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GOP Can Win by Limiting Losses

Times Staff Writers

In this year’s midterm election, control of Congress may turn on whether the public’s clear desire for change is powerful enough to overcome the resistance to change built into the political system.

Discontent with the nation’s direction and the federal government’s performance is virtually screaming from public opinion surveys, which show approval ratings for President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress falling to their lowest levels.

On many measures, Bush and the GOP are facing at least as much dissatisfaction as Democrats and President Clinton did just before the 1994 midterm landslide that swept Republicans into control of the House and Senate.

But today’s wave of dissatisfaction is crashing into a political structure that is much more stable than in 1994. It now is tougher to beat House incumbents or to win Senate seats in states that usually back the other party in presidential elections.

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This year “is going to be a real test to see what happens when you get a fairly strong political tide coming up against this very rigidified system,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Atlanta’s Emory University.

Or, as Democratic pollster Mark Mellman put it: “The question is: Which is going to be more important, the stability of the structure or the size of the wave?”

To gain a majority in the House, Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats. To capture the Senate, they need a net gain of six seats.

It won’t be easy for them to reach either number, experts in both parties agree. But increasingly, analysts say it is no longer inconceivable that Democrats could capture one -- or both -- of the chambers.

“I don’t think the question is, ‘Will the Republicans lose [seats in] the midterm election?’ ” said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. “The question is, ‘How badly will they lose?’ ”

As a result, some Republican incumbents who thought themselves secure are girding for the worst by stockpiling campaign cash and, where necessary, spending it early. To coordinate political strategy, House GOP leaders have begun holding weekly meetings for staff members of about a dozen of the most vulnerable Republicans.

Democrats, meanwhile, are trying to broaden the battlefield, recruiting serious challengers to House Republicans who have not been targeted in the past. The political action committee associated with the liberal group MoveOn.org already has aired advertisements attacking four such incumbents -- including Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.), a veteran lawmaker who has responded with ads of her own.

With voters unhappy over high gasoline prices, the war in Iraq and scandals in the Capitol, Democrats are looking to frame the race as a national referendum on the country’s direction and to tie Republicans to President Bush.

In states as different as Arizona and Pennsylvania, Democratic Senate challengers are highlighting statistics that show GOP incumbents supporting Bush on legislation almost all of the time.

“The idea of Republicans being a rubber stamp for Bush is pretty powerful,” said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin.

By contrast, most Republicans are trying to localize and personalize their races. They believe that the GOP will fare better if the election is seen not as a retrospective referendum on Bush and Congress, but as a choice about which party has better ideas for the future.

“We are going to have to make this into [an election] ... where people say, ‘I might not be happy with Republicans overall, but this Democrat is too risky,’ ” said GOP pollster Glen Bolger.

Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), who has been battered over reports about his links to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, has demonstrated one element of that strategy. He is running an ad criticizing both of his potential Democratic opponents as weak on national security.

Another element is apparent in the subtle -- or sometimes overt -- efforts of Republican candidates to distance themselves from Bush.

Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), facing a tough reelection race, recently had a fundraiser featuring Bush but avoided being photographed with the president because the event was closed to reporters. DeWine’s latest television ad ends with a line calling him an “independent fighter for Ohio families.”

Such positioning isn’t hard to explain: In the most recent Gallup Poll, Bush’s approval rating stood at 34% -- well below Clinton’s 46% in the final Gallup survey before the ’94 midterm election. Gallup’s most recent approval rating for Congress stood at 23%, with 70% disapproving; that’s exactly the same showing for Congress that the poll recorded in its final survey in the ’94 campaign.

Notwithstanding such numbers, no expert in either party is forecasting Democratic gains comparable to the 52 House and eight Senate seats the GOP won in 1994.

One reason is that Republicans have discouraged retirements more effectively. The party this year is defending one open seat in the Senate and 18 in the House; Democrats 12 years ago were defending six open Senate seats and 31 open House seats.

The larger challenge for Democrats is that there are far fewer competitive House districts than in 1994, giving the party a much smaller battleground.

At roughly this point in 1994, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report identified 100 House seats as competitive; now, it finds only 35. In California, only one of the state’s 53 districts -- the San Diego-area seat opened by the conviction of Republican Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham on bribery charges -- is viewed as strongly in play between the two parties.

The decrease in competitive seats partly reflects how district lines were redrawn after the 2000 census -- with precision aimed at preserving safe seats for most incumbents of both parties.

“Voters get to choose their congressmen, but in redistricting, congressmen get to choose their voters,” said GOP pollster David Winston.

Another key difference separates today from 1994. In that earlier contest, about three-fifths of the Democratic House losses came in districts, many of them in the South, that had voted for President George H.W. Bush two years earlier. But now, each party already controls the vast majority of House seats that usually support their side in presidential elections. Republicans represent just 18 House districts that Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts carried in the 2004 presidential election.

For Democrats, maximizing their gains in these districts -- and in other House races in the mostly Democratic-leaning states of the Northeast and Midwest -- is a priority.

In New York, for instance, Democrats are targeting five districts held by Republicans. The effort to capture these seats could benefit from strength at the top of the ticket: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) is facing only token opposition, and Democrat Eliot Spitzer is expected to win the gubernatorial race handily.

In Connecticut, Democrats are gunning at two frequent targets -- moderate Republican Reps. Christopher Shays and Rob Simmons -- as well as Johnson. In Pennsylvania, Democrats hope to defeat four Republicans in districts that voted for Kerry in 2004. Ohio offers another cluster of targets.

But to build a House majority, Democrats must pick up seats in other regions, including “red” states that backed Bush in 2004. In Indiana, the party recruited a sheriff, Brad Ellsworth, to take on perennial target Rep. John Hostettler, and mounted more-longshot challenges against Reps. Mike Sodrel and Chris Chocola.

To win the Senate, Democrats need even greater gains in states that ordinarily lean Republican in presidential races.

Democrats hold 28 of the 36 Senate seats in the 18 states that voted for Kerry in 2004 and the party’s 2000 presidential nominee, Al Gore. This year, two GOP senators from such “blue” states top the Democratic target list.

In Pennsylvania, incumbent Rick Santorum -- a longtime champion of GOP conservative causes -- is locked in a high-profile race with Democratic state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. Santorum has trailed Casey in surveys all year, though a poll released last week showed the contest tightening.

In Rhode Island, Lincoln Chafee -- probably the most moderate Senate Republican -- is fighting a daunting two-front war. He faces a primary challenge from conservative Stephen Laffey and, if he wins that race, a potentially formidable Democratic opponent in former state Atty. Gen. Sheldon Whitehouse.

The more critical test for Democrats in the battle for the Senate is reducing the Republican advantage in seats from states that Bush carried in the 2004 and 2000 presidential races. The GOP controls 44 of the 58 Senate seats in those 29 states.

The three red-state Republican senators seen as most vulnerable are Burns in Montana, DeWine in Ohio and Jim Talent in Missouri.

Even if Democrats win all five of these competitive Senate races -- a problematic prospect -- they still must score surprise victories in even more challenging red-state terrain to take over the Senate.

The most likely upset victims are Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and George Allen (R-Va.). Democrats also are hoping a divisive GOP primary battle in Tennessee could pave the way for their party’s candidate, Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr., to win the seat being vacated by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

Any Senate pickups this year would be gravy for Republicans, who recognize that in years when polls found a strong national desire for change -- such as 1986 and 1994 -- almost all close Senate races fell to the party out of power. This year, avoiding the worst may be the best the GOP can hope for.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Looking toward November

With voters upset about the war in Iraq and high gas prices, the November elections could be a good opportunity for Democrats to take control of one or both chambers of Congress. An early look at the elections:

Then and now

Republicans face signs of public discontent similar to the mood that confronted Democrats just before the 1994 vote that cost them control of the House and Senate.

Presidential job approval rating

1994: 46%

2006: 34%

*

Congressional job approval rating

1994: 23%

2006: 23%

*

Does your member of Congress deserve reelection? Yes:

1994: 54%

2006: 59%

*

Do most members of Congress deserve reelection? Yes:

1994: 38%

2006: 38%

*

In the congressional election do you intend to vote*:

Democratic

1994: 44%

2006: 54%

Republican

1994: 51%

2006: 39%

*1994 asked “likely” voters; this year asked “registered” voters

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The Senate races

Democrats need a six-seat gain to capture the Senate. The races below will be crucial to determining whether they can upend the GOP majority.

The Senate today

Republican: 55

Democrat: 44

Independent: 1

*

Key races

Pennsylvania

Sen. Rick Santorum (R) vs. Bob Casey Jr. (D)

A polarizing conservative faces Casey, an abortion rights foe, in a swing state where Bush’s support has collapsed.

*

Rhode Island

Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R) or Stephen Laffey (R) vs. Sheldon Whitehouse (D)

If Chafee, a moderate, survives a primary against Laffey, he will face a stiff challenge from Whitehouse in a Democratic-leaning state.

*

Ohio

Sen. Mike DeWine (R) vs. Rep. Sherrod Brown (D)

State GOP scandals compound headaches for DeWine, who faces a liberal close to labor.

*

Montana

Sen. Conrad Burns (R) vs. John Morrison (D) or Jon Tester (D)

Ties to Jack Abramoff threaten Burns. But Morrison, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, has been hurt by the revelation of an extramarital affair.

*

Missouri

Sen. Jim Talent (R) vs. Claire McCaskill (D)

In a state trending its way, the GOP wants to stamp McCaskill as too liberal.

*

Washington

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) vs. Mike McGavick (R)

McGavick, former CEO of Safeco, may represent the GOP’s best hope for an upset. But he’s swimming against an anti-Bush current.

--

The House races

Republicans hold 18 districts that Democrat John F. Kerry carried in the 2004 presidential race. The Democrats need to take several of these seats to control the House.

The House today

Republican: 231

Democrat: 201

Independent: 1

Open seats: 2

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*--* State District Kerry share of vote Colorado 7 51% Connecticut 2 54 4 52 5 49 Delaware (Ent. state) 53 Florida 22 52 Illinois 10 53 Iowa 1 53 2 55 Kentucky 3 51 New Hampshire 2 52 New Mexico 1 51 New York 25 50 Pennsylvania 6 52 7 53 8 51 15 50 Washington 8 51

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Sources: Gallup Poll, Times reporting


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