Tuesday, November 15, 2005

George Bush stumps for Mark Kennedy in Minnesota

Seems a little strange, doesn't it? After the conventional wisdom says that the recent gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia were lost because of the Republican candidates' links to George W. Bush, we're seeing a Republican Senate candidate seeking out Bush's help to raise funds for his 2006 campaign for Minnesota's open Senate seat. What gives? Bush is still loved in Alabama, but Minnesota? Blue-leaning, peace-loving, progressive Minnesota? Inviting George W. Bush to a $1000-a-plate dinner? Again, what gives?

I suspect that those of us who have been declaring that Bush cost Forrester the New Jersey election and that Bush cost Kilgore the Virginia election are overestimating his effect. Sure, I think Bush did put a sour taste in the mouths of some voters and that he may well have swung a few over to the Democrats' side, but to call our very unpopular president the main factor in these elections is ludicrous, and draws away from the fact that the Republicans just ran lousy candidates. Doug Forrester ran in New Jersey, which is strongly Democratic, and against a popular senator, but still, Mr. Forrester grouses that if Bush hadn't been so unpopular, he would have won. Poppycock. Forrester was a crummy candidate with an unappealingly wooden personality. Add that to a platform that didn't really appeal to enough people, and you've got failure. Bush didn't even campaign for Forrester, so poor Mr. Forrester needs to face the fact that the voters just didn't want him as governor.

Jerry Kilgore, down in Virginia, was even worse. His campaign had almost no substance to it at all, while the winner, Lt. Governor Tim Kaine, was supported by a popular incumbent governor, and the Kaine campaign was more substantial, to say the least. There were other factors, too, but it's reaching to pin Kilgore's loss to Bush's popularity, and to Kilgore's having invited Bush to stump for him during the last couple of days of the campaign. It would be tempting for Kilgore to say such things, though; that would feel better than admitting to himself that either he ran a dud of a campaign or that he was a dud of a candidate.

Bush's diminished popularity certainly does diminish his value as an asset to his party's campaigns, but he's not useless. I think Bush could wind up helping candidates during the 2006 campaigns. Oh, he won't be anywhere near the asset he was during the 2002 campaigns, but I wouldn't call him useless, even though we hear some Republicans saying they'd rather not have Bush stump for them.

Rep. Kennedy's move to have Bush come to Minnesota and raise funds for him is a good one, I'd say. Kennedy's going to need all the cash he can raise, because although Minnesota is a pretty divided state, it does lean Democratic, slightly. Kennedy's advantage is that the Republicans have united early around a candidate, and that that candidate is him. His disadvantage is that he's a lousy campaigner with a tin ear. He won his House seat in a very strongly Republican district by the narrowest of margins against Democrat Patty Wetterling. His personal attacks on her left a terrible taste in Republicans' mouths. The Democrats haven't unified around a candidate yet. That candidate could well be Wetterling, but it could also be Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar (whom I like better, anyway.) No matter who stumps for him, Kennedy's going to face a tough race.

President Bush's popularity ratings probably won't always remain below 40%, and even if they do, he's still useful to some Republican candidates in some places. Further, he's always good for raising cash from the party faithful. In close races, the president's presence could make a difference one way or the other, but we can't overestimate it. The 2006 midterms are a whole year away, and a year is an extremely long time in politics, so it's hard to predict what Bush's worth will be by then. The only thing we can say for sure is that Bush's unpopularity is hurting his party's recruitment and fundraising now. The repercussions of this will certainly hurt the Republicans' prospects in 2006, but whether Bush will still be useless or even a poison pill for many races remains to be seen. I'm not about to predict that—not yet, anyway.

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