Democrats have shot to gain House or Senate

Bush's slump, voter ire shaping the outlook of fall elections

May 07, 2006|By PAUL WEST | PAUL WEST,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- Six months before Election Day, prospects are growing for a Democratic takeover of at least one house of Congress in the 2006 midterm voting, according to independent analysts and politicians in both parties.

Most independent projections show Democrats picking up seats, though not enough to gain control of either chamber. But President Bush's steep slide in popularity and widespread voter anger at Congress are changing those calculations.

An unrelieved period of bad news for Republicans, fed by continued casualties in Iraq and high prices at the gas pump, is turning previously safe incumbents into potentially vulnerable ones. If the election were held today, some strategists in both parties say, Democrats would win control of the House and cut sharply into the Republican advantage in the Senate.

"Certainly it's the best climate for Democrats in quite a few years," said Alan Secrest, a Democratic pollster. "You can almost throw a dart at a map of America and hit a prospective target for Democrats."

Other Democratic strategists, and some independent analysts, estimate that Democrats would gain as many as 25 seats if the election were held now. A switch of 15 seats would be enough to cost Republicans their majority in the House.

In the Senate, where Democrats are defending more seats than Republicans this fall, it would take a net loss of six Republican seats to change control of the chamber. A total of 33 states, including Maryland, are holding Senate elections.

Fearing the worst

"The good news is, the Republicans are preparing for the worst and it's only May," said Scott Reed, a Republican consultant who believes his party would lose the House and drop two or three Senate seats if the election were now.

One factor that works to the advantage of Republican incumbents: Most districts have been crafted, using sophisticated computer programs, to favor one party or the other - leaving only about 40 or 50 potentially competitive House races nationwide. Some states, including Maryland, may well see no change in party control of any districts this year.

Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds of New York, who heads the House Republican campaign committee, has advised his colleagues to localize their campaigns, which means distancing themselves, if necessary, from party leaders in Washington.

But the problems facing Republicans, which include an unpopular war and an undercurrent of corruption and scandal, could outweigh their incumbent advantage and swamp efforts to boost grassroots support for Republican candidates.

"The fact that the Republicans can see it coming doesn't necessarily mean they can change it," said Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist.

Strategists in both parties say it's premature to forecast a return to divided government in Washington for the final two years of the Bush presidency. If the public becomes less sour, if anger at Congress fades, if conditions improve in Iraq and withdrawals of U.S. troops are announced, or if some unanticipated event occurs that favors Republicans, the Democrats would likely gain seats but not win a majority.

Amy Walter, who tracks House campaigns for the Cook Political Report, said the political environment makes it reasonable to talk about a Democratic takeover this year.

"The way Democrats get the majority is through a wave" of anti-Republican sentiment that sweeps incumbents from office, she said. "Right now, the elements for that wave [are] present. Whether they're still there in November, I don't know."

Historically, the party in power in the White House loses seats in midterm elections. Those losses are particularly steep in the sixth year of a presidency.

The last two midterms, in 1998 and 2002, bucked history, though. Democrats gained House seats in the sixth year of Bill Clinton's presidency, after Republicans overreached in their attempt to impeach him.

Four years later, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush became the first president since Franklin Roosevelt to see his party add seats in his initial midterm election. A post-election study by a leading Republican polling firm, Public Opinion Strategies, credited Bush's popularity and the issues of terrorism, Iraq and moral values for the surprisingly strong Republican showing.

Today, some of those factors have become huge disadvantages. Bush's performance - his approval rating in 2002 was 66 percent - helped his party's candidates neutralize overall dissatisfaction with the direction of the country, according to the Republican study. Now, with his poll numbers in the mid-30s and voters even more fed up, Republican candidates are suffering.

Midterm slump

Underscoring the liability of having an unpopular president in a midterm election year, the Republican study looked at every midterm election over the past 40 years and found that when the president's job approval was below 50 percent, his party lost an average of 43 House seats.

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