We won’t have to stay up late on Nov. 7 to see whether Democrats win back the House. By shortly after 8 p.m., the result should be clear.
The polls close by 7 p.m. EST in Kentucky and Indiana, where six GOP-held seats are up for grabs. They close at 7:30 p.m. in Ohio, with three seats, and at 8 p.m. in Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, which together have a total of seven more contested seats.
The final tallies won’t be in until later, of course, but results in the early states should show whether Democrats will pick up the 15 seats they need.
Right now, polls, the pundit consensus and the estimates of both Democratic experts and some Republicans all suggest that GOP rule in the House will end, conceivably with a Democratic pickup of 30 seats – double what’s needed.
The RealClearPolitics.com average of the last four generic Congressional polls gives Democrats a 12.2-point advantage – a historically huge gap that’s far above the 7-point GOP vote margin in 1994, when Republicans picked up 52 seats and took over the House.
Democratic experts say that it will take a 5-point vote advantage on Election Day this year to win 15 seats and recapture control.
Robert Richie of the electoral reform group FairVote calculates that gerrymandering of House districts means Democrats will need 54 percent of the national House vote to win 15 seats. The GOP got 53.5 percent in 1994.
One Republican pro told me that “Democrats are being very smart to target 40 to 50 races around the country. If they end up with a 7-point generic advantage, they’ll win a majority of those races. I would put it in the 30 range.”
Reviewing the handicapping of individual races by nonpartisan experts such as Stu Rothenberg of The Rothenberg Political Report (also a contributing writer for Roll Call), Charlie Cook of National Journal and Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, RealClearPolitics.com’s Richard Baehr concluded that nine GOP seats lean Democratic, two are dead even, 15 are barely leaning Republican, and 12 more are competitive. By contrast, only three Democratic seats are considered up for grabs.
GOP officials acknowledge that the “environment is not favorable,” but Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman nonetheless predicted flatly to me that his party will hold both the House and Senate.
“No. 1,” he said, “the playing field is relatively narrow” with just 20 GOP open seats at risk. “Two, we are going to have more resources, and we’re going to target them better.
“While it’s true the Democrats have done very well at their Congressional committees, (the RNC) will spend more than has ever been spent on House and Senate races and more than make up the difference.”
Mehlman declined to discuss specific numbers, but late-August Federal Election Commission reports showed the RNC with $33 million more in cash on hand than the Democratic National Committee had, while the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee led its GOP counterpart by $15 million. The parties’ House committees were close to even.
Other GOP sources said that when candidates’ coffers are included, Republicans overall have $43 million more to spend on the Congressional elections than Democrats. The GOP is hoping for a low-turnout election, in which its proven get-out-the-vote machinery prevails.
And, Mehlman added, “our guys understand that this election is going to be a choice, not a referendum. And while Americans are clearly frustrated about the Iraq War, that doesn’t mean that when they’re told what will happen if we cut and run, they’ll want to do that. Polls consistently show they don’t want to do that.”
The Republican who predicted a 30-seat loss was basing his estimate on the expectation that news from Iraq would continue to be bad. “Barring some major event like discovering a (terrorist) weapons cache in Chicago or something, I think (Republicans) are flying into a mountain.”
GOP officials hope that President Bush will be able to pull up his approval ratings by 5 percentage points or so before November – from an average of 40 percent to 45 percent – and pull GOP fortunes with it.
But at the moment, even White House officials acknowledge that events in Iraq are casting a dark shadow over the national mood.
Various analyses show that Bush has lost the support he had in 2004 among married women – the “security moms” – but polling I’ve seen also indicates a substantial reversal among men, especially older men.
Bush beat Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) by 55 percent to 44 percent among men in 2004, while Bush got 48 percent among women, up 5 percentage points from 2000.
The latest Gallup Poll, however, shows that the gender gap has virtually disappeared and that Bush receives just 43 percent support from males and 41 percent among women. Fifty-four percent of both men and women disapprove of his performance.
When voters were asked whether they are satisfied with the way things are going in the country, 60 percent of men aged 18 to 49 said they were dissatisfied, and 73 percent of men over 50 said so – about the level for all women.
In Gallup’s August generic Congressional ballot test, women leaned Democratic by a margin of 49 percent to 40 percent, while men – traditionally a more Republican-oriented group – split nearly even at 47 percent Republican, 46 percent Democratic. And older men split 51 percent Republican to 46 percent Democratic.
Bush and Republicans also have lost support from self-identified independent voters, who split almost evenly in 2004. Now, independents disapprove of Bush’s performance by a margin of 58 percent to 36 percent and plan to vote Democratic in November by 45 percent to 35 percent. Republicans must hope that this group does not show up at the polls in the off-year election.
The pro-Democratic tilt of the 2006 political table could shift, of course. But Republicans’ chances of holding the House probably depend more on world events now than on campaign talk.
(Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.)
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