- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 25, 2005

The precipitous decline in the Republican Congress’ polls, even below President Bush’s anemic numbers, have given Democrats new hope of making House gains in 2006. But Republican campaign officials say they aren’t worried — yet.

The reason is rooted in one of the biggest contradictions in U.S. politics: Americans may be unhappy with Congress as a political institution, and even with Republicans in generally but like the job their own representative is doing.

As the midterm re-election cycle nears, polls show fewer voters say they will vote Republican next year, a development some analysts predict means congressional losses.

“Reflecting the tarnished view of the administration, only 38 percent of registered voters say they would vote for a Republican for Congress if the congressional elections were held today, while 50 percent say they would vote for a Democrat,” a Newsweek poll reported this month.

The GOP’s declining numbers in these surveys, together with an increasingly polarized political environment, has led to forecasts of as many as a half-dozen or more Republican House seats falling to the Democrats.

“With President 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,” election tracker Stuart Rothenberg told clients in his latest political newsletter.

His prediction: “modest, but not insignificant, Democratic gains in the order of four to six seats, or possibly a bit higher.”

But Republican campaign officials tell me such generic polling has usually been wildly off as a predictor of election results. These polls ignore the more important numbers showing voters strongly approve of their own member of Congress.

“The House races are run on local issues, not national issues,” says Carl Forti, communications director of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “It’s been a long time since House races have been nationalized.” Indeed, the last timewas in 1994 when Republicans effectively nationalized the races with their brilliant “Contract with America” agenda.

Democrats, who seem virtually leaderless and without a credible political direction, have thus far produced no visible agenda to take to the American people.

A review of the last three congressional election cycles supports Mr. Forti’s claim:

In 2004, Republicans won 59 percent of the 37 House races rated competitive by veteran election analyst Charlie Cook. In 2002, the GOP took 62 percent of the competitive races and in 2000 captured 50 percent of them.

Right now, Mr. Cook’s district-by-district tracking system identifies only 32 competitive House races — 18 held by Republican and 14 by Democrats.

According to Mr. Forti, Democrats would have to win 30 of the 32 races to take control of the House. “Based on past history, that’s going to be impossible for them,” he says.

Democratic officials dislike discussing numbers and, unlike past years, are not forecasting any victories, believing the GOP’s low generic re-election scores will work to their advantage.

“We are about 400 days away from the election and, as things stand now, support for the Republican Congress is very low,” says Bill Burton, chief spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

But it would be premature to suggest the generic polling numbers will translate into any kind of a Democratic sweep next fall. The only number that really matters is what voters say about their own members of Congress. And the national polls, to their discredit, rarely look at that part of the equation.

Mr. Forti cautions it is a long time between now and the 2006 elections when the national political environment could change dramatically. U.S. troops could very likely be withdrawing from Iraq as the Iraqi army takes over more of the security of their country. The storm-damaged Gulf states will most likely be in a full recovery mode, giving a huge booster shot to the economy.

“The thing you can’t answer is where will gas prices be 13 months from now,” Mr. Forti adds. “But if gas prices are down to $2 a gallon, people are going to be ecstatic.”

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist

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