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GOP’s Hold on House Shakier

Times Staff Writer

Raye Haug, a retired librarian in northern Virginia, for years happily voted to reelect her longtime congressman, Republican Frank R. Wolf. But the GOP record of the last six years -- on foreign policy, the economy and the environment -- has so soured Haug that she wants to vote for a Democrat in this year’s midterm election.

Any Democrat.

“I don’t think I’ve ever before been willing to vote for someone just because of their party affiliation,” said Haug, who walked precincts one sweltering Saturday for Judy Feder, Wolf’s Democratic opponent, even though she knew little about her.

As Labor Day signals the start of intense campaigning for the Nov. 7 election, the political landscape is crowded with disgruntled voters like Haug, who tell pollsters they don’t like the direction the country has taken under President Bush and Republican rule in Congress.

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Most voters are just now beginning to pay attention to the campaign, but candidates and their advisors have been mobilized for months. After 12 years of Republican dominance, Democrats have their best shot in years at winning control of Congress -- especially the House.

Early this year, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report identified 42 House Republican seats as competitive; now it lists 55. The analysis sees only 20 House Democrats in competitive races. Democrats, who need to gain 15 seats to win control, also have narrowed Republicans’ traditional advantage in fundraising.

The mood of the electorate continues to be clouded by deteriorating conditions in Iraq.

“That’s a recipe for a GOP disaster, and there is no reason to believe that things will change dramatically between now and election day to improve Republican prospects,” said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of a nonpartisan newsletter that recently predicted a Democratic takeover of the House.

The Senate remains more firmly in Republican hands, but even GOP strategists fear their party could reduce their 55-45 margin of control.

The winds are blowing so strongly against the GOP that it raises a new question: If Democrats cannot win control of Congress under these circumstances, when will they?

If they do not triumph in such a hospitable climate, it will be a tribute to the strength of the political machine the GOP has built to cement the realignment that has given them control of Congress since 1994 and the White House since 2000. The party’s agenda is tailored to mobilize its base, and its campaign machinery has made a fine art of getting Republican voters to the polls.

And most House members are protected by district boundaries that have been drawn by political bosses to keep seats safely in one party’s control.

“If we do endure this cycle with a majority in both chambers, you have to argue this has been an unbelievable 12-year run,” said Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster. “You’d have to give Bush and his administration credit. That is an enduring legacy.”

Helping secure that legacy are incumbents like Wolf, who make the Democrats’ job harder than it seems. Although he is facing a well-financed opponent in a district that shows signs of becoming more Democratic, Wolf is still heavily favored to win. A 13-term incumbent who sits on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, Wolf has been bringing home the bacon for decades and is well-known by his constituents.

Even Haug -- who plans to vote against him -- concedes, “I like the guy. He has been a good congressman.”

That’s why Republicans are trying to keep the focus on individual candidates and local issues, while Democrats are trying to turn the election into a broad national referendum on one-party rule in Washington, the war in Iraq and Bush.

The parties’ different strategies were on display last week in a day of campaign events in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Democrat Joe Sestak held an event on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina to criticize Bush’s response to the disaster and to link the district’s Republican representative to the administration’s failures.

“If anybody’s happy with George Bush, you are happy with Curt Weldon, and I am not your man,” Sestak said. “He is super-glued to the president.”

In a nearby district, first-term Republican Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick traveled to a dairy farm to say he had bucked the Bush administration to secure funding for a locally popular conservation program. “I’ve struck a real chord of independence,” Fitzpatrick said.

Some Republicans take heart from a few inklings that Democrats may have peaked too soon.

In recent polls, Bush’s approval ratings rose after the arrest last month of terrorism suspects in London. A mid-August Gallup poll found that generic support for a Democratic congressional candidate over a Republican narrowed to 2 percentage points, down from double digits in earlier surveys.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, called those findings fleeting, and he pointed to other signs that voters are as restive as they were in 1994, when they threw Democrats out of power in the House and Senate.

A key question is whether surly voters will punish incumbents of both parties. They have in early primaries: In Connecticut, Sen. Joe Lieberman lost the Democratic primary to an antiwar liberal, Ned Lamont. In Alaska, GOP Gov. Frank H. Murkowski came in third place in his party’s gubernatorial primary. One House member from each party has been defeated so far in primaries.

But many analysts predict any throw-the-bums-out tide will take a greater toll on Republicans. Tim Storey, election analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures, sees warning signs for the GOP in the results of 53 special elections for state legislative seats. In 13 cases, incumbents were dumped; all but two were Republicans.

Most analysts see Democrats’ gaining control of the Senate as a long shot, because so many competitions are in states that vote Republican in presidential elections. Virtually every contested race would have to go the Democrats’ way for them to gain the six seats needed for a majority.

One sign of Republicans’ angst is the number of candidates distancing themselves from Bush and the party.

In Missouri, GOP Sen. Jim Talent’s first television ad says: “Most people don’t care if you are red or blue, Republican or Democrat.” In Maryland, GOP Senate candidate Michael S. Steele told reporters that being a Republican was like wearing a scarlet letter.

The trickiest campaign issue for members of both parties is Iraq.

Most Democrats have criticized Bush’s handling of the conflict but have been divided over what alternative course to back. Still, with Iraq riven by sectarian violence, more Democrats have felt it politically safe -- even advantageous -- to speak out against the president’s policy. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), running in a contested primary for Senate, bragged in his first television ad of his vote against the Iraq war.

A handful of Republicans have criticized Bush’s Iraq strategy. They include Fitzpatrick, who said in an August mailing to voters, “Mike Fitzpatrick to President Bush: America needs a better, smarter plan in Iraq.”

But most Republicans have stuck with the GOP approach of lambasting Democrats for advocating a “cut and run” strategy--even though they acknowledge the status quo in Iraq threatens to harm them politically.

“Without more progress on the ground in Iraq, it’s going to be a political problem for Republicans,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). “I don’t think anything rivals Iraq as an issue that shapes the political environment in district after district.”

In northern Virginia, however, Feder’s long-shot campaign against Wolf is hardly putting that issue front and center. Her pitch to campaign volunteers in Sterling, Va., recently was a broader message.

“Are you ready for change in Washington?” asked Feder, a healthcare advisor to President Clinton who is now dean of the Public Policy Institute at Georgetown University. “We need to get rid of these guys.”

Feder is hoping to gain traction in the district -- which stretches from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., to West Virginia -- because last year a GOP-weighted electorate voted for Democrat Timothy M. Kaine for governor. Dan Scandling, a Wolf spokesman, said he was confident that Wolf’s close ties to his district -- it is near enough to the Capitol that the congressman returns home every night -- would help him easily beat his opponent. But he is not taking anything for granted.

“In this environment, you take every candidate seriously,” Scandling said. “If you don’t, you’re crazy.”

janet.hook@latimes.com

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Midterm elections: races to watch

Here is a selection of Senate and House races that are bellwethers in the battle to control Congress. They will measure the effect of important trends shaping this year’s political landscape, such as public opinion of President Bush, the war in Iraq and immigration.

Senate Races

Pennsylvania

Sen. Rick Santorum (R), incumbent

Bob Casey Jr. (D),

state treasurer

State of the race: Trailing by double digits in polls for months, Santorum has narrowed the gap but is

still at about 40%.

Quick take: Darling of the Christian right, the senior GOP leader risks defeat in a swing state. His head is the one Democrats want most. His loss would be a blow to Bush and conservatives -- and to Santorum’s White House ambitions.

Rhode Island

Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R), incumbent

Stephen Laffey (R),

Cranston mayor

Sheldon Whitehouse (D), former state attorney general

State of the race: Chafee faces a tough GOP primary Sept. 12. If he survives, an even tougher fight looms in November.

Quick take: The Senate’s most liberal Republican is buffeted from both right and left. Democrats would have an easier time beating conservative Laffey in this blue state. Chafee’s campaign tests whether there is still room in U.S. politics -- and in the GOP -- for centrists.

Maryland

(Incumbent Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes is retiring)

Michael S. Steele (R), lieutenant governor

Kweisi Mfume (D), former U.S. representative, former NAACP head

Benjamin L. Cardin (D), U.S. representative

State of the race: Contentious Democratic primary Sept. 12. July poll showed Cardin with bigger margin over Steele than Mfume.

Quick take: Both the Democratic primary and general election may test African American party allegiance. Steele is a rare breed: African American GOPer. Will he pick up black Democratic voters if Mfume, also black, loses the primary?

Washington

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D), incumbent

Mike McGavick (R), businessman,

former Senate aide

State of the race: Cantwell is considered vulnerable to a strong challenger, but it is not clear by how much. There has been little public polling.

Quick take: Cantwell, like Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), has taken heat from liberals in this deep-blue state for supporting the Iraq war. Will antiwar Democrats stay home on election day? McGavick must fight a strong anti-Bush current.

House Races

Connecticut 5 (northwest)

Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R), incumbent

Chris Murphy (D),

state senator

State of the race: Johnson is favored, but is still vulnerable to a Democratic tidal wave.

Quick take: First tough race in a decade for the 12-term moderate in a state where Bush is unpopular. A test of whether the Northeast will become even more Democratic.

Ohio 15 (Columbus)

Rep. Deborah Pryce (R), incumbent

Mary Jo Kilroy (D),

county commissioner

State of the race: The fight of Pryce’s political life, but she’s still favored.

Quick take: Pryce, a senior Republican leader, is hurt by Ohio GOP scandals and Bush’s unpopularity. A test of whether Democrats can dislodge longtime incumbents from once-safe seats.

Pennsylvania 8 (Philadelphia suburbs)

Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick (R), incumbent

Patrick Murphy (D),

former prosecutor

State of race: July Democratic poll favored Fitzpatrick, 44% to 38%

Quick take: The first-term Republican, in a swing district, tries to distance himself from Bush on Iraq and the environment. Murphy is an Iraq war veteran. Test of whether moderates will be dragged down by an unpopular war and president.

South Carolina 5 (north central)

Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D), incumbent

Ralph Norman (R),

state representative

State of the race: A long shot for Republicans.

Quick take: Republicans paint the longtime incumbent as out of touch with a conservative district. But a huge fundraising advantage keeps Spratt favored to win. The race is likely to show limits to GOP march through the South.

West Virginia 1 (Wheeling)

Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D), incumbent

Chris Wakim (R), state representative

State of the race: Mollohan’s running hard, favored to win.

Quick take: Dogged by ethics problems, 12-term incumbent faces his first serious challenge in years. A test of whether corruption accusations will hurt Democrats as well as GOPers.

Source: Los Angeles Times


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