RALEIGH – Republican partisans and activists in North Carolina and across the country are feeling increasingly confident about their chances in the upcoming mid-term elections. My sense, though, is that they may be in danger of feeling overconfident about what is likely to be a tough electoral battle.
No doubt about it, the numbers are looking good for the GOP right now. President Bush continues to enjoy sky-high approval ratings from the public. What is surprising is not the high numbers, which are pretty common during a crisis as the public rallies behind its leader, but their duration. Bush also enjoys sizable advantages on domestic issues like handling the economy (67 percent approval vs. 24 percent disapproval in one survey) and has pulled even on the perennial Democratic turf of education.
Second, the so-called “generic” ballot surveys that usually show a neck-and-neck fight between Republicans and Democrats over control of Congress are tipping rightward right now. Political analyst Charlie Cook’s poll shows a slight 46 percent to 43 percent edge in Republican self-identification and a larger 46-41 edge in congressional preference. The bipartisan Battleground Poll gives the GOP a 40-35 advantage. As recently as November, these and other polls showed the generic ballot numbers at roughly even.
Finally, although the redistricting process isn’t over – and in North Carolina there are some very big unanswered questions – the Republicans probably managed a slight net gain, a couple of seats or so, as growing states added and shrinking states axed congressional districts.
The Democratic strategy in challenging Bush over the past three months clearly backfired. Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s obstructionism in the U.S. Senate on stimulus, trade, and other issues hasn’t hurt Bush or the Republicans. It has doubled his own negative polling, to 36 percent disapproval of Daschle’s performance. Voters haven’t bought that idea that Bush caused or exacerbated the recession. They aren’t particularly interested in the Enron mess, at least as a partisan political scandal.
As columnist Robert Novak recently reported, the Democratic Party is split on the right electoral strategy. Those in safe seats, a majority of the party’s congressional caucus, want to see Daschle and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt take Bush on even more. Others in competitive seats, either in Congress or in state legislatures, want to de-emphasize conflict with the popular president and avoid talk of raising taxes or blocking Bush’s next moves in the war on terrorism.
Still, I think the national Republicans need to calm down and take a hard look at the calendar. The November elections remain a long way off. If the economy doesn’t show much life in the coming months, I can’t help but think that will weaken Bush at least a little, whether justified or not. Also, the Enron investigations could go rogue, kicking up a lot of sand, and other unforeseen events could shift the public’s attention.
North Carolina Republicans – still waiting to see if the federal government will order new congressional districts and whether a state judge will stop the election cycle long enough to draw a more competitive (and constitutional) legislative map – aren’t yet feeling overconfident about their chances in the fall. That’s smart.