Democratic Congress shows cracks

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Republican campaign strategists and independent election analysts say that after five months of contentious House Democratic rule, the Republican Party’s once-bleak congressional prospects for 2008 have markedly improved.

The Democratic Congress‘ job approval score is now worse than President Bush‘s, plummeting to 23 percent, a drop of eight points since April. House Democrats have been forced to retreat in the face of a furious assault by Republicans on pork-barrel spending, an issue that hurt the Republican Party in November. And Republican recruiting has produced plenty of candidates eyeing weak Democratic freshmen in Republican-leaning districts that swept them into office last year.

“Republican recruiting seems to be progressing at a reasonable pace. GOP strategists have about half a dozen seats that they know the party should never have lost … and eight of the nine most vulnerable House seats currently are held by Democrats,” elections analyst Stu Rothenberg wrote last week in his Political Report newsletter.

Strategists at the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) confirm that a larger than expected number of House seats are now being targeted by the NRCC and that a surprisingly larger-than-expected number of seasoned candidates from state legislatures and other elective offices are coming forward to challenge Democrats who took over Republican districts.

“A lot of Republican candidates are seeing an opportunity for higher office for the first time in a while. They’ve been waiting in the wings with a lot of pent-up ambitions, hoping that a Republican incumbent was going to retire, and now see that it’s held by a Democrat,” said NRCC press secretary Ken Spain.

“These candidates are smart and realize that 2006 was a wave election and it’s highly unlikely that Democrats will get back-to-back cycles like that in a row,” he said.

In a strategy aimed at blunting the Republican Party’s comeback bid, Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), “is focused on expanding the playing field,” said Jennifer Crider, the DCCC’s communications director.

“There will be more than 60 seats in play in this cycle, and we already have more than 30 candidates who have filed,” she said.

“When you look at the issues environment, whether the war in Iraq or Republicans trying to obstruct the mainstream agenda Democrats are pushing, like the minimum wage and fiscal accountability, the Democrats are going to have a formidable agenda to run on,” she said.

But Mr. Spain and Mr. Rothenberg also pointed to a change in the political environment that, if it continues into next year, would work to the Republicans’ advantage.

“Recent polling suggests that [the Democratic] Congress’s standing has slipped again, and Congress’s apparent inability to deal with immigration reform could add to public frustration,” Mr. Rothenberg said in his newsletter.

“At the same time, the defeat of immigration reform could well be a net plus for congressional Republicans, many of whom can and will run against ‘amnesty’ and illegal immigration next year,” he said.

But he also points to the flip side of this year’s political environment where “Democrats hold most of the cards one-quarter of the way to the 2008 elections: the president’s numbers remain low and voters want change; the generic presidential ballot gives Democrats a big advantage; the war is still extremely unpopular, and Republicans seem to have no rallying agenda.”

Still, he adds, “for the first time in months, there may be a crack or two starting to show in the Democrats’ position.”

That crack appears to be widening in at least a dozen or more congressional districts where Democrats are vulnerable to a Republican upset.

In Florida’s heavily Republican 16th District, for example, where Democrat Tim Mahoney narrowly won the seat after Republican Rep. Mark Foley resigned in the House page sex sandal, the Republican Party is now widely favored to get the seat back.

In Georgia’s 8th District, Democrat Jim Marshall squeaked through with less than 1,800 votes in what Mr. Spain called “the worst Republican environment since Watergate.” The Republican Party is rallying behind Rick Goddard, the former commanding general at the Warner Robins Air Logistics base, who is expected to give Mr. Marshall a tough race.

In Texas’s 22nd District, which gave Mr. Bush 64 percent of its vote in 2004, Democrat Nick Lampson won by a slim margin, even though his Republican opponent was not on the ballot. “This is probably the GOP’s best opportunity to take back a district they lost last year,” Mr. Rothenberg said.

“In order to win back the majority, we don’t have to conquer new territory. We just need to reclaim old territory,” Mr. Spain said.

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