- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 3, 2002

In just more than nine weeks, voters will decide the outcome of the closest midterm election battle in decades.
With the United States entering the second year in its war against terrorism, which may soon spread to Iraq, and with the economy and the stock market still in recovery from the corporate accounting scandals and last year's recession, control of both houses of Congress and nearly a dozen of the country's major governorships is up for grabs.
The Republicans are presiding over an economy still showing signs of weakness that has sent stock prices tumbling and budget deficits soaring, creating a growing sense of uncertainty in the electorate. Democrats, however, have been unable to find an overriding campaign issue with traction that can nationalize the elections, and when they thought they might have found one, Republicans defused it with strategies and counterproposals.
"The Republicans have been very effective as political cross-dressers in blurring the distinctions between the two parties, much to the frustration of the Democrats," said Marshall Wittmann, a political analyst at the Hudson Institute and an adviser to Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican.
"Democrats have a little breeze, but it is not a stiff breeze in their direction. There were definite storm clouds for the Republicans a few months ago, and now they are scattered clouds," he said.
Labor Day is the traditional kickoff of the election season, and the chairmen of the two parties lost no time in attacking each other and defining the issues they believe will carry them to victory Nov. 5.
"People are worried about their economic future, and when they vote on November 5 they are going to be looking to the Democrats to put people back to work," said Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Sounding a new theme that called for "tax cuts that will get the economy moving again," Mr. McAuliffe said, "It is the economy that this election will be decided on."
Marc Racicot, the Republican National Committee chairman, attacked Mr. McAuliffe and House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt for "trying to talk down the economy."
"They have tried opportunistically to seize on the lack of confidence among investors and suggest that this administration's policies are to blame. That is drivel, and the American people know it," he said.
Still, Mr. Racicot said, the administration soon would be coming out with a new package of tax cuts aimed at investors hurt by the market's slump. "It will provide additional confidence at a time when investment is important to the economy's growth," he said.
Will history repeat itself?
Historically, the party that controls the presidency loses seats in Congress in first-term elections. Republicans have something else going against them: The party has steadily lost congressional seats in the past three elections.
But some pollsters and White House strategists say this could be the year when that trend is broken. President Bush is the first president in 40 years to go into a midterm election with approval ratings higher than 60 percent, and his chief pollster says his popularity is giving Republicans a slight edge over Democrats in the struggle for control of the House and Senate.
"House Republicans and our candidates in the Senate are in a strong position to defy historical odds and thereby make history this year," says White House political director Ken Mehlman.
Some independent pollsters say this could be an anti-incumbent year that works against vulnerable Senate Democrats in South Dakota, Missouri and New Jersey whose campaigns are running into trouble.
The latest generic polls, which ask voters which party they will vote for in the House and Senate elections, are virtually dead even. That is considered an improvement for Republicans, who tend to run four to five points behind Democrats in such surveys.
"There is no national wave one way or the other, either a Republican wave or a Democratic wave right now. There is no nationalized issue that dominates the landscape," said Matthew Dowd, who polled for Mr. Bush in his 2000 campaign. "It's going to come down to a small number of races, district by district, state by state."
"There's a general uncertainty and nervousness in the electorate, but it has not yet moved to anger. It could happen, but not yet," said Mr. Dowd, who is the Republican National Committee's chief pollster.
Pollster John Zogby disagrees, saying, "The mood of the electorate is angry, very angry, and it's not hard to see why, with 66 percent of likely voters nationwide owning stocks in IRA or 401(k)s that have sharply declined."
"The next quarterly investor reports come out in October, and they may not be very pretty," Mr. Zogby said.
However, he says that voters for the most part are blaming corrupt corporate officials for the stock market's decline, though the scandal has strained the Republican Party's usually strong support among the investor class.
"The group of voters who are investors normally tilt significantly to the Republicans. Right now, there is only a slight edge for the Republicans, so their lead in this group is not a healthy one," he said.
Incumbents in trouble
But after Mr. Zogby did some polling last month for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in the Missouri Senate race, which showed Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan losing the lead to her Republican rival, former Rep. Jim Talent, he said it had changed his opinion about the November elections.
"She was up seven points earlier this year, but now she's down. And with [Republican Rep. John] Thune up in South Dakota against [Democratic Sen. Tim] Johnson, I have to think that what we've got here is an anti-incumbent scenario," Mr. Zogby said.
Other Senate Democratic incumbents who are running behind or have seen their races tighten considerably in recent weeks include Robert G. Torricelli of New Jersey and Paul Wellstone of Minnesota.
However, Republican Sens. Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas and Wayne Allard of Colorado are also in tight re-election races. A recent news media poll showed Mr. Hutchinson running 10 points behind his Democratic opponent, state Attorney General Mark Pryor.
Democrats cling to a one-seat majority in the Senate, so Republicans need a net gain of one seat to retake control of that chamber, where several of Mr. Bush's legislative proposals have been blocked or substantially watered down.
Most analysts see the Democratic majority shifting one or two seats either way, thus keeping that chamber virtually divided for the rest of Mr. Bush's term.
Tight House races
The battle for the House is about as close as it gets in election politics. Democrats need a net gain of six seats to regain majority control. But some election analysts say there are not enough competitive races in play to make a takeover likely.
"Our latest district-by-district analysis projects the Republicans are poised to win 216 seats, while the Democrats have 201 in hand. That leaves 18 seats up for grabs 10 GOP seats, three Democratic seats and 5 tossup seats, which are either new or held jointly by incumbents of both parties," said election forecaster Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report.
"We expect macro-political circumstances ultimately to show some benefit for the Democrats. But our current analysis suggests that the Republicans, not the Democrats, are better positioned to gain seats," Mr. Rothenberg said.
Election analyst Charlie Cook similarly sees the Democrats' chances of recapturing the House getting increasingly difficult.
"Only perhaps two dozen of the competitive House races are expected to be truly close in November. Because the Democrats need a gain of six to seize control of the House, they are at an obvious disadvantage compared with the Republicans," Mr. Cook wrote in his latest forecast of the House races.
Searching for a winning issue
During the course of the past year, Democratic leaders have road-tested a variety of campaign issues. But attempts to pin the blame on the Bush administration for the Enron bankruptcy scandal, the larger corporate accounting abuses, the growing budget deficits and the weakened economy have not caught on as they had hoped.
In the case of the corporate accounting scandals, polls showed that voters generally blamed the executive wrongdoers, not the administration, but wanted something done about it. The White House proposed steps to crack down on abuses, most of which were included in a bill passed by Congress and signed into law by the president this summer.
Democrats are attempting to make prescription-drug benefits for the elderly a key issue in their campaigns, charging that Republicans have fought such legislation. But in a pre-emptive move, House Republicans passed a bill this summer, while a much more costly Democratic alternative failed to win a majority of Democrats in the Senate.
"Democrats have had almost a dozen issues that they claimed would be the reason they would get back a majority. None of them has panned out," said Steve Schmidt, chief spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
But Democratic campaign officials say these issues play to their base constituencies and in a number of tight races will help them beat Republicans.
"Given the fears on the economy and corporate accountability, the Democrats are in a position to add to their majority. If a lot of these races come down to the economy, health care, Social Security or corporate responsibility, that's playing on our turf," said Robert Gibbs, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Politics of taxes
Although House and Senate Democratic leaders have been blaming the Bush tax cuts as the primary cause of the soaring deficits, they have refused to call for their repeal.
One of the reasons for their reticence is that polling data show that voters are becoming more hostile to higher taxes in the economic downturn. An example of this mood was seen in Missouri this summer where a sales-tax increase on gasoline for road repair and bridges was on the primary ballot. Voters rejected the proposal 71 percent to 29 percent.
"I walked out of focus polling groups where they beat this thing up. They don't think the money will be spent well by government," Mr. Zogby said.
But it is in the gubernatorial races, where Republicans have dominated for the past decade, that the Democrats may make their biggest gains this year.
Republicans hold 27 governorships, including all of the biggest electoral states, except California. The Democrats hold 21. Two states are governed by independents.
Working in the Democrats' favor is not only the large number of Republican governorships that are up this year, but also the large number of contests with no incumbent seeking re-election. A total of 36 governorships are at stake, 23 of them held by Republicans. Of the 20 open seats, 12 are held by the Republican Party.
Making the gubernatorial races more volatile than usual this year is the slumping economy, which has shrunk state tax revenues, forcing state governments to implement deep spending cuts to balance their budgets.
Democrats are leading in major gubernatorial races in Illinois, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan and New Mexico. All of those positions are held by Republicans.
Republicans are ahead in three gubernatorial races held by Democrats: Alabama, Alaska and Hawaii. At least three other Democratic seats are considered tossups Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire.
"Given all of the circumstances the midterm election, the much larger number of Republican governor seats at risk, the slow economy and candidate recruitment the Democrats are poised to make gains, most likely in the three to six range," Mr. Rothenberg said.
"If the final result is near the low end of that range, the Republicans will consider themselves lucky," he said.
But in a survey of all the polls in the races, Hotline, the political news wire, said Republicans would still end up with a majority of the governorships if the numbers held up.
"If the poll numbers were taken at face value, then the partisan makeup of the nation's governors would now stand at 26 Republicans and 23 Democrats," with Minnesota too close to call, Hotline said.

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