Archive for the 'GOP 2012' Category

It would have made little sense for Romney to run for Senate

In the days following Ted Kennedy’s death, I was surprised to see commentary as to why Mitt Romney would be well-served by running for Senate. This would have been a flagrantly bad idea for the GOP’s special election prospects and for the future of Romney’s career, and Romney himself wasted little time taking himself out of consideration.

Romney might have been the last Republican to enjoy statewide success in Massachusetts, but his gubernatorial victory occurred well before his presidential campaign. Since then, he has become one of the country’s most mainstream Republican voice. He has taken painstaking care to mimic conservatives on most issues - including abortion, leaving him nowhere to go in Massachusetts.

While this would hold in a gubernatorial race, it’s all the more true in a federal contest, when national issues and voters’ desire not to rebuke Obama are bound to come in play. As such, Republicans would be far better served nominating a candidate who can credibly distance himself from the national party and position himself as a moderate the way Romney did in 1994 (when he defended gay rights and criticized Reagan) and 2002. We can argue as to whether the GOP can find any such candidate - and there are at least some names mentioned, but it’s hardly debatable that the post-2008 Romney stands no chance of succeeding.

Nor can I even imagine a scenario under which he would want to try. What would be the best case scenario for Romney? He runs, manages to convince Massachusetts voters that he is moderate enough to represent them, gets elected to the Senate and possibly even serves a long career. That would be ideal for dozens of politicians, but not for Romney.

Ever since he became governor in 2002, Romney has been thinking of little else than the White House. The son of a politician whose presidential aspirations came crashing down because of his opposition to Vietnam, Mitt Romney is not going to let anything get on the way of his own ambitions. To win the presidency, he needed some type of political springboard - businessmen can run for Senators, but it is a stretch for them to run for the White House without having ever held elected office.

Hence his decision to run for Senate in 1994 and governor in 2002. Hence the relatively moderate profile he had to craft himself to succeed in as blue a state as Massachusetts.

But the fact that he started drifting to the right during his first (and only) term left no doubt as to where his mind was turned, and no one was surprised when he announced he would not seek re-election in 2006. His maneuvers were almost successful and got him closer to the Republican nomination than anyone not named McCain. (I am aware that Mike Huckabee lasted longer than Romney, but it would have been tough to imagine the latter losing had he prevailed in either Iowa or New Hampshire.)

Ever since his presidential loss, Romney has been positioning himself for a repeat run. In 2008, he emerged as one of McCain’s most loyal surrogates - so much so that he went from one of the Arizona Senator’s most despite enemies to one of the front-runners to be McCain’s running mate. Since then, he has perfectly balanced the need to keep his name in the public spotlight and the need to remain far away not to be burned by day-to-day vicissitudes; he has made high-profile donations to Republican congressmen and he has written newspaper op-eds, but not enough as to become part of the chattering class.

As a result, Romney is now in a position few people could have foreseen in February 2008 - one of the GOP’s only obvious leaders at a time Sarah Palin, Mike Sanford, Bobby Jindal or John Ensign have all seen their fortunes fall. (A side note: Today marks the one year anniversary of Palin’s introduction to the national stage!) And that makes him an obvious frontrunner for the GOP’s 2012 nomination.

So why would Romney possibly want to run for Senate? If he did so without moving back towards the center, he would most likely suffer a disastrous loss that would make him look like an unviable repeat loser. Nixon might have come managed a comeback after back-to-back losses, but few other such dramatic comebacks come to mind - and Nixon had served as vice-president.

If he ran as a moderate, he would burn all the bridges he has spent years building at a time conservatives are finally to warm to him - not to mention that he would look like even more of an opportunist than he did during his 2008 campaign. A loss would him no where to go: His electability would be discredited, his conservative credentials would be in ruin and he would have vindicated every caricature his critics made of him.

If he somehow convinced Massachusetts voters that his re-conversion was genuine, it would still mean forgoing presidential aspirations - not only for the primary-related ideological reasons I listed above but also because the Senate is the worst springboard for the presidency: 2008 was the first time in 48 years a Senator entered the White House but it’s hard not to notice that both his major opponents were also Senators. Romney would find himself a perennially vulnerable Senator stuck in a job he does not want with no obvious way to gain a promotion to the job from which his father was also barred. And that’s the best case scenario in which a Romney run is successful.

This means that the only people who have to lament Romney’s decision not to run for Senate are his potential Republican presidential rivals, Massachusetts Democrats who want to hold on to Kennedy’s seat and arguably the White House - depending on whether you think Romney would be Obama’s strongest 2012 rival, which is a whole other discussion.

In 2010, will Sarah Palin be the new George W. Bush?

If it was impossible to determine Sarah Palin’s motivations in the days following her resignation announcement, it has since become clear that she has no intention of stepping out of the spotlight. While we’ve all been watching to see whether she would retreat from public life, the Alaska Governor has kept up her role as the GOP’s perpetual star and permanent attack dog.

In an interview published in Time, Palin insisted that all options are “on the table” about and blasted the administration’s domestic policies. “President Obama is growing government outrageously, and it’s immoral and it’s uneconomic, his plan that he tries to sell America,” she said. She has also announced that one of her first post-resignation outings would be an August 8th event at the Reagan library. And she gave an interview to the Washington Times, making it clear that she plans to jump immediately back into the national political fray.

So much for the hopes that the July 3rd press conference would be the last we would see of Palin.

What are Palin’s intentions, then? “I’m not ruling out anything — it is the way I have lived my life from the youngest age,” she explained. “Let me peek out there and see if there’s an open door somewhere. And if there’s even a little crack of light, I’ll hope to plow through it.” Thankfully, Palin has a more definite idea of what she wants to do with herself in the coming months:

I will go around the country on behalf of candidates who believe in the right things, regardless of their party label or affiliation.

Regardless of party label? Now, that’s a twist! We surely expected Palin to travel the GOP circuit: If she is interested in 2012’s presidential nomination, the only way for her to overcome worries about her motivation and her electability is to launch herself in the 2010 midterms and help her fellow Republicans win congressional and gubernatorial victories - by raising money, campaigning, sending over PAC donations. These candidates would then be indebted to her and thus far more likely to endorse her presidential bid.

But helping Democrats is quite another story. The rest of Palin’s interview reveals what she’s thinking: “Republicans, now trailing Democrats and independents in registration in many states, should back moderate to conservative Democrats in congressional districts and states where Republicans stand almost no chance of winning.” In short, Palin wants to mount some type of coordinated effort to get conservative activists living in staunchly liberal districts to vote in the Democratic primary.

This is technically difficult to pull-off - many states don’t allow registered Republicans to participate in Democratic primaries, so would Palin advocate a change in their affiliation at the risk of shrinking the GOP further? - and it doesn’t make a ton of sense politically. If there are really enough Republicans in the district that a campaign to get them involved might make a difference, it’s probably also possible - difficult, but possible - for the GOP to outright win the seat.

Most importantly, Palin seems as unaware as ever about her own unpopularity. Does she realize what it would do to a Democrat’s campaign if she was seen as helping his bid in any way, shape or form?

Palin retains a strong following, but her name remains toxic among all Democrats and most independents; her decision to resign makes it highly unlikely she’ll have any way of correcting that before 2012. If she were to suggest support for a Democrat, his opponent would have a field day associating him to the GOP’s fringe right and liberals voters would suddenly get motivated. That would far outweigh any benefit the candidate might receive from conservative voters willing to crossover.

Of course, many Republican candidates will face the same problem. Unless they’re running in a staunchly conservative state or district (say, Texas Governor Rick Perry who is delighted to receive Palin’s help), it is a huge risk for them to have the Alaska Governor campaign by their side. Palin’s visit would receive more coverage in the local press than most other of the campaign events and it would motivate the left as much as the right.

Don’t forget that many Democrats are worried that their base will turn out in far lower numbers in 2010 than it did in 2008, putting them at a disadvantage over fired up conservatives looking to punish the White House. Palin’s presence on the trail would offer Democrats an opportunity to address their fear of a turnout differential.

As such, Palin has become as huge a dilemma for the GOP as George W. Bush was over the past two cycles. The president still motivated the Republican base and remained a strong fundraiser; but for a candidate to get associated with him provided Democrats so much fodder that a presidential visit was just not worth the trouble. Early indications suggest that Republicans looking to win competitive races will treat Palin in the same exact way - New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Virginia’s Bill McDonnell have already signaled that Palin is not welcome to campaign by their side - but in doing so they risk attracting the wrath of conservative activists.

In shocking move, Palin announces resignation

In a shocking move that defies all expectations, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin announced she would resign by the end of the month in a press conference held this afternoon at her private Alaska home.

Many expected Palin simply to announce that she would not seek her second term, which would have been easy enough to explain given her presidential ambitions. It’s tough to run a presidential campaign while serving as Governor, especially when we’re talking about Alaska’s chief executive. Add to that the stain of the mounting ethical complaints she’s facing and the fact that she’d only be following Romney and Pawlenty’s footsteps, and it made sense for Palin to retire.

But to outright resign, and to do so having barely passed the halfway point of her first term?

If she runs for president, how will she possibly be able to justify her choice not to finish her first term? How can she get Americans vote for a quitter who got tired of her responsibilities after only 30 months? It would be political suicide for her to admit that she did it to prepare a presidential run (giving up an elected office for contest that is three and a half years away signals a level of ambition and irresponsibility voters are bound to reject) but what other explanations can she provide?

How will she argue that she has the requisite experience when voters found her lacking in 2008? Last fall, she introduced herself to America as a small town mayor and a two year Governor.It is insane to think that Palin could present herself in 2012 having added nothing other to her resume than eight more months as Alaska’s chief executive. I simply do not see how Palin can overcome this.

What is most extraordinary is that Palin seems determined to inhabit her own caricature. She has often been criticized for lacking seriousness, for her low interest in substantive issues and for her inability to work on the unglamorous nitty-gritty. So what does Palin do? Instead of proving her critics wrong by spending the next eighteen months concentrating on state politics, beefing up her policy knowledge and proving that she is interested enough in the duties of governing not to be distracted by the next shiny thing, she simply quits.

Her failure to address any of the traits that have damaged her credibility extends well beyond today’s shocker. Just two days ago, the state’s public health director charged that Palin had forced her out because of their difference on social issues - an accusation that fits with other stories surrounding Palin’s tendency to abusively fire state employees like the Wasilla police chief or that infamous state trooper.

All of this is occurring at a time Palin is particularly vulnerable. This week, two must-read stories gained a lot of attention in the political world. The first is a nearly 10,000-word Vanity Fair portrait in which Todd Purdum revisits the 2008 campaign and reports from Alaska to portray her as “erratic,” supremely ambitious, vindictive, engaging in cronyism, willing to bend the truth and exhibiting “extravagant self-regard;” most anecdotes that have come to be known about the Governor are in the piece, as well as new light shed by Purdum.

This piece was quickly followed by a CBS News story that published email exchanges between Steve Schmidt and Palin. In an effort to get the campaign to issue a statement clarifying her husband’s membership in the Alaska Independence Party, Palin conveyed false information to her own campaign. Her attempt to “bend the facts ever so slightly to fit neatly into her version of events,” as CBS artfully characterizes, was met with quite a brutal rebuttal from Schmidt.

Given the negative coverage she has recently received, the mounting ethical inquiries and perhaps a desire to concentrate on family, is it possible that that today’s announcement is meant to signal that she’s giving up on politics (as Red State laments)? I doubt that to be the case, but it’s at least plausible - not that it would make her decision any less irresponsible. We shall soon get an answer, based on whether Palin continues to attend political events and position herself as a leader of the national Republican Party, as William Kristol, ever the fan, hopes she will.

Another possibility is that she is trying to pull a McGreevey and beat revelations about a scandal that’s about to burst; but the fact that she was accompanied by officials like Lieut. Gov. Sean Parnell suggests a level of preparation and no rush to beat a breaking scandal. Would Parnell have agreed to appear at her conference if there was more to this story?

And so we’re left with the 2012 explanation - in preparation for a run against Obama, Palin decided that resigning made more sense than simply waiting for the end of her term in January 2011 - but the rationale behind such thinking completely escapes me.

Reforming the primary system

Every four years, parties attempt to reform their presidential primaries. Not only is little done, but changes that are implemented often result in making things worse. In 2008, the DNC’s attempts to include more states in the early line-up backfired when Michigan and Florida followed suit, plunging Democrats in months of acrimonious invectives.

Yet, the dysfunctions that occurred during the primary between Obama and Clinton were so high-profile that we can hope the problems with the process will be taken more seriously. Both Democrats and Republicans launched their latest efforts in recent weeks, as the DNC and RNC have formed commissions tasked with reviewing the system.

A long list of factors will come under accusation, some of which I do not see as particularly problematic but many of which should be reformed urgently: The past cycle did show that the system is in dire need of being cleaned up.

1. The early states

The subject that typically dominates these discussions is the excessively prominent role of Iowa and New Hampshire. Sure, neither parties’ primaries was overdetermined by these two states last year. NH helped McCain, but his wins in later states cannot just be described as his enjoying a post-Granite State bounce; IA boosted Obama, but it set such high expectations for his NH showing that Clinton emerged triumphant out of a 2% win. If anything, these two states did what they claim they’re good at - give the underdogs a chance they would not have if bigger states voted at once.

Whatever happened in 2008, the 2004 cycle is reason enough to reduce the early states’ influence: John Kerry’s surprise victory among the small pool of Iowa caucus-goers was enough for him to secure the entire nomination. And even in 2008 Iowa and New Hampshire showed us why the time really has come to reduce their influence:

  1. State officials blackmailed the national parties for months, threatening to move their contest dates up if other states got too close to them. In fact, it long looked that voting might start in 2007; it’s only in early November that New Hampshire’s Secretary of State fixed his primary in early January - a date that was in itself scandalous as it forced campaigning to heat up absurdly early.
  2. Such indecision is far more difficult for smaller candidates to handle, as it takes a lot of funds to be able to plan for dozens of alternate scenarios in advance.
  3. These two states are not very representative of the country. The parties’ attempt to remedy that by including Nevada and South Carolina in the early line-up was only half-successful, as the Silver State’s contests were mostly ignored by the media. Journalists were not interested in traveling out West, and Clinton and Romney’s victories in that state’s caucuses gave them no discernible momentum.
  4. These four early states forced candidates to sign a ridiculous pledge promising not to campaign in Michigan and Florida unless they want to experience the wrath of early state voters. Any system in which a voter in Des Moines might find it objectionable that a candidate is visiting Detroit or Tampa has lost it.

What should be done, of course, is an entirely different question. Having small states start-up the process allows smaller candidates to hope to make a stance (Huckabee or Edwards would have had even less hope of winning the nominations had voting started in California or in a dozen states at once) so a balance should be struck.

But that’s easier said than done: both parties have faced the fact that they have little authority as Iowa and New Hampshire will always be able to vault ahead of whatever calendar is put in place and there is no guarantee that candidates would refrain from campaigning. Another topic on which parties have more control, then, is the front-loading of the calendar.

2. The front-loaded calendar

There are two separate issues to be considered here: One is that voting is starting too early, the other is that too many states are voting on top of each other. Both concerns should be addressed. As 2008 showed, Super Tuesday has become a candidacy-killer for candidates who are not very well funded. And if it does not manage to crown a clear victor, as was the case in the Clinton-Obama contest, there are so few states left that the contest can drag on with no possible resolution.

What is the solution? The primaries’ start date can be pushed back to early March, but how can that be enforced to avoid yet another ‘rogue states’ scenario? One scenario that has been floated is the idea of four regional blocs that would vote successively with one month intervals; another would have states vote in groups based on their size - though I’m not sure why California and Texas voters should be punished for living in large states.

3. Superdelegates

After they became a point of contention in last year’s Democratic primaries, many are now suggesting that superdelegates should be done away with. That would be fine by me, but I think this issue has been overblown. Throughout the spring of 2008, Obama supporters raised the specter that superdelegates would usurp popular will by rallying around Clinton, but there was never any sign that such a thing could happen. Superdelegates were party representatives or elected officials that were in too sensible a position to do anything that controversial - not to mention that the majority of outstanding superdelegates were leaning towards Obama.

In short: Remove the possibility that superdelegates might one day counter the wishes of ordinary delegates is obviously a good idea, but to spin this as the most urgent reform strikes me as a misreading of the 2008 primaries.

4. Delegate allocation

Here’s a problem I think both parties should urgently address. On the Democratic side, the system’s excessive proportionality made it difficult for either candidate to gain an edge in the delegate hunt. Also, the rules were so incomprehensible as to be undemocratic: Voters should be able to understand the system by which they are electing their president. And no one should be required to understand the district-by-district distribution system by which different thresholds had to be met depending the number of delegates allocated to the district - not to mention the importance of the difference between odd and even-delegate districts.

On the Republican side, the rules were too different from state to state. In John McCain’s bastions (New York, New Jersey, Arizona) delegates were attributed on a winner-take-all basis while Mitt Romney’s strongholds (starting with Massachusetts) allocated them proportionally. I understand that states should have a say in voting procedures, but national parties should impose enough uniformity to ensure a fair process.

5. Making caucuses more democratic

This is not a new concern, of course (I blasted Iowa’s electoral process was undemocratic back in December 2007) but the 2008 cycle made the problem far more acute. Beyond the usual concerns about peer pressure, public voting and vote trading, Nevada and Texas’s caucuses were unspeakably chaotic. Doors were locked, voting lasted so long that participants had to leave to go back to work, voters were counted outdoors with flashlights, and, in the case of Texas, the results were not even announced for weeks!

Improving procedures to guarantee honesty, transparency should not be too much to ask; addressing concerns that some people simply cannot free themselves from work or family obligations to spend hours at a caucus is also an important issue to which a solution has to be found.

While most of this is likely to be mentioned in the coming years, we shouldn’t expect much to change. There is a long way to go before either party committee achieves any consensus as to what should be done - let alone before they manage to impose it on reluctant state parties. And don’t forget that the reforms the GOP will implement in the years ahead will be more important because Democrats will not host a competitive primary until 2016.

Sanford’s disappearance damages ‘12 ambitions, confirms rifts in state GOP

If we weren’t talking about a state’s chief executive, Mark Sanford’s five-day disappearance could be amusing. But when we’re talking about the South Carolina Governor left his office vacant without informing his staff or family of where he was going, it becomes downright bizarre. That Sanford’s staff thought it an appropriate response to say that the Governor was hiking somewhere along the Appalachia Mountain without offering any evidence that they had any other idea of where he was located along that 2,175-mile stretch are leaving me even more perplexed.

And the story could still get more complicated: We are now learning that Sanford’s car was tracked down at an Atlanta airport, leading the local media to diagnosis a hole in the Appalachia story. [Update: Well, we just learned that Sanford had flown to Argentina! He is back in South Carolina today.]

Wherever Sanford is, what I find most shocking is that Sanford apparently did not even inform those officials who should have been called to replace him - those officials who would have been tasked with taking major decisions had an unexpected crisis erupted - leading Republican Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer to voice his disapproval yesterday.

In defense of the Governor, state Senator Greg Ryberg argued today that Sanford would be able to quickly come back in case of emergency, just as he did in 2007 when he was on a trade mission to Estonia. “If they can contact him in Eastern Europe, then they can also contact him in a national park a few miles from here,” he said. Well, it was clear where Sanford was in Estonia; but the entire reason this is a story is that no one knows where he is and no one has been able to say whether the state police has been kept informed - so I find it unlikely Ryberg knows that Sanford is in “a national park a few miles from here.”

Don’t forget that we are talking here about a politician with 2012 ambitions - and one who was often mentioned as a potential running-mate for John McCain. Sanford’s refusal to accept part of Barack Obama’s stimulus funds made him one of the more visible leaders of the Republican opposition, and that positioned him well for a presidential run of his own. But I don’t see him surviving this incident, not only because he will be pilloried by late-night comedians but also because this raises questions about his judgment.

I never understood why former Senator Mark Dayton got so ridiculed for being the only lawmaker to close his office because of a terrorist threat a few years ago, but this is no longer about eccentricity - the buzz word that seems be most used to describe Sanford today. What we’re talking about is whether you can be trusted in an executive position, and a Governor’s leaving his post without informing anyone he was doing so is just such formidable material for Sanford’s opponents to use if he seeks national office.

What’s also interesting in this story is the deep rifts it reveals within South Carolina’s Republican Party. Here’s a state where Democrats have been very low, but the GOP has managed to create political competition within itself. It’s well-known that Sanford is detested by many Republican legislators because of his inflexible style and his strict opposition to earmarks (he once sent live pigs to the state legislature to denounce pork-barrel spending) but he has also attracted the enmity of officials in non-legislative positions like Lieutenant Governor Bauer. (That explains why Bauer was so willing to denounce a Governor of his own party yesterday.)

Not only has this made for fireworks in South Carolina government but it also makes the GOP’s gubernatorial primary one of 2010’s potentially most explosive contests. Sanford is term-limited. Democrats are unlikely to put up much of a race, which will surely make the GOP primary that much more ferocious.

Bauer is already running, as is arch-conservative Rep. Greshman Barrett. Iit looks like the Sanford-wing of the party could be represented by Rep. Nikki Haley, one of the Governor’s rare allies within the legislature. If she does enter the race, the primary could be a replay of all the clashes that have divided the state GOP during the past 8 years - and you can now add Sanford’s disappearance to the list of divisive episodes.

Indeed, while many Republicans are willing to attack Sanford quite viciously today, those who are defending him are even more vehement. State Senator Ryberg, for instance, blasted Sanford’s critics as elitists insiders who are looking to let Columbia burn:

What is this bizarre obsession with security? It reeks of elitism — one that pervades South Carolina government at all levels. South Carolina legislators should spend less time worrying about bodyguards and more time worrying about the double-digit unemployment and reckless spending that really matters to the people who pay for the perks and status symbols of the legislators.

Another politician whose political career could be endangered by new scandals and controversies is Rep. Vern Buchanan of Florida. First elected in 2006, Buchanan easily won re-election in 2008 despite allegations that he had pressured former employees to donate to his campaign. Now, The Tampa Bay Times is out with a lengthy report documenting new allegations that Buchanan might have to face.

In 2008, a registed Democrat with no political history and who had recently filed for bankruptcy donated $19,000 to Buchanan’s campaign and to the state Republican Party. He is now denying having given that money in good faith and saying that Timothy Mobley (a man whose companies has ties to Buchanan) offered to reimburse him for his contribution. That sort of maneuver is banned by federal law, and we’ll have to see how the story unfolds since it ties in to allegations Buchanan has faced in the past.

As Obama (kind of) extends benefits, sanctity of marriage-protector Ensign admits affair

There’s really not much to say about John Ensign’s admission yesterday that he had an 7-month affair with a campaign staffer. The contrast with the Senator’s past statements - his 1998 call for Bill Clinton to resign, his suggesting that Larry Craig should do as much in 2008 - speaks for itself.

Sex scandals play way too important a role in American politics, but when we are taking about a politician who chastises others and is worried enough about the threat posed by same-sex couples to vote in favor of the Federal Marriage Amendment, we aren’t talking about sex but hypocrisy. Taking others’ right of privacy hostage to your political ambition looks all the more worse when you take no care to exemplify the character traits you seek in others.

Don’t expect any dramatic consequences

It only took Ensign 24 hours to resign from the GOP’s Senate leadership (he chaired the Republican Policy Committee) but don’t expect much else to occur. Ensign is not up for re-election until 2012; by then, the memory of this episode will have long faded, just as no one in Louisiana seems to remember much about the D.C. Madam scandal. As for an Ensign resignation, don’t even think about it.

Of course, the situation could change if there is more to the story than the Senator admitted - some reports are suggesting that blackmail might have been involved. But the bottom-line is that no one is alleging that Ensign did anything illegal - and even if he had his odds would be better than even. Vitter, who recognized being involved with prostitutes, and Craig, who plead guilty to lewd behavior, managed to weather the storm; so why should Ensign have to resign? [Update: There could be more of a scandal than it first appeared after all.]

Sure, Clinton was impeached, John Edwards lost all political clout and Eliot Spitzer resigned within 48 hours, but Democrats are typically held to different standards. When a Republican is part of a sex scandal, Democrats are not that interested while conservative lawmakers refrain from going after a member of their own party (unless we are talking about a gay tryst, of course, as was revealed by the difference between the reaction to the Vitter and Craig scandals).

When the scandal concerns a Democrat, however, Republicans don’t hold back while Democrats are too scared to point out that a legal sexual affair between consenting adults has nothing to do with anything. In the 1998 debate in which Ensign called for Clinton’s resignation, his opponent Harry Reid called the president’s affair “immoral” and sidestepped questions as to how he would vote on impeachment proceedings.

I’m not even sure Ensign’s admission will have that much influence on his apparent ambitions to run for president in 2012. The campaign won’t seriously start until the spring of 2011. That gives him plenty of time to recover some cover with the right, just as Vitter managed to become a darling of social conservatives over the past few years. The end of John McCain’s first marriage was not that pretty a story, Rudy Giuliani (whose personal life is far more appropriate to tabloid headlines to Ensign’s) long led national polls and potential 2012 contender Newt Gingrich’s family life is still more colorful than the Nevada Senator’s.

The one clear consequence I see to this affair is that the rise of conservative darling John Thune will be facilitated by Ensign’s resignation from the leadership position. Thune now looks likely to become the new Policy Committee Chairman, giving him an even bigger platform from which to position himself for a future presidential campaign.

What about that group that really threaten the sanctity of marriage?

It is somewhat ironic that Ensign’s press conference came on the day we learned that Barack Obama would be generous enough to extend benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees. And by benefits, I do not mean health care coverage or retirement pensions. After all, it’s not like such benefits are provided in major corporations or that gay marriage or civil unions are recognized in 12 states. So why go fast? Is it not enough to throw gay-right groups the bone of relocation assistance for them to stay put until June 25th’s gay pride DNC fundraiser?

Well, apparently not. “Welcome to 1999,” quipped Alan Van Capelle, the Executive Director of Empire State Pride Agenda. The details that later trickled out decreased the memo’s significance even further: Officials essentially admitted that the memo was a way to salvage the DNC fundraiser and it became clear that the benefits we are talking about are not that extensive and this is only an administrative memo that will expire once Obama leaves office.

The Obama administration insists that it has not given up on expanding gay rights and that it will stay true to its promises - repealing DOMA, the HIV travel ban, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, counting gay couples in the census, providing meaningful benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees, passing hate crime legislation. Be patient, they say, chastising gay-right groups for wanting more so early in the term.

Yet, anger is not stemming from White House inaction but from the fact that they are being active in hurting gay rights. Last week’s Justice Department brief defending DOMA was quite a slap in the face for gay-right groups. Here was a Democratic administration filing a legal document comparing same-sex partnerships to incestuous and underage marriages in order to defend a law Obama called “abhorrent” on the trail.

To the extent that one cares about threats to the sanctity of marriage, which looks like the most relevant storyline: The Obama Administration guarding us against the slippery slope from homosexuality to incest or a socially conservative Senator admitting to an affair.

Update: The Obama Administration’s decision to defend the constitutionality DOMA is all the more disappointing with the news that Arnold Schwarzenegger has decided not to defend the constitutionality of Prop 8 in federal court.

Pawlenty will retire: A decision with major implications for 2010, 2012 and redistricting

Unlike 17 of his fellow Governors who are barred from seeking a third term in 2010, Tim Pawlenty is not limited from doing so as Minnesota has no term limit law. Yet, Pawlenty is set to announce that he will retire - a move that creates the cycle’s 18th open gubernatorial race and that has clear implications for the 2012 presidential election.

As a potential (even probable) presidential candidate, Pawlenty must have been thinking of former Virginia Senator George Allen in trying to make up his mind. Considered the early front-runner for the GOP’s 2008 nomination, Allen unexpectedly lost his re-election race in 2006 - a defeat that destroyed his presidential ambitions. By contrast, Mitt Romney declined to run for re-election in Massachusetts, thus avoiding the possibility of a high-profile.

Facing mediocre poll numbers, Pawlenty must have known that Democrats would make sure to make his re-election race one of the most contested of the cycle. Why take the huge risk of running for a third term, then, when two full terms as Governor already provide enough experience for Pawlenty to justify a presidential campaign? Add to that the fact that Pawlenty will be free to travel in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina throughout 2011 and the decision cannot have been that difficult.

As for the gubernatorial race, this development does not dramatically improve Democratic prospects since Pawlenty was already certain to face a competitive re-election race. With at least one formidable Republican potentially waiting in the wings, it remains to be seen whether Democrats’ chances of winning an open seat will be at all higher than those of beating Pawlenty, who won his 2006 re-election race by the thinnest of margins.

Depending on who runs and who moves on to the general election, the race should settle somewhere between “lean Democratic” and “toss-up.” That is to say that the the GOP’s prospects should not be underestimated.

Minnesota might have a Democratic history, but it remains a swing state. Republicans have had their share of success - particularly in 2002, when Pawlenty and Coleman won statewide races, and in 2008, when they Coleman performed better than other similarly vulnerable Senators and when the NRCC won the highly contested MN-03 open seat. Most remarkably, Democrats have been shut out of the Governor’s mansion since 1991!

The GOP’s bet to win the general election could be former Rep. Jim Ramstad, a moderate Republican who retired from the 3rd district in 2008. But Minnesota’s nomination procedures are dominated by conventions and it difficult to see how Ramstad could win the nod of party activists. On the other side of the spectrum is Rep. Michelle Bachmann, a far-right firebrand; her popularity among the GOP base would make a strong contender in the primary but she would have obvious electability issues: A statewide race in Minnesota is not quite the same thing as a race for a red-leaning House district.

Other potential Republican candidates include Lieutenant Governor Carol Molnau, state House Minority Leader Mary Seifert, businessman Brian Sullivan and Rep. John Kline. The most intriguing possibility is Norm Coleman, who could attempt a political comeback. But the former Senator’s unfavorability rating is high after last year’s campaign - and only it is rising during his challenge to Franken’s victory. Add to that the fact that he lost statewide races in 1998 and in 2008 and the GOP would be well-advised to take another route.

Democrats have an absurdly long list of contenders who are eying the race. Former Senator Mark Dayton, former House Minority Leader Matt Entenza, state Senator John Marty, state Senator Tom Bakk and state Rep. Paul Thissen have all taken the first steps in planning runs. Other potential candidates include House Speaker Margaret Anderson, state Senator Tarryl Clark, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. Rep. Tim Walz had ruled out challenging Pawlenty, but he might be more interested in an open race. With such a long list of contenders who are not only mentioned but are actually known to be interested in the race, it will take a while for any clarity to emerge.

It’s also very much possible that the Independence Party fields a credible candidate - as it did in the 1998 and 2002 gubernatorial races and in the 2008 senatorial run. Such a scenario would not unfold for many more months.

As if the intrigue of the presidential undertones and the drama of the crowded field of contenders were not enough reason to follow this election, the stakes are very high because of the upcoming redistricting. Democrats have a huge leads in both chambers of the state legislature, so all they all they need to control the redrawing of legislative boundaries is the Governor’s Mansion. If they pick-up the position, they can bolster some of their marginal districts (MN-01 and MN-05, for instance) while drawing freshman Erik Paulsen (MN-03) a much tougher district than the one he was able to win last year; they could also try to make liffe difficult for Bachmann. If Republicans hold the Governor’s mansion, they could force a bipartisan map - thus protecting Paulsen and Bachmann.

Within the GOP, the conciliation camp versus the purist faction

Jon Huntsman’s decision to accept Barack Obama’s ambassadorial appointment is being interpreted as just another chapter in the GOP’s ideological war - along with Arlen Specter’s party switch and the looming Senate primaries in Missouri or Florida. Yet, Huntsman is no centrist; portraying him as such misses the point of why his move to China is significant.

In 2004, Huntsman ran for Governor as a conservative alternative to Republican incumbent Olene Smith Walker - and this is Utah’s GOP primary we are talking about. Over the following years, he continued to govern from the right (as is expected from a Utah Governor) but, as has been covered extensively, he attracted national attention by breaking with Republican activists on a few issues. The National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru wrote today:

I’ve now read a few articles and blog posts either lauding the Utah governor as a moderate or denouncing him as same. Huntsman has signed pro-life bills, voucher bills, and tax cuts. Yes, he is open to some kind of civil union for gay couples and wants Republicans to make more of an effort on environmental issues. But if that’s all it takes for a Republican politician to get an image both inside and outside the party as a “moderate” these days, that’s a pretty good thing, isn’t it?

Indeed, what it means to be a “moderate Republican” has changed quite a bit as the GOP’s centrist ranks have been decimated. For one, right-wing politicians like Arlen Specter abruptly found themselves representing the party’s far-left - a position they did not occupy when there was still an abundance on New England Republicans. This drift explains how someone with Huntsman’s conservative politics could have come to be viewed as “moderate.”

Second, the definition of “moderate Republican” has lost some of its substantive significance. Instead of designating a faction of people with a similar (Rockefellerian) ideological approach, it is now used to refer to anyone who dares break with an element of conservative orthodoxy as enunciated by Republican activists and the likes of Rush Limbaugh. (For instance, Mel Martinez’s support for immigration reform gave him a still-lingering reputation as a moderate.)

While it is significant that some Republicans have taken positions that have attracted the ire of party activists, this is obviously not enough to make them moderates. In fact, there is currently little evidence of a large-scale war between moderates and conservatives within the Republican Party - largely because the former group has long lost the battle.

Rather than such a substantive or ideological contrast, the more meaningful distinction should be drawn between what we could call the conciliation faction and the purist faction. The former group wants the GOP to have a broad tent, the latter group insists that the path back to power resides in an all-out confrontational strategy and a return to the party’s ideological roots.

A recent example of purist rhetoric comes from Senator Jim DeMint, who asserted again today at South Carolina’s GOP convention that 30 Senators who stand firm on principles are more desirable than 60 Senators who do not. Also, it is along this opposition that the Texas primary between Kay Bailey Hutchison and Rick Perry should be interpreted - and it is also thus that Huntsman’s recent political moves make the most sense.

The purist camp is moving so far to the right that it is condemning itself to a tough time - not to mention that those who are emerging as this faction’s public leaders (Limbaugh, Sarah Palin) are far from the best P.R. faces.

That said, there is something to be said for the purist positioning; The GOP will not regain its footing before Barack Obama’s approval rating falls enough that voters have gone sour on Democrats and on his economic agenda. When that happens, it is those Republicans who took clear stances against spending, tax policies or the stimulus that will appear to Obama’s skeptics as most able to channel their own political positioning; with time, the President’s toughest critics could come to be viewed as his best opponents.

As a parallel, think back to the 2004 presidential race: John Kerry spent a lot of time having to explain why he had repeatedly given Bush the benefit of the doubt and why he was suddenly opposing policies he had spent years supporting. Kerry should have known that it’s not like a Democrat would have had any chance of beating Bush if Iraq had been going well a year after the war started; as such, he had far less to lose in voting against the war than he believed in October 2002. Similarly, the GOP’s 2012 nominee will have little chance if Obama policies like the stimulus are viewed as having succeeded. So what would be the point of nominating a stimulus supporter like Crist?

Finally, the confusion over the definition of “moderate Republican” is something against which Democrats should guard themselves. In particular, they should be careful not to shower praise on Republicans because it could come back to bite them. For years, John McCain was many Democrats’ favorite Republican; this allowed him to build his maverick reputation that made him look for a long time like the GOP’s strongest general election nominee. Now, the same warning applies for Republicans like Huntsman: By advancing his reputation as a “reasonable” GOPer with “moderate” credentials, Demcorats are bolstering the profile of a man they might have to worry about in 2016.

Huntsman to China: Obama gets rid of a ‘12 rival, boosts his ‘16 bid and creates new Governor’s race

At the beginning of the month, David Plouffe surveyed the GOP’s field of potential presidential candidates and declared that only one made him a “wee bit queasy” - Utah Governor Jon Huntsman. Barely two weeks later, Barack Obama appointed Huntsman Ambassador to China.

Huntsman, who speaks fluent Mandarin from his time as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan, served as Ambassador to Singapore under President George H.W. Bush. His nomination thus did not come out of left-field, but it was an unexpected move.

“When the president of the United States asks you to step up and serve in a capacity like this, that to me is the end of the conversation and the beginning of the obligation to rise to the challenge,” Huntsman responded. And just like that one of the countries’ highest-profile Republicans prepares to leave the country, to vacate his governorship and to head out of ‘12 speculation.

Only 56 in 2016

While there was no guarantee that Huntsman would jump in the 2012 presidential race, he was believed to be taking the initial steps in planning a national campaign. While Huntsman’s nomination does not technically rule out a run - he could serve for two years before returning to the U.S., it does make it effectively unfeasible. For one, it is unlikely that Huntsman will be recalled before the end of Obama’s first term; second, he would need to return early enough to put himself in the running; third, he would be hard-pressed to run against Obama (and win the GOP primary) after accepting to serve as the his Ambassador.

Furthermore, Huntsman’s move to China will temporarily deprive the GOP’s moderate faction of one of their most prominent allies. While it would be a stretch to call Huntsman a centrist, he disagreed with the idea that the party should move further to the right. In February, he drew attention when he announced his support for civil-unions - an unexpected move from the Governor of one of the most conservatives states in the country; he has also called for action to fight global warming and he has drawn fire from his party’s base on immigration issues.

Whether or not you agree that Republicans need to implement Huntsman’s vision to get back in power, the White House seems to think that the Utah Governor’s participation in intra-party debates would have helped the GOP rebound and they look committed to helping Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh take control of the Republican Party.

(GOP12 makes the interesting point that Huntsman’s appointment makes Charlie Crist the only non-conservative with national ambitions - and that could help him run in 2012 since he would not have to worry about competing with Huntsman. On the other hand, the Utah Governor looks like a more viable presidential candidate since Crist has broken with conservatives far more than Huntsman.)

As such, the Obama administration has gotten rid of a potentially threatening 2012 challenger while also ensuring that Huntsman does not participate in efforts to renovate the GOP.

But could the Democrats’ 2012 gain end up hurting them four years later?

If Obama wins a second term, Huntsman would be able to seek the Republican nomination in 2016. He would only be 56 and a resume tailored-made for a presidential run. Governors often make the best presidential candidates but they usually lack foreign policy experience. But Huntsman will be able to run on his executive experience, on his familiarity as domestic issues from his time as Governor and on his tenure as Ambassador to China (a position held by George. H.W. Bush in the 1970s).

Furthermore, he will be equipped with Obama’s stamp of approval, which could help him win over independent voters if the President is still popular in seven years. Sure, his association with Obama could hurt Huntsman in the Republican primary, but, assuming he returns from China in 2013, he would have a couple of years to bolster his conservative credentials before launching in the presidential campaign.

A 39th gubernatorial race

Once Huntsman is confirmed by the Senate (it’s hard to imagine Republicans spending much time trying to derail him), Lieutenant Governor Gary Herbert will become Governor and a special election will be triggered in November 2010 to fill the reminder of Huntsman’s four-year term. This makes Utah the 39th state that will hold a gubernatorial race in the 2009/2010 cycle.

A former county commissioner, Herbert attempted to run for Governor back in 2004. That certainly suggests that he has gubernatorial ambitions and that he will now try to secure his hold on the seat - unlike, say, Mark Parkinson in Kansas.

Utah is such a Republican state that Democrats will be heavy underdogs. While they have pulled off miraculous victories in neighboring states - most notably Freudenthal in Wyoming -  this will not be an open seat and they have a thin bench; while someone like Rep. Jim Matheson could mount a competitive run, Democrats need him to run in UT-02 rather than endanger his career in a tough statewide run. Perhaps Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker could make things interesting?

The most competitive race will likely occur within the Republican Party. In 2003, Olene Smith Walker became Governor in similar conditions but she was not placed on the 2004 primary ballot by the delegates at the GOP’s state convention; Huntsman went on to win the Republican nomination and the general election. Yet, while he could certainly face tough primary competition, Herbert is not likely to meet as brutal a fate as Walker. For one, he is a fairly orthodox conservative; second, he has a year to secure the support of party activists rather than Walker’s six months.

But a factor to keep in mind - one that Walker did not have to worry about - is that the 2010 election will be off-schedule: That means that state politicians (whether legislators or statewide officials) will be able to jump in without abandoning their own posts, as they typically have to do if they want run for Governor.

Bizarre turns in Texas politics

Over the past decade, Texans have sure found a way to spice up their political life in a way few states with a dominant party have managed to do. In 2003, the redistricting plan championed by Tom DeLay threw the state legislature into chaos and led to dramatic showdowns in 2004 congressional races. In 2006, Governor Rick Perry looked like a safe bet to win re-election but a bizarre four-way contest made that gubernatorial race one of the most entertaining of the year.

Now, Perry and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison are preparing to face-off in what could be one of the most explosive showdowns of the cycle, while two of the state’s Democratic heavyweights are piling up money for a Senate race that does not exist.

Last week, Texan politics took a truly bizarre turn when Perry suggested that Texas could secede. Sure, we already knew that the Governor is looking to run as the more conservative candidate in his likely primary against Hutchison. (In fact, he needs to run as the far-right candidate to motivate the party’s base enough to counter Hutchison’s advantage.) But secession? Could it possibly help Perry’s primary prospects to suggest that Texas should leave the United States?

Well, it looks like Perry’s suggestion could be an electoral winner after all. A Research 2000 poll released on Friday finds that an eye-popping 48% of state Republicans think that Texas would be better off as an independent nation; as many say it would be better off in the United States. More strikingly still: 51% approved of Perry’s comments, while 44% who disapproved.

Needless to say, a poll that found similar feelings among New England Democrats would be covered for days on Fox News and conservative commentators would accuse liberals of betraying the country. Yet, a Governor is here opening the door to secession and I am forced to discuss how this could help him solidify his hold on the GOP electorate by positioning him as a champion of movement conservatives.

While advocates for Texan sovereignty have existed ever since the independent Republic joined the U.S., and Perry’s comments appealed to that state-specific sensibility. But there is also no question that his talk of secession only makes sense in the context of the right’s current anger against the federal government - a rage that was recently displayed at the tea parties. (As if Republicans had not controlled Washington for much of the past eight years, though, to be fair, many of the tea party attendees sounded quite enraged at GOP politicians.)

So what should we make of the fact that Perry went this far to channel the conservative anger and that his base followed him? Is such extremist talk the logical end of the GOP’s current opposition to Obama? Don’t forget that Perry is certainly not outside of the Republican mainstream; he is the longest serving GOP Governor, his opposition on the stimulus was less vocal than that of Bobby Jindal and Mark Sanford, and his primary bid is already backed by prominent Republicans like Sarah Palin.

If this is indeed what the base is expecting, Republicans with national ambitions could end up drifting further to the far-right than they can afford. Perry’s talk of secession should thus be a warning to all conservative politicians. After all, a Republican obviously cannot go this far and still expect to be electable nationwide in 2012.

Just imagine the ads Obama could run in 2012 against a Republican who spoke approvingly of dislocating the country, or even against a Republican who supported a politician who favored secession. For instance, could Palin not find herself in hot water if she continues to immerse herself in the Texas gubernatorial race? (Let’s not forget that Palin herself attracted attention last year because of her husband’s membership in the Alaska Independence Party.)

The rest of the Research 2000 poll suggests that Democrats have a long way to go before getting Texas to be competitive, though they would at least have an opening to win Hutchison’s Senate race if she were to resign from her seat:

  • Both Perry and Hutchison handily defeat Democratic candidate Tom Schieffer: Perry leads 52% to 37%, Hutchison by a wider 57% to 35%. Keep in mind that Schieffer, who has never held elected office, is a few tiers below the two Republican titans.
  • Another sign that Hutchison is the stronger candidate in both the primary and the general election: Her favorability rating stands at 64% (86% among Republicans) compared to Perry’s 51% (76% among Republicans).

In the Senate race, Research 2000 tested eight match-ups involving two Democrats (Houston Mayor Bill White and former Comptroller John Sharp) and four Republicans. None of the trial heats yields a bigger margin than 7% - a sign that the race could be competitive.

Two Republicans - Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst and Attorney General Greg Abbott - lead both of their match-ups; two Republicans - Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams and state Senator Florence Shapiro - trail both. Given that White and Sharp are better-known than Williams and Shapiro but less well-known than Dewhurst and Abbott, it looks like the survey is more or less a name recognition test:

  • Abbott leads Sharp 43% to 36% and White 42% to 36%.
  • Dewhurst leads Sharp 44% to 37% and White 43% to 37%.
  • Sharp leads Williams 37% to 34%; he is ahead of Shapiro 37% to 33%.
  • White leads against those two Republicans 38% to 34% and 38% to 33%, respectively.

Keep in mind that both White and Sharp are already running, even though the special election might not be held until the spring of 2011 - or even not at all, if Hutchison loses the Republican primary to Perry. In fact, White has already raised $1.8 million - making him the first quarter’s most prolific non-incumbent fundraiser. That might not be enough to make Texas vote for a Democrat, but the state’s politics remain as fascinating as ever.

Alaska landscape getting increasingly tricky for Palin

Sarah Palin recently made it clear that she had no intention to run for Senate in 2010, but she should start thinking of an alternative to serving another term as Alaska Governor if she is serious about a future presidential run.

Like all Governors, Palin risks seeing her approval rating plunge as the economic crisis worsens, but her problems reach far deeper than those of her colleagues. She has antagonized her state legislature to such an extent that she is likely to spend much of the next two years battling local lawmakers. And if she runs for re-election in 2010, she could be embroiled in a high-profile trench warfare with her legislature all the way until 2012.

Palin’s showdown with her legislature is sure to be particularly chaotic because she is battling her own party. (The state House is controlled by the GOP, and the state Senate is in the hands of an odd coalition of Democratic and Republican lawmakers since 2006.)

We learned that Palin had a rocky relationship with Alaska Republicans as soon as she was tapped to be John McCain’s running-mate. Within hours came a scathing assessment from then-state Senate President Lyda Green, a Republican. ”She’s not prepared to be governor. How can she be prepared to be vice president or president?” said Green. “Look at what she’s done to this state. What would she do to the nation?” Since then, Palin antagonized most state legislators when she announced her decision to refuse a third of the stimulus money - much of it education funds.

Now comes the news that both chambers of the legislature have rejected Palin’s nominee for Attorney General - a move The Anchorage Daily News describes as “a historic vote” and “the first time in state history a head of a state agency has failed to be confirmed by the Legislature.” Of 32 Republican legislators, 9 voted with Democrats reject Wayne Anthony Ross’s nomination:

Even Ross’ opponents in the Legislature had said just a few days ago that he had enough support to be confirmed despite widespread opposition from Alaska Native groups, his calling gays “degenerates” in the 1990s, and allegations that he made offensive comments about women. But a tipping point appeared to come this week when Ross gave what lawmakers called bad and politicized legal advice to Palin about a fight she’s having with lawmakers over a state Senate appointment.

The “fight” that paragraph refers to is indeed quite comically chaotic. Last month, state Senator Kim Elton was appointed to a post in the Obama Administration. According to state law, the Governor gets to fill the vacancy - but the pick has to be of the same party as the departing member. Predictably, Palin is doing her best to get around the requirement. She first appointed Tim Grussendorf, who had just registered as a Democrat; the Senate’s Democratic caucus voted to reject Palin’s appointment. The Governor then appointed Joe Nelson, an official at the University of Alaska Southeast; Democrats responded that Nelson was not active in party politics and rejected his appointment.

Act 3: Palin sent the state Senate a list of 3 names - Grussendorf, Nelson and Alan Wilson, who only became a Democrat on March 4th. That set up a bizarre showdown (emphasis mine):

State Senate Democrats are refusing to vote on the three names that Gov. Sarah Palin forwarded as appointees for the open Senate seat. They obtained a legal opinion this morning saying it is illegal for Palin to submit more than one name. “There is nothing for us to vote on, there is no appointment,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Hollis French, an Anchorage Democrat. “The governor has taken an unusual course which is outside the law and leaves us no choice but to ignore what she‘s done.”

I caught up with the governor’s attorney general appointee, Wayne Anthony Ross, in the Capitol… “It seems to me the most important thing that can be done by the Senate is not argue with legal or illegal but to appoint somebody to represent Juneau,” said Ross.

I’m going to ignore the fact that Ross’s defense of Palin’s list is utterly nonsensical and point out that Alaska lawmakers are determined to make life difficult for Palin - and to turn her into a laughingstock in the process.

While this situation might help her portray herself as a “maverick” looking to shake up the state’s power interests, a prolonged battle would be sure to generate dozens of negative stories that Palin’s Republican rivals (not to mention Democrats) will gleefully file away for future use. It’s never good to have your state looking ungovernable and to have your leadership constantly questioned - and remember that Palin’s executive experience was one of her main arguments on the campaign trail last fall.

Most importantly, Palin’s Alaska-based showdown would first and foremost distract her from the national stage - preventing her from helping other Republicans in the run-up to the midterm and taking her attention away from the presidential trail in 2011. After all, it is not as easy to travel from Juneau to Des Moines as it is to jump from Massachusetts to New Hampshire!

With the entire country’s eyes scrutinizing her every move, it will be very difficult for Palin to escape criticism that she is taking gubernatorial decisions with an eye to the national landscape and her relationship with the state legislature is sure to deteriorate every time she travels to the lower 48. From The Anchorage Daily News’s article on Ross’s rejection:

Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman, who voted against Ross, said Palin should have stayed in town to help round up votes for her attorney general nominee. The Republican governor was in Indiana on Thursday to speak at a Right to Life event.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney - freed from his gubernatorial duties but still very much on the public eye - is attracting nothing but applause for devoting most of his time to fundraising and to courting Republican officials across the country.

Update: More evidence from Mike Hawker, the Republican co-chair of the Finance Committee: “I’ve had a lot of friction with the governor this year on her lack of connection, frankly the appearance that she’s more concerned about her national ambitions than what’s going on in the state.”

It’s never too early to talk about 2012

It hasn’t even been a full month since Barack Obama moved into the White House, so it feels somewhat indecent to talk about his re-election race. But how can we not interpret every single one of Sarah Palin’s and Mitt Romney’s gestures as preparatory moves for 2012 (see the WaPo’s new article on the Alaska Governor)? Whether we like it or not, the GOP’s nomination battle has already been launched - and I will do my best to chronicle significant developments.

Today’s theme: What is up with Republicans with obvious national ambitions alienating conservatives?

Let’s start with Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr., who announced that he was in favor of same-sex civil unions. Huntsman, a conservative Republican and a Mormon, is the last person we would have expected to rush to the defense of gay rights, and his move took everybody by surprise, including Utah’s political establishment. Democratic lawmakers expressed their delighted incredulity, while gay-right groups quickly organized to come to Huntsman’s aid.

What is most remarkable is that Huntsman had little incentive to make such a decision. There is a bill in the state legislature to repeal the ban against civil unions, but it has little chance of passing; and Huntsman faced little pressure from his constituents to take this route.

Besides this new position, Huntsman is a staunch conservative, so his support for civil unions is certainly not enough to label him a “moderate.” Yet, such a high-profile decision is sure to create trouble for Huntsman if he chooses to run for President in 2012, as many speculate he might. Abortion, gay rights and gun rights are not issues on which the GOP’s presidential candidates have much room to maneuver if they want to survive their party’s conservative party voters. (Rudy Giuliani, and to some extent Mitt Romney, discovered this the hard way in 2008.)

On the other hand, it is important not to overstate how shocking a turnaround this represents. Sure, Huntsman is conservative and he comes from Utah, but civil unions have become far more accepted in just the past few years as some opponents of gay marriage have come to think of them as a way to stop marriage equality. A new Deseret poll shows that 47% of Utah residents support civil unions, while 42% are against. As importantly, 80% of respondents say they approve of Huntsman’s job performance - a remarkably high number that explains why the Governor is mentioned as a potential presidential candidate.

Huntsman can certainly derive some benefits from his turnaround, then. For him to support civil unions is a relatively painless way to bolster his moderate credentials. After all, Huntsman is a conservative Mormon - and he needs to be able to show the rest of the country that he is not far outside of the mainstream if he wants to have a chance in 2012. As long as Huntsman keeps up a socially conservative profile on other issues, he could defend himself from conservative attacks (Giuliani and Romney were both weighted down by a pro-choice past) while pointing to his support for civil unions as evidence that not all his views are extremist.

Florida Governor Charlie Crist is in a far more dangerous position. Crist’s presidential ambitions are far more transparent than Huntsman’s, making it that much more interesting that the Governor is opening himself to so much criticism from conservatives.

Crist has always been denounced by the Right. Conservatives agitated against the possibility that he would be tapped as McCain’s running mate, and the National Review published a scathing profile of Crist as a warning to McCain. But Crist is now giving more ammunition to his critics: During the stimulus debate, Crist rallied to Obama’s side at a crucial moment, appeared with him at a rally, called on his party to support the plan and undermined the GOP’s efforts to organize a unifited front of opposition and isolate Specter, Snowe and Collins.

Unsurprisingly, Crist’s potential rivals are already opening fire. South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, a fiscal conservative who is believed to be eying the GOP’s presidential nomination, criticized Crist in an interview to The State:”I don’t think that a lot of people down here would call him a fiscal conservative,” he said. Crist also attracted criticism from Florida Senator Mel Martinez, who is retiring in 2010 and whose Senate seat Crist might want to run for.

An important test in the GOP’s 2012 primary is sure to be which candidate stood up the most to Obama; after all, Republican voters’ primary objective will be to defeat the incumbent president and the policies he represents. In 2003-2004, Democratic voters did not take too kindly to candidates who were seen as having collaborated with George Bush: Not only did Lieberman never get anywhere, but candidates like John Kerry had to embrace a far more oppositional tone after Howard Dean blasted their willingness to support the incumbent.

A similar problem is sure to emerge for Crist in 2012 if he seeks the right to face Obama. Why should we give the nomination to someone who has a history of supporting Obama’s policies, primary voters are sure to ask. And Crist’s potential opponents will be there to exploit that dynamic.



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