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Presidential Politics Present Variety of Coattail Scenarios

Every election cycle, candidates for the U.S. House and Senate must decide whether to try to ride a partisan wave to victory or win by emphasizing local issues and race-specific contrasts. This year, the choice is not as easy as you may think for Congressional candidates.

[IMGCAP(1)]With President Bush’s standing far below where Republican strategists had hoped it would be, but presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry hardly setting the world on fire, there is little reason to expect a partisan wave. Right now, Bush’s problems are his own, not his party’s.

But despite that, there are still a number of possible scenarios that could unfold before November and offer strategists some interesting challenges for the fall.

Democratic Senate prospects rest on the party’s ability to win races in conservative and Republican states in the South and West. There is no dispute about that.

That means the party’s candidates in those regions — including South Carolina Senate hopeful Inez Tenenbaum, Alaska hopeful Tony Knowles, Oklahoma nominee Brad Carson, Colorado Senate hopeful Ken Salazar and Louisiana candidates Chris John and John Kennedy — will have to run far ahead of the Kerry-Edwards ticket to win.

So Tenenbaum & Co. are running as moderates or even conservatives, emphasizing their differences with Kerry. Carson, Knowles and John have already held a press event stating their support for some drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which puts them at odds with Kerry, Edwards and the party’s liberals.

But despite these efforts, presidential nominee Kerry could still end up being a huge problem for these Senate candidates — especially if the Massachusetts Senator appears headed for the White House.

The stronger Kerry appears in October, the more pressure conservative voters in GOP-leaning states will feel to keep the Senate under Republican control. This tendency is likely to be reinforced by the appeal of divided government.

A conservative voter in Oklahoma may believe that Carson is a better choice than his Republican Senate opponent, but that voter may have trouble voting for Carson if it looks as if a Democrat will sit in the White House and Democrats could also control the Senate.

Moreover, Carson, Knowles and John surely know that drilling in ANWR won’t have a chance in a Democratic-controlled Senate, and many voters — many pro-drilling Republican voters in their states — will likely come to the same conclusion as November approaches.

Because of this, Democratic Senate candidates in conservative and Republican states might actually be better off if, around the middle of October, it looks as if the president is going to win re-election narrowly.

North Carolina Senate hopeful Erskine Bowles, of course, has his own problems. While Democrats view the addition of Edwards to the ticket as a boost for Bowles’ prospects, I’m not so sure.

I believe that there is an equal or greater chance that Edwards’ selection as the Democratic nominee for vice president turns the state’s Senate race into a referendum on the two major parties’ presidential tickets. And given the GOP’s advantage in presidential races in the state, that could help Republican Rep. Richard Burr’s Senate bid.

In any case, Edwards’ presence on the national Democratic ticket will make it more difficult for Bowles to localize the North Carolina Senate race.

But don’t think that it’s only Democratic strategists who could be faced with some interesting problems. If Republican strategists make the argument that voters must keep a Republican Senate to check a possible Kerry presidency, they could add to the impression that Bush is headed for defeat. President Bush wouldn’t like that any more than Bob Dole did in 1996.

House Democrats have their own challenges in their efforts to wrest control of the chamber from the Republicans.

To make House gains, Democrats must win a considerable number of Republican-leaning or conservative districts. This includes districts with GOP incumbents seeking re-election in Pennsylvania’s 6th (Jim Gerlach), Alabama’s 3rd (Mike Rogers), North Carolina’s 8th (Robin Hayes), Minnesota’s 6th (Mark Kennedy) and New Mexico’s 2nd (Steve Pearce), as well as open Republican seats in Nebraska’s 1st (Doug Bereuter), Colorado’s 3rd (Scott McInnis) and Washington’s 5th (George Nethercutt). It also includes five newly drawn GOP-leaning districts in Texas.

In each of these districts, the Democratic House nominee must run as far away from Kerry as possible, localizing their contests.

But to have any chance of retaking control of the House, Democratic Congressional candidates must also win some liberal or Democratic-leaning districts, such as Connecticut’s 2nd (Rob Simmons), Connecticut’s 4th (Christopher Shays), Iowa’s 1st (Jim Nussle) and New York’s open 27th district (Jack Quinn), where Republicans are fielding a very strong candidate. To do so, those Democratic nominees will need to grab Kerry’s coattails.

All of these considerations will force party strategists below the presidential level to make tough tactical and strategic decisions. And that could create more than a few mixed messages and grumpy candidates in September and October.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.