Except at the White House and the top reaches of the Republican National Committee, I can hardly find a single politician, consultant or pollster, Democratic or Republican, who thinks the GOP can retain control of the House.
And even at the White House, the messages are mixed. Strategist-in-chief Karl Rove is proclaiming that Republicans will pull out a victory. On the other hand, one aide also told me that the chances of Republicans retaining narrow control is in the 40 percent to 45 percent range – that is, less than a 50-50 shot – while Democrats’ chances of winning either narrowly or with a bigger margin are greater.
Republicans are more optimistic about the Senate, where they think retaining contested seats in Arizona, Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia will leave them with a 51-seat majority, assuming they lose in Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, and fail to pick up New Jersey.
GOP officials hotly deny reports that they are pulling money out of Sen. Mike DeWine’s (R) desperate bid to survive a catastrophic political climate in Ohio, but in recent polls he trails Rep. Sherrod Brown (D) by double digits.
Republican consultants I’ve talked to say they expect House losses to range anywhere from 20 seats – five more than Democrats need to take over – up to 30 or more.
Democrats say they frantically are trying to keep up with new House opportunities that previously were deemed second- or third-tier contests – as many as 60 seats potentially in play, up from 50 a few weeks ago. “The field is vast,” one consultant told me.
As The Washington Post reported Wednesday, Democratic operatives desperately are appealing for money to contest newly competitive House races to establish a working majority, rather than a narrow one.
Among the seats Democrats now consider in play are Colorado’s 5th district, which came open with the retirement of GOP Rep. Joel Hefley. President Bush carried the district with 66 percent of the vote in 2004. Also considered in play is Michigan’s 7th, where Bush won 54 percent and moderate Rep. Joe Schwarz lost the GOP primary to conservative Tim Walberg.
Other potential new targets are Reps. Jim Leach in Iowa’s 2nd district; Jean Schmidt in Ohio’s 2nd; Gil Gutknecht in Minnesota’s 1st; Mike Ferguson in New Jersey’s 7th; Charles Bass in New Hampshire’s 2nd; Robin Hayes in North Carolina’s 8th; and Cathy McMorris in Washington’s 5th, plus Nevada’s 2nd, an open seat being vacated by GOP Rep. Jim Gibbons.
Bush carried those 10 districts by an average of 54.7 percent.
For Republicans, the optimistic view has been that the scandal surrounding former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., would fade quickly and allow Republicans to get back to their message – namely, that the economy is good and that Democrats can’t be trusted on national security. Then, the GOP would kick in with its superior financial and get-out-the-vote machinery to rescue its candidates from a generally unfavorable environment.
But the Foley scandal hasn’t disappeared, the guilty plea by Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, has revived the Jack Abramoff scandal, and the already endangered Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., is the target of a separate federal investigation.
Now, Congress’ collective approval rating is down to 24 percent, according to Gallup, just a point higher than it was in late October 1994, when Democrats lost 52 House seats and eight Senate seats.
The news from Iraq remains depressingly violent, and the prospect of a post-election call for a new strategy from a commission headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., does not improve the environment.
Bush’s overall approval rating in the latest Gallup Poll was 37 percent, 4 points below what former President Bill Clinton’s was in 1994. Dealing with North Korea’s nuclear threat may help him marginally, but it hurts that the threat is worsening on his watch.
The latest RealClearPolitics.com generic ballot gives Democrats a 14-point edge in House races. In 1994, Republicans outpolled Democrats by just 7 points, and Democratic experts calculate that, factoring in gerrymandering of House districts, they need a national vote margin of just 7 points to 8 points to capture 15 seats.
In a joint survey for National Public Radio, the first-rate GOP and Democratic polling firms Public Opinion Strategies and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner reported this week that in the 48 most-contested House districts, when voters were asked, by name, which candidate they favored, 50 percent chose the Democrat to 43 percent for the Republican. Six percent were undecided.
In the 38 districts now held by Republicans of those 48 contested seats, Democrats outscored the GOP by 48 percent to 44 percent. In 2004, Republican candidates won in those districts by an average of 58.7 percent.
In the 35 districts carried by President Bush in 2004, Democrats outpolled Republicans by 50 percent to 43 percent in the NPR poll. In 2004, Bush carried those districts with an average of 57 percent of the vote.
The NPR poll confirmed earlier national survey findings that Democrats currently outmatch Republicans in both “voter intensity” – the enthusiasm they have about voting – and “voter loyalty,” their preference for their own party’s candidate.
Eighty-nine percent of voters who supported Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., in 2004 say they plan to vote for the Democrat for Congress this year, the survey showed, while only 73 percent of Bush voters plan to vote Republican.
Moreover, NPR found, independent voters in the 48 districts broke 50 percent to 30 percent for Democrats, confirming other polls showing a lopsided preference for Democrats among independents.
Party professionals often say that “independents don’t vote” in off-year elections, and the NPR poll calculated that they’d represent just 14 percent of voters in the 48 key districts. However, exit polls show that they accounted for 27 percent of the vote in 1994 and split 56 percent to 44 percent for Republicans.
One GOP pollster told me that the Democratic tilt of swing voters – especially independents and white women – is the main factor operating against his party this year. “They are frustrated with the lack of success in Iraq. They are scared about the future of the economy. They doubt us on social issues. And, they say, ‘We let you run things for 12 years. We want something different.’”
The result, he said, is that “Democrats are sitting on our 3-yard line. It’s first and goal. Maybe we can hold them, but they’ve got four plays to score. If they don’t, it’s their fault.” The bottom line is that Republicans need to be better at defense than the Chicago Bears.
(Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.)
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