WASHINGTON Facing the most difficult political environment since they took control of Congress in 1994, Republicans begin the final two months of the midterm campaign in growing danger of losing the House while fighting to preserve at best a slim majority in the Senate, according to strategists and officials in both parties.
Over the summer, the political battlefield has expanded well beyond the roughly 20 GOP House seats originally thought to be vulnerable. Now some Republicans concede there may be almost twice that number of districts from which Democrats could wrest the 15 additional seats they need to take control.
President Bush's low approval ratings, sharp divisions over the war in Iraq, dissatisfaction with Congress and economic anxiety caused by high gasoline prices and stagnant wages have alienated independent voters, energized the Democratic base, and thrown once-safe Republican incumbents on the defensive.
As the campaign season begins, Democrats are trying to guard against premature celebration, even as their prospects are brighter than most ever imagined. Republicans are hoping for some outside event that would show the president and their party in better light a spate of good news from Iraq, a foiled terrorist plot or an unlikely break in the deadlock over immigration reform on Capitol Hill.
Meanwhile, some finger-pointing has begun as Republicans here and around the country blame the White House and the GOP congressional leadership for leaving Republican candidates in such vulnerable position.Despite these advantages, Democratic strategists say they see ways they could fall short of their goal of capturing one or both houses of Congress. They cite what they consider to be a superior Republican get-out-the-vote operation, a coming barrage of negative ads aimed at their challenger candidates and a sizeable cash-on-hand disparity between the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee.
Even with political winds at their back, Democrats to take control must defeat a significant number of incumbents ordinarily one of the hardest tasks in politics and in most cases do so in districts that have voted consistently Republican in recent presidential races.
Nonetheless, everything points today to Democratic gains across the board on Nov. 7. Tim Hibbits, an independent pollster in Portland, Ore., who has been surveying voters for decades, said, "I'm not saying this is another 1994," when the then-dominant Democrats lost both the House and Senate. "But voters are not happy. It's not just Iraq. It's also that most people don't feel better off economically."
Privately, many Republican strategists fear there may be no way to prevent the Democrats from winning the House, where Republicans now hold 231 of 435 seats. One prominent consultant, who offered his views on the condition of anonymity, put the odds of a Democratic takeover at 75 percent.
Another strategist who has worked as part of Bush's campaign team said he believes there is a nine-in-10 chance that Republicans lose their 12-year-old House majority.
Other GOP officials, while nervous, believe they can hold the House with aggressive local campaigns and a national effort to focus on terrorism and security to raise voter fears about the consequences of Democratic control.
All predict one of the most negative midterm elections in memory, with virtually no positive advertising from the national GOP party committees or individual GOP candidates.Republicans "ought to be concerned because we are in a very competitive environment," said RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman, citing the Iraq war and the traditional losses suffered by the party in power during a president's second term.
But Mehlman said Republicans still have financial and organizational assets to deploy and predicted that, over the next 30 days, GOP candidates would attempt to convert the elections from a referendum on the president and congressional Republicans into a choice between competing philosophies on fighting terrorism and growing the economy.
One aim would be to lift sagging morale among traditionally Republican voters. "No question the Democratic base is charged up," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.. "But my instinct is that our base will come together later. We have the structure and the professionalism and finances to take advantage when that happens. I count on the Democrats to provide that spark they could frighten the Republican base into a higher level of activity."
Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), said his candidates would counter any efforts to paint the opposition as not ready for governing by arguing that six years of the Bush presidency have given the nation "an endless occupation and a wage-less recovery." The GOP message, he added, offers nothing beyond "fear."Emanuel, cautious in his predictions about the fall, said what has given him hope is that Republicans failed over the past few months to narrow the battlefield by using television ads to discredit little-known Democratic challengers. "We've come out of the summer with more races in play than at the beginning of the summer," he said.
Gains and losses
Democrats still face an uphill battle in the Senate, where Republicans hold 55 of 100 seats. Needing a net gain of six seats for a majority, Democrats see chances in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Montana and Missouri. But they would also have to win a race or two in such Republican strongholds as Tennessee, Arizona or Virginia, while holding off GOP challenges in Minnesota, Maryland, New Jersey and Washington.
Governors' races often move independently of national trends, but this year the Democrats are almost certain to increase their state house numbers. Among the major states, prospects for Democratic takeovers are brightest in New York, Ohio and Massachusetts, while Republicans see opportunities in Michigan, Wisconsin and perhaps Illinois. California's Arnold Schwarzenegger has moved from being a distinct underdog to at least a slight favorite.
Republicans are favored to retain Florida and Texas; the Democrats, to hold onto Pennsylvania. There are now 28 Republicans governors and 22 Democratic.
In the House races, three of the likeliest Democratic pickups are seats in Arizona, Colorado and Iowa, where incumbents are retiring or seeking higher office. But Democratic strategist David Plouffe said this appears to be an unusual election in which incumbent-held districts are as vulnerable as open seats.
"These Republican incumbents are really wearing a crown of thorns right now for people's anxiety and anger about Washington," he said. "The environment favors us, but in open seats you don't have an Republican incumbent you can attach these (frustrations) to."
One example is Ohio's 18th District, where GOP Rep. Bob Ney appeared headed for defeat because of his connection to the scandal involving convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Now that he has stepped aside, Republicans are more confident of holding the seat.
But since the start of the year, at least 18 more Republican names have gone on the "watch list" for potential danger. They include veterans such as Anne Northup of Kentucky and Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania and freshmen such as Thelma Drake of Virginia Beach.
Republicans face potential losses in every section of the country, but what concerns their strategists most is the arc of states running from the Northeast across the Midwest. There are three GOP incumbents at risk in Connecticut and four districts in Pennsylvania that could flip in November. In New York, Republicans worry that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) and likely Democratic gubernatorial nominee Eliot Spitzer will roll up such large margins that several GOP-held districts could be caught up in the undertow.
Ohio is another state where Republicans are braced for losses. GOP gubernatorial nominee Kenneth Blackwell is running far behind Democratic nominee Ted Strickland, and the unpopularity of Gov. Bob Taft and the president have put several incumbents at risk, including Rep. Deborah Pryce, a member of the House leadership.
Even more worrisome to the Republicans is Indiana, where three House incumbents Reps. Chris Chocola, John Hostettler and Mike Sodrel could fall to their Democratic challengers. There, Bush's weaknesses have been compounded by the problems of freshman Gov. Mitch Daniels (R), in hot water over his decisions to switch some counties into new time zones and to lease the Indiana Turnpike to a foreign consortium.The reversal of fortune is particularly striking in Ohio and Indiana; both states have been dominated by Republicans and have had vaunted party organizations. But organization is less effective in a climate of depressed morale. One major GOP consultant said: "If you're outside the Beltway and dealing with activist types and donors, they're angry at the party for not getting as much done, for drifting away from the tenets of the party and a whole host of things. It makes us believe many of them will stay home or not work as hard."
The economy figures prominently in Democratic hopes and GOP fears even as growth and employment remain relatively strong. Rising interest rates and high energy prices have helped depress consumer confidences and high energy prices.
That is why most of the Democrats interviewed for this story predicted that the Democrats would win a House majority, with votes to spare. "That's as of September 1," one well-placed source said, "but on September 1, 2004, John Kerry would have been elected president."
Democrats have learned the hard way to fear the White House's and the Republican National Committee's ability to dominate the final days of any campaign, when the money and organization the GOP can muster come fully to bear.
The next 30 days will be critical, as many voters who have been paying only passing attention will focus on their choices. When Congress returns this week, rival party leaders will enter a daily struggle to set the news agenda. The president, even when politically weakened, has the biggest megaphone to drive the debate.
White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove told one associate last week that he believes the climate has begun to turn in a way that will help Republicans preserve their majorities, and GOP officials will spend the coming weeks trying to boost the president's approval ratings and frame the contest.
A pivotal moment will be next week's fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Last Thursday, the president began a series of speeches on terrorism that Republicans hope will focus attention on the one issue that offered a decisive advantage in 2002 and 2004.
Some GOP strategists believe the terrorism issue has lost some of its potency, in part because of the miscalculations and setbacks suffered by the administration in the Iraq war. One pollster who has surveyed the issue said, "That dog won't hunt again." But Donna Brazille, who managed Al Gore's campaign in 2000, is not so sure: "September 11 shifted something inside the American people, and there are some lingering doubts (about Democrats' stance on terrorism) Republicans know how to exploit."The battle to come
Over the next month, Democratic challengers also will feel the heat from millions of dollars of negative Republican ads. Normally, incumbents wait until the final weeks of their campaigns to launch their attacks, but party strategists are warning that to wait that long could be fatal. Democrats promise to be just as aggressive in responding, but there is a window in which Republicans have a chance to plant doubts about little-known challengers.
A Republican strategist privy to much of the polling conducted in House districts said that, at this point, it is not difficult to count up enough vulnerable districts to show how Democrats can take control. But he offered a cautionary point:
"I don't know of a single target race (where the Republican candidate) has spent more than 20 percent of what they intend to spend. The battle is just beginning. That's what people really forget."
Given the climate, Republican candidates will be forced to fend for themselves the next two months. "They can't realistically look toward the president, the leadership in the House or Senate, congressional action or the situation in Iraq," said one GOP strategist. "Other than money from the national parties, they're kind of on their own."
For many Republicans who in the previous two elections were lifted by support from Bush, this is a delicate new challenge. They must use their own political wits to connect with loyal Republicans while also showing they have sufficient detachment from Washington leaders to appeal to sour-minded independents who likely will decide the balance of power in Congress.