- The Washington Times - Monday, May 26, 2008

The head of the House Republicans’ campaign team yesterday discounted a string of defeats in recent House elections, saying poor results in special elections have not predicted the outcomes in November.

Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), noted that his party did well in the special elections in 2006 but in November, lost control of both houses after more than a decade of dominance that started in 1994.

“We actually, if you’ll recall, won all the special elections in 2006 and then got our clock cleaned pretty good at the end of the year,” Mr. Cole said in a joint appearance on “Fox News Sunday” with his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland. “So I think once we’re in a presidential year, the dynamic changes and we’ll be in a lot stronger position.”

Republicans won three out of four elections to fill House seats in the 2006 electoral cycle, winning seats in California, Texas and Ohio, while Democrats won in New Jersey. But in all four cases, the winning party was defending a seat considered safe, while the three Democratic victories this year were all pickups of Republican-held seats.

“Special elections are not necessarily harbingers in the fall, as was the case in 2004 and in 2006,” NRCC spokesman Ken Spain told The Washington Times after the Fox show. “That is not to negate the fact that Republicans are facing a tough environment this year. But those candidates who prepare for a competitive election can succeed in this environment.”

But this year’s defeats suffered in longtime Republican-held districts in Louisiana, Mississippi and Illinois are not the only indicators suggesting that House Republicans face grim electoral prospects this fall.

Fox host Chris Wallace cited a recent CBS/New York Times poll showing that House Democrats were preferred in a “generic” party matchup by 50 percent of respondents versus 32 percent for Republicans. Mr. Wallace also pointed out that House Democrats ended April with $45 million to spend, while Republicans have less than $7 million.

“[I]t is a rough environment for the Republicans, and it’s a rough environment because of the mistakes that they’ve made and the fact that we, on the Democratic side, have been pushing an agenda for change and they’ve been trying to stand in the way of change,” said Mr. Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “They have really become the party of ‘no,’ veto and the status quo. They’ve got no new ideas.”

But Mr. Cole countered that widespread voter discontent won’t help the Democrats, who have controlled Congress for a year and a half and have presided over plummeting approval ratings for Congress.

A Zogby poll conducted earlier this month found approval ratings hovered at just 11 percent, down from 15 percent in April. The poll also found that 73 percent of likely voters say the nation is on the wrong track, an increase from the 69 percent who thought that last month.

“It’s the most unpopular Congress in American history. The American people gave the Democrats the majority for a reason, and yet they’ve lost popularity during their time of stewardship in the House,” Mr. Cole said.

Mr. Van Hollen responded by saying it was Republicans in Congress who were blocking bills and thus responsible for low approval ratings.

“[A]re people frustrated? Yes. They’re frustrated because our Republican colleagues keep blocking things the American people support,” said Mr. Van Hollen, who cited Republican opposition to bills on veterans’ benefits, the mortgage crisis and energy.

As an example of Republican overspending, which has hurt the Republican “brand” as the party of fiscal discipline, Mr. Wallace cited a subsidy-laden farm bill that was vetoed by President Bush but passed and then overridden with substantial help from dozens of Republican lawmakers, including Mr. Cole.

“The president holding tough, frankly, made it a much better bill than it would have been,” Mr. Cole said in defense of his vote. “But at the end of the day, we … thought getting something done for farm country was extraordinarily important.”

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