Clintonites See Election Dreams Slip Away

By Christine Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:29 PM EDT

( - A handful of former Clinton administration officials decided to try their hand at elected office this year, but many of them may see their dreams dashed on Election Day.

To be sure, some are riding high in pre-election polls. Former Clinton Energy Secretary Bill Richardson was beating GOP state Rep. John Sanchez in the governor's race, 59 percent to 35 percent, as of a February poll.

And former White House Advisor Rahm Emanuel is expected to win a U.S. House seat for Illinois' 5th District, a heavily Democratic district that incumbent Rod Blagojevich (D) is leaving to run for governor. But other ex-Clinton appointees have not been fairing so well.

Former Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo seem poised to win their party primaries in North Carolina, Florida and New York, respectively.

Bowles is running for an open Senate seat, while Reno and Cuomo are challenging incumbent Republican governors. But polls show all three losing decisively to their Republican opponents.

Meanwhile in Massachusetts, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich seems poised to come in third in the Democratic primary for governor.

David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, blames the Clinton connection for the poor showing of most former appointees. "I think these people are really paying a political price for their association with the Clinton administration," said Keene.

"They haven't been mentioning Clinton's name," he noted, which is especially striking in cases where the Clinton association was the candidate's main selling point.

"Early on, when they did a poll in North Carolina about Erskine Bowles, the only thing people identified him as is Bill Clinton's chief of staff," said Keene. "He's running against Elizabeth Dole, who's a formidable candidate, but the fact of the matter is going into a race when your primary identification with the public is with Bill Clinton, who didn't do that well down there anyway, puts you at a severe disadvantage."

Ditto for Reich and Reno, said Keene. And Cuomo, "one of the great hopes of the Clintonites," failed to get the votes he needed at the Democratic convention to get on the ballot and is now out collecting signatures to remedy the situation.

"In every case, you could come up with local reasons, but...when most of them are in trouble, you have to say maybe it's more than just the local reasons; or maybe the local reason is people don't like the association with Clinton," said Keene.

The problem is "the scandals and all that went around with it," he said. "Janet Reno in Florida with the Cuban problem [and] all of those things that people put behind them in 2000, and they want to keep behind them. And to the extent that these people come out and essentially remind them [about a past] they found uncomfortable, it just doesn't help them."

Richardson and Emanuel are exceptions, Keene believes, because Richardson is "sort of a folk hero in New Mexico, so he rises above that," and "Emanuel is running in a Democratic district that a dead dog with the right partisan label could win."

But Ramona Oliver, a spokesperson for the Democratic Governors Association, disputes the notion that there's something unsavory about the Clinton connection, at least not in the governor's races.

"I definitely don't think that it has to do with the fact that they were Clinton appointees," said Oliver. "Those are competitive races...that are unique to that state and not necessarily related to the fact that they were Clinton appointees.

"If they were running for federal office, association with a president may have an impact on a race," she suggested.

"But governor's races are very much about local issues and very much about local image." In fact, Oliver said, Clinton himself is being very helpful as a fundraiser; and on that count he has been "very active on that level in terms of supporting candidates around the country," she said.

More important factors that explain the uphill battle faced by gubernatorial candidates Cuomo and Reno, said Oliver, are that they both face upcoming primaries and Republican incumbents (George Pataki and Jeb Bush, respectively).

"Incumbents are very difficult to unseat, in general," she said. And "Pataki is a third-term incumbent."

And until the primaries are held, "people aren't looking at head-to-head choices yet, because they're still looking at who they're going to pick among the Democrats."

In the race for the North Carolina Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Jesse Helms (R), Bowles, the likely Democratic nominee, lags behind former presidential candidate and likely Republican nominee Elizabeth Dole.

An internal poll of likely voters conducted for Dole found her a whopping 35 points ahead of Bowles. Even a poll conducted by the state Senate Democrats, this one back in March, found Dole ahead by 12 points.

Lately, Bowles has been fending off criticism from Republicans and fellow Democrats regarding his membership on the board of directors at pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co., which is embroiled in a corporate accounting scandal.

In the Florida governor's race, Reno seems to be headed towards victory over her two primary opponents on Sept. 10. But polls have shown incumbent Republican and presidential sibling Jeb Bush defeating Reno, 53 to 37 percent, in a June poll of registered voters by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

A June Mason-Dixon poll with nearly identical results for a general election match-up showed Bush the favorite amongst men, women, independents, whites, Hispanics and seniors, with black voters as the sole demographic group going strong for Reno (83 to 6 percent).

Bush has outpaced Reno and the other Democrats in fundraising. As of mid-July, Bush, with the help of his brother, had raised more than $5.6 million and millions more for the state party, whereas Reno raised just $1.4 million. That's less than her Democratic opponent Bill McBride, who raised about $2 million (with another $1 million cash on hand).

In the New York governor's race, Cuomo has consistently polled ahead of Democratic primary opponent Carl McCall, the state comptroller. But when matched against incumbent Pataki, Cuomo gets trounced 57 to 30 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University poll of registered voters released in June.

Meanwhile, Reich seems poised to lose the Democratic primary for governor. He lags behind not only the likely Republican nominee, but two of three primary opponents.

Back in January, the Democratic field looked evenly matched, with three front-runners earning about 20 percent support each amongst potential primary voters, according to a Mass Insight poll. If the Sept. 17 primary were held now, polls indicate State Treasurer Shannon O'Brien would win the nomination by 12 points.

According to the Boston Globe, Reich isn't connecting with "real-life voters," who don't necessarily listen to National Public Radio or read the New York Times, where Reich is a regular commentator. "Wasn't he on, like, Clinton's Cabinet or whatever?" Todd LeBlanc, 35, a printing factory worker in Taunton, asked a Globe reporter.

See Earlier Stories:
Campaign Season Crowded With Ex-Clinton Staffers (March 13, 2002)
AFL-CIO Decision Linked to Reno's 'Electability' Problem (March 25, 2002)
James Carville's Next Target: George Pataki (May 22, 2002)

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