- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 16, 2008

A fast-growing anti-Republican wave threatens to significantly shrink the party’s ranks in Congress, as Democratic challengers make headway against once safe incumbents including the Senate’s minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Nearly a dozen Senate Republicans - many considered safe for re-election just weeks ago - are now in locked in tight races with Democrats. Analysts and operatives agree that such a change could put Democrats within reach of a filibuster-proof, 60-vote majority.

Democrats also are poised to make significant gains in the House, where they now have a 36-seat majority in the 435-member chamber. Analysts are predicting that Republicans could lose as many as 30 additional seats, which is nearly double recent expectations for net losses.

The faltering economy is the primary reason for this switch in political forecast. “Republicans don’t have a lot of credibility on the economy anymore. We know the party’s brand is damaged,” said veteran campaign analyst Jennifer E. Duffy, who tracks Senate races at the Cook Political Report. “The economy is an issue where Republicans had the advantage, but they lost that franchise.”

A CBS News/New York Times survey taken Oct. 10-13 showed 89 percent of Americans said the country had “pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track.” That number was up eight percentage points from mid-September and 14 percentage points from January.

In addition to the economy’s troubles, Republican candidates have been hurt by President Bush’s dismal job approval ratings - now the lowest in modern U.S. history. The latest USA Today/Gallup Poll showed Mr. Bush’s job approval score sinking to 25 percent, with 71 percent of Americans disapproving of his performance in office - up from 64 percent in early September.

Congressional election analysts have sharply raised their forecasts of the number of likely Republican losses in the Senate, adding Mr. McConnell and Sens. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina and Norm Coleman of Minnesota to the list of those primed for defeat.

“My range of likely Democratic pickups now is six to eight, but I don’t dismiss the possibility of nine,” said Miss Duffy of the Cook Political Report. With that number of pickups, Democrats would gain a 60-vote majority, enough to shut down Republican-led filibusters that often have succeeded in blocking Democratic measures.

The Democrats presently hold a narrow 51-49 majority in the Senate, with two independents voting with them to keep them in control of the chamber. The House has 235 Democrats and 199 Republicans, along with one vacancy.

Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, and Miss Duffy said congressional Republicans will be hit by a tidal of voter anger over the slumping economy, slashed home values, rising unemployment, tightened credit and shaken public confidence in the nation’s banks and other financial institutions.

Democrats are trying to link incumbent Republicans to Mr. Bush and the Wall Street crisis. One such effort is being mounted in Kentucky. There, Bruce Lunsford, a wealthy businessman, is challenging Mr. McConnell.

“The financial meltdown is the direct result of eight years of Bush-McConnell economics,” Lunsford spokesman Cary Stemle said. “McConnell’s fingerprints are all over this crisis.”

Mr. McConnell had double-digit poll leads until September, when his support began to slip. A Mason-Dixon poll conducted in late September showed Mr. McConnell leading by one percentage point - 45 percent to 44 percent.

In the wake of the race’s recent competitiveness, the DSCC last Wednesday began running television advertisements in Kentucky for the first time this year on behalf of Mr. Lunsford.

The DSCC declined to say how much it was spending on the ads, but a top national Republican aide said the ad buy so far was worth at least $500,000.

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