Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The only thing that can be said with any certainty about the 2006 midterm elections is that none of the top campaign forecasters is flatly predicting Republicans will lose the House or Senate — yet.

President Bush’s job approval polls are the lowest in his presidency; the Democrats are leading Republicans in the generic congressional election polls by an average of 13 percent; and voter surveys suggest a strong anti-incumbent tide is building. But leading analysts still think at this point that Republicans will hold on to majority control of both chambers, though with reduced numbers.

“The 2006 midterm elections are a political analyst’s nightmare. The national climate seems to portend big changes, yet race-by-race analyses reveal formidable odds against a Democratic takeover of either the House or the Senate,” veteran elections tracker Charlie Cook says in his latest National Journal election preview.

Several structural problems confront the Democrats in the House elections. Just three- to four-dozen House races out of 435 at stake are truly competitive. And among the 18 Republican seats that are open, only half are in districts where “Democrats have a remote chance of winning,” Mr. Cook says. Making matters worse, the Democrats were able to recruit only second- or third-tier challengers in many key districts where the Republicans looked vulnerable.

Stuart Rothenberg, Mr. Cook’s chief rival in the political predictions business, believes “the House definitely is in play” and has increased his estimate of likely Democratic gains “from 5-8 seats to 7-10 seats,” short of the 15 seats needed to topple Republicans from power, though he thinks there could be “greater Democratic gains.”

As for the six to eight Senate seats that are in play this year, there appear to be nearly as many races where Democrats are leading, as in Pennsylvania and Maryland, as races where Republicans are competitive, like Washington, Minnesota and New Jersey. Neither Mr. Cook nor Mr. Rothenberg see the Democrats taking control of the Senate, but they could make some gains in the GOP’s 55-45 seat majority, they say.

But to win, Democrats would need a strong national anti-Republican wave behind them, Mr. Rothenberg writes in his latest House forecast. Many Democrats think that opposition to the war in Iraq, $3 a gallon gas prices, unhappiness with the economy and the GOP’s handling of illegal immigration is creating that wave.

“I think we are in one of those cycles in politics where the Republicans in Congress are getting hit on every front and obviously the president’s polls don’t help, and that, combined with a series of unprecedented crises, from the war to gas prices, concerns over the handling of Hurricane Katrina, and with conservative Republicans expressing great concern [about their party’s political direction], it’s almost as if they can’t catch a break,” said Democratic adviser Leon Panetta, who was President Clinton’s White House chief of staff.

“The anxiety of the country is there and people are angry and frustrated and wondering where the country is going. In light of that, there isn’t any question in my view that Democrats would be able to win control of the House and probably capture additional seats in the Senate, though it’s going to be much harder to get control of the Senate,” Mr. Panetta said.

But independent pollsters like John Zogby say the Democrats could “blow this opportunity” if they do not come up with an agenda that appeals to swing voters, and Mr. Panetta, among other Democrats, is urging his party to come up with “an agenda and a message for voters, sooner rather than later.”

“They ought to present a very clear vision to the country in four or five areas. People want to know they stand for something. The public is hungry to know what solutions this party is going to present,” he said. “If they wait too long, they won’t have enough time to say what they stand for.”

He is also worried about the political fallout from a growing anti-incumbent mood that he says could hit both parties in November. “This could be one of those years that could produce a lot of surprises where we could see some Democratic incumbents not winning easy seats and that could be true for Republicans as well,” he said.

Both parties enter the last five months of the 2006 election with political advantages that they hope to exploit in the final weeks of the campaigns, but with problems and divisions, too.

The Republicans’ biggest political advantage lies in its congressional district boundaries, which have been redrawn over the past decade in GOP-friendly ways. A number of district lines were strengthened after the 2000 census in both Republican and Democratic districts. As a result, Republican redistricting strategists say, the GOP now has many more districts that can withstand a stiffer Democratic challenge.

In the past decade or more the re-election rate for House members has been running from 97 percent to 99.5 percent. And despite the Republican Congress’ low approval polls, surveys show that an average of 59 percent of the voters like the job their representative or senator is doing.

But Republican campaign advisers acknowledge that the bitter battles over immigration, spending and other issues have divided and alienated parts of the party conservative base amid fears that many will not turn out to vote.

“I worry about that. There’s disagreement in the party and dissatisfaction on the issues. [Republican leaders] are going to have to convince conservative voters that Congress is holding true to conservative principles,” said Frank Donatelli, the former Reagan White House political director.

“There’s just tremendous division. The issues that brought the party to power are not around anymore. New issues have come to the fore, so it’s going to be a challenge to reconstitute your governing coalition. It’s not going to happen in ‘06. The 2008 presidential election is the next big challenge to fashion a governing agenda,” Mr. Donatelli said.

But other Republicans say they do not see any evidence that the party’s disputes are having any effect in their state elections.

“The president’s popularity is eroding in this state as it is everywhere else, but there’s no evidence I’ve seen that there is any kind of down-ballot effect because of what’s going on in Washington. I don’t have a sense that the wheels are wobbling on the Republican Party here,” said Florida Republican campaign consultant Mac Stipanovich.

Still, Ken Mehlman, the Republican National Committee chairman, isn’t taking any chances. He has reactivated the massive get-out-the-vote volunteer army that was pivotal to the success of the party’s 2004 election victories. A Republican ground force that will eventually number in the hundreds of thousands is identifying, contacting and registering voters in a vast computerized network that for months has been sending in weekly quota reports to the RNC in preparation for its get-out-the-vote drive on Election Day.

But if the Republicans are having problems with their base, Democrats say their supporters are more activated and united than ever.

“We are seeing an uptick in party participation. We’ve had a 25-year high this year in precinct caucus participation,” said Brian Melendez, the Minnesota Democratic state chairman. “That suggests that party activists are energized.”

Like other Democrats interviewed, Mr. Melendez is unhappy with his party’s failure to produce a national campaign agenda and is critical of Democratic leaders who say they will subpoena and investigate Mr. Bush’s administration if they win control of the House in November.

“I hope that’s not where we go. I hope we fight on the issues that affect people’s lives and not engage in political infighting. I would rather end the war than try to impeach George Bush,” he said.

“What Democrats need to do is to articulate a clear message that is more than we-are-not-the-Republicans,” he said.

Many Democrats say their local organizations have been strengthened by the party organizers sent into their state by party Chairman Howard Dean. The Democratic National Committee has put at least four party strategists into each state, as part of a long-term, 50-state party-building plan to prepare for the ‘06 and ‘08 elections.

“It’s working miracles and is exactly the right strategy for Minnesota,” Mr. Melendez said. “They are doing the grass-roots organizing that is going to turn out our voters in November, channeling all that voter anger into votes.”

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