Will the Levees Hold?


Rain is on my mind these days. Out here on the Oregon coast the seasons abruptly changed last week. We moved from the brisk and sunny days of Septober to the onset of the annual rains. The first wind warning of the season is now upon us. Soon the rain will be slicing down in horizontal sheets, like it often does out here from November to April.

All of which brings to mind, on this election eve, thoughts of Hurricane Katrina. In fact, tomorrow’s election – in the face of a Class IV political hurricane – raises the question that bedeviled New Orleans last summer: will the levees hold?

The levees in this case are the artfully drawn congressional district boundaries that are supposed to deliver predictable results no matter what political storms are raging outside. And if those concrete walls are not enough to keep out the storm surge, there’s always the mountain of money available to any incumbent who makes even the most minimal effort to collect it. Washington has no shortage of lobbyists, PAC directors, and other well-heeled and well-connected donors willing to pitch in with the bucket brigade.

This year they’re working overtime. The number of nervous incumbents is way up in 2006, and so is the money – about one-third higher than it was just two years ago. This is one political hurricane that’s taking no one by surprise.

And how could it? The most casual glance at the polls illustrates the dangers of incumbency this year, at least for the GOP. The Iraq war is unpopular. The president is unpopular. Congress, mired in scandals, is deeply unpopular.

That’s been especially worrisome for Republican Senate incumbents this year. Historically, senators have been more vulnerable to changes in the political winds than House members, and their reelection rates reflect that. For one thing, senators run statewide and you can’t exactly gerrymander state lines. That leaves embattled incumbents with only their mountains of money to protect them.

Well, that and one other ingredient. Unlike their real-world counterparts, political hurricanes do offer some measure of human control, however imperfect. And that’s been the second element of the administration’s twofold strategy: build up the levees and muzzle the storm. Downgrade it from a Class IV to a more manageable Class III or even Class II.

The president’s barnstorming last week – albeit to deep red states like Nebraska and Kansas – was supposed to damp down the howling winds at least a bit. And indeed it seems to have buoyed the Republican base, who were treated – for the first time in a while – with nightly news video of George Bush amidst cheering, rapturous crowds.

The convenient timing of Saddam’s guilty verdict yesterday was the cherry on top of the sundae, if I may be allowed one non-meteorological metaphor. We’ll see tomorrow how well the strategy worked.

So where will I be looking for indicators of how the levees are holding? Mark Foley’s Florida district will be one place to watch for a breach. If the reliably Republican voters in that district hold their nose and vote for Foley, knowing that the votes actually count for his replacement – that will be a sign that the GOP fortress in rock-solid districts can withstand just about anything. And vice-versa, of course, if the Democrat wins.

On the Senate side, the race I’m most watchful of is in Montana. Conrad Burns, who got more money in campaign contributions from lobbyist Jack Abramoff than anyone in Congress, has been in serious trouble for months. His opponent, the crew-cutted John Tester, looks like he just walked out of an alfalfa field – hardly a liability in a state that likes its politicians rough-hewn. But President Bush’s rally in Billings played well across the state, the race has tightened to a toss-up, and the Republicans are making hay in their campaign ads belittling “Tester the Taxer.”

I’m bypassing the office pool this year, but it looks to me – as it does to many prognosticators – like the GOP levees will break in the House and hold – by a whisker – in the Senate.

As I was with Katrina, I’ll be glued to CNN tomorrow night to see how it all comes out. I’ll be especially interested to see any interviews with Karl Rove, chief architect of the GOP’s defensive strategy. So far, he’s been doing one heckuva job.