As President George W. Bush's job approval ratings continue to slump, Republican incumbents almost everywhere are running away from him as fast as they can. It's gotten so bad that even US Rep. Tom Reynolds, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, doesn't have the word "Republican" on his campaign website's front page.
Next door in Missouri, Democrat Claire McCaskill has hammered incumbent GOP Sen. Jim Talent for being a "George Bush Republican." In response, Talent has tried to play up his bipartisanship and even, in an undoubtedly desperate move, boasted about how he was working with liberal California Sen. Dianne Feinstein. The "George Bush Republican" attack is being thrown at frightened congressional Republicans all over the country as the usually hapless national Democrats attempt to exploit the biggest opening they've had in years.
Almost exactly the same attack will be used here in Illinois, except it will be the state legislative Republicans employing the tactic to smear their opponents as "Rod Blagojevich Democrats."
According to SurveyUSA's monthly tracker, Gov. Blagojevich's job approval rating statewide is 44 percent, with his disapproval at 52 percent. But the Illinois House and Senate Republicans aren't running candidates in Chicago and the heavily Democratic areas of Cook County, where his approval is the highest. Their focus is mainly downstate.
Blagojevich's downstate approval rating is horrible. SurveyUSA's latest tracker had his approval there at 36 percent with his disapproval at 60. The polling firm has been tracking the governor every month since June of 2005 and only one time in that entire period has his downstate job approval rating been in the 40s - and that was a month after he had won the March primary and while he was still spending big bucks on positive TV ads. His job disapproval rating downstate has been at or above 58 percent in 11 of the past 15 months. According to sources in both parties and in both chambers, the governor's approval ratings are even worse than SurveyUSA's regional results in some individual downstate races.
Legislative campaigns don't usually heat up until late September or even early October. That's why we haven't seen a lot of this "Rod Blagojevich Democrat" stuff yet. But as long as the governor's numbers are lousy in downstate areas you can safely bet that the Republicans will do it. We have already seen Democrats run away from the governor on the lottery selling scheme. Expect that trend to continue.
There are several ways to tie incumbent legislators to Blagojevich. Photos or videos of a legislator with the unpopular governor are always useful. Campaign contributions from the incumbent would also buttress the Republican case, as would any ties to the governor's many, many scandals.
And then there are voting records. Back in the spring a pollster working on behalf of Republicans asked a question in several downstate districts that ought to chill the Democrats right down to their marrow. Voters were asked whether they would be more or less likely to vote for their state legislator if they knew that he or she had voted with Gov. Blagojevich more than 80 percent of the time. The results were off the charts "less likely.".
Even independent-minded Democrats who are extra special careful to stay away from the governor at all costs will likely have voted for the vast majority of the bills that the governor has signed into law. And in the slim likelihood that they didn't, the Republicans can "nudge" those numbers higher by adding in committee votes or votes on shell bills or amendments.
A case can be made that this really isn't a national anti-Republican trend we're seeing right now, but more of an anti-incumbent trend. According to SurveyUSA, President Bush's downstate job approval ratings are almost as horrific as Gov. Blagojevich's (40-58). So if Topinka can run a competitive campaign then this Blagojevich gambit is the Republicans' best bet to stay in the game. It's an issue that downstate voters seem to agree on and one that, if handled properly, has a solid chance of rising above the usual campaign clutter. It will work even better if the Republicans can tie the Blagojevich albatross to uniquely local issues in the districts.
However, if Topinka disappoints, Bush continues to tank and Blagojevich stays out of any serious trouble, then you can probably disregard everything I've written above because the situation could easily morph into a complete Democratic rout.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com