Jeb Down, Hillary Up, Ryan In

The Briefing, Vol. III, Issue 35 –

This week:

  • It ain’t happening for Jeb
  • Hillary’s best week in ages
  • Vitter barely survives first round of voting in #LAGOV

President 2016

Jeb! The exclamation point, he once deadpanned, denotes excitement. Unfortunately for Jeb Bush, there isn’t a lot of that surrounding his candidacy at the moment.

Despite his strongly conservative record in Florida, his last name speaks volumes about his current problems. To conservatives, he has become the archetypal example of the squishy establishment RINO — as if he were Mitt Romney or something. Bush has become the favorite foil of Donald Trump and is, more often than not, the name on the lips of Trump’s supporters when they try to justify Trumpism.

The worst news for Jeb is that his poll performance is lousy, despite his having far and away outspent all other GOP candidates. One could hardly tell that he is the second-biggest spender in Iowa (just behind Bobby Jindal) from his current sixth-place showing there.

Hence the sudden campaign shakeup. When candidates lay people off and cut the pay of their staff, the intention is similar to that of a corporate shakeup — it’s intended to reassure investors (in this case donors) that the management understands things are going poorly and the current modus operandi is inadequate. It is telling that Bush’s campaign payroll up to now was more than four times that of rivals who are racking up similar poll numbers. It is also telling that his small-dollar fundraising is almost non-existent.

In the long run, however, Bush has an even bigger problem. Marco Rubio checks nearly all of the same boxes as Bush, but has much higher net favorables, enjoys a much better reputation with conservatives, and brings a few extra assets to the table that Bush doesn’t.

Bush is now putting all of his eggs in the New Hampshire basket. With the primaries drawing closer and closer and no sign of a Jeb! groundswell on the horizon, this looks more like a Hail Mary pass than a retrenchment.

Hillary Clinton: As we noted last week, Joe Biden’s road to the nomination went straight through the briar patch. Either unload on Hillary Clinton’s lack of ethics, or go home. He opted for the latter last week.

This is obviously very good news for Clinton, whose other opponents continue to be spineless about doing what they need to do in order to win. Clinton is once again headed to a coronation, albeit one in which she is not nearly as strong a candidate as she appeared in February.

Bernie Sanders will be an annoying obstacle for her, to be sure. But until he starts talking about her lack of honesty and the risk this holds of handing the presidency over to a Republican, he’s just a gadfly, not a contender.

Clinton’s probably in for an easy race in which, at worst, she loses one or both of the two earliest states, then crushes Sanders on Super Tuesday.

Meanwhile, last week’s Benghazi hearing did little to dim her hopes, and her campaign is pushing the idea that it helped her immensely. That’s doubtful, but Republicans definitely miscalculated in scheduling a hearing that went eleven hours, just to illustrate a couple of (admittedly important) points:

(1) Clinton knew, on the day of the Benghazi attack, that it was both a terrorist action and not in any way related to the YouTube video she would later cite as its cause, even when talking to the father of one of the victims.

(2) Clinton and the entire Obama administration lost interest in Libya after they got what looked like a political win there. As a result the country has turned into a complete disaster, something akin to Syria or Somalia.

Clinton was quick to take a victory lap, but she also added to her list of potential liabilities even in doing that. On Maddow, she defended the bureaucracy of the Veterans’ Administration against a supposed Republican witch-hunt — you know, the big story CNN broke that led to hundreds of thousands of veterans dying while waiting for appointments. It’s unlikely that a defense of such bureaucratic malfeasance against veterans can be tamped down so easily. Watch for this little-noticed comment to have a second life in TV ads later on. Assuming, of course, that Republicans nominate someone viable.

Congress 2015

Rise of Ryan: Despite many doubts, Paul Ryan sewed up the support he needed to become the next Speaker last week. That included winning over more than 70 percent of the 40-member Freedom Caucus, the conservative group that seemed to present the biggest obstacle.

In the end, conservatives were ready to say “yes” and accept the gains they had made. They are getting a substantially more conservative speaker than they would have had otherwise, and in fact someone who has shown he can move the ball on important issues like entitlement reform.

Ryan’s promise not to bring immigration reform to the floor under Obama seems to have been enough to satisfy the House’s conservative hard-core. The remaining issue, regarding the motion to vacate the chair, has been overblown by the press and will not be an obstacle for Ryan.

The question going forward is whether Ryan has truly gained the support he needs to do the job. It’s one thing to wield the gavel — it’s entirely another thing to do so with the certainty (once common, but nowadays rare) that your member-constituents will follow you after having elected you to lead. This is the problem we outlined last week. If, in his private conversations, Ryan has gotten the whole conference on the same page, he will succeed. If not, he will fail.

Given court-ordered redistricting and retirements, House Republicans are facing a difficult 2016 election in which they will lose several seats, even if their majority is not necessarily in danger. But they will have to pull things together quickly and start acting as a team. Aside from the immediate priorities — like getting appropriations and the debt ceiling in order so that there are fewer crises in the coming months — the House’s Republican members need an agenda to run on — a positive platform, and a series of votes that will embarrass the opposition on key issues.

The Republicans succeeded in creating that in 2014 after the government shutdown, but tensions seem even greater now than they were then.

Governor 2015

Kentucky: A last-minute seven-figure ad campaign by the Republican Governor’s Association puts to bed any doubts that the national party views victory here as still being on the cards. But Matt Bevin, R, remains the underdog against Attorney General Jack Conway and needs a miracle — albeit a minor one — to prevail. Leaning Democratic Retention.

Louisiana: As we anticipated, Saturday’s election came down to a very close finish. But the most likely outcome did indeed come to pass. Sen. David Vitter, R, made it to the Nov. 21 runoff against John Bel Edwards, D, but only after just barely edging out Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, R, by just 30,000 votes.

Together, the three main Republican candidates in the jungle primary came out with 57 percent and Edwards got only 40 percent. But Vitter’s polling for the runoff has been horrendous lately. Lieutenant Gov. Jay Dardenne, R, has already ruled out endorsing Vitter, and his communications director just endorsed Edwards on Sunday. Angelle left it unclear in his concession how he will proceed.

Republicans seem as institutionally strong as ever in the state, which has only recently gone red. They are heavily favored to keep the lieutenant governorship in the runoff, and they are guaranteed to keep all other statewide constitutional offices.

The GOP also gained one seat in the state Senate and two in the state House in the first round of voting. That means they will probably expand their two-thirds majority in the Senate and, depending on a few outcomes, they could net just enough House seats make veto-overrides a serious possibility (although these are historically quite rare in the Pelican State).

Despite growing GOP strength in the state, Vitter really has his work cut out for him. He is known as a hard worker on the campaign trail, but he has little time to recover and rally to unite a disunited GOP.

And he has to do it after watching his support disintegrate over the past few months amid new attack ads over his eight-year-old prostitution scandal. It is kind of bizarre that something like that, which didn’t hurt him too much at the time, would catch up with him only now. But Louisiana is a bizarre state politically.

On the other hand, Edwards’ path to victory — which requires an enormous crossover vote from Round One — is almost as difficult to see as Vitter’s. Don’t count the conservative senator out. Democratic Takeover Slightly Favored.