New Senate Polls Show GOP Slipping

Posted September 30, 2008 at 7:00pm

As America’s deepening financial crisis dominated news headlines throughout September, several polls over the past two weeks appear to indicate Republican incumbents are losing ground in a few key Senate contests.

The challengers in those races have long been running against Republican economic policies on Capitol Hill, but Democratic operatives said this week that the seemingly daily news stories about new economic disasters have served to direct voter attention to the issue in a way that no amount of campaigning could.

“What’s happened here is that the crisis in the short term has focused voters’ attention on how we got here, and how we got here are failed Republican policies,” argued Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Matthew Miller on Tuesday. The recent polling numbers show that “Republican incumbents who voted with [President] Bush and overwhelmingly endorsed his economic policies, which have now clearly failed, are paying the consequences for that.”

But Republicans dispute the notion that the recent turn of events has changed the national battleground in a substantial way. They note that the economy has been the No. 1 issue for voters for months, that an economic rescue package will eventually pass Congress and that a month to go before Election Day is an eternity in politics.

Still, some new polls out this week showed some troubling signs for the GOP.

SurveyUSA released a new poll Tuesday that showed Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) held just a 2-point lead over former state Rep. Jim Martin, 46 percent to 44 percent. That poll was in the field Sunday and Monday and had a 3.8-point margin of error. It also comes less than two weeks after SurveyUSA released a poll that showed Martin behind Chambliss by 17 points, 53 percent to 36 percent.

Some of that jump in polling might be attributed to the fact that while Chambliss first went up with TV ads at the end of August, Martin didn’t respond with ads of his own until the second week of September. But it’s still a huge swing, and it comes as Martin has been hitting Chambliss hard on the economic crisis.

In Kentucky, a survey conducted for the Louisville Courier Journal newspaper last week showed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) with a just 1-point lead over businessman Bruce Lunsford (D). McConnell led 45 percent to 44 percent in the survey that was conducted Sept. 22-25, just before legislation to rescue the nation’s troubled financial system began to dominate national news.

McConnell’s campaign has disputed the findings of that poll and pointed to internal campaign polling numbers that showed the Minority Leader up by 17. But McConnell’s internal poll was conducted the second week of September. Another recent poll commissioned by the liberal blog Daily Kos showed McConnell up by 13. That poll was conducted Sept. 15-17.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) has been in trouble for a while based on polling data, but a new Public Policy Polling survey conducted Sunday and Monday showed the first-term Senator trailing state Sen. Kay Hagan (D) by 8 points. A week ago, Dole trailed by 5 points in a PPP poll.

Miller said the reason for all the movement in favor of Democrats in those polls is simple.

“For years each of these Republican Senators bragged about their close association with Bush and eagerly endorsed everything he did on the economy, and now that the chickens have come home to roost it’s having an impact on their re-elections,” he said.

Republicans contend that in the last month of a wild campaign season a few select numbers from a small sampling of polls do not make a trend.

“What you are seeing in those individual races is exactly that — individual polls,” one Republican strategist said.

Republicans said they expected the North Carolina race to tighten as the election season wound down, and now that the Georgia race is finally getting attention from voters, that race was expected to get closer as well.

“But these current polls do not reflect that current state of the electorate. Georgia is a red state, and the Obama camp even realized this when they pulled out of that state recently,” the strategist said.

As for Kentucky, Republicans remain skeptical of the Courier Journal poll, arguing that after four terms in office and serving as the de facto head of the GOP in Kentucky, the Minority Leader is just too well entrenched to be in any danger of being ousted this fall.

As for Democratic claims that the current crisis has somehow focused voters on the economy in a new way, Republican pollster and Roll Call contributing writer David Winston said that simply isn’t true.

“The economy has been the No. 1 issue for a long time, that started in the late spring where it really had a clear lead” in polls, he said.

Besides, Winston said, it would be a mistake to assume that any polling taken in the midst of the current financial tumult will be an accurate barometer of how voters will feel about the situation a month from now.

“We’re in the middle of a defining event, and so clearly this is going to have an impact,” he said. “But we haven’t finished with this event and there are obviously going to be people who are going to try to spin it one way or another as to what it means and in terms of who is to blame. You’ll see quite a bit of churning as people think through what this means and how they are going to vote. … But they are no where near a conclusion at this point today. … There is still a lot up in the air.”

Republican pollster Gene Ulm agreed with that assessment.

“Ballots are closing and the financial crisis certainly hasn’t helped” Republicans, Ulm said. “But there’s going to be a bailout, and what that does to the political environment in the last 30 days of the election? We’ll see.”