After three nearly uninterrupted years of favorable political news, Democrats have finally hit a rough patch.
Over a period of less than 10 days, Democrats have seen their nominee go down in defeat in the Georgia Senate runoff— eliminating the prospect of a filibuster-proof majority—lost two winnable House races in Louisiana and witnessed House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) sink deeper into ethics trouble.
Then there’s the still-unfolding Illinois Senate debacle, which exposed Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s tawdry attempts to auction off President-elect Barack Obama’s Senate seat and forced Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) to hold a press conference Wednesday denying any inappropriate discussions with the governor.
Democrats aren’t exactly disheartened by these developments – they’re still set to control the entire federal government in January – but the streak of bad news has tempered the party’s post-election euphoria. And the string of post-Election Day congressional wins has given the GOP some of its first good news in a long time.
“I think Republicans are approaching these wins with cautious enthusiasm,” said Republican consultant Ron Bonjean, referring to the GOP’s victories in Georgia and Louisiana, “that the party isn’t completely down and out, that the American people are willing to give them a chance.”
Democratic missteps alone won’t be enough to spur a GOP recovery, Republicans said, but they give the party some time to fortify its political position.
“It’s obviously better to win than lose, so these victories have been heartening, but we still have a lot of work to do,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). “Everyone knows this is a marathon, not a sprint.”
“[Americans] still want to hear want to hear what positive agenda they will bring to the table,” Bonjean agreed. “And we’ll have to take the next several months to put one together and communicate it more effectively.”
If Republicans are sounding a cautious note now, they were positively ecstatic over the weekend, when Republican Anh “Joseph” Cao’s victory over indicted New Orleans Rep. Bill Jefferson (D-La.) spurred Boehner’s office to release a statement declaring: “The Future is Cao.”
“The Cao victory is a symbol of what can be achieved when we think big, present a positive alternative, and work aggressively to earn the trust of the American people,” Boehner said.
Republicans on the ground in the contested districts were, if possible, even more thrilled. Aaron Baer, the communications director for the Louisiana Republican Party, pointed out that Democratic victories in three 2008 special elections presaged their big wins in November.
“Now we’ve kind of seen our three as well, so hopefully ours is the beginning of a trend,” he said. “The model of what worked in Georgia and what worked in Louisiana, other states gotta look at that.”
For now, Democrats seem relatively unruffled by their recent defeats in Georgia, where Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss defeated former state legislator Jim Martin by double digits, and Louisiana, where Republicans successfully knocked off Jefferson and defended the seat of retiring Rep. Jim McCrery.
Former Texas Congressman Martin Frost, who ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the 1990s, dismissed those losses as isolated incidents.
“Two of these were Republican seats,” Frost said, referring to Chambliss and McCrery’s seats. “The Jefferson seat was just an unusual situation where you had this member who was under this enormous ethical cloud.”
According to Frost, those results show little more than that Republicans can win in the South, &dquo;the one part of the country where the Republicans are still dominant.”
DCCC spokesman Doug Thornell was even more dismissive in swatting down the suggestion that Republicans have picked up steam.
“Republicans are bankrupt of ideas and lurching for anything to exploit,” Thornell said.
He pointed out that Republicans have had some bad news of their own lately: a slow tally of provisional ballots recently propelled Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy into retiring Rep. Deborah Pryce’s (R-Ohio) seat, and retiring Rep. Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.) was on Monday sentenced to five days in jail for drunk driving.
“The reality is that in the last few days they lost yet another House seat in a district they have held since 1966, had one of their members sentenced to jail time and barely held onto an overwhelming Republican district in the Deep South,” he said. “Clearly, the GOP propaganda machine is working overtime to spin this as a good week for them.”
But even if Democrats are shrugging off disappointing election returns, the Blagojevich scandal and Rangel’s persistent ethics issues threaten to be an ongoing distraction, at least in the near-term.
The allegations against Rangel, which involve multiple allegations of corruption and tax fraud, will be addressed by a House Ethics Committee report in January.
Blagojevich’s problems have a less specific timetable for resolution, and the governor has given no indication, so far, that he intends to resign his office.
“The Illinois thing has the potential for being a problem for Democrats, if we can’t contain it just to Blagojevich and Illinois,” Frost conceded, suggesting that a special election for Obama’s Senate seat could provide an opening for a Republican challenger, particularly if the Illinois legislature doesn’t provide for a runoff election and numerous Democrats file for the seat.
On Tuesday, when news leaked out of Blagojevich’s arrest, Republicans – including several of the candidates running for Republican National Committee chair – jumped on the scandal as an opportunity to link President-elect Obama to crooked Chicago politics.
“Rep. [Eric] Cantor and I both put out statements yesterday and called on Barack Obama to be a different kind of president,” RNC Chair Mike Duncan told Politico Wednesday. “He lost a day yesterday. He did not perform very well.”
Obama initially avoided calling on Blagojevich to resign, before his press secretary made a statement Wednesday echoing other Illinois politicians’ demands that the embattled governor step down. All 50 Democratic senators signed a letter Wednesday calling on Blagojevich to resign.
If the Blagojevich affair has the potential to damage Obama’s image, it hasn’t registered just yet. The Gallup tracking poll that measures Obama’s favorability and public confidence ratings showed Wednesday that 71 percent of the public had a positive impression of the President-elect, compared with just 19 percent that had a negative impression.
Sixty-five percent of Americans said they had confidence in him. Just 24 percent disagreed.