- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 15, 2005

A top elections analyst and Democratic strategists predict Democrats are poised to make significant gains in the House next year, perhaps half a dozen seats or more, but probably not enough to capture the chamber.

Independent election tracker Stuart Rothenberg said a sharp decline in Congress’ job-approval polls and increased dissatisfaction with the country’s direction have created negative “atmospherics” that could benefit Democrats.

“With President George W. Bush’s job ratings battered by the war in Iraq, high gas prices and public dissatisfaction with the state of the economy, 2006 looks to be a golden opportunity for House Democrats,” Mr. Rothenberg told clients this week in his political newsletter.

A growing chorus of pundits and Democratic strategists point to poll numbers, such as one this week by Newsweek, which says 38 percent of registered voters say they would vote for a Republican for Congress if the congressional elections were held today.

But Republican strategists say such generic polls ignore the more important polling numbers showing voters strongly approve of their own members of Congress by 61 percent to 32 percent, and that a lot can change in the 14 months leading up to the 2006 midterm elections.

“That tells us the old adage that people hate Congress but love their congressmen is true,” said Carl Forti, communications director of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC).

Democrats would need a net gain of 15 seats to win back control of Congress, but most analysts say that is well beyond their reach because there are so few competitive races. Mr. Rothenberg counts only 37 seats “in play” — 26 of which are held by Republicans and 11 by Democrats.

The NRCC counts 32 competitive races overall, but Mr. Forti said “that means Democrats have to win 93 percent of those races to take back the House. Based on past history, that’s going to be impossible for them.”

Even so, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, pointing to an aggressive candidate recruitment by its chairman, Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, is convinced Republicans are on the defensive this election cycle.

“The NRCC was forced to create a new position of strategic communications. That means they’re trying to spin their way out of this crisis,” said Bill Burton, the DCCC’s communications director.

Mr. Burton declined to say how many seats Democrats expect to pick up next year, but said “as things stand now, support for the Republican Congress is very low.”

Still, Mr. Forti said it’s a long time between now and the 2006 elections, when the political environment could change dramatically.

“The thing you can’t answer is where will gas prices be 14 months from now,” he said. “If gas prices are down to $2 a gallon, people are going to be ecstatic.”

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