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THE ONES THAT GOT AWAY

A Commentary by Larry J. Sabato

Friday, October 08, 2010

In every election cycle there are contests that one party “should” win but does not, usually because its partisans have chosen unwisely in the party primary. These are the ones that got away, to the consternation of party leaders who want to win above all else.

Before identifying these lost (or possibly lost) contests, let’s remember that nothing in the Constitution or laws requires a party’s voters to pick winners. As in the now-famous Delaware Republican primary for Senate, a majority appeared inclined to use the ballot to send a message to the party establishment, rather than select a candidate who could actually become senator. That is the voters’ right. By no means has this phenomenon been restricted to Republicans over the years. For example, Democrats sometimes chose the same route in the late 1960s and early 1970s to demonstrate their unhappiness with party leaders about the Vietnam War or the lack of openness in the party. Tea Party adherents in 2010 understand this impulse.

While Christine O’Donnell’s followers insist that everyone else will eat crow on November 2nd, you cannot find many election analysts who believe she will be in the winner’s circle, while moderate Congressman Michael Castle (R) would have defeated Democratic nominee Chris Coons handily to gain a Senate seat for the GOP. Every survey—public and private, Democratic, Republican, and nonpartisan—shows this.

Another classic example can be found in the Colorado gubernatorial contest. Unpopular Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter, who decided not to run for a second term, created the opportunity for a Republican victory. Former Congressman Scott McInnis was the favorite over Tea Party candidate Dan Maes in the GOP primary, until McInnis was caught up in a plagiarism scandal. Party leaders still favored McInnis, on the theory that he would withdraw and enable someone like former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton to run and win as the Republican nominee. But Maes won by a tiny margin, saddling the GOP with an unqualified candidate who also apparently misrepresented his work with Kansas law enforcement earlier in his career. Former Congressman Tom Tancredo (R), closely associated with the anti-immigration movement, decided to run as an Independent, further fracturing the Republican Party. Ever since, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, the Democratic nominee, has essentially been the Governor-elect.

When party leaders talk privately, they bemoan plenty of other nominations, too. Here are some examples:

  • The Florida gubernatorial contest would probably have been solidly in the R column had self-funding businessman Rick Scott not upset conservative choice Bill McCollum, the state’s attorney general. The party is trying to paper over deep splits, and Democrat Alex Sink, who would become the Sunshine State’s first woman governor, now has a 50-50 shot in this critical mega-state. (The polls are all over the lot.) We caution that the contest is not over, and if the GOP wave is high enough, Scott could benefit in November.
  • Jerry Brown was a strange choice to be the Democratic nominee for Governor of California in an anti-establishment year. This lifelong politician and former two-term Governor is a throwback to the 1970s and a very different time in the Golden State. The truth is that few promising, fresh candidates even considered a candidacy to run this massively troubled state, and in the end Brown was virtually unopposed for the Democratic nomination. If anyone who might be in charge of California’s hopeless budget and paralyzed governmental system could be called lucky, Brown is fortunate to be running in a state that is now so deeply Blue that this intrinsic partisan advantage may get him elected over Republican Meg Whitman. Yet Whitman is pulling out all the stops, having spent over $119 million of her own money on the campaign, more than any political self-funder in American history. For Whitman, a campaign fundraiser is lunch with her accountant.
  • The GOP leadership in Georgia didn’t much like Secretary of State Karen Handel, but you’d better believe many would now gladly substitute her on the ballot for the man who narrowly defeated her for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, former Congressman Nathan Deal. Georgia’s modern political color is Red, usually very, very Red, and that will probably be enough to carry him to an undistinguished victory over former Gov. Roy Barnes (D) in November. Yet Deal’s problems just keep piling up, stemming from revelations about a failed loan of over $2 million to his son-in-law, who had already declared bankruptcy just a few years earlier. The issue has been compounded by the conflicting financial disclosures from Deal that have come under scrutiny and he has had to amend on several occasions. There were plenty of warnings about Deal, including a congressional ethics investigation aborted by Deal’s resignation from the House, but Republicans chose to ignore them.
  • In a year when Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid is being severely tested in Nevada, the state’s Democrats chose to balance the ticket by nominating his son Rory for Governor. That’s right, a controversial and embattled U.S. senator in dire straits was paired on the ballot with a dynastic candidate from his own household, thus offering the voters two helpings of an unpopular surname. Tea Party Republican nominee Sharron Angle is so controversial that she may reelect Harry Reid—though few seem willing to bet on that outcome—but the Democrats have ended their hopes for the governorship already. Republican nominee Brian Sandoval should easily dispatch Rory Reid on November 2nd. By the way, should Harry Reid survive, it is Republicans who will regret their failure to recruit a sure winner like Congressman Dean Heller, who probably would have been elected to the Senate with many votes to spare.
  • During a recent visit to Illinois, it was impossible to avoid hearing much wailing and gnashing of Democratic teeth over the choice of their Senate nominee, state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias. In Barack Obama’s home state, Giannoulias—closely tied to a failing, corrupt bank in a year when voters are deeply angry at banks—has no better than an even shot at the seat. If Republicans post any national surge on November 2, Giannoulias may achieve the highly unlikely by losing to Republican Congressman Mark Kirk (R), who has had his own problems with fabricating portions of his resume. Democrats are still mourning the decision by state Attorney General Lisa Madigan not to seek the Senate seat. She would have been a substantial favorite.
  • Is there a state where the GOP has collapsed more spectacularly than in New York? Even in Colorado and Florida, where the party is on the verge of forfeiting governorships unnecessarily, the Republican Senate nominees, Ken Buck and Marco Rubio, are doing quite well. But in the Empire State, in the most Republican year since 1994, Republicans are unlikely to win any of the three top offices on the ballot, the governorship and both Senate seats. Despite one post-primary poll that showed Democrat Andrew Cuomo leading Tea Party Republican Carl Paladino by a less-than-expected margin, Cuomo should win by a wide margin in the end. Senior Sen. Chuck Schumer doesn’t even have to acknowledge his anonymous GOP opponent, Jay Townsend. The other Senate race is the best example of the GOP debacle. Interim appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was beatable. She had been selected in a divisive process by New York’s much-disliked interim Governor David Paterson (D), and in a Republican year, she certainly could have been beaten by a first-class GOP standard-bearer. Instead, also-rans and yesterday’s men competed for the R label, with little-known former Congressman Joseph DioGuardi emerging from the primary as the lamb for slaughter. Some Republican sources insist that DioGuardi has a shot because Gillibrand is so weak, but we’ll be surprised if he upends her.
  • To everyone’s surprise, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (D) is being hard-pressed in his bid to win the late Robert Byrd’s Senate seat by a self-funder and two-time political loser John Raese (R), who is even being challenged about his actual state of residency. (It may be Florida instead of West Virginia, though Raese insists otherwise.) The Mountain State’s unhappiness with President Obama is the root cause of Manchin’s unexpected troubles. What would have happened had the GOP nominated Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito instead of Raese? Yes, she opted not to run, but a full-court press might have yielded another decision.

The what-ifs of politics are fascinating and consequential. Suppose Republicans miss taking the Senate by a vote or two? There are more than enough seats fumbled away here to have made the difference.

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

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