Ever since the 2000 Presidential election, no election cycle passes without warnings from either political side of an ominous "October surprise" coming in the last week or ten days of the campaign. And this year has been no different - or has it? As a rule, there usually is one event or incident that qualifies as the October surprise, and the pundits focus on evaluating that event in terms of certifying that this is the surprise we were waiting for. But this year, there have been several October surprises, and some of them may not have been planned by either side.
First, a new poll shows that Americans, by a slim margin, now feel that on issues of moral values and national security, Democrats have a higher approval rating than Republicans, although my judgment is that this margin is so soft that any positive news on the Iraq front can reverse that poll in favor of Republicans. But there is no positive news on Iraq, and therein lies much of the problem for Republicans. Second, the President recently charged that insurgents in Iraq have stepped up the violence to have an impact on our fall elections. That's more of an October disappointment rather than an October surprise. This October has turned out to be the bloodiest month for loss of American lives in over a year, and to suggest that this is due to an effort to affect who runs our country versus an effort to determine who runs their own country is an almost unforgivable misread of our present circumstances in Iraq. It is also very discouraging when one attempts to objectively ponder our future prospects there. And watch for an increase in terror threats to naval vessels, oil facilities and other vital interest targets that could move the conversation back to our need to be vigilant and unified in fighting terror.
Next, we have the President declaring that we will no longer refer to our efforts in Iraq as "staying the course", and Tony Snow, the President's Press Secretary, defiantly proclaimed that "we have never really had a stay the course policy." That's not just a surprise for October, that's a surprise for all seasons. Indeed, many Republicans running for re-election are trying to distance themselves from the President and his Iraq strategies by saying they are independent and then insisting that they will work to make changes in our failed strategies. But voters who are angry about the war in Iraq cannot rely on those promises because if Republican candidates win, the President is still George W. Bush, and once the election is over, all of these tough talking Republicans will simply fall in line, if for no other reason than that they fear recriminations from Karl Rove and the White House staff.
And the "race card" has reared its ugly head as an October surprise that really shouldn't surprise anyone. Republicans are using it in Tennessee as a last ditch throwback to the Nixon "Southern Strategy" designed to play on racial fears of Whites regarding African-American males. And it may be working as Harold Ford has lost ground in Tennessee's Senate race since the ads began. And in California, a Republican congressional candidate refuses to apologize for a letter sent out by his staff to Hispanic voters warning that "immigrants who vote could go to jail." They didn't even have the decency to say "illegal immigrants."
Finally, there is the Mark Foley scandal, and again, this was an October surprise that neither side could have planned, but its consequences, while not overwhelming on their own, may be the final tip that tumbles the iceberg without anyone being able to pinpoint that specific event as the cause. Here's why. First, the Foley incident represents appalling conduct that cannot be defended by an opposing view. There are no opposing views on the question of how appropriate it is for an adult elected Congressional Representative who chairs the committee to protect children from abuse to be simultaneously emailing underage congressional Pages to inquire as to their fashion tastes in underwear.
Second, the question as to whether other Republican leaders in the House may have deliberately overlooked these egregious actions in order to prevent political damage does lend credence to the "culture of corruption" charges. Furthermore, the entire incident helped to revive interest in the Jack Abramoff scandal and his influence on Republican legislators, a story that had receded to the back pages before this October resurgence. And finally, the Foley scandal reverberated down the line and increased the number of Republican house seats now in play that weren't before, including Foley's own seat as well as Jim Reynolds of New York.
The so called "flap" by Senator John Kerry may be a surprise, but its a minor "aftershock surprise" rather than an earthquake surprise. In fact, Kerry may have hurt himself more for 2008 than he has hurt Democrats for 2006, although I would suggest that his fiery response to the flap was more impressive than any of his statements during his 2004 campaign. In any event, the incident did provide a distraction away from "the message," and when you're closing in, that is never good. The only consolation for Democrats in the John Kerry incident is that it moved the conversation squarely onto Iraq, and this time, no matter what the "flap" is, moving the conversation back to Iraq is not a positive sign of encouragement for the Republican message.
Early this Spring, Newt Gingrich said the Democrats fall campaign theme should be "had enough?" The best aspect of that phrase is that it can be applied to both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans on all issues - except Katrina - where the Administration angered everybody. But despite the problems of the Administration, if President Bush himself were on the ballot I think the Democrats' chances would be far less positive. Many Republicans ask "do you really want Nancy Pilosi as the next Speaker of the House?" But the Foley scandal raises the same question about Dennis Hastert, the current Speaker. And for many Christian conservatives and evangelicals, angry over deficit spending and immigration reform, the Foley issue became that iceberg tip that caused many of them to say - I wasn't happy but I was trying to hold on, but with the Foley issue, I think I've just about had enough.
For Democrats, they're motivated to get out the vote, and look for "downline" voting that will result in some automatic loss of Republican seats in States like New York, where Elliot Spitzer will win the Governor's race by a larger margin than Hillary Clinton.
Look for "downline" voting in Ohio, where Republican Ken Blackwell, famous for forgetting the lessons of slavery, will lose by a wide margin to the Democratic Gubernatorial candidate, and out west, where the Hispanic backlash against Republicans for their narrow focus approach to immigration reform may start the swing from red to blue in Arizona and Colorado.
For Independents, they're frustrated and want change and are overwhelmingly favoring Democratic candidates throughout the country.
And for Republicans, many are angry and resigned to losing and, as a result, motivated to stay home and watch Fox tell them its all Bill Clinton's fault. Dems win 20-22 seats in the House, and draw even in the Senate or win it by one vote!