Recent election victories and polling data suggest 2010 will be a very good year for Republicans. But that doesn't mean voters like the GOP.
"Republican" is still a damaged brand name that could act as an anchor on GOP electoral fortunes.
"Compared to 1994, the greatest thing the Democrats have going for them this cycle is that right now, people can remember that last time Republicans ran Congress, and they're not pleasant memories," said Scott Rasmussen, president of the polling firm Rasmussen Reports. "In 1994 nobody could remember when Republicans ran Congress — it had been 40 years."
A recent Rasmussen poll found that respondents are still unsure which party to trust on ethics issues.
The Elephant In The Room
Even Republicans don't really like Republicans. Another Rasmussen survey found 75% of GOP voters think Republican members of Congress are out of touch.
That is likely a holdover from 2006, when the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, the inability to control government spending, and various ethics scandals plagued Congressional Republicans and led to a Democratic takeover and big majorities. In 2006 and 2008, voters didn't favor Democrats so much as they were fed up with Republican rule.
A similar dynamic appears to be at work in 2010. A survey from Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, showed 56% of the public unhappy with the GOP. Nevertheless, most recent polls show Republicans lead on the generic ballot, with the Real Clear Politics average showing the GOP leading by 3 points.
The same poll that showed the public unsure of which party to trust on ethics found that respondents tended to trust the GOP over Democrats on most key issues, such as the economy and health care.
"The good news in all of this for the Republicans is that (the election) is not about the Republicans," said Rasmussen. "The GOP wants this election to be about Democrats and Democratic control of government."
Brown Didn't Run 'Red'
Sen. Scott Brown's upset win in Massachusetts was a microcosm of that. Brown seldom mentioned his Republican affiliation and attacked opponent Martha Coakley on the economy and emphasized that he'd be the 41st vote in the Senate against ObamaCare.
The national Republican Party supported Brown under the radar. The National Republican Senatorial Committee sent volunteers and gave $500,000 to the state GOP, money that would not appear on campaign filings until after the election.
In the Texas GOP gubernatorial primary scheduled for March 2, Tea Party activist Debra Medina is surging in the polls, another sign of an anti-incumbent, anti-Washington mood. According to PPP, a Democrat firm, Medina now has the support of 24% of likely GOP voters vs. 28% for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and 39% for current Gov. Rick Perry. Medina could face Perry in a runoff on April 13 if she bests Hutchison and Perry does not get over 50% of the vote.
Hutchison is suffering from her status as a Washington insider. Likely voters, by 78%-3%, told PPP that Austin politicians are more likely to solve Texas' problems than D.C. politicians. Also, Medina now bests Hutchison 25%-23% among conservatives. Medina also beats Perry 37%-32% among primary voters who disapprove of Washington politicians.
All three GOP candidates lead likely Democratic nominee, ex-Houston Mayor Bill White.
Michael Huttner, CEO of the liberal advocacy group ProgressNow, suggests that while it's a challenging environment for Democrats, there are ways to put the GOP on the defensive.
"What's most important is who picks up on the anti-Wall Street, populist sentiment across the states," he said. "That's a fight that could go either way. The Republican Party has a long history of being in bed with corporate interests."
Illinois State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate, is testing the Washington-insider strategy against his Republican opponent, Rep. Mark Kirk. Giannoulias has criticized Kirk, who has served in Congress since 2000, as "steeped in Washington, D.C., politics."
Recent polls show Kirk and Giannoulias neck-in-neck. Portraying Kirk as a Washington politician could be a smart move for Giannoulias, who has problems of his own as a former vice president of a family bank that reportedly lost $75 million last year.
But is it enough to stem what appears to be a developing anti-Democrat tide?
"What we are seeing out there is a lot of negative momentum against the Democrats," said Scott Elliott, who runs ElectionProjection.com, a conservative-leaning Web site that tracks election races. "The GOP is definitely benefiting greatly from the collapse of the Democrats and from voters being turned off after seeing what the Democrats did once they got into power."
A recent IBD/TIPP poll found that 61% of respondents said that one-party rule in Washington has been bad vs. 28% who said it's been good. Among independents the breakdown was 74%-21%. Independents also preferred a GOP takeover of Congress in the 2010 elections by 48%-28%.
Huttner questions whether Republicans can rely on Democrats' woes to translate into electoral success. "There is much more infighting among the right," he said. "The more the Tea Party becomes a movement, the more it pulls the Republican candidates out to extreme positions."
Some on the political right worry Huttner is correct.
Henry Olsen, vice president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, points to New York's 23rd congressional district where conservative candidate Doug Hoffman may have helped Democrat Bill Owens win a special election.
"(Hoffman's) campaign style, a brand of fiery populism that excited grass-roots conservatives, contributed to his final defeat," Olsen wrote recently in National Review. "Many moderate Republicans who were backing the establishment GOP candidate, Dede Scozzafava, ended up voting for the Democrat, Bill Owens."
Olsen pointed to Brown's win in Massachusetts as an example of a campaign that could unite Tea Party populism with the GOP establishment.
Elliott thinks the New York 23rd was useful for the GOP.
"We saw what happened when the Tea Partyers got behind an independent candidate in the New York 23rd District, and lost a district Republicans had held for a long time," said Elliott. "I think the Tea Partyers and the establishment Republicans learned a lesson from that. I think there will be a pretty solid front from both sides come November."