Wednesday, October 18, 2006

White House political strategist Karl Rove yesterday confidently predicted that the Republican Party would hold the House and the Senate in next month’s elections, dismissing fallout from the sex scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley.

At a luncheon with editors and reporters at The Washington Times, Mr. Rove — who is widely credited as the architect of the party’s historic 2002 midterm election gains — said Republicans are beginning to make significant headway in defining their party’s differences from congressional Democrats, especially on national security.

“I’m confident we’re going to keep the Senate; I’m confident we’re going to keep the House. The Foley matter has impact in some limited districts, but the research we have shows that people are differentiating between a vote for their congressman and a member from Florida,” Mr. Rove said, referring to the Republican who resigned last month after his sexually explicit online messages to former congressional pages were discovered.

President Bush has begun to paint this year’s election as a choice between strength and weakness on national security — and the stark differences will show Americans the true nature of Democrats, Mr. Rove said.

“It is useful to remind people what [Democrats] said and what they do. I think they have given us here, especially in the last couple of weeks, a potent set of votes to talk about. You had 90 percent of House Democrats voting against the terrorist-surveillance program, nearly three-quarters of Senate Democrats and 80 percent of House Democrats voting against the terrorist-interrogation act. Something is fundamentally flawed.”

In the hourlong interview, Mr. Rove was upbeat, telling stories from the campaign trail and joking about skewed political coverage that disproportionately shows Democrats poised to take control of Congress

Mr. Rove’s optimism is not shared by pollsters, many of whom predict a Republican loss in the House — with some saying the party could lose as many as 40 seats. The mood in the White House has shifted in recent days, with some beginning to concede the threat to the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, which they won in 1994.

Yesterday, Vice President Dick Cheney acknowledged the risk to the House Republican majority.

“I really think we’re going to do reasonably well. And I think we’ll hold the Senate, and I also think we got a good shot at holding the House,” Mr. Cheney said on Rush Limbaugh’s top-rated national radio program.

“I think the key will be who goes to the polls on Election Day. And certainly, it’s always tough when you’re in the midterm of your second presidential term in office.”

But Mr. Rove said Republican candidates still hold a huge cash edge over Democrats, which will give them clout in the final three weeks of the campaign.

“This morning, I loved it: The [Associated Press] ran a story saying these Democrat congressional candidates outraised their Republican incumbents in the third quarter. Well, what they didn’t say was that part of the reason that they did is that we raised the money earlier so that we’d be able to deploy it,” he said.

Of the 52 races listed in the tossup and lean categories of a leading election analyst, Republican candidates have more cash on hand than their opponents do in at least 34 races, according to the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Although Mr. Rove had previously predicted a loss of eight to 10 House seats, he said he remains confident that Republicans will not lose more than 15 — the magic number that would flip control of the chamber to Democrats.

Democrats have to pick up six seats to gain control of the Senate — virtually impossible, Mr. Rove said.

There are 40 Republican senators who are not up for re-election this year, he pointed out, and at least seven who are running comfortably ahead. With just a few wins by incumbents — such as Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, Missouri Sen. Jim Talent and Virginia Sen. George Allen — Republicans would have 50 seats. With Mr. Cheney’s tiebreaking vote, that would assure Republicans’ continued control of the Senate.

Although Mr. Talent is locked in a tight race, Mr. Rove said the Missouri Republican “is one of the best candidates … keen and smart and able … a very disciplined candidate.”

Although Missouri is “very competitive,” Mr. Rove said, “There gets to be a point at which, though, it begins to lock in, and Talent appears to be moving that direction. … I look at the Missouri data, and I can just smell that this race is edging toward a point where … they’re just getting ready to lock in.”

The White House strategist is closely monitoring races across the country. He receives “68 polls a week for Senate, governor and House races,” Mr. Rove said. “My head is about ready to explode.”

Mr. Rove said history is on the Republican Party’s side, noting that 97.5 percent of incumbents have been re-elected since 1996. This time, he said, there are “significantly” fewer open House seats than the Democrats had in 1994, when Republicans swept to power under then-Rep. Newt Gingrich’s leadership.

Early in this campaign cycle, Mr. Rove said the White House compiled a list of 80 Republican incumbents who might face difficulty. From there, top strategists made sure “that they all had a campaign plan, that they all knew that they had a risk, that they all went out there and raised a bundle of money, and that they had a plan that was measurable.”

“As a result, that’s done a lot to get people prepared,” he said.

And, in some ways, the campaign is just beginning, Mr. Rove added.

“For most Americans, particularly the marginal voters who are going to determine the outcome of the election, it started a couple weeks ago,” he said. “Between now and the election, we will spend $100 million in target House and Senate races in the next 21 days.”

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