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Under the Dome by Joel Wood What? Me Worry?

I’m a partisan, inside-the-beltway Republican who understands that conventional wisdom isn’t always.

By  Joel Wood

The scene was a steakhouse in Washington, a September fundraiser with 25 Republican lobbyists paying a thousand bucks a pop for a GOP stalwart House member. The visual was predictable: a bunch of pin-stripers devouring slabs of bleeding red meat with big, crystal glasses of red wine. The legislator threw out the question to the group: Not who do you want to become president, but who do you think will be the next president?

The winner, by a large plurality: Hillary Clinton. I raised my hand in her favor.

If that prospect depresses you—and most insurance brokers I know are depressed by it—that vote of hotshot lobbyists may be a great harbinger. Conventional Washington wisdom is almost always wrong at this stage of an election cycle.

Let’s go back. At this stage of the 1980 race, Jimmy Carter was weak, but most lobbyists in Gucci loafers would tell you Ronald Reagan was the one candidate Carter could overwhelm. Reagan was too polarizing in his conservatism, too old, a two-time presidential loser already, and everybody knew you couldn’t be elected leader of the free world when you took naps every afternoon.

1988? George Bush was mired in Iran-Contra, a “wimp” who paled in comparison to the Gipper, and lots of us Republicans couldn’t imagine he would be the first sitting vice president since Martin Van Buren to win the presidency in his own right. That’s why I campaigned for Bob Dole.

In the 1992 cycle? The top-tier Democratic candidates, from Mario Cuomo on down, decided there was no chance of beating Bush, given his public approval ratings in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The “seven dwarfs” who were running were led by a former Arkansas governor with a big problem. At this stage of the race, most of the rap on Clinton was in the context of “bimbo eruptions,” to quote his former chief of staff.

Flash forward. At this stage of the 2004 race, John Kerry was a joke, losing badly to the Internet sensation Howard Dean. Flip a few thousand votes in Ohio, and he would be the leader of the free world; the Iraq War would be his; and Republicans would probably still control Congress.

I truly believe, along with many if not most of my Republican lobbyist colleagues, that Hillary Clinton will be the next president. Detractors can probably take some solace in that because you couldn’t have a worse prognosticator.

I also believe that 2008 is shaping up to be yet another bad year for Republicans, particularly in the Senate, where Republicans have 22 seats to defend and Democrats only 12. Even Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has gloomily predicted that “holding our own is about all we could hope for.”

The seats of three Republican retirees (Wayne Allard of Colorado, John Warner of Virginia, and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska) are in great jeopardy given the popularity of probable Democratic nominees (respectively, Rep. Mark Udall, former Va. Gov. Mark Warner and former Neb. Sen. Bob Kerrey).

Arguably, two of the most endangered incumbents are champions of Council-backed legislation to create an optional federal charter: Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., who is running behind in the polls to former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen; and Tim Johnson, D-S.D., who may be challenged by Gov. Mike Rounds, an independent agency owner. Though South Dakota is a deeply red state, Johnson’s numbers look strong, especially after his successful return to the Senate in September following months of rehabilitation from a stroke-like event. Brokers should want to see both Sununu and Johnson return to the Senate.

The magic number in the Senate is 60, not 51, because 60 votes are required to cut off debate on any subject. Looking at the individual races, it’s very difficult to see the Democrats getting there. Democrats would have to retain every one of their seats and pick up the three GOP open seats, and Republicans would have to lose a bunch of squeakers. My own best guess is the Dems would need New Hampshire, Alaska (Sen. Ted Stevens has legal problems), Minnesota (Lord forbid Gophers go for comedian Al Franken over Sen. Norm Coleman), Oregon (Sen. Gordon Smith—a blue state Republican) and Maine (ditto for Sen. Susan Collins). The Dems would then need a lucky break in one of two races where I just can’t see the incumbents losing—either Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., or Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Despite my partisan leanings, I’m delighted that Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., are chairmen of our key committees in the House and Senate. There are just as many Democrats who are open to our agenda of progressive insurance regulation as Republicans. But, while a lobbyist can work both sides of the street, you are what you are, and I’m a Republican worried about my party’s prospects.

Then again, what do I know?

Wood is the Council’s senior vp of Government Affairs.

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