Monday, January 2, 2006

President Bush and the Republicans face a tougher midterm election landscape in 2006, due largely to the closely divided American electorate and, ironically, the gains the Republicans have made in the past decade.

Few analysts expect the Democrats to regain control of the House or Senate in November, but many think they likely will pick up seats in both chambers and cut into the Republican advantage in governorships. Republicans have a larger number of vulnerable seats to defend, particularly in Democratic-leaning “blue” states.

“This year still looks very much like a Democratic year, and the only question is how big a year it will be for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Committee,” says veteran elections tracker Stuart Rothenberg.

“At this point, Democratic gains appear to be inevitable,” Mr. Rothenberg told his newsletter subscribers last week.

Thirty-three Senate seats are at stake this year, 18 held by Democrats and a Democratic-leaning independent and 15 by Republicans. Three of the seats most at risk next year are held by Republicans in heavily Democratic states. They are:

• Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum who is trailing by 10 points his Democratic opponent, state Treasurer Robert P. Casey Jr.

• Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee who is in danger of being upset in a party primary that could lead to a Democratic turnover.

• Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio where Republican Gov. Bob Taft’s deeply unpopular administration has hurt the party’s statewide standing.

Democrats face surprisingly strong Republican challengers for three open seats in Democratic-leaning states that could offset losses elsewhere. In Minnesota, for example, Republican Rep. Mark Kennedy is widely considered the best hope to pick up the seat being vacated by Democratic Sen. Mark Dayton.

In Maryland, polls show Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele within striking distance of a Democratic candidate. New Jersey polls show Republican state Sen. Thomas H. Kean Jr., son of the popular former governor, with a 13-point lead over incoming Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, appointed to fill the unexpired term of Jon Corzine, who resigned after he was elected governor.

“New Jersey suddenly becomes the Republicans’ best Senate takeover opportunity — yes, probably better than Minnesota,” says Mr. Rothenberg.

The result could be a wash in which Republicans could emerge after losses with the same number of Senate seats they have now.

All 435 seats are up in the House, but less than three dozen are in competitive districts. Most analysts say Democrats could pick up a half dozen seats, well below the 15-seat gain they would need to win majority control. Mr. Rothenberg thinks that would be “a significant step toward challenging for the House in 2008.”

The Democrats appear likely to make modest gains in governorships where Republicans hold a 28 to 22 advantage, including the offices in California, Texas, New York and Florida. But the party’s recent gubernatorial successes puts 22 governorships at risk, to only 14 for the Democrats.

The most likely Democratic takeover is in New York where Republican Gov. George E. Pataki is not seeking re-election and state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, leads every Republican candidate by at least a 2-to-1 margin in public-opinion polls.

Two decades have passed since a Democrat won the Massachusetts governorship, but this year, their chances are rated better than even. And no governor has a lower approval rating (15 percent) than Ohio’s Mr. Taft, who last year pleaded no contest to four misdemeanor ethics charges. He was fined $4,000 for failing to report several gifts. This is thought to give the Democrats their best shot in years.

The re-election prospects of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, who rocketed to stardom after his election in a rare recall election in 2003, have dimmed considerably. His job approval ratings have sunk into the mid-30s, and voters rejected all four of his reform referendums in November. He trails nearly all prospective Democratic candidates.

In Alabama, Republican Gov. Bob Riley provoked a storm of criticism when he proposed a $1 billion tax increase package, and when it was submitted to voters, it was rejected decisively. He is challenged in the June 6 primary by former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, popular with many of the party’s social conservatives after he refused a court order to remove a statue of the Ten Commandments.

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