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Post Politics Hour
washingtonpost.com's Daily Politics Discussion

Chris Cillizza and John F. Harris
washingtonpost.com Political Columnist/Blogger and Washington Post National Political Editor
Monday, July 24, 2006; 11:00 AM

Don't want to miss out on the latest in politics? Start each day with 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.

washingtonpost.com political columnist/blogger Chris Cillizza and Washington Post national political editor John F. Harris were online Monday, July 24, at 11 a.m. ET .

Bellwethers: Key Issues in the Battle for Congress

Read Chris Cillizza 's blog, The Fix

The transcript follows.

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Fairfax, Va.: Why did your bellwether topics exclude National Security? Many people, liberals and conservatives both, are worried that North Korea's nuclear arsenal has increased to eight WMD under Bush and that our military capability is much less due to Iraq (witness our inability to play a role in the current Middle East crisis)? How could this topic not be an issue in the coming election?

John F. Harris: Good morning. I hope people will read and take a moment to click around on the Bellwether project, a joint effort between the newspaper and washingtonpost.com that began this morning and will continue through the Nov. 7 mid-term elections.

The idea was to focus on eight questions that we think can help frame readers thinking about the elections, and whether a turnover in control of Congress will happen.

Like any such exercise, there was a degree of subjectivity on the questions we chose. As for your point, however, national security is indeed one of the important questions. We looked at it especially in the context of Iraq, and whether this will hurt Republicans. In particular, there are several suburban districts that seem to be in play this year that ordinarily Democrats would have a hard time making competitive.

I'll be joined for this chat by Chris Cillizza, of post.com, who along with my colleague Dan Balz played a key role in deciding which races we would focus on.

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Alpharetta, Ga.: How will the Bellwether be covering primaries such as those in R.I. and Tenn?

Chris Cillizza: The goal of the Bellwether Project -- as John pointed out -is not to cover every single race in the country but rather to focus on those that can serve as, well, bellwethers -- showing readers and political insiders where the electorate may be leaning.

As for the Senate races in Tennessee and Rhode Island, both of them fall within the bellwether project's purview. Tennessee is covered under the Red State question -- Can Democrats win again in the rim or upper south? Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee's re-election race is addressed in the question about President Bush and how much negative effect he will have on Republicans trying to win re-election in areas viewed as not particularly friendly to the GOP.

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Washington, D.C.: How were the bellwether topics selected and why is there nothing specific about the growing disparity during the Bush years between increased income for the wealthy and stagnant wages relative to cost of living for middle and lower income folks?

Also what about the topic of presidential dishonesty: lying about WMD, Katrina etc.?

Also what about price-gouging at the gas pump?

Chris Cillizza: About six weeks ago, a group of reporters from The Post and post.com sat down to begin developing these questions.

The goal of the bellwether project, and what we hope makes it stand out from other election coverage, is that its goal is not simply to provide a catalogue of the most competitive races in the country. Instead, it seeks to find the issues foremost in voters' minds as they mull their choice this November and the races around the country that best illustrate those questions.

This is an organic process. Races will almost assuredly change between now and November. That's why it's important to remember that this is a JOINT project between The Post and the post.com. We will be continually monitoring these questions in the paper, on the web and through The Fix.

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Rochester, Minn.: Hi and thanks for taking my question. I call myself a "former Republican" as I find it hard to call myself a Democrat but I have voted mostly Dem since the mid-1990s. I see myself and a number of my family members as social liberals and fiscal conservatives. Bush et all have lost nearly my entire family because they appear to be the opposite of us: social conservatives and fiscal liberals (irresponsibly so in most of our minds). Does the GOP care about winning back people like us and if so what, if anything, are they planning to do about it?

John F. Harris: As the Republican Party has moved in a more conservative direction over the past 25 years, there probably a lot of people who feel as you do. But Republicans have successfully brought in large numbers of new and conservative voters, particularly in the Sunbelt states.

But this strategy carries risk. You'll note that in our Bellwethers project this morning one of the key questions is whether Republicans in the northeast--who tend to be socially moderate--can survive at a time when the reputation of the GOP nationally is more conservative than their constituents.

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Boston, Mass.: I'm excited by your congressional race project. Of course you have to make choices about what races to pick, but I would have loved to have seen Tom DeLay and Richard Pombo on the list as corruption bellwethers.

Do you see the earmarking, money laundering and Abramoff-related corruption having any effect on the races of Jerry Lewis (CA-41), Dana Rohrabacher (CA-46), John Sweeney (NY-20), Dennis Hastert (IL-14) and Tom Feeney (FL-24)?

Even if they're (extremely) likely to win their races, will they have to spend money locally (as in the Busby-Bilbray race) that they would have otherwise sent to vulnerable incumbents and challengers?

My guess is that may end up being the greatest effect of the corruption scandals.

Chris Cillizza: This is a question and a set of races that we went back and forth on multiple times.

DeLay's race was not included simply because we did not view it as a bellwether contest in terms of corruption. Of course if DeLay does wind up on the ballot the entire race will be a referendum on him and the ethics questions that surround him but in order to judge whether corruption will play a major role in determining control of the House, it will be in seats like Ohio's Senate race where Mike DeWine himself has not been implicated in any scandal but is struggling with an unfriendly environment due to the problems of Ohio Gov. Bob Taft (R) and Rep. Bob Ney (R).

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Baltimore, Md.: Your bellwether issues didn't include the distraction topics that the Congress and Senate has been so focused on - flag burning, gay hatred, stem cells. Is it your belief that this tactic is not working?

John F. Harris: We don't regard flag-burning as likely to play out a decisive factor in many races, but controversies over stem cell research and gay marriage may indeed have an important impact. We looked at this possibility on the bellwether question about turnout. Specifically, how will both parties' efforts to use issues important to their base voters affect close congressional races. On the Democratic side the minimum wage and stem cells are on the ballot as referendums in several states.

One place to look at this factor is Missouri, where a measure to expand stem cell research is before voters. Polls indicate it will pass overwhelmingly. The Democratic candidate for Senate, Claire McCaskill, supports the measure, and hopes that it will encourage a lot of additional Democratic voters to come to the polls. Republican incumbent Sen. Jim Talent opposes the measure.

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San Francisco, Calif.: Hello, gentlemen, and thanks for taking my question this morning. I've reviewed your bellwethers article, and I wonder why two of the six issues you've selected are so-called "process" or "horserace" topics? "Tough Terrain" (with regard to GOP success in the Northeast) and "Red State Revival" (about Democratic possibilities in the upper tier South) seem more inside baseball than voter-driven issues. Are you considering what moves voters, or what DeeCee is talking about?

Chris Cillizza: Well, we sought to make the bellwether questions an amalgam of issue-based questions (Iraq, immigration, corruption) and process-centered ones (Northeast consolidation by Democrats, the competitiveness in the Upper South).

The goal was to provide a blueprint for our readers of not just what voters are talking about on the issue side but also the prevailing geographic dynamics in the country as well.

Remember the bellwether is an attempt to show the how, why and where of the 2006 election. We don't pretend it is comprehensive.

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Boston, Mass.: Maybe I overlooked it in the plethora of interesting information, but do you intend to do any particular regular polling related to this project? Are you going to be polling these races or these issues, or both? Or do you plan to analyze the general population of polls with your questions in mind?

John F. Harris: This is a work in progress, and we may well combine some polling between now and election day. The initial goal was to lay out the larger factors that we think will drive this election, and the races that best illuminate the trends.

There will be numerous additional stories and web features on these eight bellwether questions we identified.

If we can figure out a smart way (within the budget!) of using polling to shed light on races and the general direction of the year between now and election day I'd love to do it.

Of course we will by all means be doing our regular Washington Post/ABC News polls, that come out every six weeks or so.

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Stroudsburg, Pa.: It seems like Casey is a shoo-in for PA voters disenchanted with Rick Santorum's extreme positions on many issues --- and by Rick's place on the political spectrum -- to the right of Bush! Any ideas on this?

John F. Harris: I would not say shoo-in, but you are right that Santorum is in real trouble. Polls show him trailing by double digits and have for months. That is why he is regarded by operatives in both parties as the most vulnerable Senate Republican incumbent.

We did include him in a bellwether question--can Republicans hold on to vulnerable in the Northeast--but to be honest he has so many problems that are specific to him and Pennsylvania politics that in some ways this is not a model bellwether race.

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Roseland, N.J.: Specifically, what candidate has surprised you the most this cycle?

Chris Cillizza: Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

When Ford got into this race, I was extremely skeptical about his chances of winning. He had flirted with Senate races in 2000 and again in 2002 before backing away and I had real questions about whether he would go all out when it came to this race.

He has proven me wrong. Ford has raised money at a furious pace and taken the kind of risks (early television advertising for example) that show he realizes what a difficult race this will be.

This is not to say that Ford is a favorite to win retiring Sen. Bill Frist's seat in November. A poll came out this morning that showed him trailing former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker, who is leading the three-way Republican field. Since most of the attention has been focused on the GOP primary it's not too surprising that Ford is behind and after a Republican nominee is selected I would be the numbers level off somewhat.

The reality of Tennessee politics is that Ford can do everything right and still lose. But, he deserves credit for putting himself into position to have a chance at winning with less than four months before the election.

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San Francisco, Calif.: Good morning, gentlemen, and thanks for picking my question today. Did you give any consideration to the Medicare Part D "donut hole" appearing in the wallet of many seniors just before they vote this fall? A huge bloc of regular voters will see a big gap in their Part D coverage sometime after Labor Day. Won't that issue drive them away from their customary home in the GOP? Candidates like Bruce Braley, with a district higher-than-average in seniors, are hammering on that issue already.

John F. Harris: If you had been in our discussions as we selected the bellwether questions, this would have been a reasonable one to consider.

To my mind, the Medicare prescription drug issue is probably a turnout question. Are there a lot of seniors who are upset enough by the new program and its complexities that they will go to the polls in higher numbers in ways that could help Democrats. As a practical matter, however, seniors are already among the most reliable voters in mid-term elections. And Republicans argue that after a lot of bumps in the beginning the new drug program is working more smoothly and won't hurt them this fall.

It is a question that's worth looking at in the context of individual races, and I expect we'll do it between now and the fall. Republican Rep. Clay Shaw, for instance, in Florida's 22nd district, represents lots of seniors. He's a top target of Democrats this year and the prescription drug issue will surely be pressed by challenger Ron Klein, a state senator.

As you can appreciate, the eight bellwether questions we focused on were not meant to be a comprehensive list of every factor that will determine races--just ones that seemed especially interesting and relevant to us on the political staff at The Post.

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Arlington, Va.: Chris, John:

It seems as though members of Congress have vastly different opinions of the impact that various contentious national issues will have on the races in their individual districts. For instance, a Democratic Senate candidate who supports expanded stem-cell research might think that it is a huge winner for him in his district, while a Republican House member might be equally convinced that public opinion at the local level was on his/her side in opposing that measure. Are these candidates, in voicing such confidence, simply engaging in pre-election spin? Or is it that the political makeup of their districts are truly so different than there is no single consensus for how these issues will play out, from district to district?

John F. Harris: Your question suggests an important cautionary note. We follow national trends, but these trends do not always play out in local races in consistent or predictable ways. That's why we'll be traveling to lots of competitive races and doing a lot of on-the-ground reporting this fall.

Thanks for joining us this morning, and please do continue to check into post.com's bellwether page regularly between now and election day.

John Harris

Chris Cillizza

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