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Reynolds: War Is ‘Presidential’

One day after his party’s second straight special election loss, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) sought to distance House Republicans from the Iraq war, saying that any war-related drag on President Bush will not hamper downballot GOP candidates.

“Iraq is a discussion that will be done by presidential candidates — House Republicans will focus on kitchen-table issues,” the New York Republican told reporters at a briefing Tuesday. “My colleagues have not seen a ‘coattail’ election, nor will they see one in 2004.”

Reynolds’ statement represents a subtle but unmistakable attempt to separate the battle for control of the House from the presidential race, where Bush has taken heat in recent weeks over difficulties in establishing stability in post-war Iraq, including an abuse scandal at the Abu Ghraib prison.

With national Democrats now working overtime trying to saddle Congressional Republicans with the burden of Bush’s recent setbacks, the GOP will need to walk a fine line if they wish to distance themselves on Iraq, observers say.

“If people really feel strongly that the country is going in the wrong direction, they are going to make that change, and it is not going to be restricted to the executive branch,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.). “It is going to be across the board.”

Democratic pollster Fred Yang, who handles a variety of House and Senate races, called Iraq “the 800-pound gorilla in the room.”

“It is something that people are going to use when they decide how to vote,” Yang added.

Even some Republicans voiced skepticism — albeit privately — about the likelihood of House Republicans separating their lot from that of Bush in the minds of voters.

One GOP consultant pointed out that even if House Republicans talk about issues other than Iraq this fall, the war will still have a “big impact on the overall environment [in which] the races are run — and as of right now, it is having a negative impact on Republicans.”

“Under a presidential campaign and [the war] being a huge topic of debate it could spill over,” acknowledged another Republican consultant who requested anonymity.

However, this consultant added that the president’s challenges in Iraq did not appear to negatively impact the South Dakota special election, in which 2002 nominee Stephanie Herseth (D) defeated state Sen. Larry Diedrich (R), 51 percent to 49 percent on Tuesday.

In fact, the trendlines in the race were in some ways 180 degrees different. When Diedrich initially entered the race in December, former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein had recently been captured. At that point, Diedrich trailed Herseth by 30 points.

Despite five months of nearly unremitting bad news for the president in Iraq, Diedrich consistently closed the gap. He lost by less than 3,000 votes out of more than 260,000 cast.

“If Iraq was [causing] a huge toll in this thing, it would have played out” differently, the Republican consultant said.

Although national implications swirled in the aftermath of Herseth’s victory, the most obvious mitigating factor in her narrow win was a larger-than-expected turnout.

More than 56 percent of registered voters in the state voted in the special election, possibly motivated by the considerable national attention given to the race since the resignation of former Rep. Bill Janklow (R) on Jan. 20.

Janklow, a former four-term governor, vacated the seat following his conviction on second-degree manslaughter charges due to his involvement in an August 2003 automobile accident that left a motorcyclist dead. Herseth’s win cut the GOP’s margin in the House to 11 seats.

Turnout for the South Dakota special far eclipsed that of the only competitive special election last cycle. Turnout in Virginia’s 4th district was roughly 41 percent of registered voters.

Both Herseth and Diedrich will run again in the fall as they compete for a full term. But despite her narrow victory, Herseth would appear to enter that race with an edge. In the last 23 special elections, only once did the winner not go on to secure a full term.

The Herseth victory gives House Democrats their second pickup of the year and marks the first time in more than three decades that the party has won more than one Republican-held seat in special elections in the same cycle.

In mid-February, Ben Chandler (D) defeated state Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr (R) by 12 points in Kentucky’s 6th district, which had been vacated by Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R).

But Reynolds sought to draw the focus away from his party’s defeats in South Dakota and Kentucky by casting them as special cases whose characteristics are not likely to be replicated nationwide this fall.

Both Chandler and Herseth, he noted, entered their specials with wide name recognition and strong favorability ratings. Chandler had been defeated by Fletcher for governor in Nov. 2003, while Herseth fell to Janklow in a 2002 open-seat race.

“There are no other competitive open seats in the country where the Democrat starts the campaign with universal name identification and a 30-point lead,” said Reynolds. “You are not going to have a Ben Chandler or a Stephanie Herseth in these other seats.”

Republicans enter the fall campaign with 17 open seats, seven of which are expected to be competitive between the parties. Democrats must defend 14 seats, though only three are expected to be closely fought.

Republicans will benefit from a GOP-led redistricting last year in Texas that has already led to a retirement, a party switch and two primary defeats among Democratic incumbents. In addition, five Texas Democrats face difficult re-election battles in November including two that must run against Republican Members.

Even as Reynolds and his fellow Republicans worked to limit the fallout from the South Dakota race, Democrats sought to amplify its implications.

“There is no question that in a state where the president received 60 percent of the vote, the fact that we won this election was a direction[al] change that the American public and the people of South Dakota wanted,” Matsui said.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) echoed those sentiments in a statement Tuesday night.

“Stephanie Herseth’s win tonight sends a clear message to President Bush and Congressional Republicans: Americans are ready for a change,” Pelosi said. “And as we proved in Kentucky and South Dakota, House Democrats are leading the way in winning in the red states.”

Pelosi has vowed to ensure that her party enters the 2004 election with a national message. In September, the party is expected to release a legislative blueprint that echoes the Republicans’ 1994 “Contract With America.”

Although most Democrats were exuberant about the South Dakota results, Alan Secrest, a Democratic pollster, sounded a more cautious note.

“When the prevailing political winds are less favorable, parties and political candidates talk about tending the garden and setting down roots on local issues,” he said. “When the prevailing political winds are more favorable, these special elections are usually overinterpreted as a mandate.”

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