President Bush’s unpopularity and a string of political setbacks have created a toxic climate for the Republican Party, making it harder to raise money and recruit candidates for its drive to retake control of Congress.
Some of the GOP’s top choices to run for the House next year have declined, citing what Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) called a “poisonous” environment. And Republicans’ fundraising edge, an important advantage over the last five years, has dwindled.
With GOP clout diminished after November’s election losses, the Republicans’ national committee and their House and Senate campaign committees together raised the same amount as the Democrats in the first quarter of the year -- and Democrats ended the period with more cash in the bank. At this point four years ago, Republicans had more than twice the money Democrats did.
“The reality is the Republican brand right now is just not a good brand,” said Tim Hibbitts, an independent Oregon pollster. “For Republicans, the only way things really get better ... is if somehow, some way, Iraq turns around.”
Jennifer Duffy of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report said the party was “desperately in need of some Prozac.”
The problems can be seen in such places as Florida’s 22nd Congressional District, which hugs the coast north of Fort Lauderdale. Republicans held that House seat for a quarter-century. But since losing it last year, the party has had trouble finding a top-tier candidate for it.
Two of the GOP’s choices, both state legislators, declined to run. A third, Boca Raton’s mayor, said he was weighing whether a Republican had any hope of retaking the district.
“You have to sort of lay a bet down now on what will be the environment in 18 months,” said Mayor Steven Abrams, who must leave his current office because of term limits.
Though Republicans have recruited many solid candidates in their effort to retake Capitol Hill -- and they have more than 18 months to improve their fortunes -- the environment could get worse.
Damaged by ethics scandals in 2006, the GOP in recent weeks has seen FBI raids at businesses or homes connected to two of its congressmen. A federal agency last week began an investigation into Bush advisor Karl Rove’s political operation, and congressional panels authorized a flurry of subpoenas related to White House political activities and the run-up to the Iraq war.
Three-term Rep. Rob Simmons of Connecticut, who lost his seat last year by 83 votes, said he turned down an appeal from the GOP to run again in 2008, partly because of the dismal political climate. In a district dominated by Democrats, he said, it has become impossible for even a moderate Republican like himself to win -- especially since he voted to authorize the war in Iraq. Republicans in recent days said they had found a solid candidate to run in Simmons’ place: the former commander of the area’s naval base.
In Colorado, Republican Sen. Wayne Allard’s decision not to seek reelection set the stage for one of the nation’s most competitive 2008 races. But the top choice of party leaders, former Rep. Scott McInnis, has taken a pass, citing family reasons. McInnis had nearly $1 million stockpiled for the race.
Broader signs of Republican distress also are turning up across the country.
When voters five years ago were asked which party they identified with, neither Democrats nor Republicans held an advantage. Now 50% of voters say they are aligned with the Democrats, and 35% with Republicans, according to a survey released last month by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
And in New Hampshire, nonpartisan pollster Dick Bennett said the atmosphere was so sour that he was having a tough time getting Republicans to participate in surveys. The war, high gas prices and unhappiness with the Bush administration have dampened their interest sharing opinions, he said.
A few years ago, “they would make arguments in favor of the president, and they don’t anymore,” Bennett said. “They don’t defend the president on anything.”
Republicans do hold some advantages in the 2008 congressional elections, including district lines for many contested House seats that are drawn in their favor.
More than 60 Democrats will have to defend seats in districts where voters backed President Bush in 2004, Republicans say, suggesting that many of those incumbents will be too liberal to win. By contrast, only seven Republicans are defending seats in districts that went for Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry, they say.
Moreover, GOP officials say conditions are likely to improve once the party settles on a presidential nominee -- who they believe will eclipse Bush in the public eye and diminish his drag on Republican prospects.
“No question, the president’s gone through a rough patch. But the central figure for the Republicans next year is not going to be George Bush,” said Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-Solana Beach) described Bush as “a millstone that most members will not have to be carrying around” once the Republican presidential nominee emerges.
Still, some Republicans are wary about 2008, saying that potential candidates and donors are having trouble assessing the landscape.
“It’s just a very uncertain environment,” said Abrams, the Boca Raton mayor. “One day you’ll have the issue with the [Justice Department’s firing of eight] U.S. attorneys, which hurts Republicans. The next day [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi goes off to Syria, which in this district is unacceptable.”
The GOP’s relatively weak fundraising totals for the first quarter could also complicate the party’s reelection effort, wrote Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report in a recent assessment. Though it can be dangerous to read too much into these early signals, she wrote, “a weak bank account doesn’t just make a bad headline, it also makes an incumbent more attractive to a potential challenger.”
At the same time, she wrote, the recent totals “tell us that Republicans aren’t going to be able to count on their traditional money advantage over Democrats,” which will limit the number of Democratic-held House seats they can target.
Democrats outnumber Republicans in the House 232 to 201, with two vacancies
In the Senate, the party breakdown is 49-49, but two independents side with the Democrats, giving them control.
The Senate map for the 2008 election is difficult for Republicans. They will have to defend seats in four states that went Democratic in the 2004 presidential election. Those seats are held by Gordon H. Smith of Oregon, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Susan Collins of Maine and John E. Sununu of New Hampshire.
Moreover, Sens. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) have not committed to running for reelection. Democrats have shown potential for winning general elections in both states, and the veteran lawmakers’ departures could force Republicans to spend money on what otherwise would be considered safe seats.
Last week brought more potential bad news for Republicans:
An obscure federal agency, the Office of Special Counsel, said it would investigate several matters concerning the GOP, including whether a U.S. attorney was fired for political reasons. The office also intends to look at Bush administration officials’ use of Republican National Committee e-mail accounts for government business, and political presentations by White House staff to Cabinet agencies. The office enforces the Hatch Act, which generally bars the use of taxpayer resources for campaign purposes.
Also, Democratic-led congressional committees authorized five subpoenas, escalating their investigations of White House and Justice Department activities. One of them could compel Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to testify on the prewar claim that Iraq had tried to buy uranium.
And in recent weeks, two GOP congressmen -- John T. Doolittle of Roseville and Rick Renzi of Arizona -- temporarily stepped down from spots on coveted committees after FBI raids that were part of separate corruption investigations.
Overall, Republicans now resemble “a beaten-down stock,” said Cole, the National Republican Congressional Committee chairman. But he said he was optimistic about party fundraising and candidate recruitment.
“We’re a heck of a good buy,” he said, “if anyone knows how to evaluate the stock.”
Times staff writers Peter Wallsten and Janet Hook contributed to this report.