Video: Stevens vows to fight conviction

updated 10/29/2008 9:54:33 AM ET 2008-10-29T13:54:33

Late Monday afternoon I was standing in front of 200 or so congressional staff members when someone in the front row handed me a Blackberry with the news bulletin announcing Sen. Ted Stevens' seven-count felony conviction. As I read the news flash to the gasping Hill aides one thing jumped into mind: "Foley Friday," Sept. 29, 2006, when news broke of then-GOP Rep. Mark Foley's inappropriate behavior toward a House page. At that point in 2006, Republicans had already been buffeted for a year or more by a then-worsening situation in Iraq and a wide array of scandals. Just as it seemed things could not possibly get worse, they did. Only the most partisan of Democrats or cold-hearted of people would fail to have some compassion or sympathy towards a party for which virtually everything has gone wrong. Someone recently likened it to watching a wounded dog kicked.

For a time it was thought that perhaps some huge foreign policy event or crisis could refocus public attention away from the current 100 percent concentration on the economy. Perhaps Russia invading the Ukraine, North Korean firing a missile off the coast of Japan, Israel deciding to take out a nuclear facility in Iran or something else might dilute the unrelenting rain on the heads of Republicans. But now, even an apparent U.S. special forces raid into Syria is hardly drawing notice. This cake looks baked.

Cook Political Report House Editor David Wasserman compares the National Republican Congressional Committee to a bankrupt investment house, with no one able or willing to step in to bail out bad assets. He suggests that the stock market's plunge and Sen. John McCain's dismal polling numbers coincided with the window of time House Democrats had the airwaves largely to themselves. GOP insiders describe a playing field on which even non-incumbent Democratic House candidates with upside-down favorability ratings, those with higher unfavorable than favorable poll numbers, are still in the game. In other words, it doesn't necessarily matter how much voters like or dislike the Democratic alternative; they care more about voting against President Bush and the party they perceive to have mishandled the economy. And some just want change.

Wasserman says at this point, the choice Republican strategists face is not whether to play offense or defense, but rather where it's still worth playing defense. About 10 of the GOP's 29 open seats are leaning Democratic and another 10 are highly competitive. Ten GOP incumbents are trailing their challengers or tied at best, and another 10 maintain very precarious leads in single digits. All the signs of another big "wave" election are apparent, and a gain of 24-30 seats for House Democrats is the most likely outcome on the bell curve of possibilities.

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In the other chamber, Cook Political Report Senate Editor Jennifer Duffy is now pointing to a Republican loss of seven to nine seats, but does not dismiss the possibility that their losses might hit 10 seats. Three Republican open seats -- in Virginia, New Mexico and Colorado -- are gone, while four GOP incumbents -- Sens. Elizabeth Dole (N.C.), Gordon Smith (Ore.), Stevens (Alaska) and John Sununu (N.H.) -- are trailing their Democratic challengers by a few points. That's four Republicans seats that Democrats have a slightly better than a 50-50 chance of gaining, bringing the total to seven seats.

Republicans are slightly favored to hold on to three more of their seats -- Sens. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Norm Coleman (Minn.) and Roger Wicker (Miss.). Finally, Sen. Mitch McConnell in Kentucky holds a wider lead over Democratic businessman Bruce Lunsford, but he hasn't put the race away yet.

If the Democratic wave breaks over this last group of four races, Republicans would lose a total of 11 seats. That outcome is possible, but unlikely. Duffy has argued for years that history shows that the closest races rarely split down the middle. The majority of races that are too close to call on Election Day generally fall to one party or the other. In 2006, Democrats won eight of the nine most competitive contests. In the 1982 Reagan midterm election, held in the midst of a recession, Republicans held all their seats by winning a bunch of races by razor-thin margins, while they lost 26 seats in the House.

Too much attention is placed on whether Democrats get to 60 seats, treating that number as if it were some arbitrary sign of control, a filibuster-proof Senate. However, this notion ignores the reality that filibusters are about specific issues, and whether there would be 60 votes to break a filibuster would depend on the issue. Is Connecticut's Joe Lieberman on board with Democrats, or not? It depends on the issue. The same could be asked of Nebraska's Ben Nelson and a half dozen or so returning Democratic moderates. What about some of the more moderate to conservative new Democrats coming in. Are they on board or not? What about the few remaining moderate to liberal Republican senators? On board, or not? Things aren't quite as cut-and-dry as they seem.

Unless something pretty earth-shattering happens, the presidential race is not so much about who wins. At this point, it's pretty clear who that is going to be. It's how big, how many states, what kind of margin and what kind of Congress Barack Obama will have to deal with. Then it is how he would lead them, what tone, in what direction.

Republicans can't wait for this year to be over. It's been a year-long Halloween, with very, very few and extremely brief breaks. You can't blame them.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.


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