- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 5, 2006

The headlong race for control of the Congress shifted into political overdrive today, with Democrats leading in enough contests to win back the House and score big gains in the Senate.

With 435 House seats, 33 Senate seats and 36 governorships at stake, the two major parties were pouring tens of millions of dollars into a final blitz of TV ads in an election that — which-ever side wins — is expected to result in a narrowly divided Congress for the next two years.

In what has become a bleak political year for Republicans — who have been pummeled by the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, the congressional page scandal, increasing U.S. casualties in Iraq and voter dissatisfaction with the economy — party officials in key battleground states acknowledged they were worried about the results and voter turnout levels for Tuesday.

“I worry about the intensity factor. It is up in the 80s for the Democrats, but for Republicans it was down around the 40s this summer and has since moved into the high 70s,” Ohio Republican Chairman Bob Bennett said.

“The war in Iraq is the big issue with voters this year, but the lobbying scandals and [Ohio Gov.] Bob Taft’s ethical liabilities, the page scandal, all those things contribute to the problems in Ohio that makes our job more difficult,” he said.

Another Midwestern Republican chairman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said dissatisfaction among Republican voters with Congress and its increased spending levels is high.

“People say they got into pork barrel spending and forgot why they are there. I don’t know how many told me we’re spending like drunken sailors,” the official said.

The House

These complaints echoed those of other party leaders in states where the latest polls showed Democrats leading in at least 15 Republican-held congressional districts — enough to recapture the House — and in 20 to 25 or more House races all told, according to other polling counts tabulated by the Real Clear Politics election news Web site.

“Our race-by-race analysis for the fight for control of the House of Representatives continues to show Democrats adding more than the 15 seats they need to gain control of the House,” elections analyst Stuart Rothenberg said in his latest campaign watch newsletter.

However, Republican leaders and senior campaign strategists think they will retain control of both houses by slim margins.

White House political strategist Karl Rove has conceded that Democrats will make gains in the House but will fall short of the 15 needed to get them to a majority of 218. Republican strategists, pointing to a tightening in a number of races in the past few weeks, think the party’s superior voter turnout operation in strongly Republican districts will be enough to tip close races into the party’s column.

But Mr. Rothenberg’s survey of tossup races “currently show 12 Republican-held districts that are at least tilting Democratic, bringing Democrats just three seats short of 218, and a majority, in the House,” he told his political newsletter clients last week.

“The good news for Republicans is that two [open] seats previously tilting Democratic have moved back into the tossup category,” Mr. Rothenberg said. They are the seats held by former Rep. Mark Foley of Florida, who resigned after inappropriate e-mails he sent to male congressional pages became public, and former Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, who left office in the wake of money-laundering charges. Substitute candidates now appear to have a “realistic chance” of holding on to both seats, he said.

“That leaves Democrats needing to win just a handful of the large number of GOP seats in play to take the House,” Mr. Rothenberg added.

Veteran elections tracker Charlie Cook was more pessimistic about Republican prospects.

“It would take a miracle for the GOP to hold onto their majority. The losses look very likely to exceed 20 seats, and a 20- to 35-seat loss is most likely, but we would not be surprised for it to exceed 35 seats,” he said in his weekly survey of congressional races in the National Journal.

But as Republican state chairmen such as Mr. Bennett worried about lagging enthusiasm, Democrats expressed respect for the Republican Party’s well-oiled voter turnout operation, which broke historical precedent by making congressional gains in the 2002 midterm contests as well as in the 2004 elections.

“It is no secret the Republican get-out-the-vote operations are very effective,” said Democratic chairman Chris Redfern of Ohio, where Republicans are expected to lose the governorship and as many as three House seats.

But this time, Mr. Redfern said, the Democrats have learned “a few things from the Republican turnout operation.”

“We have a strategy that is going to work, staffed by Ohioans going door to door, with 71 phone banks in 88 counties,” he said. “We’ve already surpassed what we did with [Democratic presidential nominee] John Kerry in ‘04 in the number of voters we’ve contacted. We did that 10 days ago.”

The Senate

Republican prospects in the Senate are similarly bleak, with the party’s hold on the chamber teetering on the outcomes in at least three states — Montana, Missouri and Virginia — where Republican incumbents were running neck-and-neck with their Democratic challengers.

Democrats need to pick up six Senate seats to take control, and at least three Republican senators appeared headed for defeat, according to the latest polls. Among them:

• Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania has remained 10 to 12 points behind state Treasurer Robert Casey Jr. for months in a state that has been leaning increasingly Democratic in recent years.

• Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio was trailing Democratic Rep. Sherrod Brown by about a dozen points in polling averages for that contest. Mr. DeWine is a victim of a strong anti-Republican tide in the state that the senator has been unable to overcome — despite Mr. Brown’s ultraliberal voting record on domestic and national security issues.

• Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, a liberal Republican in a state that is overwhelmingly Democratic, has been consistently running behind Sheldon Whitehouse, a former state attorney general. The race had tightened somewhat, but Mr. Whitehouse had a nine-point lead last week.

In Tennessee, the race to replace Republican Sen. Bill Frist, who is not seeking re-election, appeared to be up for grabs until last month. But former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker has pulled ahead of Democratic Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. by six points or more.

When the race showed signs of narrowing, the Republican National Committee ran a TV ad portraying Mr. Ford as a playboy socialite. Mr. Corker denounced the ad, but a strategist said it “had an effect on the race.”

Mr. Cook said there are three Senate races that are beyond his election forecasting abilities because they are “too close to call.”

The tightest is in Missouri, which Mr. Bush carried in 2004 with 53.3 percent of the vote against Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat. Republican Sen. Jim Talent, a staunch Bush ally, has run into a fierce challenge from Democrat Claire McCaskill, the state auditor.

As of last week the race was a dead heat, 47.8 percent for Ms. McCaskill and 46.4 percent for Mr. Talent. Mr. Rothenberg moved the race from tossup to “lean takeover” last week, citing Mr. Talent’s inability as the incumbent to draw 50 percent and Ms. McCaskill’s “small but consistent lead in polling.”

The Virginia Senate race remains similarly close for Republican Sen. George Allen, who earlier in the year hurt himself with a series of gaffes that helped Republican-turned-Democrat James H. Webb Jr., former secretary of the Navy, move up in the polls.

By last week the race was a virtual tie, with Mr. Allen seeming to have regained his balance and returning to the bedrock conservative national security and social issues that had supporters pushing him to run for president in 2008.

Still, Mr. Cook said, “There is enough contradictory polling data in that race to convince me that the outcome is up in the air.”

Republican Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana, tarnished by $150,000 in contributions he received from disgraced lobbyist Abramoff and his Indian tribe clients, also is fighting for his political life in a conservative state that returned him to office in 2000 by a slim 51 percent.

So far, Mr. Burns has been unable to lift himself out of the mid-40s in his race against liberal Democrat Jon Tester, the state Senate president. As of last week, the polling average had Mr. Tester leading the race, 47.7 percent to 45 percent.

Surprisingly strong Republican challengers in two heavily Democratic states remain the wild cards in the Senate sweepstakes.

In New Jersey, a criminal investigation into a rental deal between a federally funded nonprofit group in Union City and Sen. Robert Menendez has endangered the Democrat’s candidacy and with it his party’s prospects of taking the Senate. His Republican challenger, state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., has pounded Mr. Menendez over the federal probe of his finances.

As a result, Mr. Kean is clearly within striking distance — down 4.7 percent in the polls — in a campaign that has made the state’s reputation for political corruption the central issue in the election.

Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele’s bid to become Maryland’s first black senator has turned the state’s Democratic politics upside-down and divided its most loyal voting bloc. Analysts now think Mr. Steele could well draw 20 percent of the black vote, and perhaps a third, denying Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin the pivotal votes he needs to win.

As of Friday, Mr. Steele had moved to within four points of Mr. Cardin — 44.8 percent to 48.8 percent — according to the latest Real Clear Politics Senate poll average.

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