- The Washington Times - Monday, May 6, 2002

The political battle for the House is getting tighter and tougher, though most independent election analysts now believe the Republicans still have the edge over the Democrats in keeping control of the chamber.
With just six months to go before the midterm elections, Republican officials say they will not only hold the House in November but will gain seats. The Democrats, now making their fourth attempt to reclaim the House since they were ousted from power in 1994, say they are within reach of winning it back.
But the professionals who closely track the congressional races, such as veteran elections analyst Charlie Cook, say the Democrats' climb back is getting steeper.
Writing in the National Journal, Mr. Cook said that his race-by-race analysis shows "the Republicans have a decisive edge in their fight to keep the House."
True, the Republicans do not appear to be making the big double-digit gains they had hoped to achieve from congressional redistricting. The redrawing of district lines by state legislatures has to a large degree reduced the number of competitive seats "to the point where neither side has much of an opportunity for gaining many seats," Mr. Cook writes.
"With Republicans holding onto a slim majority, that works in their favor," he said.
Polls show that Americans are split right down the middle on party identification and the 435-member House closely mirrors that political division: 222 Republicans, 211 Democrats and two independents, one of whom, Vermont Rep. Bernard Sanders, votes with the Democrats.
Democratic campaign officials say that they not only have more than enough opportunities to win back a majority, they have an arsenal of poll-tested issues from Social Security privatization to prescription drug benefits that can help them do it.
"We have 40 to 50 competitive races. Every president, except for FDR, has lost seats in the first midterm election of his term. The lowest numbers of seats that a presidential party has lost is eight. We need only six to take back the House," said Kim Rubey, chief spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The Democrats intend to make President Bush's Social Security reform plan, which would allow workers to invest some of their payroll taxes in stocks and bonds, their biggest campaign issue. While the idea is hugely popular with younger to middle-age voters, polls show that it angers and motivates retirees who vote in disproportionately large numbers. The Democrats think these older voters will push their party over the top in close races.
"This election could very well determine the fate of Social Security," Ms. Rubey said.
However, the National Republican Congressional Committee dismisses her claims of a large number of neck-and-neck races as a fantasy.
"When you look at around 25 to 35 competitive races around the country, the Democrats are behind in the polls in the vast majority of them. We are not only in a great position to retain a majority, we are in a great position to expand our majority," said Steve Schmidt, the NRCC's communications director.
"[Democrats] have an enormous deficit with the American people on national security and economic security issues and their plan to scare senior citizens with demagogic attack commercials on the issue of Social Security will fail," Mr. Schmidt said.
"We have prepared for their demagoguery on Social Security. We are ready to have at it with them on this issue," he said.
A key factor working against the Democrats in this election cycle is the absence of major, overriding issues that have galvanized voters.
Polls show that Republicans and Mr. Bush lead the Democrats on their handling of the economy, foreign policy and homeland defense, which are among the voters' top concerns.
"We just do not have the visceral battles in Congress that we did in the '90s. There is not the lightning rod that we had with Newt Gingrich. It's not there," said Amy Walter, who analyzes House races for the Cook Report.
"Do the Republicans start off with the advantage right now? Absolutely. There is not some big wave building out there that would push large numbers of Democrats into office. There are fewer seats in play, so Democrats have to win a bigger percentage of those seats," she said.


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