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NJ Daily / OFF TO THE RACES

Beyond the Headlines

Compared to other political news, the special election in New York is among the least interesting recent developments.

photo of Charlie Cook
May 16, 2011

This last week has seen a potpourri of interesting political developments on the presidential, senatorial, and congressional election front.  

In my not-so-humble opinion, the least important were several polls showing that next Tuesday’s three-way special election in New York’s 26th Congressional District was becoming very competitive, with multiple entities for each major party spending freely. To be honest, I take a perverse pleasure in watching a multitude of well-intentioned political observers weigh in on the “great significance” of this upstate House race to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of GOP Rep. Chris Lee.  

In addition to other things, I have heard them talk about what it portends for the Medicare issue and the 2012 elections for the House nationwide.  

 

It’s all nonsense.

For those who live outside the boundaries of the 26th District, the significance is this: If Democrats capture the seat, they will need a net gain of 24 seats to capture a majority and if Republicans hold the seat, Democrats will still need 25 seats. That’s it. Any grander conclusions are specious.

The vast majority of congressional elections are effectively fought between one Democrat, one Republican and perhaps a mishmash of unknown independent and third-party candidates that rarely make a difference in the outcome of the election.  

In this Republican-leaning 26th District fight, there is one Democrat, one Republican and, oh, yes, a wealthy, abortion-rights, economic protectionist, former Republican, former Democrat, current tea partier, who ran for Congress in 2004, 2006 and 2008—spending a total of $5.2 million of his own money—and has already spent at least another $1.7 million in this race for Congress.  

If anyone can find a race next year with a similar configuration, be my guest and apply the “lessons learned” from this race to that one. But implying that the outcome of this race portends anything about any conventional race next year amounts to cheap spin and drive-by “analysis” of the most superficial kind, which is sadly becoming all too prevalent in Washington. There are a lot of folks in D.C. who would be well-served switching to decaf.

The retirement by four-term incumbent Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Although Kohl loaned his campaign $1 million late last year, this seemed to be a gesture of buying time and quieting the retirement speculation while he made up his mind; he raised only $714 during the first quarter of this year.

(PICTURES: Senate Retirees—Why Are They Leaving?)

The widespread assumptions that this relatively small amount of money, given his immense personal wealth, meant that he was definitely running seemed to both ignore his age (76) and the fact that since his election in 1988, the Senate has atrophied into more of a debating society and Kohl never seemed to be the kind who would have trouble letting go and retiring.  

Kohl’s retirement is a big deal, though. It is doubtful that any formidable Republican would have taken him, and his checkbook, on. But now that he has retired, this looks likely to be a very competitive race. Depending on whether former Sen. Russ Feingold runs on the Democratic side and House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan or former Gov. Tommy Thompson seek the GOP nomination, this race could be anywhere from Lean Democrat to Lean Republican. The safest column to put it in today is Toss Up until there are further developments that clear the dust.

(RELATED: Paul Ryan Won't Run for U.S. Senate)

On the presidential side, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s announcement that he would not seek the 2012 Republican presidential nomination was hardly a surprise to the reporters who had coffee with him several months ago.

(RELATED: Huckabee's Plunge into Pop Culture)

Back then, he discussed the personal financial considerations that weighed on his decision. He talked about how he had never made much money until now, that he had to cash in annuities and life insurance policies during his 2008 campaign, and that now that he is self-employed, any major medical problem in the future could be a real financial problem.  

It was one of those rare moments in which a politician was totally candid with journalists on a point that was hardly self-serving. One must add into the mix that while Huckabee was a very good governor of Arkansas and won the 2008 Republican caucus in Iowa, he was never able to expand his political and fundraising support beyond the social, cultural, and religious wing of the GOP.  

Indeed, his key caucus win was built around a base of those active in the home-school network. That’s great for winning early, multi-candidate contests, but when the nomination fights narrow down to the last two or three candidates, one has to build a crossover vote and appeal to the donor class of the GOP.  

He never was able to do that as he was pigeon-holed as a former evangelical minister, and was never able to expand much into the more secular elements of the GOP, which is also where most of the money is to be raised.

Huckabee’s decision does mean that there is a vacuum in the social, cultural, and religious bracket in this GOP nomination tournament.  

In some ways, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum could fill it, but it raises the question about whether many of the numerous Protestant, evangelical Christian voters who put cultural issues above all others are open to a Catholic.  

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who seems more of a secular candidate, will certainly try to edge over and poach some of those folks. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney probably need not apply with this constituency.

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