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The New ‘Taint of Incumbency’

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2010/01/boehner-480x358.jpgHouse Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio)

In the wake of Scott Brown’s astonishing Senate win in Massachusetts last week, GOP leaders took no time to spin the outcome as an indictment of Democratic leadership that can only help Republicans in November’s mid-term elections.

[Congress1]“There’s not a seat in America held by a Democrat that can’t be won,” House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) told “Fox and Friends” Monday. “Massachusetts proves that. When Scott Brown wins Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, any seat’s in play.”

But while Republicans are hoping Brown’s victory foreshadows a GOP landslide, a number of political experts are warning that the country’s restless anxiety — as evidenced not only in Massachusetts, but in Virginia, New Jersey, and now Florida as well — is less a backlash against Democrats in particular than a rebuke of the business-as-usual politics of Capitol Hill in general. Even as unemployment soared and housing markets tanked, voters have watched lawmakers bicker endlessly over a stimulus bill that proved too small and a health reform proposal that remains unfinished. Meanwhile, the banks have bounced back on the wings of a taxpayer bailout, paying out billions of dollars in employee bonuses this month while the jobs crisis outside Wall Street only worsens. In such an environment, some experts caution, incumbents on both sides of the aisle could find themselves surprisingly vulnerable in November.

“The public is mad, and they’re prepared to take it out on the establishment,” said Tony Coelho, the former California congressman who served as campaign chairman for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential run. “That doesn’t just mean the party in power. That means everyone.”

David P. Redlawsk, a political scientist at Rutgers University and director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling, agreed. “The stock market has gone up, but that’s Wall Street, and many voters do not see how that benefits them,” Redlawsk wrote in an email. “There is real risk to incumbents on both sides of the aisle.”

Redlawsk said that the Democrats, because they control both Congress and the White House, have absorbed the brunt of the nation’s discontent. But for Republicans to interpret that as partisan anger, he added, would be a mistake.

“This is not a partisan backlash by voters as much as it is a backlash against the powers that be — who happen to be Democrats,” he wrote.

The evidence of voter discontent has been everywhere in recent months. An early signal came in Virginia and New Jersey last November, when the incumbent Democrats were swept out of the governor’s office by Republican challengers who wouldn’t have stood a chance a year earlier. More recently, the virtually unknown Brown overcame a 30-point deficit to steal the Senate seat vacated by the late Edward Kennedy in the liberal bastion of Massachusetts.

“The message coming out of the Massachusetts special election is clear: No Democrat is safe,” said Ken Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “In the aftermath of Scott Brown’s victory this past week, it has become evident to Democrats that to run for reelection in this toxic political environment is to ensure defeat at the ballot box in November.”

Yet recent polls indicate that the voters aren’t exactly thrilled with Republicans either. In a Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted earlier this month, for example, just 24 percent of respondents said they have either a “great deal” or “good amount” of confidence in Republicans to lead the country – down from 29 percent a year earlier. For Democrats, the number was 32 percent, down from 43 percent in January 2009.

Another survey, conducted this month by NBC and the Wall Street Journal, tells a similar story, revealing that just 30 percent of respondents have a positive feeling about the GOP, while 42 percent view the party negatively.

The message hasn’t been lost on some Republicans. Indeed, Brown packaged himself more as an independent outsider than a man of the Republican Party — a bow to the anti-establishment tea-party movement that mobilized so ardently behind him. Republican consultant Brad Todd told CQ recently that the mid-term elections will be governed by a “taint of incumbency.” Even Boehner conceded this week that voters “don’t trust either party.”

Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.) might have summed it up best. “The American people have fallen out of love with the current direction, but they haven’t fallen in love with Republicans,” he said last week.

“It’s a pox on both your houses,” Coelho said of the country’s mood toward Democrats and Republicans alike. “That’s why the teabaggers have a voice. They’re saying, ‘The hell with both of you.’”

Supporting that theory, new polls Tuesday revealed that Marco Rubio, the upstart Republican contender fighting for Florida’s Senate seat, is leading GOP Gov. Charlie Crist by three points. The party scheme is different, but Rubio’s anti-establishment theme mirrors that of Brown’s message to Massachusetts voters.

“There is a deep and increasingly restive anger stirring in the country,” L.A. Times columnist Tim Rutten wrote last week. “Its focal points at the moment may seem to be healthcare and ‘big government,’ but if there were a Republican in the White House, they might just as well be tax cuts and ‘limited government.’ The fact is that the president and both parties’ congressional delegations have approval ratings under 50 percent.”

The Massachusetts shakeup means that Democrats are without a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and that has left party leaders scrambling to prevent a catastrophe in November. “Every state is now in play, absolutely,”‘ Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said last week. “You have to make the case that you’re the one that’s on the people’s side. And people have to get it.”‘

With that in mind, President Obama will address Congress tonight in hopes of relaying the thought that he feels the country’s pain. The real audience, though, will be an American people grown frustrated with lawmakers’ partisan hostility, and skeptical of their capacity to lead in times of duress. For Obama, Coelho said, it’s also an opportunity to reframe his approach to governing, recognizing that the 2008 elections were a cry from voters for real change in Washington.

“It was a revolt against the system,” Coelho said of those elections. “Obama interpreted that to be a victory for his policies. But what it was was a frustration with the system not working.

“His political operatives needed to read the tea leaves,” he added. “And they failed.”

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