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Winners and Losers in the Game of Political Life

A Commentary By Larry J. Sabato

Friday, July 23, 2010

One reason why people are attracted to politics is because, like sports, there are usually clear winners and losers. Moral ambiguity and shades of gray may overwhelm other sectors of life, but not the bottom-line of elections.

Only finality on November 2 really matters. Raising more money or winning a primary or seeing your opponent sink into a scandal is a kind of victory, but it’s transient. Still, you savor what you can on your way to Judgment Day.

Here’s a sampling of winners and losers from the last week. We could do a list like this every week, and in a way, we do. This time, we’re making it explicit.

  • JAN BREWER—WINNER . The interim unelected Republican governor of Arizona, who succeeded Janet Napolitano when she joined the Obama Cabinet in early 2009, was regarded as weak from the start. Democrats were aghast at her social conservatism, and ambitious Republicans saw her as an easy mark in the 2010 primary. Then she sponsored a sales tax increase of one cent for the next three years to plug the state’s budget holes, and much of the anti-tax GOP base started looking for other candidates. Several pols obliged, and state Treasurer Dean Martin led Brewer in poll after poll. The prospective Democratic nominee for governor, Attorney General Terry Goddard, also led Brewer handily in some trial heats. Then came the immigration controversy. Brewer wasn’t at the forefront, since the bill emerged from the legislature as a force of nature. In fact, she didn’t even take a firm position on it until April 23, after it had already passed the state legislature. Brewer’s backing may have been late but it was emphatic, and overnight she became a hero to her party’s conservative base and looked like a leader—willing to stand up to pressure from President Obama and angry Latino groups in and out of Arizona. Brewer made some factually inaccurate statements about immigrants being the source of drugs, crime, and all manner of mayhem, but if anything, the gaffes made her more popular. So did the Obama Justice Department’s decision to sue Arizona to stop the new law. A Sagebrush Rebellion against federal authority is usually a winner, and the West likes a good high-noon, gun-totin’ showdown with the feds on main street in front of the saloon. Bang-bang. Brewer’s GOP opponents dropped out or suspended their campaigns in light of polls showing the primary was a runaway for the Governor. And Brewer is now a substantial favorite against Goddard in November. We’re changing our rating from Leans Republican to Likely Republican. And the Republican’s name is Jan Brewer.
  • SCOTT McINNIS—LOSER . The Colorado gubernatorial battle was nip and tuck between likely GOP primary winner Scott McInnis, a former congressman, and Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, the Democratic nominee. If anything, McInnis might have had the edge because of the unpopularity of incumbent Gov. Bill Ritter (D), who saw the handwriting on the wall and retired after a single term. Swing-state Colorado was experiencing a swing of the pendulum back to the GOP after having voted solidly for Barack Obama in 2008. And then came the McInnis plagiarism scandal. A family foundation had paid McInnis $300,000 for a series of original papers on water issues, but the essays contain no citations and appear to be lifted from twenty year-old writings. McInnis has blamed a researcher he hired for the error and has pledged to repay the six-figure fee, but the damage is done and Republicans are stuck. They realize that McInnis is badly damaged, yet his only primary opponent, businessman Dan Maes, lacks credibility and would likely lose badly in the general election. The filing deadline has passed, and Republican voters may have to vote for McInnis in the primary and then hope he can be persuaded to withdraw in favor of another ,stronger candidate—identity unknown at the moment. This has happened before in other states. In 2002, for example, New Jersey Democrats re-nominated incumbent U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli, whose corruption problems were leading inexorably to the election of the GOP nominee, Doug Forrester. Just weeks before the election, Torricelli bowed to reality, resigned his nomination, and permitted Democrats to substitute former U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who had retired in 2000. Lautenberg easily won the election and is still serving. However, Torricelli’s case suggests why McInnis has little incentive to play ball. Torricelli has never again been heard from politically. McInnis may calculate that a big GOP wave in November will elect him anyway—and in an era drenched in candidate scandals, who’s to say the voters might not overlook McInnis’s transgressions? It’s up or out for McInnis anyway. For now, at least, the big winner from this is Mayor Hickenlooper, and if the cards continue to fall right, he could be the acknowledged favorite for the fall.
  • KAREN HANDEL—WINNER . It wasn’t long ago that GOP Secretary of State Karen Handel’s candidacy for governor of Georgia appeared stuck in neutral. Despite a belief that she was the private favorite of Governor Sonny Perdue (R), Handel couldn’t get traction against long-time frontrunner John Oxendine, the state insurance commissioner—partly because the field was crowded with other strong contenders such as former Congressman Nathan Deal (endorsed by Newt Gingrich) and an up-and-comer, state Rep. Eric Johnson. Handel was also mired in controversy about whether she was insufficiently anti-gay rights (this is a Southern Republican primary, mind you). But as is often the case in summer primaries, events were late-breaking and voters started paying attention as Election Day approached. News reports of Oxendine’s alleged conflicts of interest—including soliciting PAC money from insurance companies he was charged with regulating—rekindled doubts about the controversial candidate who has often stirred passionate opposition. He began to sink rapidly, and Handel stood to benefit disproportionately, partly because of her gender—women are frequently perceived by the electorate as less corrupt than male politicians. Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Handel helped to ease the doubts of grassroots party conservatives, much as Palin’s nod had done one state to the north, for South Carolina’s Nikki Haley, the winner of the Republican gubernatorial nomination in the Palmetto State. As a bonus, Handel received the backing of Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (another designated winner, as noted above). Brewer is riding high as the national hero of the anti-immigration movement, so this was another boost among conservatives for Handel. With four strong Republican candidates, it is no surprise that there will be a runoff between Handel and the second-place winner, ex-Rep. Deal, on August 10. But Deal had ethics problems while in the U.S. House of Representatives, and it may be that Handel can leverage the same advantages against Deal that she used to undermine Oxendine. The final percentages in the first primary were: Handel (34.1%), Deal (22.9%), Johnson (20.1%), with Oxendine, once the frontrunner, in fourth place (16.9%). Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, it was a landslide for former Gov. Roy Barnes, who gained 65.9% to crush four opponents. Democrats had privately hoped that Oxendine would be the GOP nominee since he was seen as the weakest Republican in November. Unless the GOP runoff turns particularly nasty, Barnes will have his hands full getting the second term that eluded him in 2002, when he was beaten (to universal amazement) by Sonny Perdue, once a long-shot. After all, 2010 is a GOP-tilting year nationally, and the Peach State is Red well beyond its famed clay and the skin of its delicious fruit. For the Republicans, Handel starts out as the runoff favorite, though this should be a spirited race. Some may view it as a proxy 2012 presidential battle between Palin (Handel) and Gingrich (Deal), though voters are unlikely to cast their ballots on that basis.
  • ROB PORTMAN—WINNER . Every quarter, political analysts scan the fundraising numbers for clues about the political health of candidates. Yes, perhaps too much emphasis is placed on the amounts of money raised, since quite a few underfunded politicians manage to win despite the handicap. But campaign money yields hard data that are probably more revealing than transient polling results. Across the nation there were many money winners and losers, with perceptions changed in scores of Senate, Governor, and House contests. But for our, ahem, money, no totals were more eye-popping than in the Senate match-up in the great swing state of Ohio. This is one of the Crystal Ball’s toss-up races, and it is in precisely this kind of election where a giant cash advantage can matter. That is exactly what we see. Republican Rob Portman, a former congressman and Bush administration official, is sitting on $8,879,000, while his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, has a cash-on-hand total of $1,294,000. No adjectives are necessary to describe this gap. Perhaps Fisher intends to grab hold of the coattails of Gov. Ted Strickland (D), assuming he wins his reelection bid, or maybe Fisher plans on being rescued by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Yet plenty of states elect a Governor of one party and a Senator of another simultaneously, so a win by Strickland wouldn’t necessarily help. Also, the DSCC has a lot of endangered Senate seats around the country to worry about. (If Fisher won, of course, this would be a noteworthy flip from R to D, since the seat is currently held by retiring GOP Sen. George Voinovich.) Basically, if Fisher can’t show significant, speedy progress in closing the dollar chasm with Portman, the Buckeye Senate seat will likely move from Toss-Up to Leans Republican in the fall.
  • DAVID VITTER—LOSER . If we had to bet today, the Crystal Ball would still wager that Louisiana Sen. David Vitter (R) would win a second term. He has had the good fortune to run, first, in a solid GOP presidential year (2004), and now in a strongly Republican-trending midterm year. The Bayou State gave Barack Obama just 39.9% of the vote in 2008, and Obama’s fortunes have declined further since. Capitalizing on this anti-Obama sentiment, Vitter has been one of the president’s most unrelenting critics, finding fault and issuing press releases about even minor matters. Over the weekend, for instance, when Obama took his family to Maine for a vacation, Vitter denounced the president for not choosing the BP-soiled Gulf Coast instead. All this has paid off for Vitter, at least until recently. His seedy prostitution scandal that stretched from D.C. to New Orleans had receded into the background. Then ABC News revealed that a Vitter aide, Brent Furer, had been assigned to women’s issues despite a conviction for assaulting his girlfriend and an open warrant for his arrest relating to a drunk driving charge. Vitter compounded his dilemma by denying that the aide had been working on women’s issues—a claim clearly contradicted by information supplied by Vitter’s own Senate office to various staff directories. The new revelations spurred the entry of a respectable (though not pure—it’s Louisiana) Republican primary challenger, former state Supreme Court Justice Chet Traylor. Fundamentalist Christians are a big part of the Louisiana GOP base, and it will be interesting to see whether they continue to give David Vitter a pass on transgressions that would never be overlooked for a Democratic officeholder. There is also the chance that Congressman Charles Melancon, the Democratic Senate nominee, can capitalize on Vitter’s scandals and GOP division, though 2010 could not present a worse environment for any Democrat in the state. In any event, Vitter will now have to worry about the GOP primary, when he had thought he was home free.
  • CARTE GOODWIN—WINNER . The new U.S. senator from West Virginia has lived a charmed existence, as befits a scion of a wealthy, well-connected family in a small state. With his appointment from Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin, whom he had once served as general counsel, Goodwin has become the youngest member of the U.S. Senate at age 36. True, the handsome, mediagenic Goodwin is a short-termer, only in office until a November special election is held at which his benefactor, Gov. Manchin, will probably take the seat. But how can you lose when you become an ex-senator in one’s mid-30s? Goodwin will be a logical candidate to succeed Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D) when he retires, or serve as Governor of West Virginia, on his way to, well, who knows? And in the meantime he can soak up the privileges of incumbency (and former incumbency) as a prince awaiting his next throne. Let’s face it: Some people are born winners, guarded by Fortuna, shielded from failure, guaranteed fame. Goodwin is one of them; “win” is even part of his surname.

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

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