Tuesday, October 15, 2002

Mid-Term GOP Blues

The New York Times reports this morning that perhaps 15% of the votes cast in this year's mid-term elections will be cast before Election Day. The percentage of votes cast before Election Day will be highest in the western states, where it is easiest to do so, but "absentee" votes will also be higher than normal in a number of mid-western and southern states. And this will make it much more difficult for the Decision Desks of the various networks to accurately project winners quickly on Election Night. Because of the size of the absentee vote in states across the country, there's an outside chance that we won't know on Election Night who will control the US Senate, the US House and/or key gubernatorial seats. We may just have to wait until all the "absentee" votes are counted.

That said, I'm inclined to agree with House Whip Tom DeLay (R-TX) that the Republicans will likely gain a seat or two in the House this year. DeLay is an unusually astute vote-counter whose record of predictions in past election cycles has been uncannily accurate. I'm inclined to disagree with his assessment that the GOP will get the better of the Senate races, although (to be fair) he hasn't yet made a firm prediction (that I've heard). With Liddy Dole back in play, with Forrestor flailing, with Coleman trailing and with Sununu not getting it done (yet), the likeliest outcome appears to be a net Democratic gain of one seat. And that's before the Lincoln Chaffee (R-Jeffords) issue is resolved.

But the big story is the governors. Unlike Senators (with the possible exception of John McCain) and House members, governors can actually help a presidential candidate win an election. The late Lee Atwater used to say that a governor was worth at least a point in any state, which is why he designed then-Vice President Bush's 1986 political strategy around helping GOP gubernatorial candidates win their elections. Then-Majority Leader Robert Dole devoted his 1986 mid-term election efforts toward helping the GOP retain Senate control, which they did not do and which did him no good when he ran against Bush Senior in the 1988 presidential primaries.

In this year's mid-term gubernatorial elections, GOP prospects waver between blah and bleak (Click on Multimedia Graphic inside this link for a complete assessment of this year's races). Blah would be the loss of Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Although George W. Bush lost all of these four states in 2000, he didn't lose them (with the exception of Illinois) by much and he obviously hopes to win at least two of them in 2004.

Bleak would be the loss of Florida and perhaps even Texas. In both states, the numbers are already too close for comfort. While President Bush is certain to win Texas in 2004, he must also win Florida to win re-election. And in order to win Florida, he probably needs his brother there to deliver unto him Atwater's one percent.

On election night, most of the commentators will blather on about control of the Senate and the House. But in real political terms, the races that matter most are the gubernatorial contests. And right now, Democrats have the gubernatorial upper hand.