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John Feehery: Dems’ dead cat bounce

Greg Nash

Over the last week or so, there has been a mini boomlet of media stories and polls suggesting that vulnerable Senate Democrats are in better shape to win reelection than previously thought. 

Sen. Mark Pryor, the Arkansas Democrat, has a 10-point lead over his presumed opponent, House Republican Tom Cotton. Sen. Mary Landrieu has a wide lead over Rep. Bill Cassidy, her potential Republican opponent. Sen. Kay Hagen is competitive against the field arrayed against her in North Carolina. Sen. Mark Begich seems to be doing pretty well in Alaska.

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Democrats are effusive. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, seems like a political genius. The Obama political machine is breathing a sigh of relief. 

But as they say on my favorite television show, “Game of Thrones,” winter is coming for the Senate Democrats. And I am a bit skeptical these numbers will hold up. 

There are a couple of reasons for my skepticism.  

First, we are still a long way off from Election Day, and the issues and the candidates in this campaign are not fully defined. You would expect that incumbents with higher name recognition would be in better shape than their opponents who either haven’t been nominated yet or haven’t started really campaigning in earnest. In several of these battleground states, the primary process hasn’t played out yet. 

There is a general assumption that Cassidy, Cotton and North Carolina’s Thom Tillis will get the nominations, but voters don’t know that yet, and haven’t focused on their qualifications as a plausible alternative. Once these candidates survive the primaries, if they do, they will automatically become viable alternatives. 

Second, history suggests that the top issue of this campaign will be the performance of the president. It won’t be easy for the Democrats to escape the gravitational pull of Barack Obama. We’ve seen several different approaches thus far. Landrieu has tried to localize the election, touting her experience and clout as the chairwoman of the Senate Energy Committee. Pryor has tried to emphasize his Christian beliefs. Begich and Colorado Senate Democrat Mark Udall have tried hard to distance themselves from the president. 

But can these approaches work? 

At the end of the day, voters will make a decision about the candidates. Are you with President Obama or are you against him? Vulnerable Democrats, especially in states with higher minority populations, can’t just easily walk away from the president, because they risk alienating their Democratic base.

African-American voters, for example, are unlikely to vote in high numbers for a Senate Democrat who spends his or her time talking about how bad Obama is, but polls suggest that white voters will not vote for a Democrat who doesn’t run away from the president.  

This dangerous rip tide of voter sentiment is awfully tricky to navigate for Reid and his team. 

Can the Republicans screw this up? Of course they can. 

They can nominate goofballs like Joe Miller in Alaska, or just about anybody else that the Senate Conservatives Fund strongly backs. The Tea Party can enjoy a resurgence in the nominating process; if it were to become the issue this fall, it would be the worst-case scenario for the Republican Party. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz could push for another government shutdown right before the election. 

But none of those scenarios seem likely right now. Republicans seem to have a pretty firm hand on the primary process. The Tea Party is in decline. Cruz doesn’t have the support to shut down the government. 

On Wall Street, a small, short recovery in a sinking stock market is called a “dead cat bounce.” I think that is what we are seeing with the Senate Democrats right now. 

Feehery is president of QGA Public Affairs and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com. He served as spokesman to former Speaker of the House Denny Hastert (R-Ill.), as communications director to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) when he was majority whip and as speechwriter to former Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.).