By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 16, 2008
While all eyes were on the presidential campaign and the demise of New York Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer (D) last week, Republicans on Capitol Hill were suffering a run of bad news that could hold dire implications for the campaign season.
It started with the loss last weekend of the seat held for two decades by former House speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). It got worse when Republicans lost potentially strong challengers to Democratic senators in South Dakota and New Jersey, and failed to field anyone to oppose the reelection bid of Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.).
The latest blow came with the revelation that the former treasurer of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) had allegedly diverted hundreds of thousands of dollars -- and possibly as much as $1 million -- from the organization's depleted coffers to his own bank accounts.
If Republicans needed any more evidence of how difficult this fall may be, the past week had it all, analysts said. The Illinois race demonstrated new levels of disaffection, the party's efforts to go on offense elsewhere were thwarted by recruiting failures, and the NRCC scandal will divert campaign resources and could frighten off badly needed contributors, they said.
"It's no mystery," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.). "You have a very unhappy electorate, which is no surprise, with oil at $108 a barrel, stocks down a few thousand points, a war in Iraq with no end in sight and a president who is still very, very unpopular. He's just killed the Republican brand."
Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan analyst of congressional politics, said: "The math is against them. The environment is against them. The money is against them. This is one of those cycles that if you're a Republican strategist, you just want to go into the bomb shelter."
The loss of Hastert's seat in a special election in the far suburbs of Chicago was particularly painful, Republicans conceded. GOP campaign aides contended that the victory of Democratic physicist Bill Foster, a political neophyte, was more a reflection of the unpopularity of his Republican opponent, Jim Oberweis, than a tectonic political shift in a district that once exemplified the GOP's stranglehold on the nation's outer-ring suburbs.
But that's not how Foster sees it. Voters "had a pretty clean choice between a candidate who had aligned himself with George Bush's policies and one who felt we needed a change of course," he said.
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain (Ariz.) helped Oberweis raise money, and the NRCC pumped more than $1.2 million into the district -- using more than 20 percent of its cash on hand -- to no avail.
"Even if it was mostly about Jim Oberweis, it's a terrible sign," Rothenberg said. "It adds to Democratic energy and further depresses the Republicans. And you can't dismiss the idea that there is an atmospheric advantage for the Democrats."
Two days after the Illinois election, South Dakota's former lieutenant governor, Steve Kirby, announced he will not challenge Sen. Tim Johnson, one of the few Democratic senators seeking reelection in a swing state.
On the same day, Arkansas Republican Party Chairman Dennis Milligan said his party has no candidate to challenge Pryor, another swing-state Democrat, and in Minnesota, wealthy trial lawyer Michael Ciresi dropped out of the Democratic primary. That cleared the way for comedian Al Franken, the remaining Democratic candidate, to spend the next eight months focusing on Sen. Norm Coleman (R).
After suffering a minor stroke, wealthy Republican developer Anne Evans Estabrook this month dropped her challenge to 84-year-old Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg in New Jersey. On Wednesday, New Jersey state Sen. Christopher "Kip" Bateman (R) announced that he will not run, either.
On Thursday, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report updated its congressional race outlooks to list nine Republican House seats -- and one Democratic seat -- as tossups. Foster's reelection prospects shifted from a tossup to his advantage.
Cook now lists the Senate seats of Republicans Ted Stevens (Alaska) and John E. Sununu (N.H.) as tossups, along with the seats being vacated by Republicans Wayne Allard (Colo.) and Pete V. Domenici (N.M.). Former Virginia governor Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, is listed as likely to claim the seat of retiring Republican Sen. John W. Warner.
In the House, Republicans have largely failed to recruit credible candidates for the swing-district seat of retiring Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Ill.) or to challenge several Democratic freshmen who took GOP seats in 2006. They include Zack Space of Ohio, Joe Courtney of Connecticut, Chris Carney and Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania, John Hall of New York, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Heath Shuler of North Carolina.
"We've had a difficult time with candidate recruitment this entire cycle," said Neil Newhouse, a GOP pollster who works closely with congressional Republicans.
The disappearance of hundreds of thousands of dollars from the NRCC, the House GOP's campaign arm, may not have a direct political impact, but it will not help, Republicans conceded. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ended January with $35.5 million in cash. The NRCC had $5.7 million before an annual fundraising dinner Wednesday raised $8.6 million.
Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), chairman of the NRCC, said the committee has turned a corner and, after almost a year in the red, has a positive cash balance and has rooted out internal corruption.
"We're pretty confident we'll be where we need to be," Cole predicted of the NRCC's financial standing later this year. "Is this a challenge? Sure, you'd rather not have to do it. But you do."
But some of that NRCC cash, instead of bolstering Republican candidates, will go to lawyers and accountants as officials try to unravel the damage they said has been done by former treasurer Christopher J. Ward. They already have spent $370,000.
Cole said his most important financial constituency -- GOP lawmakers, whose cash transfers and other fundraising efforts provide the largest chunk of money -- are supportive of his efforts.
But other Republicans worried that news of what could become one of the largest political frauds in recent history may dampen fundraising as donors question the committee's controls on their money.
"It's not helpful; it doesn't attract donors," Davis said.
Still, Republicans are not without hope. Thursday night, Rep. Robert E. "Bud" Cramer (D-Ala.) announced his retirement from a district that Bush carried with 60 percent of the vote in 2004, giving Republicans their clearest shot yet at a Democratic seat.
The GOP has pummeled swing-district Democrats for refusing to back President Bush's update of counterterrorism surveillance laws and for last week's budget agreements that will allow most, if not all, of Bush's tax cuts to expire in 2011. Davis said the issues are not getting political traction now, but they could before November.
More cause for hope resides in the presidential campaign, which could provide a new storyline for Republicans down the ticket, said Newhouse, the pollster. Some national polls showed McCain pulling even in matchups with Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) by week's end, and Newhouse said McCain's appeal to independents and some Democrats could change the political dynamics in some swing districts.
"What you're seeing," he said, "is the impact the Democratic primary is having on voters at the national level. The longer this goes on, the better for our chances in November."
Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.