- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 5, 2006

The race for Congress and the nation’s governorships bolted from the Labor Day starting gate yesterday, with voter-preference polls tightening between the parties in an election that both sides said will be even closer by November.

Historically, the party that holds the White House usually loses seats in Congress in a second term, and campaign strategists in both parties expected Democrats to make gains in the House and Senate — while two top election forecasters predicted they will win 15 or more seats that will give them majority control of the House.

If “the political climate remains as it is today — a very big ‘if’ — Republicans will likely lose the House and their dominance of the nation’s governorships, but hang on to the Senate by a thread,” veteran analyst Charlie Cook said last week in his National Journal report.

Analyst Stuart Rothenberg predicted that Democrats would gain between 15 and 20 additional House seats, “which would translate to between 218 and 223 seats — and a majority — in the next House.”

But Republican officials said the generic party-preference polls that have showed the Democrats leading were skewed and that they would hold on to the House.

“I think the national generic polls are irrelevant. House races come down to a choice between two people on the ballot, and we’ve successfully made that happen in the last three election cycles,” said Carl Forti, chief spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

“We just look at the individual races, and we find in our polling data that the Republicans are in very good positions, which is why we defied history in 2002 and picked up seats, in 2004 and picked up seats, and we’ve got no problem making history look bad again,” Mr. Forti said. “Republicans will be in the majority in the next Congress.”

No one, however, is making any similar predictions over at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).

“We are obviously in a very good position, and Republicans are obviously on the ropes, but it’s too early to predict the number of seats that will be transferred. We’re not predicting that we are going to take over the House,” said DCCC’s communications director, Bill Burton.

Poll gap narrows

One of the reasons for the Democrats’ reticence — with nine weeks until the elections — is a recent tightening in the polls.

For months, Gallup has been reporting a lead of nine to 15 percentage points for the Democrats in generic polls that ask voters which party they will support in the congressional elections. But late last month, Gallup said its survey found “Republicans edging closer to the Democrats in voter preferences for this year’s midterm elections, mirroring the slight increase seen in President Bush’s job-approval rating.”

Gallup said its Aug. 18-20 poll found “the Democrats now lead the Republicans by two points, 47 percent vs. 45 percent. That is down from a 9-point lead earlier this month, and an average Democratic lead of 10 points in the previous three polls in July and August.”

Pollsters have long maintained that generic ballot surveys tend to boost the Democratic vote by anywhere from five to 10 percentage points. If that is true in this election, then the Republicans headed into the final weeks of the campaign “in pretty good shape,” said a Republican official.

Interviews with some Democratic strategists and advisers last week suggested that they had seen a similar trend in internal polls. “That means there aren’t as many vulnerable Republicans now as there was a month or more ago,” said a party adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“I suspect that what you are seeing there is, yes, some Republicans are coming home in certain congressional districts, and there is some firming up of the Republican vote,” another Democratic campaign adviser said.

But other Democratic campaign consultants said they had not picked up what Gallup’s polling had found.

“I’m not seeing it in my own polls at this time,” said Democratic consultant Alan Secrest. “We expect to see some tightening — it’s only natural. But if the election were held the Tuesday after Labor Day, the House would switch.”

Turnout battles

But the election is more than two months away and some Democrats acknowledged that in many competitive districts they would be hard-pressed to beat the Republicans at their best ground game — voter turnout — and overcoming the higher redistricting walls that Republicans have constructed since the 2000 census and reapportionment.

“The Republicans have a superior infrastructure, and their base is still fairly solid in pretty solid Republican districts. They are going to go into these districts with an innate advantage on the ground,” said a campaign adviser who is close to the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

Republican National Committee (RNC) officials said the turnout organization put together for Mr. Bush’s re-election campaign was reactivated more than a year ago by RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman, the architect of the massive turnout operation that helped Mr. Bush win a second term.

“The whole turnout operation is being done in the RNC, all of it,” Mr. Forti said. “They are paying for it, organizing it, handling it. It was the most successful voter turnout in history, so we are comfortable with Mehlman leading that again.”

Republicans campaign officials say that at this point, they have identified 36 congressional races that they consider in play and competitive, slightly more than the 30 to 32 races that fit that definition in 2004. The Republican Party’s turnout operation will be heavily focused on those 36 districts, and in the most vulnerable Senate races, officials said.

“We are building on the successes of our massive volunteer effort of 2004,” said RNC political director Michael DuHaime.

But Mr. Cook said his polls showed there was less intensity and enthusiasm among Republican voters than among Democrats. “Republicans are facing a motivation deficit that is unlike anything that they’ve seen since at least the 1982 election,” he said.

Democrats say Illinois Rep. Rahm Emmanuel, chairman of the DCCC, has worked out his bitter disagreements with DNC Chairman Howard Dean over how much the party should spend on voter-turnout efforts. “There is a commonality of interests that supercedes their personality differences about working with one another,” a DNC adviser said.

Senate slide

Democrats need a net gain of six seats to retake the Senate, and Republicans’ 55-seat majority will see some erosion on Election Day — though several Democratic seats were also at risk that could offset any Republican losses. Among the Republicans’ most vulnerable incumbents:

• Pennsylvania: Sen. Rick Santorum, one of the Senate’s most conservative members, has been running behind Democratic state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. all year in the polls by double-digit margins. But late last month, the race tightened significantly, with Mr. Santorum trailing his rival by six percentage points, according to a Quinnipiac University poll.

• Ohio: Sen. Mike DeWine has been trailing liberal Rep. Sherrod Brown by about six percentage points in most polls in the Republican-leaning swing state. But Mr. Brown, an anti-war Democrat, has one of his party’s most liberal voting records. “If DeWine can make Brown the issue, then the Republican has a chance to win,” Mr. Rothenberg said.

• Rhode Island: Sen. Lincoln Chafee is being challenged in the Sept. 12 Republican primary by Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey. The winner will face former state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse in the general election.

• Montana: Sen. Conrad Burns has been hurt by his association with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Polls show him trailing Democratic state Sen. Jon Tester.

But Democratic seats in New Jersey, Maryland and Washington were also in danger of upsets, along with long-shot contests in Minnesota and Michigan.

In New Jersey, Republican state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. was in a dead heat with Sen. Robert Menendez, while Maryland’s Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele was gaining support in a Senate race against a divided field of Democrats who will choose their candidate Sept. 12.

In Washington state, Republican businessman Mike McGavick was closing in on Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, whose re-election has been hurt by her party’s anti-war wing, angered by her earlier support for the war in Iraq. “This has all the markings of a very competitive contest,” Mr. Rothenberg said.

Democrats eye governors

Republicans control the majority of the nation’s governorships, 28 to 22, including all of the major electoral states, but Democrats are expected to cut into the Republican Party’s advantage in several key states.

In New York, where Republicans were unable to recruit a heavyweight candidate, Democratic state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer is all but certain to recapture the Statehouse from the Republican Party’s decadelong dominance.

Republican prospects appeared similarly dim in Ohio where Republican Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell was badly trailing Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland, an ordained Methodist minister who has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association in past races.

Democratic chances to recapture Republican governorships in Massachusetts, Arkansas and Maryland also remained strong.

However, Republicans were expected to hold on to several major statehouses, including California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has made a comeback; Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry is considered safe; and Florida, where Republican Attorney General Charlie Crist is the front-runner against a divided and little-known field of Democratic candidates. Florida’s primary is today.

Meanwhile, several Democratic-held seats in the Midwest were in danger of Republican upsets.

In Michigan, Democratic Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm is in a virtual dead heat against Republican Dick DeVos. In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. James E. Doyle — whose administration is battling corruption charges — is in a virtual tie with Republican Rep. Mark Green. “This remains one of the best GOP opportunities this cycle,” Mr. Rothenberg said.

And in Iowa, where Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack is retiring, Republican Rep. Jim Nussle is in a tight race with Democratic Secretary of State Chet Culver that independent analysts call “a tossup.”

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