Congress looks good for Democrats next year

In Focus -- Politics


WASHINGTON // Presidential races are intensifying on both sides, and the story lines are choice:

Will Hillary hold off Barack? Can a surging Mike Huckabee go all the way? Will John McCain, left for dead a few months ago, stage a miracle comeback in New Hampshire?

The campaign is playing out against a backdrop of unusually consequential issues and themes: an unpopular war, simmering fears of another terrorist strike, a visceral backlash against illegal immigrants, disgust with Washington gridlock, and a strong desire for change.

But there's another important election in 2008 - the one for control of Congress - though no one is likely to pay it much attention.

It's as vital to the country's future as the presidential race, since it could well determine how much gets done in Washington once the new president is sworn in.

Voters are saying they want the government to tackle the country's big problems, such as rising health care costs, dependence on foreign energy, out-of-control borders and the death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They've also made it abundantly clear they don't think the current crowd is getting the job done. Congress' approval rating is miserable, even lower than President Bush's.

A year ago, Democrats capitalized on another surge of voter anger - over the war and signs of corruption and complacency in the Republican Party - to put a new team in charge of Congress.

But since taking over, the Democrats have been unable to get much done, disappointing those who elected them. Bush has continued to run the war in Iraq his way, and other problems the federal government was expected to fix, such as immigration, have proved too tough for the Democratic leadership.

And so the obvious questions: Will 2008 be another turnover year? Will a fed-up electorate toss out incumbents in large numbers? Will they flip control of Congress back to the Republicans, especially if a Republican wins the presidency?

Voters may be unhappy, but, polls show, they're in no mood to put Republicans in charge of Congress. State-by-state election analyses show Democrats heavily favored to keep control of the House and expand their numbers in the Senate.

"There's absolutely no doubt in my mind," says Stuart Rothenberg, who tracks congressional elections for his independent newsletter. "The only question is the size of their majorities."

Here's why:

Retirements: As senators and congressmen decide whether it's worth coming back for another term, a growing number are leaving office. So far, 20 have announced that they are quitting, and all but one are Republicans.

Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, the second-ranking Republican, didn't even wait for his term to end. He's giving up his seat five years early, apparently to avoid more onerous ethics rules that would apply to him if he retired after the end of this year.

Lott's decision to sell out (he's expected to earn millions as a lobbyist) is a reflection, among other things, of the 66-year-old's calculation that he wouldn't be back in the majority any time soon.

"You can have `U.S. Senator' in front of your name, but if you're not in the majority party, it doesn't make a lot of difference. You have a lot of perks, but you really don't have a lot of power," says Eddie Mahe, a Republican strategist, who rates his party's chances of regaining the Senate in '08 as "hopeless."

Republicans are favored to keep the Mississippi seat, but retirements are hurting their chances of wiping out the Democrats' slim two-seat advantage.

Democrats are heavily favored to pick up the Virginia seat of retiring Republican Sen. John W. Warner. Two more openings, created by the retirements of Republican incumbents in New Mexico and Colorado, are rated as good possibilities for Democratic pickups.

In the House, a dozen retirements have put Republican seats at risk in Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio, Arizona and New Mexico.

Endangered incumbents: Republicans always knew that 2008 would be difficult, since they must defend almost twice as many Senate seats (23) as the Democrats (12).

But a closer look by Congressional Quarterly found an even wider disparity. Seven of the eight most competitive Senate races are for Republican seats, the magazine concluded, including incumbents in New Hampshire, Minnesota, Maine and Oregon.

Democratic gains in the Senate could run anywhere from two to seven seats, predicts Rothenberg, noting that "there's a huge difference between two and seven."

Seven would give Democrats a total of 58, putting them well within reach, depending on the issue, of the magic number (60) needed to overcome delaying tactics by the minority. The result would be a far higher degree of control for the Democratic leadership.

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