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Three Things to Watch For on Election Night

Posted by on Tuesday, 2 November, 2010

Since we won’t have the late, great Tim Russert to guide us in reading the tea leaves on Election Night, here are three things to watch for as you try to guess whether donkeys or elephants will run the halls of Congress next year.

1. Whither goes New York and Pennsylvania? Four upstate New York districts (the 19th 20th, 23rd and 24th) and three Eastern Pennsylvania districts (the 8th, 10th and 11th) each feature Democratic incumbents in tight toss-up races.  GOP sweeps in these districts (especially in New York, where the Democratic Gubernatorial and Senatorial candidates should win easily) will give an early indication that it could be a long night for Democrats.

2. How closely do exit polls and turnout reports align with early balloting results? Recent reports have indicated a surge of early voting in key Democratic districts across the country, which seems contrary to the conventional wisdom of an “enthusiasm gap” between Republicans and Democrats.  If this late surge in blue precincts bears out on Election Day, could it help Democrats hold in swing districts?

3. Will the West Coast just keep us up late, or into the next day(s)? If control of the House and Senate is still up for grabs as polls on the West Coast close, it may be days before we know who controls each chamber.  Virtually every scenario for GOP takeover of the Senate includes must-wins in California (Fiorina over Boxer) and Washington State (Rossi over Murray). And there are six tight House races (CA-3, CA-11, CA-20, OR-5, WA-2, WA-9) in California, Oregon and Washington as well. The kicker: Oregon and Washington vote almost entirely by mail, and a ballot mailed and postmarked by Election Day must be counted.  So if any of these races are close…it could be days before we have results.

Credit Unions Turning Conventional Political Wisdom on Its Head

Posted by on Tuesday, 17 August, 2010

Lost amid all the hubbub of higher profile Senate and Gubernatorial primary races last week was a come-from-behind victory in a little-noticed Southern Congressional race that illustrates an important trend—and opportunity—in the realm of credit union political action.

In Georgia’s 7th Congressional District, the Republican primary in July to replace retiring U.S. Rep. John Linder (R) was a crowded affair featuring eight candidates.  Conventional wisdom had it that the clear frontrunner was State Representative Clay Cox.

Conventional wisdom was proved wrong.

Georgia credit unions quickly turned to Linder’s Chief of Staff and first-time candidate, Rob Woodall.  As Linder’s aide, Woodall had been instrumental in working with Linder to support credit unions in Congress. Still, no one else gave Woodall a chance of even making the runoff:  indeed, CULAC was one of only two PACs nationwide that stepped out and backed Woodall in the primary.

Well, you can guess what happened: Woodall ran first among all candidates, securing a spot in the August 10th runoff against another upstart, Tea Party-backed candidate.

That’s when credit unions really doubled down for Woodall and went all in.

Gwinnett Federal Credit Union, working with CUNA and the Georgia League, sent two mailers to over 8,000 of its members in the district.  Setting aside partisan politics, the mail pieces pointed out that among the candidates, Woodall was the better choice for credit unions.

Tuesday night, August 10th, Woodall won easily by 8,500 votes, and given the heavily Republican nature of the district, he should win the general election in November.

Similar efforts, in which credit unions are directly encouraging members to vote for pro-credit union candidates, are underway in races in Arizona and North Carolina.  There may be more before the November election.

The clear lesson from Georgia is this: when credit unions advise their members of the pro-credit union, that candidate can win.

Put another way: we can make the difference in these close races, but only if we choose to do so.

Two Conflicting Worldviews on the 2010 Elections

Posted by on Monday, 19 July, 2010

What are this year’s Midterm Elections about? Well, it depends on whom you ask.

Ask Republican Congressional candidate John Doe, and the answer will be something like this:

“I’m running against Congresswoman Mary Smith, who has been lockstep with President Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Congressional Democrats.  In the middle of a recession and rising unemployment, they are only making matters worse by increasing government spending, raising taxes, and expanding government control of the economy.  Vote Republican to fire Mary Smith and Nancy Pelosi and send a message to Obama.”

If you ask his opponent, Democratic incumbent Rep. Mary Smith, she might answer:

“The election is about helping the people here in {YOUR STATE} who are struggling with unemployment, rising health care costs and a shaky economy.  That’s why I fought for extended unemployment benefits, health insurance reform, and federal funds to create jobs here in {YOUR TOWN}.  We can go backwards by electing John Doe and the Republicans who got us into this mess, or we can keep moving forward. By the way, did I mention that John Doe is a right-wing extremist Tea Partier who wants to take away your Social Security?”

Okay, so these are exaggerations, but the point is this: elections are always about choices, and he who frames the choice to his advantage often wins.

Republicans will win big in every competitive district where the election is “nationalized.”  Even Democrats agree the economy, which polls consistently rate as voters’ number one concern, is in the pits.  If the choice is between a nameless Democratic incumbent who is a front for the national Democratic Party (Obama, Pelosi, etc.), and an alternative, then independent voters will default to the (Republican) alternative.

Unless…Democrats can localize the race and frame it as a choice between a Congressman fighting for the local community and an extremist who cares more about partisan name calling/is corrupt/is too extreme/fill in the blank.  Some Democrats in conservative districts may also be able to differentiate themselves from the national Democratic party by pointing to key votes against Obama initiatives such as health care reform and cap-and-trade (both of which passed despite opposition from dozens of conservative Democrats).

Campaigns matter: the candidate that wins in many swing districts will be the one with the campaign best able to frame the election choice according to their “worldview.”  Communicating that message effectively takes financial resources, a smart campaign team, a well-crafted message, and the discipline to stick with it.  Democratic campaigns that run smart campaigns may well be able to withstand a coming Republican wave; conversely, well-organized Republican challengers may be able to capitalize on a pro-Republican (or at least anti-Democratic) national environment.

How this choice is framed, district-by-district, will ultimately determine who controls the House and Senate come January, 2011.

Incumbents Beware

Posted by on Thursday, 20 May, 2010

Primary election season is in full swing, and for those of us who follow politics for a living, 2010 is shaping up to be an odd year indeed.  There are a lot of fascinating story lines, but one trend is apparent across states and districts so far:  the voters are angry.  And not just at one party or the other – voters are angry with Washington in general, and longtime incumbents in particular.

Consider the three casualties among incumbents thus far:

Sen. Bob Bennett (R-UT) lost his bid for a fourth six-year term at the Utah Republican Convention despite his nearly perfect ratings from virtually every major conservative organization.

Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-WV), a 14 term incumbent whose father held his seat before him, was defeated by a virtually unknown Democratic state senator.

Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA)’s fifth term in the Senate will be his last, as he lost to Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA) despite the support of virtually the entire Democratic establishment, from the White House on down.

Each of these major defeats has its own unique story – Bennett lost in a convention process that magnifies angry activists; Mollohan was dragged down by repeated ethics questions; Specter faced questions about his integrity following his party switch – but the one common thread in each of these stories was incumbency.  And we’re talking longtime incumbency:  in just three races, voters turned their backs on 76 years of combined service in Congress.

If there is a take-away from these shocks to the political landscape, it is this – incumbents, no matter how long they have held office—should be running scared.  And maybe those who have been in office the longest should be worried the most.

So what does this have to do with credit unions?  We can’t take for granted that our friends in Congress will be there next January just because they already have been.  We owe it to those incumbents who have supported credit unions to do all we can to help return to office.

If we don’t, we may wake up Wednesday, November 3rd to find that some of our best friends in Congress are no longer there to help us.

Congressional Democrats Are Tied to Obama – Even More Than You Think

Posted by on Monday, 26 April, 2010

With the power Congress holds over our industry’s future, it is no wonder that credit unions across the country are paying close attention to this fall’s midterm elections, in which all 435 U.S. House seats and 36 U.S. Senate seats will be up for grabs. Indeed, the political junkies among us are salivating over the prospects of a close, contested election.  Here in Washington, the latest parlor game has become guessing how many seats Democrats will lose this fall.

Yet with 24-hour cable television, talk radio, newspapers and online news all focusing on the latest political rhetoric, it can be hard to cut through the clutter and figure out what really matters.  Just what can the astute observer look for in his attempt to predict the future?

So as a service to all the armchair Roves and Axelrods out there, this is the first in an occasional series of modest attempts at analyzing the trends and factors driving the political landscape this year.

For the first installment, a little American political history.  It turns out one of the biggest predictors of midterm election results hinges on the fate of a public official not even on the ballot: the President.

The President’s party almost always loses seats in midterm elections.  With just two exceptions in the House (1998 and 2002), and four in the Senate (1962, 1970, 1998, and 2002), this holds true for every midterm going back to Franklin Roosevelt’s second term in 1938.

Thus, the question is not whether Democrats lose seats this fall, but how many. And that’s where the President’s approval rating comes in.

When the President’s approval rating on election day is at or below 50%, the President’s party loses seats.  Only if the President’s approval is above 50% is there any hope for his party at all – and then only if it is way above 50%.

In fact, according to a recent analysis by Bill Schneider, distinguished senior fellow at the centrist think tank Third Way and senior political analyst at CNN, the average loss of seats in midterms going back to 1970 numbers 10 lost House seats and 1.5 lost Senate seats in years when the President’s approval rating is greater than 50%.  And when the President’s approval is below 50%? His party lost an average of 31 House seats and 4 Senate seats.

In fact the correlation is so strong, an approval rating in the 50s is not even enough to save the President’s party.  Presidents Nixon, Reagan and George H.W. Bush all lost seats even though their approval ratings were each north of 58%.Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush had to attain approval ratings of 66% and 63% respectively to break the trend and pick up seats for their parties (a mere five House seats for Clinton in 1998 and eight House seats for Bush in 2002). (source)

So those Democrats in Congress worried about their majorities would do well to pay attention to President Obama’s approval rating.  And just how is the President doing these days?‘s average of major national polls taken in April shows the President at 47% approve, with 48% disapproving of his job performance.  Time will tell if the Democrats—and from their vantage point, the White House—can turn things around before November.