far-fetched anymore. At this point, I’ll do little else than relay the latest numbers. First, Rasmussen has McDonnell up 54% to 41%; the Republican’s favorability rating is so high (62/30) you wouldn’t guess he just went through a heated campaign. Second, Virginia Commonwealth University has McDonnell crushing Deeds, 54% to 36%.

6 days to go, and good news for gay rights in Maine and Washington

Most surveys of Maine’ have found the slightest of edges for the “no” - certainly nothing large enough to reassure gay rights defenders that same-sex marriage will be upheld. (Many California polls had Prop 8 failing in the run-up to the 2008 vote.) But a poll released a few days ago by Pan Atlantic SMS found the largest lead yet for the pro-gay marriage vote: 53% to 42%. That’s a lot of undecided voters for gay marriage opponents to convince, especially given that those who make up their mind at the last minute tend to break towards the “no” in referendum votes.

But that rule of thumb is not that useful for high-profile issues like this one. While it is a cliche to say that an election comes down to turnout, this is one contest in which it is no overstatement: This referendum is the highest-profile vote on Maine’s ballot, so it’s the main issue that will drive voters to the polls. So which group is most motivated by gay marriage will have an outsized importance - and this is one metric on which social conservatives have tended to have an edge.

Another important gay rights vote is occurring in Washington State, which is set to vote on a referendum to establish expanded domestic partnerships (R-71). Two new surveys released this week find the “yes” in the lead: The University of Washington has it easily passing (57% to 38%) while SUSA finds a tighter margin (50% to 43%, with the 40% of respondents who’ve already voted approving partnerships 53% to 42%). Here again, the gay rights-position is favored going into next week’s vote, but referendums are hard enough to poll that this could go both ways.

Note that the White House has ignored gay rights activists’ pleas to take any stance on either states’ votes - let alone an active one.

2010: Worrisome numbers for Specter and Strickland

By now, we are used to seeing Arlen Specter suffering from ugly numbers but it’s hard to overstate how dismal it is for such a longtime incumbent’s re-elect to stand at 23%; 66% of respondents in a new Franklin & Marshall poll say it’s time for something new. His favorability rating (28/46) is barely better.

It’s only because his rival are so little-known (only 26% have an opinion of Toomey, 16% of Sestak) that he manages to still lead direct match-ups. And given the wide name recognition gap, his 33-31 edge over Toomey and his 30-18 lead over Sestak isn’t impressive, especially when you consider that Sestak has closed the gap by 14% since F&M’s prior poll. Sestak does trail Toomey 28% to 20%, but that survey has such a huge number of undecided respondents that it’s not worth discussing much. (Don’t forget that two mid-October polls had Sestak over-performing Specter in the general election.)

Another state, another endangered incumbent: A University of Cincinnati poll finds Ohio Governor Ted Strickland holding on to a 49% to 46% edge against former Rep. John Kasich; among all registered voters, the lead is smaller still (48-47). We haven’t heard that much about this contest, mostly because there hasn’t been much primary or recruitment drama on the side of the challenging party (Kasich signaled he’d get in the race early, and his hold on the nomination hasn’t been contested) but it’s sure to be one of the year’s highest-stake battles.

Corzine’s and Owens’s momentum threatened by Daggett’s decline and Hoffman’s rise

For the past few weeks, the conventional wisdom has shifted in both New Jersey and NY-23: Democrats are now considered more likely than not to pull off come-from-behind victories. Yet, not only was that excessive expectation never quite in sync with the information we were getting from the ground, it is now all the more exaggerated due to yet another change in momentum: The two independent candidates, who for weeks looked like they would help Jon Corzine and Bill Owens clinch plurality victories, are now seeing their fortunes evolve in ways that complicates Democratic prospects.

With just 7 days to go, the situation in both races is entirely unpredictable - a stark contrast to Virginia, where it would be a gigantic stunner if Bill McDonnell were to lose. Just over the past 24 hours, 3 polls show McDonnell marching towards a landslide: 58% to 41% for SUSA, 55% to 44% for the Washington Post, 55% to 40% for PPP. Also, PPP finds that a shockingly low 31% of LVs are Democrats: The question isn’t whether Deeds loses, but whether he takes his party’s down-ballot candidates down with him!

New Jersey: Rise in Daggett’s unfavorable changes dynamics

Since early September, we have gotten used to seeing Jon Corzine progress from poll to poll. Once some surveys started showing him ahead for the first time of the year in mid-October, many people expected the governor’s lead to expand as it usually does in the final stretch for New Jersey Democrat. Yet, two new polls released today show a trendline favoring Christie. While the movement is slight, it does seem to mark a halt in Corzine’s momentum:

Rasmussen has Christie leading 46% to 43% while Daggett falls from 11% to 7%. PPP has Christie leading 42% to 38%, up from a 1% edge two weeks ago; while Daggett remains at 13%, PPP suggests he is now drawing more votes from the Democrat than the Republican. PPP’s most interesting finding: The independent’s unfavorability rating has risen sharply in just two weeks, from 24% to 36% - a dynamic that also explains why he might have fallen to single-digits in Rasmussen’s survey.

(A poll that was released yesterday found very different results: Suffolk, testing the race for the first time, had Corzine leading 42% to 33%. Since that’s unlike anything we have seen all year and it’s contradicted by surveys taken over the same period, I think it’s safe to file that away in the outlier column for now.)

There is an obvious explanation for the the change in Daggett’s ratings: Christie’s campaign recently started airing ads against him, which marked the first time of the campaign he faced any attacks. Voters’ impression of Daggett is so undefined that these negative ads will be a major part of what they’ve heard about the independent - and that spells trouble for Daggett, and by extension for Corzine: One week from Election Day, there is still no evidence whatsoever that Corzine can possibly rise high enough to clinch victory if Daggett doesn’t get more than 13-14%.

Has NY-23 become a Hoffman-Owens showdown?

For months, Democrats were excited that the division of GOP votes between Dede Scozzafava and Doug Hoffman would allow Bill Owens to clinch victory. But Hoffman has been gaining so much strength that the contest’s dynamics have changed, making him a real threat to win the election by combining the vote of enthusiastic conservatives and independents looking to vote for a third-party candidate.

While the most recent public polls, conducted last week, found Scozzafava in second position and slightly ahead of Hoffman, conservative groups released two different surveys today finding Hoffman on top, with Scozzafava far far behind. Club for Growth’s survey has Hoffman at 33%, Owens at 29% and Scozzafava at 20%; Neighborhood Research, polling for the Minuteman Project, has Hoffman up 34% to 29% for Owens and… 14% for Scozzafava! Take both of these polls with a grain of salt, obviously, as they find results that are completely different of any public poll we have seen.

The Club for Growth is now indeed treating the GOP nominee as irrelevant - putting only Bill Owens in the cross hair of their latest ad. “It comes down to two very different candidates,” says the spot. This would certainly seem to suggest that the Club doesn’t seen Scozzafava as a factor anymore.

Similarly, the DCCC recently released a new ad that also ignores Scozzafava and goes straight after “millionaire Doug Hoffman” for having a “waterfront island home — even a classic car collection.” This again looks like a clear sign that Democrats are getting worried enough about Hoffman’s rise that they want to take him down a notch.

But another analysis is possible of these ads, one that still allows that the race is a 3-way race and that Scozzafava remains viable. The DCCC’s ad could easily be reverse psychology, by which I mean that DCCC numbers still have Hoffman third and Democrats want to make sure he still rises to further divide the GOP vote; as for the Club’s ad, Hoffman insisting that his main rival is Owens might not be a consequence of Scozzafava fading but a strategy to make her fade by framing the issue as a 2-way race, present himself as the de facto GOP nominee, get the media to cover him as such and thus asphyxiate Scozzafava.

That said, there is one basic reason to take the possibility of a Hoffman victory very seriously: Conservatives are motivated by this race beyond everyone’s expectations.

Today’s New York Times article is a must-read for its illustration of just how pumped the right is. That so many Republicans who have nothing to do with New York have felt the need to weigh on the race confirms that NY-23 has become a stand-in for all of the conservative frustration with the Republican establishment - a frustration some establishment figures are doing their best to recuperate: Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty is the latest to endorse Hoffman, while former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson took the time to cut an ad for Hoffman this week!

Endorsements by Minnesota and Tennessee politicians won’t win anyone a race in upstate New York, but this outstanding level of conservative excitement should be a huge factor in a low-turnout special election.

On the other hand, now that Owens can count on the support of the Working Families Party and of SEIU, he is unlikely to have any problems competing with Hoffman at an infrastructural level. Scozzafava, on the other hand, might have trouble being as organized as her two rivals since she is now facing a big fundraising problem.

Obama’s involvement & Lawton’s exit shake up Wisconsin

Barack Obama has been getting increasingly involved in state races but he hasn’t always been successful: He couldn’t to keep Andrew Romanoff and Joe Sestak from challenging Democratic senators in Colorado and Pennsylvania, he did not persuade Roy Cooper to run for Senate and there is little indication for now that David Paterson was marked by the president’s message that he should retire.

In other contests, however, Obama’s intervention has proven decisive. Kirsten Gillibrand owes a lot to Obama’s pushing Steve Israel out of the Democratic primary, though we haven’t heard of any direct contact between the White House and Carolyn Maloney. And we can now add a new race to those bearing Obama’s signature: Wisconsin’s gubernatorial race.

This might not be the cycle’s highest-profile battle, but there is no reason to be surprised that the White House is keeping an eye on it: Wisconsin will be an important battleground in the 2012 presidential election. Whether the governor is a Democrat will obviously not determine who wins the presidential race, but it can nonetheless be a factor: Controlling a swing state’s gubernatorial mansion provides the party a high-profile surrogate, powerful photo-ops and an efficient network of local officials to rely on.

Add to this redistricting considerations. Democrats have a narrow majority in the state Assembly and the state Senate; if they can hold on to both and keep the governorship, they would be in a position to draw a map that would protect some of their vulnerable incumbents and endanger some sitting Republicans (check these SSP diaries for a contrast between a bipartisan map and a Democratic-drawn map).

It’s in that context that we learned over the week-end that Obama was trying to convince Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to enter the race, with The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel writing that the White House “badly” wants Barrett to run.

I was a bit surprised to hear this because there already was a high-profile contender in the race: Lieutenant Governor Barbara Lawson. She carried a big liability (Republicans would have tried to tie her to Governor Jim Doyle and thus make the 2010 race a referendum on Doyle’s unpopular legacy) but she is clearly a capable candidate who’s ran statewide before; a June Research 2000 poll showed her enjoying a strong favorability rating (35-17) and leads against Republican candidates.

In short: An argument can certainly be made that Barrett would be a stronger contender than Lawton, but not in the clear-cut way we can make it New York’s Governor’s race, the other contest in which Obama tried to push out a candidate who’s already running. (A side motivation here could be that Lawton was a Clinton surrogate in Wisconsin’s decisive primary, while Barrett backed Obama. But the president hasn’t shown much desire to punish Clinton backers since he came in office, quite the contrary, so I am not at all convinced this played a big part in his involvement.)

Whatever the White House’s motivation, the bottom line is that they seem to have gotten what they wanted: Lawton announced yesterday she was dropping out of the race! She cited “personal reasons” and there is no evidence that her decision is tied to the White House’s intervention or to the fact that their preference for Barrett spilled out in the public domain this week-end. At the very least, however, Lawton was damaged by her inability to get the state establishment to accept her as the front-runner for the nomination - a failure to which the White House and Doyle contributed.

The problem for Democrats: Lawton is now out of the race and Rep. Ron Kind ruled out a gubernatorial run a few weeks ago - but there is no sign that Barrett is ready to commit to a run

That same Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article said he might not decide until February, which could prove quite a dilemma for the party. Sure, it should be easier for Barrett’s drafters to convince him to jump in now that he won’t have to face the Lieutenant Governor. Also, the likelihood that an intra-party fight has been avoided should be a relief to Democrats since Wisconsin doesn’t hold its primary until September 14 - a late date that could have proven problematic. But what happens now if Barrett does not run?

In progressive victory, Reid sends public option to floor: Centrist Dems now face certainty of exposure

Harry Reid’s afternoon press conference provided a climactic and decisive resolution to all the speculation about the public option’s prospects in Senate negotiations: The Majority Leader put a (temporary) end to all rumors by making it clear that the health care bill he would send to the Senate floor would contain a national public option with an opt-out mechanism.

The day’s bottom line: For a non-triggered public option not to reach the president’s desk at this point, a Democratic senator will have to join Republicans and publicly filibuster the entire health care reform.

To block public option, a senator will have to expose himself

Centrists cannot strip the public option out of the bill now that Reid has put it in: Such an operation would require 60 votes, something they do not have since at least 52 Democrats are on record supporting some type of public option. That figure also means that this bill shouldn’t have any problem winning final passage, for which it only needs 50 votes. That means that the only moment at which the public option could still fail is over the cloture vote of the entire bill.

Let me repeat what this means. To defeat the public option, a conservative Democrat cannot just vote against an amendment that would implement it. Rather, he’ll need to take the risk to sabotage his party’s entire reform effort. No more silent filibuster, filled with innuendos and vague statements: If Joe Lieberman or Ben Nelson want to sink the public option, they’ll need to stand up and filibuster the whole bill.

Needless to say, that would expose them to a huge backlash at all levels of his party. Health care reform isn’t an issue being followed by a handful of political junkies; it is a quest that has defined the Democratic Party for the past 50 years, and it would be quite a huge political risk for any Democratic senator to emerge as a visible and irrefutable obstacle to reform itself.

More than anything else, it is this certainty of exposure that so radically changes the public option’s prospects today. Moderate senators look to be at the center of every debate and they demand huge concessions; but they also don’t want to be caught in the spotlight in the way that will make them controversial and extremist. That’s why their success often comes through behind-the-scenes threats not to support cloture - a threat they rarely have to execute since the leadership is unwilling to test them.

Now, the public option could still fail - but if it does there will be clear culprits who won’t be able to hide their responsibility behind confused reports of closed-door negotiations. For a senator to block the public option will require a non-subtle and high-profile act, one that would will make him make the focus of all the attention, the target of tremendous liberal rage and isolate him from the rest of his party. What centrist senator wants to take that risk?

Of course, the premise of this argument is that there aren’t more than a handful of Democrats who might even consider filibustering the entire health care bill. If the cloture vote fails by 5 or 6 votes, it could give the no-voters cover to claim they represent a broad centrist constituency and that the leadership behaved recklessly in including the public option; but most indications suggest that no more than a couple of Democrats might buck their party, which would put them in an untenably isolated position.

Who might vote against cloture?

5 Democratic senators might conceivably join a Republican filibuster - and as I will say specify below, a number of them have made it clear they’re unlikely to do so. They are: Mary Landrieu, Ben Nelson, Blanche Lincoln, Joe Lieberman and Evan Bayh.

Reid has talked to all of these senators in recent days; if just one had warned Reid they were likely to oppose cloture, would the Majority Leader have gone through with today’s press conference? Furthermore, all press reports have Senate aids saying that Reid has locked down 56 or 57 cloture votes, which would mean between 1 and 2 of these 5 senators have pledged not to filibuster.

That could most conceivably be Landrieu, who recently stated “I’m not right now inclined to support any filibuster.” Lieberman also said he was “inclined” towards supporting cloture, though he played up his indecision. Nelson’s recent statement that he was “not excited” about the opt-out mechanism isn’t quite the type of thing you say if you’re looking to torpedo a measure - especially one you were on record praising just a few days before. That leaves us with Bayh and Lincoln, who’ve kept a low-profile.

Of these 5 senators, 4 have clear electoral reasons not to do filibuster. On the one hand, Lieberman has to find some coalition willing to re-elect him in 2012. On the other, Landrieu, Lincoln and Nelson are all vulnerable; though they represent red states, they certainly can’t afford having progressive groups out to destroy them. That leaves us with Bayh as the only senator about whom I can think of no specific reason he’d be reluctant to filibuster the bill.

Two Democrats who do not support the public option but who I do not expect to pose much of a problem for Reid are Mark Begich and Mark Pryor. I can’t envision Begich being an ‘no’: would a freshman senator would dare jeopardize his entire career by blocking his party’s chief priority within 9 months of coming in office? Pryor has made it clear enough he is highly unlikely to join a filibuster in most circumstances, let alone when we’re talking about an opt-out mechanism many centrists have praised.

Another non-supportive Democrat who looks highly unlikely to even entertain the thought of a filibuster is Kent Conrad. The North Dakota senator is primarily concerned with bringing back as much federal benefits as possible to his state; isolating yourself from your entire party by filibustering health care reform is quite an obvious obstacle to that. Furthermore, Conrad is a committee chairman, a Baucus ally and has had a hand in shaping the legislation; Reid mentioned today that he would leave co-ops in the bill, in what is obviously designed to keep Conrad on board.

Finally, this post would not be complete without a few words about Reid. Last week, I wrote about how the decision was almost entirely up to the Nevada Senator. Since then, the often derided Reid has emerged as unexpectedly willing to force the hand of centrist Democrats by demanding that they go on the record and surprisingly unwavering in defying the White House - either by going against Obama’s wishes or at the very least in proceeding without the president’s blessing.

Whatever the public option’s ultimate fate, Reid undoubtedly helped his own cause among liberals today: Progressive groups had made it clear just how huge an electoral cost he would pay if he was responsible for letting the public option go, but the Majority Leader gave them what they wanted by including it in the floor bill. Now, any demise of the the public option can hardly be held against him - and that at least allows him to hope for the help of unions and activists in his tough re-election campaign.

Conlin & Cuomo hint they’re in, Dardenne & Halter again float their names

Iowa: Christie Vilsack is out and Roxanne Conlin hints she’ll step in

Well, that didn’t last long: Just 10 days after she opened the door to challenging Chuck Grassley, Christie Vilsack announced she would not run. And thereby ends the possibility that Iowa’s Senate race will be one of the highest-profile 2010 battles, as the confrontation between a five-term senator and the wife of a Cabinet member who once harbored presidential ambitions would have been.

However, what does not end is the possibility that Iowa’s Senate race will be competitive: attorney Roxanne Conlin pressed ahead with her campaign plans last week, declaring that she was “more likely than not” to run. In doing so, she also made clear that she (not Vilsack) was the mystery candidate about which the state party chairman had said: “I’m going to tell you here today that Chuck Grassley is going to be in for the race of his life.”

I will not repeat here my breakdown as to why Conlin would not be that formidable a contender but she would have a credible shot at an upset, especially in light of Research 2000’s finding that she is well-known and has a good favorability rating: 67% of respondents had an opinion about her, with 44% holding a positive impression and 29% a negative one. However, Conlin looks less likely to clear the primary field than Vilsack would have been, which means we could have a competitive race for the Democratic nomination between Conlin, Tom Fiegen and Bob Krause.

From the timing of Conlin and Vilsack’s statements, it’s hard not to conclude that part of the reason the latter pulled the plug on her candidacy is the realization that Conlin was serious about a run. After all, it was always unlikely these two women would have taken a risk of a facing off in a primary. Both are as involved in Iowa’s Democratic establishment as can be, one as the former state party chair and the other as the state’s former First Lady; and Vilsack would not have wanted her electoral debut to risk being ruined by a primary defeat.

New York Post reports Andrew Cuomo signaling run

Prominent New York journalist Fred Dicker has quite a report out this morning: Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has told Rudy Giuliani that he will run for Governor next year whether or not David Paterson seeks re-election. (Relatedly: New York Magazine has a lengthy article about Giuliani, his post-presidential campaign days and the odds he’ll run for Governor.)

Why might Cuomo do this? Simply because it would be likely to succeed at keeping Giuliani out of the race (sure, Cuomo would be favored to beat Giuliani, but that doesn’t erase the fact that the former mayor is the only Republican with a shot at beating the Attorney General): A major reason Giuliani is considering running is that he would be heavily favored to beat David Paterson - but he would be a heavy underdog if he were to face Cuomo. The more likely it looks that Cuomo becomes the Democrats’ nominee, the less likely Giuliani is to run.

A potential flaw in Cuomo’s plan (as it’s being reported): If Giuliani announces he won’t run, Democrats will be less stressed about losing the governorship (Paterson does tie Rick Lazio in polls) and thus less desperate to recruit Cuomo in the Democratic primary; that could mean Cuomo finds himself less welcome than he would be if he announced a run today, with the Giuliani threat still looming in the air.

One last consideration: If Giuliani is also considering running for Senate (and that’s a huge if, since there have been contrasting reports on this), might being told Cuomo will run for Governor push him towards challenging Kirsten Gillibrand? In this contest, Giuliani better stay in communication with former Governor George Pataki, who said last week he would soon decide whether to run for Senate.

Brian Halter, Jay Dardenne are not ruling out primary challenges

Two last nuggets of midterm speculation come to us from Louisiana and Arkansas, where Senators David Vitter and Blanche Lincoln are not out of primary trouble. In the latter state, Lieutenant Governor Brian Halter is playing up the possibility that he’ll go after Lincoln. Note that, while it is possible Halter would choose running from Lincoln’s left to take advantage of national liberals’ dissatisfaction with the senator, little in his profile suggests he would be comfortable in such a role. (I wrote more about Halter back in April.)

In Louisiana: While countless other Republicans have ruled out challenging Vitter, Secretary of State Jay Dardenne reitereated this week-end that he is considering running for the GOP nomination. A contested primary here could be a major headache for Republicans, as it would not be decided before August 28th at the earliest, with the potential of a runoff on October 2nd - just a month from the general election, in which the GOP nominee will have to face Rep. Charlie Melancon.

In both cases, it is very possible (some might say probable, especially in the case of Halter who similarly opened the door to challenging Mark Pryor in 2008) that Dardenne and Halter have absolutely no intention of running for Senate and that they are only floating these trial balloons to increase their notoriety and position themselves as natural front-runners for future open seat races. After all, it is getting very late in the cycle for candidates to mount primary challenges to incumbents - the type of campaign that takes a lot of preparation.

Weekly 2010 update: In statewide races, recruitment season is winding down

As has been the case since early this summer, the political focus remains the health-care debate. Reports on the Senate’s merger negotiations and on Harry Reid’s unlikely emergence as a progressive counter to Barack Obama’s cool take on the public option have dominated conversation. While that does not mean major midterm stories did not unfold - in particular Sharron Angle’s entrance in Nevada’s Senate race - it is also noticeable that recruitment season in statewide contests is slowly winding down.

One of the few races in which both parties’ fields is still unsettled is Oregon’s open Governor’s race. On the Republican side, Rep. Greg Walden is not looking likely to jump in, and it looks increasingly unlikely that the GOP will manage to mount a top campaign here. This week, state Senator Jason Atkinson announced he was withdrawing from the race for personal reasons. That could in some ways help the GOP, as he is a social conservative who would have had trouble winning statewide in a blue state. But as a former statewide candidate, he had advantages over other Republicans in the race, whether entrepreneur Allen Alley and former state Senator Lim, who is 73. Atkinson’s withdrawal could lead to another conservative contender’s emergence, so the GOP field could change quite a bit; on the Democratic side, of course, we wait for Rep. Peter DeFazio’s decision.

In Massachussetts, Canton Selectman Robert Burr dropped out of the special election to fill Teddy Kennedy’s seat. That leaves state Senator Scott Brown as the presumptive GOP nominee, so whoever emerges out of December’s Democratic primary should prepare to face Brown. I am somewhat surprised that other Republicans did not enter the race: Sure, the state GOP has a thin bench, but there were some people who could have ran without wasting too much of their time since the election’s schedule is so compressed.

In Wisconsin, businessman Terrence Wall’s decision to challenge Senator Russ Feingold is a reminder that this is one Senate seat in which the NRSC hasn’t had much recruitment success, with far more prominent candidates passing on the race. In Maine, another Republican businessman (Les Otten) announced he would run for Governor; the GOP has no top-tier candidate for this open seat race, so Otten could very well emerge as the party’s nominee. He would be an underdog in the general election, but a Research 2000 poll released in September did find Otten performing better than other Republicans.

One race in which neither party is in need of contenders is Minnesota’s Governor’s race: The candidacy announcements of two state legislators (one from each party) pushes the number of those in the running to 15 - 8 Democrats and 7 Republicans! And we are still waiting to hear from former Senator Norm Coleman and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.

As always, I list all the changes I have logged in during the week to the “retirement watch” and recruitment pages. Written in red are those politicians who announced their definite plans rather than simply expressed interest or stroke speculation. First, updates to Retirement Watch:

Will retire No one
Will not retire No one

Second, updates to the Senate recruitment page:

AZ-Sen, Dem Tucson City councilman Rodney Glassman added
CO-Sen, GOP former state Sen. Tom Wiens added
MA-Sen, GOP Canton Selectman Robert Burr dropped out
NV-Sen, GOP former Assemblywoman Sharron Angle announced run
UT-Sen, GOP Tim Bridgewater announced run
WI-Sen, GOP developer Terrence Wall announced run

Third, updates to gubernatorial recruitment: state Sen. Jason Atkinson

ME-Gov, GOP businessman Les Otten announced run
MN-Gov, Dem former state Senator Steve Kelley announced run
MN-Gov, GOP state Rep. Mary Seifert announced run
OR-Gov, GOP state Sen. Jason Atkinson dropped out
former Portland Trail Blazer Chris Dudley added to list
state Senator Frank Morse added to list
RI-Gov, GOP businessman Rory Smith announced run

Upsate New York taken over by the GOP’s civil war

Forget abortion rights or the stimulus bill. The topic about which all Republicans with presidential ambitions are being forced to take a stand is the special election in NY-23!

When Barack Obama announced he would tap John McHugh to be Secretary of the Army back in the spring, he was probably aware he’d give Democrats a shot at picking-up NY-23… but he certainly could not have foreseen he was triggering a charged civil war within the GOP. But the battle between Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava and Conservative nominee Doug Hoffman is becoming an increasingly intense for the GOP’s soul.

The latest to weigh in is none other than Sarah Palin, who endorsed Hoffman in a statement that refers back to Ronald Regan:

Political parties must stand for something. When Republicans were in the wilderness in the late 1970s, Ronald Reagan knew that the doctrine of “blurring the lines” between parties was not an appropriate way to win elections. Unfortunately, the Republican Party today has decided to choose a candidate who more than blurs the lines, and there is no real difference between the Democrat and the Republican in this race. This is why Doug Hoffman is running on the Conservative Party’s ticket.

Another potential presidential candidate, Tim Pawlenty, is signaling he will get involved as well, while fellow Minnesotan Rep. Michelle Bachmann already did: Yesterday, she became the first Republican congresswoman to endorse Hoffman.

Scozzafava’s confrontation with local and national conservatives reached fever pitch over the week-end in a bizarre incident involving Weekly Standard reporter John McCormack: After McCormack asked Scozzafava questions relating to abortion, the candidate’s husband called the police and her camp accused McCormack of behaving in a threatening way and screaming. They later had to backtrack when an audiotape released by the AP revealed McCormack was not screaming. Of course, reports that labor and abortion groups had donated to Scozzafava’s campaign didn’t smooth things over.

On the other side is the House’s Republican leadership and former Speaker Newt Gingrich, no centrist himself. Like Palin, Gingrich is choosing to make this race about the broader fight over the GOP should view itself. “If you seek to be a perfect minority, you’ll remain a minority,” he said. “That’s not how Reagan built his revolution or how we won back the House in 1994.” If Hoffman wins the race and NY-23 becomes a template for a conservative rebellion, I wouldn’t be surprised if Gingrich’s comments come back to haunt any presidential quest he might mount in 2012.

That none of these Republicans have anything to do with New York is a testament to how huge the contest’s national stakes have become for the Republican Party. If Hoffman does prevail, it would be far more difficult for the Republican establishment to contain its party’s right-most flank or to portray the Club for Growth as a systematic spoiler force.

Entertaining the confusion are contrasting reports about what is happening on the ground. If we trust all the stories suggesting Scozzafava has no constituency, little money and few people willing to defend her, it might look like she’s fading away into an insignificant position. Indeed, Bachmann justified her endorsement by claiming she was hearing that Hoffman was now in front of Scozzafava and The Washington Post’s The Fix reported hearing about private polls finding just that.

Yet, both public polls recently released of this race draw another picture. Last week, Siena found Bill Owens ahead 33% to 29% for Scozzafava and 23% for Hoffman. And this morning, Research 2000 released a new poll that once again has Owens in the lead (at 35%), with Scozzafava at 30% and Hoffman at 23%. What’s fascinating is that Scozzafava leads big among Republican respondents: 47% versus 27% for Hoffman and 18% for Owens. Among independents, however, Hoffman is ahead 35% with 22% for Scozzafava.

As such, the situation on the ground might be very different than the way in which the election is being treated nationally: Rather than reveal a split between conservatives and centrists, the poll suggests Scozzafava might be in trouble because of the GOP’s dismal reputation among independents - the type of voters who left the party in drove last year and don’t seem eager to come back. (A new national CNN poll confirms this.)

However, that alternative narrative does not square with the fact that Hoffman is emphasizing the conservative element of his candidacy rather than the outsider element. Here is the latest ad released by his campaign:

Hoffman is hoping to become the de facto GOP nominee, and the Research 2000 poll suggests that if he manages to combine his third-party appeal to independents with larger support among Republican voters, he could very well emerge as Bill Owens’s chief competitor.

For now, however, Owens remains the front-runner. He might only be reaching 35% of the poll, but he can actually count on getting that much since most of that support comes from Democrats; if anything, many of these voters will be even more motivated at the prospect of voting for Owens when seeing ads like Hoffman’s.

Owens can enjoy his unbelievable good luck. Selected by local Democratic leaders despite his lack of a party registration (at least Scozzafava had repeatedly ran for office as a Republican), he is now in an excellent position to join Congress thanks to a split in the GOP - whether moderates vs. conservative or registered Republicans versus GOP-leaning independents.

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