Good News Finds the Republicans. But for How Long?

by Stuart Rothenberg June 15, 2006 · 12:04 AM EDT

California’s 50th district special election. The death of terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq. The foiling of a major terrorist plot in Canada. A cooling of tensions over Iran. The unemployment rate down to 4.6 percent.

After a 17-month string of virtually unbroken bad news, Republicans suddenly find themselves confronting something they could not have expected, and may now no longer recognize: good news. How will they handle it?

First, Republican partisans should not kid themselves about the political environment. It was only a few days ago that news reports surfaced of a possible massacre by U.S. military personnel in Iraq and the re-emergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. If history is any guide, more bad news from the region is probably around the corner (if it hasn’t already happened).

Second, the public’s mood already is sour, so many Americans may discount good news, just the way they have ignored the strength of the economy. A succession of bad news, whether about Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, illegal aliens or job layoffs, would make many Americans forget the recent good news very quickly.

Third, Republicans need to understand that while they dodged a bullet in California’s 50th district, that result guarantees nothing about November.

Democrat Francine Busby has been described as a “mediocre” candidate so often that it might as well be her middle name. But Democratic nominees in Connecticut’s 2nd and 4th districts, Indiana’s 8th and 9th districts and Florida’s 22nd district— just to mention a handful of contests — are much stronger than Busby and much more likely to have appeal to general election voters.

Busby’s showing does indeed raise questions about Democratic prospects in a handful of districts where Republicans generally get about 55 percent of the vote, including in Rep. Mark Green’s open seat in Wisconsin’s 8th district, Rep. Mark Kennedy’s open seat in Minnesota’s 6th and Rep. Jim Gibbons’ open seat in Nevada’s 2nd.

Districts such as those, which mirror the partisanship of California’s 50th, could be at risk for Republicans in a Democratic wave, but Rep.-elect Brian Bilbray’s (R) showing, despite his failure to get a majority of the total vote, isn’t encouraging for Democrats.

Democratic strategists will argue that they have stronger nominees in those districts than they did in California’s 50th (a dubious assertion in Kennedy’s Minnesota seat, where Patty Wetterling will carry the Democratic banner). But the Republican nominees in those districts won’t have the baggage that Bilbray was carrying in the special election.

Remember, Bilbray was under attack from the right both in the special election and in the primary for the full term that was occurring simultaneously. That, plus his lobbyist tag and ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham’s (R) criminal behavior, all aided Busby’s chances.

But in Democratic-leaning or even tossup districts, the California results have little predictive value about what will happen in November. In those districts, Democratic candidates merely need Democratic voters to abandon their past support of Republican Members of Congress to turn the districts over to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Co.

In the meantime, while immigration aided Bilbray’s return to Congress, the issue remains a thorn in the side of Republicans and is likely to remain an irritant from now to the election.

While House Republicans may now assume that they need the issue more than a compromise with the Senate and the White House, there is significant danger for the GOP if, as now seems likely, the party fails to find a compromise on the issue.

If voters remain generally dissatisfied with the direction of the nation, Democrats will use Republican inaction on immigration as further evidence of the GOP’s incompetence and inability to come up with solutions to critical problems.

But what if the good news is the start of a trend? What if Osama bin Laden is killed or captured? What if Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke signals that interest rate hikes have come to an end and that the economy looks solid, resulting in a surge in the stock market? What if there is more news about and coverage of successful U.S. efforts to foil terrorists, causing Americans to see the Bush White House as successful in the war against terror?

And, most importantly, what if Americans start to become more optimistic about the future, leading to an overall uptick — I didn’t say surge — in optimism and to an improvement in President Bush’s poll numbers?

Gravity teaches that what goes up must also go down. But in politics, what goes down often ends up going back up. It’s all a question of timing.