Race Fundamentals Are Telling for Vulnerables

by Stuart Rothenberg October 6, 2010 · 9:00 AM EDT

Democrats are pushing back these days with polls and political scenarios, trying to change the national narrative and force handicappers onto the defensive.

There is a Democratic mini-surge going on, we are told, as some campaigns produce poll numbers showing they have been prematurely written off as, well, dead.

This often happens, though I must acknowledge that it didn’t happen in 2008, when Republican campaign strategists and consultants were brutally honest with themselves in acknowledging that their candidates were going to get slaughtered in the fall elections. How refreshing that was.

This cycle, many Democrats I talk with acknowledge that big defeats are inevitable, but they then go on to argue their candidate is the one who is going to survive, pointing either to a new poll, the presence of a third-party candidate on the ballot or the alleged unelectability of the GOP challenger.

So, you get situations such as Rep. Betsy Markey (D-Colo.) trying to alter the conventional wisdom that she is destined to lose by releasing a campaign poll showing her tied with Republican challenger Cory Gardner at 38 percent, with two other candidates drawing a combined 7 percent.

Forget the fact that any Democratic incumbent getting 38 percent of the vote in September of an election year is toast. Also ignore the fact that other polling, not yet released, conducted more recently by a Republican pollster for whom I have the highest regard shows Markey trailing badly.

Are we really to believe that Markey — who represents a district won narrowly by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) two years ago, by President George W. Bush by 17 points in 2004 and by Bush by more than 20 points in 2000 — is going to get re-elected if and when Democrats lose 30 seats in the House?

Remember, Markey voted for the stimulus bill, the health care reform bill and cap-and-trade after coming into my office as a candidate and stressing that she was a moderate Democrat.

So I’m supposed to believe that at least a couple dozen other Democratic seats are going to turn Republican, but Markey’s seat isn’t?

Then there is Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D) of Florida’s 24th district.

I don’t know whether there is any connection, but shortly after I moved her race to “Republican Favored,” the campaign released a Hamilton Campaigns poll showing her ahead of GOP challenger Sandy Adams, 45 percent to 43 percent.

I’m not challenging the poll because pollster Dave Beattie knows Florida and I trust his numbers. But context matters here.

Kosmas “surged” after running ads demonizing Adams as someone who wants to ship jobs overseas and opposes popular elections for Senators. And if that’s what the election is about when November rolls around, Kosmas has a chance.

But as everyone not living under a rock knows, that’s not what November is going to be about.

Adams ended the primary with little money in the bank, but after the National Republican Congressional Committee completes its media buy of about 2,000 gross ratings points, the election in this district will primarily be about the economy, jobs, bigger government and spending as well as President Barack Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

And because of that, Kosmas, who supported the stimulus bill, health care reform and cap-and-trade in a district that McCain carried and Bush carried twice, is almost certainly going to slip back in the polls.

Most Democratic incumbents who are going to lose in November will get at least 45 percent of the vote. Many will get much more, losing by only 2 or 3 points. That’s what happens in elections. The Democratic base in most competitive districts is at least in the low to mid-40s.

Given that, it isn’t surprising Democratic Members are even or slightly ahead at this point in some races. They aren’t going to get much of the undecided vote, so they need to be up near the 50 percent mark on Election Day to win.

So Markey’s and Kosmas’ polls are, in a sense, beside the point. Yes, Markey may get 38 percent of the vote and Kosmas 45 percent. So what?

Of course, there are plenty of other Democratic incumbents who are more or less in the same boat as Markey and Kosmas: Reps. Baron Hill (Ind.), Frank Kratovil (Md.), Chet Edwards (Texas), Mary Jo Kilroy (Ohio), Steve Driehaus (Ohio), Paul Kanjorski (Pa.), Harry Teague (N.M.) and Ann Kirkpatrick (Ariz.) are among them.

Ask a Teague supporter about November, and he will tell you that Democrats probably will lose the House, but Teague will survive. To Kratovil admirers, Democrats are going to get slaughtered, but Kratovil will win. And for Hill, Edwards and Kanjorski supporters, those veterans always find a way to win, even when the rest of their party is in trouble. Why should 2010 be any different?

But 2010 isn’t 2008 or 2006 or even 2004. Democratic candidates need to go into the elections at or above the 50 percent mark in most districts. “Surging” to 45 percent of the vote simply isn’t enough.

I certainly don’t expect Markey and Kosmas simply to throw in the towel and spend the last month of their re-election campaigns traveling throughout Europe. They still have time to make their cases about why they should be re-elected. But that doesn’t change the political reality of their situations.