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Palin Boosts GOP Prospects in Congress

Palin Boosts GOP Prospects in Congress

By Reid Wilson - September 12, 2008

John McCain successfully closed the gap with Barack Obama when he chose Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate. But beyond the presidential contest, Republican leaders in Congress see a shifted landscape for their candidates, and for the first time in months, they have reason to be cautiously optimistic about the November elections.

"In the last three or four weeks, Democrats thought, especially after their convention, they thought things were all moving in their direction," National Republican Senatorial Committee chair John Ensign told Real Clear Politics. "The momentum has totally changed, and it's on our side."

While the Republican brand remains unpopular with voters around the nation, polls have shown a generic Republican congressional candidate creeping to within striking distance of the generic Democratic candidate. That gap has closed, Republicans say, because Palin has given their party inroads with voters who would otherwise have been firmly in the Democratic camp.

"She's a pretty interesting character. I think Americans like that story, they like 'Mr. Smith Comes to Washington,'" said Tom Cole, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee. "If you're the Republicans, you need to make the public take a second look at you this cycle."

Her gender is no small part of her appeal. "Governor Palin has energized our base, not only energized our base but made a lot of women take a second look at the Republican Party," Ensign said. But gender isn't everything, he continued: "She's a reformer. That she's a woman is a bonus."

In the weeks since Palin was picked and as the Republican base has tuned in, several of Ensign's Senate GOP colleagues have shown improvement. A recent poll conducted for the NRSC showed New Hampshire Senator John Sununu trailing his Democratic opponent by just two points, after surveys have showed Sununu behind by double digits. Another poll had Colorado Democratic Rep. Mark Udall leading ex-Rep. Bob Schaffer, a Republican, by a single point, while earlier surveys showed Udall with a bigger lead. And in Palin's home state, Senator Ted Stevens even boasted his first lead of the cycle over Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich; Stevens leads by two points in another NRSC poll.

In the interview, Ensign hinted that other polls had been conducted, though he wouldn't discuss details. Palin helps his candidates, he said, especially in the Inner Mountain West, where voters' natural libertarianism would match well with Palin's philosophy. Ensign also singled out North Carolina Senator Elizabeth Dole, who is locked in a tough battle for re-election with Democratic State Senator Kay Hagan.

Republican House candidates, many of whom feared a depressed GOP base unenthusiastic about McCain heading the ticket, now have reason to look up. "There's no question [Palin] helps you in these sort of conservative districts," Cole said in an interview. "The Democrats like to crow about the gains in Louisiana and Mississippi. You think Barack Obama or Sarah Palin will be of the most political impact in those seats?"

Already, Alabama State Rep. Jay Love, running for retiring Republican Terry Everett's seat, has an advertisement up boasting of his support for the McCain-Palin ticket. And her popularity among Republican candidates is clear, both committee chiefs said, based on the number of phone calls they have fielded from those who want to appear with her. "Our phones ring off the walls," Cole said. "People want to be seen with her. They think this is pretty exciting." "Everybody wants Governor Palin," Ensign agreed.

Republicans say the landscape has changed in the past few weeks, reflected by the party's improved standing in generic ballot tests. Through July, Democrats led the RCP Generic Congressional Average by 12 points. Today, that lead is down to 3.6 points.

And while the playing field remains difficult, Republicans feel much better now than they did just a month ago. "We're not going to get the majority back, I think that's pretty clear," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told Real Clear Politics during an interview at the GOP convention in St. Paul. "I do think we will stay roughly where we are. ... We have a good chance of still being what I would call a relevant minority."

"The presidential campaign being as close and competitive has really helped us, because frankly most of the districts we're fighting in John McCain and Governor Palin are likely to win," the NRCC's Cole said. Republicans face "not a great environment, but a better environment than we've faced any time since 2002."

Though the NRSC has just one serious opportunity to pick up a Democratic-held seat with Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu facing a tough post-Hurricane Katrina re-election, the chairman said he is more confident in how his incumbents will fare, thanks at least in some part to Palin's influence. "I'm feeling a lot better about our chances this Fall," Ensign said.

If Palin's popularity continues at or near the apex it has reached, Cole and Ensign may beat expectations that they would lose perhaps more than two dozen seats between chambers, set for them months ago. And though Palin has her own race to focus on, her very presence on the ticket could do more to boost the GOP than any other move the party has made this year.

In pictures: The top 15 competitive Congressional races.

Reid Wilson is an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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