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The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

A Commentary By Larry J. Sabato

Every campaign season is filled with the good, the bad, and the ugly—enough to fill a book. Here’s an interim selection of examples as we prepare to enter the full-blown general election season.

GOOD CANDIDATE DOING BADLY: In another year, Congressman—we mean Sheriff—Brad Ellsworth (D-IN) could win the Senate seat of retiring Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN). But 2010 probably isn’t that year, even with the GOP nomination of a lobbyist, former Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN), who lived until recently in Virginia and said publicly that he wanted to retire in North Carolina.

GOOD DAY, SENATOR: In Senate races, there is no more guaranteed party switch than in North Dakota, where Gov. John Hoeven (R) isn’t even breaking a sweat against Democrat Tracy Potter. When Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) retired, that was all she wrote.

GOOD MANEUVERING: Gov. Joe Manchin (D-WV) took a dicey situation, the death of Sen. Robert Byrd, and quickly steered the process through the shoals, managing to save a Senate seat for his party in a tough year in a Red state. Oh, by the way, he managed to get himself the Senate seat in the process. And he created a new Democratic star for the future in short-time Sen. Carte Goodwin.

GOOD MONEY: Plenty of outspent candidates win, but somehow it is becoming difficult to see how Ohio Democratic Senate nominee Lee Fisher overcomes the 8-to-1 dollar advantage held by his GOP opponent, former Congressman Rob Portman.

GOOD AND BAD COMEBACKS: Five former state governors are trying for new terms. Only one, Iowa’s Terry Branstad (R), is a clear frontrunner. Jerry Brown (D-CA) may be a slight frontrunner because of the Golden State’s Democratic tilt, though he’s been doing his best to lose. The other three, Roy Barnes (D-GA), Bob Ehrlich (R-MD), and John Kitzhaber (D-OR) are no better than 50-50 shots, with all three trailing slightly in the estimation of polling and political professionals. It will be a very mixed bag for ex-Guvs. Maybe an anti-establishment election year wasn’t the best moment for a comeback?

BAD CANDIDATES MATTER: Given Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid’s unpopularity in Nevada, the Senate contest there is not over, but even in GOP circles there is great angst about Republican nominee Sharron Angle’s poor campaign performance so far. When primary participants assume victory in November and insist on having it totally their way, they often snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

BAD JUDGMENT: Former Congressman Rob Simmons (R-CT) reminds us a bit of Senator John Kerry’s famous flip-flop statement in 2004. Simmons was for his Senate candidacy before he was against it, before he was for it again. Nutmeg State voters can be excused if they are confused, and he’s unlikely to win his primary against self-funding wrestling enthusiast Linda McMahon (R).

BAD KARMA: If there’s any candidate who has lost his center, it’s Jerry Brown (D). California is heavily Democratic, and Brown has built-in advantages that might very well deliver the election to him despite Republican Meg Whitman’s massive spending. But “That ‘70s Show” was cancelled, and to win, Brown has to show that he’s relevant in the 21st century.

BAD OMENS: Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) cheated political death in her party primary, but if the polls are even close to reality, she only got a reprieve. The most endangered Senate incumbent of either party on the November ballot, she’s behind Congressman John Boozman (R-AR) by a massive margin in yet another solidly anti-Obama state.

BAD POLL: When Lt. Gov. Jari Askins (D-OK) won her party’s nomination for governor, no one was more surprised than the good people at the Sooner Poll, published by the Tulsa World. A week before the July 27 primary, the Sooner Poll showed state Attorney General Drew Edmondson leading Askins 49% to 33%, yet Askins won with a shade over 50%. The able Prof. Keith Gaddie at the University of Oklahoma wrote us that the problems included “the aging of the poll published in the World (they like to sit on numbers) combined with GOTV [get-out-the-vote efforts] by Askins and lower-than-expected turnout [which] broke the likely voter models used by all the pollsters in this state.” Time to trade in the old model, for sure.

BAD VIBES HELP McCAIN WIN: If John McCain is indeed successful in Arizona’s Aug. 24 GOP Senate primary, it will be because he accepted a painful reality—he had become unpopular with many in his own party in his own state. Had McCain assumed that his status as a longtime incumbent and the 2008 presidential nominee would be enough to re-nominate him, he might well be headed for early retirement. Instead, McCain has run a very aggressive campaign against former Congressman J.D. Hayworth (R-AZ), and basically abandoned his “maverick” image, for now.

UGLY CANDIDATE DOING WELL: “Family Values” Sen. David Vitter (R-LA), of the D.C. Madam prostitution scandal, just couldn’t get any luckier. His GOP primary opponent, Chet Traylor, while not a frequenter of houses of ill repute, has a somewhat scandalous romantic history—cancelling out Vitter’s vice. Vitter’s Democratic opponent, Congressman Charles Melancon, is weighed down by President Obama’s deep unpopularity in the Bayou State.

UGLY CIVIL WARS: The Colorado GOP and the Florida GOP are tied. It’s hard to say which one has more foolishly torpedoed their fall chances. Both are in the hospital intensive care ward.

UGLY PARTY FAILURE: The New York Republican Party—In the best GOP year since 1994, it has been unable to find top-flight, competitive candidates for Governor, either U.S. Senate seat, and several vulnerable Democratic House seats. A true disaster area for Republicans. Embarrassing in the state that regularly elected GOP candidates to top office.

UGLY TIMING: It makes no sense that Nevada Democrats nominated Harry Reid’s son Rory Reid for governor at the same time as the elder Reid was in a life-or-death struggle for reelection. Too clever by half, and Rory Reid is the big loser on Nevada’s ballot this year.

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

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