Iraq casts shadow on 2008 state races

 
Louis Jacobson is the editor of CongressNow , an online publication launched in 2007 that covers legislation and policy in Congress and is affiliated with Roll Cal l newspaper in Washington, D.C. Jacobson originated the "Out There" column in 2004 as a feature for Roll Cal l, where he served as deputy editor. Earlier, Jacobson spent 11 years with National Journal covering lobbying, politics and policy, and served as a contributing writer for two of its affiliates , CongressDaily and Government Executive . He also was a contributing writer to The Almanac of American Politics and has done political handicapping of state legislatures for both The Rothenberg Political Report and The Cook Political Report .

Not a single governor or state legislator wields authority over the conduct of the Iraq War, yet a broad range of party strategists and political analysts agree that state races in 2008 will be shaped, mostly indirectly, by public attitudes towards that conflict. Unless there's a sea change in public opinion, that's bad news for Republicans.

Some war-related issues, such as the impact of National Guard deployments on state disaster-assistance capabilities, touch state governments directly. But most of the drag from public dissatisfaction with the war will come from its secondary effect - a weakening of trust in the Republican "brand." And this has the potential to affect candidates at every level of government, analysts say.

"There's no question that the war remains the big 'X' factor from the top of the ticket to the local school board, and any Republican running for state office should be thinking about it," said Phil Musser, a former executive director of the Republican Governors Association. "The Democratic presidential nominee will try to make the '08 general election a referendum on the worst decisions of Bush's war council. That may or may not stick, but it will remind a lot of folks of sour memories of the last few years, all despite continued improvement in Iraq."

These sentiments already played a role in the Virginia GOP's loss of the state Senate last month, say observers in the state. More broadly, Democratic officials report stronger candidate recruitment hauls and increased fundraising, though Republicans also say their fundraising totals are up. And in 2008, the presidential race is likely to keep the war and foreign policy fresh in voters' minds.

None of this means the war will doom Republicans to far-reaching state losses. National polls already show signs that the economy and domestic issues are ticking upward on voters' lists of top concerns. Election Day remains far away. And the three gubernatorial races held in 2007 were driven mostly by local issues - Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi and a corruption scandal in Kentucky.

But state races have a history of mirroring results at the federal level when voter anger is high.

The 1994 election is best remembered for the GOP's seizure of both chambers of Congress, but that year's gubernatorial and legislature races also broke dramatically toward the GOP. The 36 gubernatorial seats contested went from 21 Democratic, 14 Republican and one independent before the election to 24 Republican, 11 Democratic and one independent afterward. Meanwhile, 21 legislative chambers switched party control, 20 of which went Republican and one of which went from Democratic control to a tie. The Democrats had a strong showing in gubernatorial and legislative races in 2006, a year in which the party re-took both houses of Congress.

"I predict the same fate [as 1994] for Republicans next year if the President's Iraq rating doesn't improve significantly," said Constance Campanella, the president and CEO of Stateside Associates, a state-based lobbying firm.

Indeed, rank-and-file legislators have already begun to express concern, said Tim Storey, an elections analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"
I have had a large number of legislators tell me that voters want to talk about it when the legislators are out door-knocking," Storey said. "It is usually the first thing that comes up. And voters don't care about hearing the federalism case that states have relatively little to do with the war. Voters just want to vent. If that trend lingers into next spring and summer, the war could definitely have an effect on state races."

Tactically, state-level Democrats will have a number of means at their disposal to remind voters of the consequences of the war.

"A Republican strategy of war with no end in sight has put tremendous stress on the National Guard, leaving many states without the resources or manpower needed to protect people during local emergencies," said Democratic consultant Michael Bocian. Already last year, in the wake of a devastating tornado in her state, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D-Kan.) voiced exasperation about the Kansas National Guard being under-resourced for emergency-recovery needs.

In Tennessee, House and Senate Democrats are sponsoring legislation to create a college scholarship program for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. "They intend to make this a major campaign issue," said Alex Dery Snider, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

The notion that the war could be a factor in 2008 state races is underscored by an informal Out There survey of 29 state-capitol journalists from 22 states. The standardized, albeit unscientific, survey was sent to members of Capitolbeat, the association of state capitol reporters and editors. In the survey, the war ranked far above the next-highest issue, health care. Of the 29 respondents, 22 said that Iraq is "very strongly" resonating with voters in their state, while the other seven said it was resonating "somewhat strongly."

Granted, in some of the key 2008 gubernatorial races, the war is taking a back seat, at least for now. In Indiana, more traditional state-level issues - especially taxes and economic development - are currently driving the race.

"While Indiana is an intensely patriotic state - we have at least seven war memorials in Indianapolis - the war is not an issue in the governor's race," said Brian Vargus, a political scientist at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

In Washington state, while the war in Iraq "will not be a specific issue between" Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire and GOP challenger Dino Rossi or between legislative candidates, "it will cast a large penumbra across the spirit of the 2008 elections," said University of Washington political scientist David Olson . " The mismanagement of the war has seriously damaged Republican credibility." With Republicans on the defensive, he said, "the Democrats' messages about common-sense solutions to local problems can resonate loudly."

Republicans maintain voters will continue to reward GOP governors who have done a good job and punish Democrats who have fallen short. "You can overcome a lot if you are perceived as doing a competent job as governor," said former RGA executive director Mike Pieper .  

 
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