By Reid Wilson - 09/08/09 09:42 PM EDT
Republicans returned from the August recess with a new sense of optimism thanks to an outraged base, positive poll numbers and a sense that for the first time in half a decade, the party stands to pick up seats in next year’s elections.
In memos to their colleagues this week, both National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) Chairman John Cornyn (R-Texas) and National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) will crow about positive news in August.
After years in power, new polls show Republicans gaining on Democrats now that they are in the minority. In a recent Pew Research Center poll, 45 percent of Americans said they would vote for a Democratic candidate for Congress, while 44 percent said they would pick a Republican candidate.
Though the election is 14 months away, the GOP is in much better position than it was at the same point in 2005 or 2007. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in September 2007 and a Pew Research poll, along with a Newsweek poll in September 2005, all showed Democrats with 12-point advantages in the generic ballot.
“We’re probably in better position than we have been in half a dozen years,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who chaired the NRCC in the 2008 cycle, told The Hill. Citing polls from Rasmussen, which have consistently shown Republicans leading the generic ballot, Cole said: “It’s the first time we’ve had any kind of lead since ’03.”
Democrats, meanwhile, admit they have had a difficult August, but many say the outlook is far better than it appears.
“I think it’s a mistake to overinterpret some of the spikes in the polling numbers,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “There are going to be ups and downs between now and November 2010. Obviously, we’ll monitor the situation closely and take nothing for granted.
“I do not subscribe to these doomsday scenarios that all of a sudden the sky is falling,” Van Hollen added. “We’ve been preparing, from day one, for a very tough election cycle.”
Still, Republicans have accomplishments to crow about. In his memo, Cornyn cited Illinois, Kentucky and Arkansas, where prominent candidates jumped into the race last month. And in states like Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Ohio, competitive Democratic primaries could aid Republican candidates.
The party has potentially strong recruits on the hook in Colorado, where former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton (R) is considering running; in New Hampshire, where ex-Attorney General Kelly Ayotte (R) is exploring a bid; and in California, where former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina (R) is pondering a run.
In Nevada, although Republicans did not score an A-list recruit, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) remains unpopular, with a recent poll showing two little-known candidates each outpacing the Senate majority leader.
Meanwhile, Sessions, who will send a similar memo to Republican members of Congress and candidates later this week, will point to widely circulated comments from political handicapper Charlie Cook, who suggested Republicans are on the verge of big wins. Republicans are not claiming they will benefit from a wave, but Cook's comments have given them hope that gains are on the horizon.
The healthcare debate, confrontations in angry town hall meetings and declining poll numbers, Sessions will suggest, have knocked Democrats off the offensive and onto their heels — and it is up to Republicans to continue to claim the upper ground.
“Democrats are off message, out of touch, and out of control. The month of August could not have gone any worse for Democrats, as support for their government takeover of healthcare has dwindled and the popularity of President Obama and the Democratic Congress is dropping like a rock,” said Ken Spain, the NRCC’s communications director. “Democrats should consider themselves to be on notice.”
But the poll numbers that look so troubling to Democrats should not be read as a corresponding boost to Republicans, said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center.
“We’re not anywhere close to an election, but [the numbers are] an indication of the way voters feel about government, and mostly the way they feel about the party in charge,” Kohut said. “The public is unhappy with the powers that be, and the opposition is benefiting not on the basis of better opinions about it” but because they are the opposition.
And Republicans did not have a perfect month. They failed to nab top recruits against Reid or Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and they face the prospect of their own expensive primaries in Missouri, Ohio and New Hampshire. Additionally, the NRSC has come under fire from state party chairmen in New Hampshire and Colorado for a perception that they are overly involved in those states’ primaries.
“While much has been made of Democrats enduring a tough August, an examination of the 2010 Senate map shows Republican candidates and incumbents in fact had a difficult month,” said Eric Schultz, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Republicans faced a series of tough setbacks and committed gaffes which could have lasting impact.”
Democrats are more sanguine about their rough month, and about the year ahead.
“The Republicans had some momentum in August, but they blunted their momentum by making some very stupid mistakes,” said ex-Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), who ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for several cycles. “They had things going pretty well for themselves in the beginning of the break, but cooler heads did not prevail.”