Congress at stake in expensive, nasty fight

National

Nation Votes 2006

November 07, 2006|By Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The war in Iraq continued to dominate the battle for control of Congress yesterday, as President Bush and Democratic leaders launched their final appeals in a midterm election that could go down as the most expensive and one of the nastiest ever.

With a flurry of late national surveys differing on whether Republicans might be reducing the Democratic advantage, leading Democrats urged Americans to demand a new direction in Iraq by ousting the GOP majorities in the House and Senate.

"The choice couldn't be more stark," Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat who is the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told reporters. "Every vote cast for a Democrat is [a vote] for a new, smarter Iraq policy. Every vote cast for a Republican is a vote cast for staying the course."

Bush, accepting that gauntlet, portrayed success in Iraq as essential to protecting America's national security and insisted that Democrats had no plan to prevail there.

"Harsh criticism is not a plan for victory," Bush told an enthusiastic crowd of 5,000 in the Republican stronghold of Pensacola, Fla. "Second-guessing is not a strategy. We have a plan for victory, and part of that plan is to make sure that Republicans control the House and the Senate."

With all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 33 Senate seats at stake, as well as 36 governorships, today's election could mark the sharpest turn in American politics since Republicans swept into control of Congress in 1994.

Since that landslide victory, fueled by a backlash against then-President Bill Clinton's chaotic first two years, Republicans have controlled the House for 12 consecutive years and the Senate for all but about 18 months in Bush's first term.

Now, polls show that voter discontent over Bush's direction, especially in Iraq, has carried the Democrats within range of capturing the House or Senate, or both. Republicans took heart from several late surveys showing the GOP mobilizing more of its core supporters and shrinking its deficit among swing voters, much as the party did in the final weekend before its surprising gains in the 2002 election.

"Our party is heading into Election Day with strong momentum," Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman insisted in an e-mail to supporters yesterday morning.

Still other polls painted a less-promising picture for the GOP. And most analysts on both sides agreed it would be extremely difficult for Republicans to prevent Democrats from gaining the 15 seats they need to capture a majority in the House.

In the Senate, Democrats face a tougher climb. They need a gain of six seats to reach a majority, and that will require them to capture at least four of the five most closely contested Republican-held seats - in Rhode Island, Montana, Virginia, Tennessee and Missouri - without losing any seats they already hold.

Public opinion polls generally showed close races in all of those contests except Tennessee, where most surveys provided Republican Bob Corker a wider advantage over Democratic Rep. Harold Ford Jr. Late polls showed Democratic challengers maintaining large leads over Republican Senators Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania and Mike DeWine in Ohio.

A Democratic majority in either chamber could set the stage for two years of intense political conflict. Democrats would be likely to use the subpoena power that comes with majority control to aggressively examine Bush policies in Iraq and at home that they argue Republican lawmakers have failed to monitor.

Big Democratic gains would also disrupt the ambitions of Bush and Karl Rove, his chief political adviser, to build a lasting Republican electoral majority centered on an alliance of economic and social conservatives.

One of the hallmarks of Bush's presidency has been the passionate emotions he inspires in supporters and opponents, and that pattern shows every sign of generating a large turnout in the election.

In a national USA Today/Gallup survey released Monday, 68 percent of adults said they were "absolutely certain" they would vote today. That is the highest level of interest Gallup has recorded for a non-presidential election in the half century it has systematically measured American opinion.

Both parties worked frantically yesterday to convert that interest into votes.

In Missouri, site of the neck-and-neck race between Republican Sen. Jim Talent and Democrat Claire McCaskill, Republicans said they had launched a larger get-out-the-vote drive than they did even in the 2004 presidential election, when Bush won the state comfortably.

"It's a juggernaut right now," said Paul Sloca, the spokesman for the Missouri Republican Party.

In Montana, where GOP Sen. Conrad Burns is battling Democrat Jon Tester in a tight race, the party has contacted some 300,000 voters by phone calls and home visits in little more than a week. That is almost one-third of the state's entire population.

Ronald Brownstein writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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