RNC Chair Ken Mehlman on Anti-Incumbent Sentiment

This is a partial transcript from "The Journal Editorial Report," August 26, 2006, that has been edited for clarity.

PAUL GIGOT, HOST: With recent polls showing a strong anti-incumbent sentiment among voters, Republicans, who control both houses of Congress, stand to lose the most come November's midterm elections. Ten weeks out, can the party stem a potentially devastating electoral tide?

Ken Mehlman is chairman of the Republican National Committee. He joins me now from Washington.

Welcome to the program. Thanks for being here.


GIGOT: This week, the Republican governor of Alaska finished third in a primary with only 19 percent of the vote. Nineteen percent for an incumbent is almost unheard of. Are we watching a big anti-incumbent tide form between now and November?

MEHLMAN: Well, Paul, I think every election is going to be different. It's going to be a choice between the candidates on the ballot.

I do think that all over the country a lot of voters want change. And they want to see changes in policy. The question is what kind of change do they want?

I don't think most voters believe that their taxes ought to increase a lot. And I don't think they believe we ought to eliminate tools that are keeping us safe and weak in America on the war on terror.

But unfortunately, that is what many of the Democrats are offering. I don't think Americans are going to go there.

GIGOT: Well, Republicans ran in 2004 promising to do certain things. And they've controlled the government since that time.

They promise to reform Social Security — didn't happen; promised to make the tax cuts permanent — didn't happen; talked about tax reform and health reform — didn't happen.

What kind of a record are you going to bring to the voters this year to say, look, we deserve re-election because we've done something the last two years?

MEHLMAN: Well, as I said, I think every election will be a choice based on what's on the ballot.

Here's what I think Republicans will be able to go and say. They'll be able to go and say we reauthorize the Patriot Act, which is critical to defending America, and has helped make sure there hasn't been another attack on the country, even though the Democrats tried to block us and kill the Patriot Act.

They'll be able to say we passed tax cuts again this year. The fifth year in a row we've had tax cuts signed into law, even though the Democrats opposed us.

They'll be able to say we put forward outstanding nominees, like Sam Alito and John Roberts on the court, even though many Democrats believe that we ought to have a litmus test against people who want to interpret the law on the court.

We'll be able to say, for the first time in a generation, we've passed tort reform and a comprehensive energy strategy, even though Democrats oppose it.

We'll be able to say that Americans no longer will have to choose between prescription drugs and food for their families or for electricity bills, even though Democrats opposed that too.

And we'll able to say fundamentally — each election being different -- there's a national choice. And the choice is do you believe that critical tools, like the Patriot Act, like the surveillance program, like missile defense — all of those tools that are keeping us safe as we face a global war against an Islamic fascist enemy — should we weaken those tools? Should we eliminate those tools? That would make Americans less safe.

And unfortunately, that's what Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid will give us if they're in the majority.

GIGOT: When I talk to Republicans around the country, I hear a lot of — and these are rank and file voters, stalwart Republicans, but the people you really need to turn out — I hear a lot of complaining about the Republican record, particularly on spending and earmarks.

Do you think Republican voters are as mobilized as they were in 2002 and 2004? And if not, what do you do to get them to the polls?

MEHLMAN: I think Republicans will be motivated, again, based on the choices. I was just, this past week, in two states where Republicans are very motivated.

I was in Ohio. In the Senate race in Ohio, there's a huge choice. The Democrats have a guy named Sherrod Brown nominated. He is further to the left than Dennis Kucinich in his voting record — against the PATRIOT Act, against missile defense, against the tools we need to win the war on terror, in favor of tax increases. I think Mike DeWine will beat him.

In the governor's race there, you've got Ken Blackwell, who's got a very strong record of reform and agenda for reform.

There's also in Michigan, where there's been terrible job loss — the only state in the country to lose jobs three years in a row. And in that state, Governor Granholm, who I believe will lose. Dick Devos will get elected. And I think we're going to elect as Senator, Mike Bouchard.

So, again, I think our voters are going to be motivated by the fundamental choice on Election Day.

You mentioned spending. The deficit declined by a third this past year. It's 2.3 percent of the economy, the lowest number it's been at any point when America's been either at war or during the Cold War. That means it's lower than it was under Reagan, under, Nixon, under Lyndon Johnson, under Eisenhower, under all those presidents.

We still need to make it lower. We need to fundamentally reform entitlements. The president put forward a bold plan. And he'll continue to work on that.

But the bottom line is every election comes down to the choice on the ballot.

GIGOT: Let me ask you about another state, Rhode island, where you have an incumbent Republican Senator, Lincoln Chafee. He was being challenged by Steve Laffey, who's the mayor of Cranston. And he's getting a lot of support from The Club for Growth, which is a conservative group that tends to steer towards Republican candidates.

Why is Senator Chafee in so much trouble?

MEHLMAN: Well, obviously, first, you've got two issues. First of all, you've got the fact that Rhode Island is a very competitive state, a very challenging state. Second of all, obviously, he faces a competitive primary too.

But at the end of the day, I believe that voters will vote to re-elect Senator Chafee. And it's going to be a very competitive race. But I believe he will win.

And that will be critical because, in order for Democrats to take back the senate, they've got to do something they've frankly never done before, and we have never done before.

Think of 1994, the incredibly historic year where Republicans had our best off-year election, arguably, in a century. Even in that year, we only defeated two incumbents.

The Democrats — to win back the senate — they would need to defeat five or six incumbents, which is a very tall order. If you look at the races around the country, including Senator Chafee's, I am confident we will keep our majority in the United States Senate.

GIGOT: Ken Mehlman, thanks.

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