Post Politics Hour

Chris Cillizza Political Columnist/Blogger
Wednesday, March 8, 2006; 11:00 AM

Don't want to miss out on the latest buzz in politics? Start each day at wonk central: The Post Politics Hour. Join in each weekday morning at 11 a.m. as a member of The Washington Post's team of White House and Congressional reporters answers questions about the latest in buzz in Washington and The Post's coverage of political news. Political Columnist/Blogger Chris Cillizza was online Wednesday, March 8, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest news in politics.

Read The Fix's Campaign 2006 interactive map.

The transcript follows.

____________________ See Chris Cillizza's latest blog update: Parsing the Polls on President Bush .


Chris Cillizza: Good morning. Tom DeLay wins in Texas without a runoff, House Republicans buck the President and schedule a vote on the Dubai ports deal and the Southern Republican Leadership Conference -- the first major cattle call of the 2008 race -- starts tomorrow.

I am in heaven.

Let's get it started.


Richmond, Va.: How to explain Tom DeLay's win? Am I absolutely naive, but does a vote for DeLay mean the person casting the vote is as corrupt as he?

Chris Cillizza: Well, I am, hesitant to issue a blanket condemnation of those 60 percent of folks in DeLay's 22nd district that voted for him yesterday.

So, what does explain it?

First, DeLay has effectively cast his indictment by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle as a partisan witch hunt aimed solely at driving him from politics. Given the strongly Republican nature of DeLay's district, there is obviously a considerable segment of the electorate who buys that argument and believes DeLay's legal problems are nothing more than a coordinated effort by national Democrats to ruin him because he is an effective conservative.

Second, DeLay has spent more than two decades working his district and delivering pork back home. Bringing dollars (and jobs) into the district weighs heavily for many voters when deciding whether to give DeLay another term or not.

Third, from a nuts and bolts perspective, DeLay was much better-financed and organized than any of his three Republican rivals. Attorney Tom Campbell ran some television ads attacking DeLay's integrity but DeLay was able to use direct mail and phone banks to reach those most committed -- and conservative -- voters who comprise his base.


Bethesda, Md.: Now that DeLay won the primary election he is going to be reelected. What does that tell us about how the Republican voters in those red states? They are disconcerned with what is going around the country keep voting for those politicians

Chris Cillizza: I wouldn't go that far. DeLay still has a major challenge in front of him. Don't forget that the most recent independent poll in the race showed former Democratic Rep. Nick Lampson with a lead over DeLay.

Democrats were privately rooting for a DeLay primary win yesterday because they believe the only way they can win this Republican-tilting seat is with the controversial Congressman as the GOP nominee.

While DeLay was able to win a strong primary victory yesterday by relying on the most conservative voters in the district, to win in November he will have to convince more moderate Republicans that he is still an effective and trustworthy member of Congress.

Complicating DeLay's re-election math is the potential Independent candidacy of former Republican Rep. Steve Stockman. Stockman is extremely conservative and could bleed off some disaffected Republicans from DeLay.

This is undoubtedly a good day for DeLay but any celebration would be premature.


Stamford, Conn.: It has been said that the Dems were happy that DeLay won the primary (though I'm sure that they were not pleased with the margin of victory), because he will be their poster-boy for GOP corruption.

My question is what are your thoughts as to whether using DeLay nationally will be successful for the Dems?

Chris Cillizza: I think using DeLay as a poster boy for corruption in the Republican party generally is a strategy fraught with problems.

Despite all of the press DeLay has received, he remains an unknown figure in many parts of the country. And, it's rare that another Member loses his or her election based SOLELY on the fact that he or she is in the same party as a member who has allegedly committed criminal transgressions.

I think Democrats would be better served to make this election as referendum on President Bush, who, as I write this morning in The Fix, finds his approval ratings mired in the 30s in a series of recent national polls.

I think DeLay can be used by Democrats as a piece in the larger puzzle of Republicans' alleged "culture of corruption" but to focus solely on him would be a mistake in my mind.


Fairfax, Va.: Will DeLay's victory yesterday chill Democrats' hopes for taking back the House or Senate in that DeLay's win shows that regardless of his serious ethics issues conservative core voter loyalty will carry the day? And will his victory cause those Democrats who recently have begun to openly challenge Bush to shrink back into the shadows?

Chris Cillizza: I don't think so. Again, the voters that gave DeLay his winning margin yesterday are likely many of the same people who still give President Bush's strong marks on the job he is doing.

While this segment of conservative voters is certainly powerful in Republican primary elections, GOPers will need to expand beyond that base if they hope to win contested House seats in places like Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Florida and New Mexico or Senate seats in Minnesota, New Jersey or Vermont.

I wouldn't expect any let up in Democrats criticism of the President or the Republican leadership in Congress. As much as this is a strong victory for DeLay, I wouldn't draw too many conclusions about the national state of play from it.


Washington, D.C.: Are democratic hopes of defeating Sen. Santorum and Rep. DeLay realistic? I know they're behind in the polls, but I have trouble believing that by November, after a hard and well-financed campaign, their constituents will bite the hand that feeds them. They are, after all, the same people they elected.

Chris Cillizza: I think Democrats are rightly optimistic about their chances against DeLay and Santorum but there is NO question that both men are extremely savvy campaigners and will raise and spend millions to keep their jobs.

Beating an incumbent is a two-part equation: you must first convince people to fire their current member and then to hire you.

Polls show that voters in Texas and Pennsylvania appear ready to fire DeLay and Santorum but Democrats have not yet made the case on why they should be hired instead.

Both DeLay and Santorum are likely to call into question their Democratic opponent's credentials -- raising doubts in voters' minds about whether the devil they know is worse or better than the devil they don't know.

Anyone who writes DeLay or Santorum off at this point is fooling themselves. Both have shown an incredible resilience throughout their political career. I would guess both contests wind up being nip and tuck affairs to the very end.


Chicago, Ill.: How realistic are the Democrat's chances of winning either the House or the Senate in Nov. 2006?

Chris Cillizza: I think Democrats can make a real case for how they win back the majorities in both the House and Senate although I think a switch in control of either chamber is not likely at the moment.

In the Senate, the math is simple. Democrats must hold their open seat in Maryland, Minnesota and Vermont and then knock off Sens. Santorum, Chafee, Burns, Talent, Kyl and DeWine. Given the high re-election rates of Senate incumbents in recent elections, this is a tough -- but not impossible -- task.

As for the House, it remains to be seen whether there will be enough seats in play to give Democrats a slight margin for error in their fight to win 15 seats and the majority. In my own hypothetical calculations, Democrats can get a 5 seat pickup relatively easily and even a 10 seat pickup seems possible. But those next five seats just aren't there yet. That doesn't mean they won't be by the time filing deadlines come and go across the country, but they aren't yet.


Richmond, Va.: James Webb announced for U.S. Senate yesterday in Richmond. So, is George Allen in big trouble or what? What arguments can Allen possibly make - with any credibility - against Webb? Do you see "swift boats" in Virginia's future?

Also, any word on whether Harris Miller will withdraw from the race, or is he in this until the bitter end?

Chris Cillizza: The math I laid out in the question above assumes that none of the other races featuring Republican incumbents tighten considerably between now and November.

Of all the "other" races out there, none generates more chatter on The Fix (or the blogosphere generally) than the Virginia Senate race.

It appears as though both Webb, the secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration, and Harris Miller, a wealthy former technology lobbyist, will run in the June 13 Democratic primary for the right to challenge Sen. George Allen (R).

Can either one make a general election against Allen competitive? In theory, yes. But, neither Webb nor Miller have any experience as statewide candidates while Allen is a proven vote-getter and begins the race with a massive cash advantage.

I think the practical effect of Webb and Miller running is to keep Allen from maintaining a active a national schedule as he contemplates a bid for president in 2008. At the moment an Allen loss seems extremely unlikely.


Silver Spring, Md.: DeLay's primary victory notwithstanding, I honestly think that the rats are starting to jump off the ship. The House reaction to the Dubai Ports deal is the only case that I can recall of the congress defying Pres. Bush. I guess you could call Arlen Specter's comments about the NSA program fairly defiant, but he has been brought pretty well into line. Do you think that the Senate and House Republicans will be able to distance themselves from Bush effectively before the midterms if they try? How are they really going to distance themselves, cut off funding for Iraq? Now that would get ugly!

Chris Cillizza: Politicians at their most elemental level are survivors.

That means that when President Bush was at 80 percent in the polls after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Republicans -- and many Democrats -- scrambled to get as close to him in the voters' minds as possible.

It also means that if Bush's approval numbers stay in the 30s as election day 2006 draws closer, you can expect to see Republicans publicly disagreeing with him more and more.

The Dubai ports deal is an obvious way to do this as most people are leery about the idea of a Middle Eastern country overseeing some of the largest ports in the country.

As for Iraq, I still believe it's unlikely that you will see a mass exodus of Republicans from the president on the issue. While the American public is clearly dissatisfied with the direction of the war, a consensus as to what to do next has not yet emerged.


New York, N.Y.: Since Congressional races tend to focus on local issues, how do the Bush low ratings impact on them? Put another way, can the Democrats win control of either house without an issue that puts all Republicans, regardless of district, on the defensive?

Chris Cillizza: Candidates for the House are (generally) less well defined in voters' minds than people seeking statewide posts like governor or senator.

Because people often don't have a clear idea of just who and what they are voting for in a House race, national figures can be influential.

For example, in 1994, Newt Gingrich and other House Republicans successfully cast the election as a referendum on President Clinton's leadership. While Clinton was not on the ballot that message helped deliver Republicans the House majority for the first time in four decades.

Democrats seem divided on whether they need to roll out a full agenda of their own or simply offer themselves as alternatives to the Bush Administration. I tend to believe the former is necessary but time will tell what the party decides.


Anonymous: Chris,

You wrote in yesterday's The Fix something about Clay Shaw possibly retiring instead of running for reelection in November.

I haven't heard anything of this. In fact, VP Cheney was just down here doing a fundraiser for Shaw, raising $300,000 for him.

National Journal calls him the most endangered incumbent. McCrery is the most talked about successor to Thomas as Ways & Means Chairman.

So, what are Shaw's chances in November?

Chris Cillizza: Into the House trenches....

The reason for my speculation about Shaw is two-fold: he has had re-occurring health problems and he appears to be on the outside looking in for the ways and means committee chairmanship in 2007.

Shaw also sits in a very competitive Florida district and his challenger, Democratic state Sen. Ron Klein, has drawn kudos from even Washington's toughest critic -- Stu Rothenberg of the top-notch Rothenberg Political Report.

Regardless of what Shaw says, I plan to keep him on my watch list for the near future.


Alexandria, Va.: I see now to get my comment posted on your chat--just join in the cheerleading of the Democrats' hopes for making big gains in November, contrary voices need not apply. So far every one of your comments posted is hostile to the GOP.

Chris Cillizza: Countering conventional wisdom will get you everywhere with me.

The simple fact is that the current national political environment favors Democrats. Does that mean things can't change? Absolutely not. Does that mean Democrats will retake majorities in the House and Senate? As I said before, it's unlikely.

But, this chat -- like almost every post on The Fix -- serves as a snapshot in time. And at this moment in time, the national landscape is tough for Republicans -- a fact that almost any GOP strategist would admit to you privately.


Anonymous: Chris, I think the Republicans are in a lot more trouble come November than you have let on, for one reason and one reason only: seniors will be out in force if the Democrats play up the debacle that is the Medicare prescription drug program.

Seniors are a dangerous voting block to upset, and from everyone I've spoken to - from seniors, to disabled people like my own mother, to doctors - it's clear there's serious anger and disappointment with the plan.

Chris Cillizza: Apparently, I have not been hard enough on Republicans so far in this chat.

I do think the Medicare prescription drug benefit will be a major factor in the midterm elections since -- as you rightly point out -- seniors are the most reliable voters in non-presidential elections.

Republicans continue to believe that once the program works out its kinks it will be a boon to them at the ballot box this November. Democrats see it as part of their argument that Republicans can't be trusted with control of the White House and Congress.

We'll find out how voters feel come November.


Memphis, Tenn.: Will you or another political reporter be coming to Memphis to cover the GOP FEST with Republicans gathering from 26 states to discuss the 2006 elections and look at some of the 2008 candidates? Did you know a group promoting Condi Rice will be here as well? Did you know over 3,000 people have registered to attend and discuss the Republican viewpoints and help set policy? It starts on March 9 and will be at the Peabody Hotel.

Chris Cillizza: Wow. Good to have the public relations folks from the Southern Republican Leadership Conference on the chat.

I will indeed be in Memphis this weekend -- as will every other political reporter in America as far as I can tell. This is our first chance to see all the major candidates discussed for the 2008 Republican nomination (with the exception of former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani) speaking in one place. The Hotline is also sponsoring a 2008 straw poll Saturday night.

Be sure to check The Fix tomorrow morning for my post on expectations setting for each of the candidates when it comes to the straw poll. I'll also be posting live from the SRLC on The Fix Friday and Saturday so be sure to check in regularly.


Atlanta, Ga.: South Florida game: Aberration or worrisome sign before this afternoon's game against Notre Dame?

Chris Cillizza: And now for the regular Hoya feature on my chats.

I am hoping and praying that our dismal loss to South Florida was an aberration and not a sign of things to come. I read somewhere (the Post methinks) that Jeff Green was sick, which could account for our poor performance.

Despite Digger Phelps' ridiculously biased advocacy for Notre Dame over the last few days on ESPN, I still think we are the better team but will be glued to the set come 2:30.

History is daunting though. No team that didn't get a first round bye has ever won the Big East tournament.


Chris Cillizza: That's a wrap. I am off to Memphis tomorrow for the SRLC. Make sure to check The Fix tomorrow morning for some early handicapping of the straw poll. Thanks for the great questions and go Hoyas!


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