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Mixed Messages From Restless Voters

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By David S. Broder
Sunday, June 11, 2006

So, bottom line, both parties are going into the summer doldrums and the fall campaign with no idea how the midterm battle for control of Congress and most governorships will turn out.

The last big round of primaries, held in eight states Tuesday, only added to the confusion. When I bumped into Rep. Deborah Pryce, chairman of the House Republican Conference, in the Capitol -- 36 hours after Brian Bilbray had managed to hold a normally safe Republican seat against a fierce Democratic challenge in a San Diego-area special congressional election -- I asked her how she was feeling.

"Relieved," was her one-word answer. And when I inquired about her own election situation, she ruefully said, "Fine, except I am from Ohio" -- a reference to the scandals that have enveloped Republican Gov. Bob Taft and created problems for the state's entire GOP ticket.

Had Bilbray lost in the contest to replace jailed, bribe-taking former representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham in a district that President Bush carried by 10 points in 2004, Francine Busby, the gaffe-prone Democratic challenger, would have been her party's heroine. Both sides sank millions into what became a symbolic battle, with massive implications for the autumn. Bilbray's 4-point margin averted what might have been panic in GOP ranks.

But for seasoned observers, the paradoxes of the year are more evident than the likely outcome. For one thing, noted Bernadette Budde, the longtime political brains of BIPAC, the Business Industry Political Action Committee, "we believe the voter restlessness is real, but so far not a single incumbent [House member] has lost" in all the primaries.

Other features are equally puzzling. Voters seem to be engaged in the issues -- that has certainly been my impression in the seven or eight states I've visited -- but turnout in the primaries so far, including California's, has been low.

Does that signal a turnoff from politics that will carry over to November, or are voters just storing up their frustration to let it out on candidates then?

I don't know, but Budde, whose judgment I have come to respect after listening to her for years, told a group of reporters that she dissents from the prevailing view that the midterm elections will be decided by which party does the better job of mobilizing its base.

"I think the independents and the ticket-splitters will be the key," she said. With her intimate knowledge of House races, Budde had no trouble ticking off eight or nine key races -- including Pryce's -- from Colorado to Connecticut, where "the Republican base vote is not enough to win."

BIPAC is a bipartisan organization, cultivating "pro-business" legislators on both sides of the aisle on issues ranging from free trade to government regulation. But most of its friends are Republicans.

On the morning after the primaries, when Budde had her briefing, the Senate was busy debating -- and preparing once again to defeat -- the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

Asked if that was the way to win independent votes, Budde said that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's "agenda is a way to appeal to the base, but you have to do more. It can't be either-or."


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