- The Washington Times - Monday, February 20, 2006

In the House, with an incumbent-re-election rate of 98.2 percent in 2004 (99.2 percent outside of redistricted Texas), the conventional wisdom holds that Democrats face an uphill battle to recapture the majority. To regain committee chairmanships, Democrats would have to gain 15 House seats. In the Senate, Democrats would have to gain six seats. Republican incumbents will be defending 14 of 15 seats in play this year. So, according to conventional wisdom, the Senate will be another uphill battle for Democrats.

Of course, the odds were against House Republicans in 1994 after spending 40 years in minority status. And who predicted that Howard Baker would become Senate majority leader before election night in 1980, when Republicans defeated nine incumbent Democratic senators and captured three other seats vacated by retiring Democrats?

One wonders if conventional wisdom had a peek at The Washington Post/ABC News Poll conducted late last month. In the generic-ballot question, 55 percent of the respondents said they would vote for the Democratic Party’s candidate for the House if the election were held today; 36 percent would vote for the Republican. The last time Democrats enjoyed a 55-36 advantage on this polling question, the 1982 midterm election was less than a month away; and Democrats were poised to gain 26 House seats.

In February 1994, Republicans trailed Democrats by 10 points on this question (50-40). By the following October, one month before Republicans captured the House by defeating 34 Democratic incumbents and achieving a net gain of 18 among the 26 open seats, Republicans surged to a 1-point lead (47-46) on this generic question.

Two weeks before the 1994 elections, respondents told pollsters that they trusted Republicans more than Democrats (40-39) “to do a better job coping with the main problems the nation faces over the next few years.” In late January, by a substantive margin (51-37), respondents preferred Democrats on this question, according to the Post/ABC poll.

In the same January poll, compared to 43 percent who approved “the way Congress is doing its job,” 53 percent disapproved. That isn’t anywhere near the 78-18 disapproval margin that prevailed in October 1994, but it does represent a significant reversal of the 58-35 approval margin that prevailed at this stage before the 2002 midterm election. By a 51-35 margin, the interviewees told pollsters last month that they thought the country should go in the direction the Democrats in Congress want to lead it, rather than in the direction President Bush has been leading the nation.

With the exception of “handling the U.S. campaign against terrorism,” the Democratic Party was trusted to do a better job “handling the situation in Iraq” (47-40); “standing up to lobbyists and special interests” (46-27); and “handling the economy” (55-37). While respondents preferred Republicans by a 46-41 margin in late January to “handl[e] the U.S. campaign against terrorism,” that five-point advantage reflects a significant deterioration from the 35-point advantage (61-26) Republicans enjoyed among likely voters in October 2002. That was the month Congress authorized the use of force against Iraq. That vote, of course, immediately preceded the Bush administration’s first midterm election, when Republicans successfully capitalized on their advantage on the terrorism issue to recapture the Senate and increase their majority in the House.


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