A final, fitting end to the Newt Gingrich era?

A half-dozen Republican congressmen ushered into office in the 1994 GOP tidal wave that tossed Democrats from power may be swept out on Tuesday, casualties of a Democratic surge fueled by voter anger over the Iraq war.

On the eve of the midterm elections, Republicans are hoping their acclaimed get-out-the-vote operation will ensure majority control. But some say privately they have a slim chance of retaining the House after a grueling campaign centered on turmoil in Iraq, President Bush’s sagging approval numbers, political scandals and corruption investigations.

“It all gets down to Republicans turning out the vote,” said Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., chairman of the House GOP’s election effort.

Sidelined for 12 years, Democrats appear poised to win the House in a shift that likely would elevate Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California to speaker, the nation’s first woman to hold that office, and herald in at least two years of Democratic rule.

“From the Iraq war to the economy to how the Congress does its work, the American people want a different direction — and that’s what Democrats offer,” Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, the head of the House Democrats’ campaign committee, said Monday.

At least 50 Republican seats are endangered, many with incumbents facing fierce challenges from Democrats who have sought to capitalize on the public’s intense disenchantment with one-party rule.

Among those GOP lawmakers in hard-fought races are several vying for seventh terms, first elected in the Republican revolution of 1994.

Back then, the party gained 52 seats to end four decades of Democratic control with promises of balancing the budget and enacting term limits. Hankering for a change in the status quo, voters that year elected Newt Gingrich’s hard-charging followers who proposed the vaunted Contract with America.

“The Republicans came to power in 1994 to change Washington, and Washington changed them,” Emanuel said Sunday, while he and Reynolds sparred on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

As Reynolds shook his head in dissent, Emanuel criticized Republicans for adding to the national debt, scandals involving the GOP rank-and-file and losing their way on fiscal and moral issues.

Gingrich’s disciples in the most competitive races this year include:

  • John Hostettler in Indiana, a leading voice for social conservatives who was among six House Republicans to vote against authorizing force in Iraq in 2002. He is all but certain to lose to Democrat Brad Ellsworth, a county sheriff, in the district dubbed the “bloody eighth” for it’s razor-thin election victories.
  • Steve Chabot in Ohio, a lawyer from Cincinnati who is considered somewhat of a maverick in the party despite his conservative voting record. He faces a spirited challenge from John Cranley, a Cincinnati city councilman who failed to unseat Chabot in a challenge six years ago.
  • Barbara Cubin in Wyoming, a fifth-generation resident of the state and a conservative who champions its mining and agriculture industries. Wyoming hasn’t elected a Democrat to Congress since 1976, and Cubin’s race against Democrat Gary Trauner, a businessman, only recently became competitive.
  • Gil Gutknecht in Minnesota, who has an occasional independent streak. In the late 1990s, he concluded that Gingrich as speaker had been “a disappointment to everybody” and that the GOP revolution had been exaggerated. Democrat Tim Walz, a high school teacher, is challenging him.
  • Charles Bass in New Hampshire, a moderate who has focused on the environment and opposed the Bush administration’s proposal to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He is in a rematch with Democrat Paul Hodes, a lawyer who ran against Bass in 2004.
  • J.D. Hayworth in Arizona, a fierce critic of illegal immigration who advocates strong U.S. borders. He opposed the president’s proposal for an expanded guest-worker program until border controls are improved. Former state Sen. Harry Mitchell, a Democrat, is trying to unseat him.

Two other members of the rebellious Republican class of 1994 had planned to run for re-election but they recently resigned from Congress when they became ensnared in separate scandals.

Bob Ney of Ohio pleaded guilty in the influence-peddling investigation surrounding disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, while Mark Foley of Florida admitted having sent sexually explicit electronic communications to underage males who worked as House pages. Democrats are poised to win both of their seats.

In the minority, Democrats need to gain 15 seats to seize control of the House.

On the defensive, Republicans have spent months trying to beat back well-funded Democratic opponents in districts stretching from New Hampshire to California. In the campaign’s homestretch, Democrats have widened the battlefield by going after Republicans in states that historically have been solid GOP territory, including Idaho and Kansas.

Clusters of GOP-held seats in the Midwest and the Northeast alone could give Democrats the pickups they need to rise to power.

Five Republican incumbents in Pennsylvania and three in Connecticut — more moderate areas of the country — could end up fired. And, in the traditionally conservative Ohio River Valley, four GOP congressman in Ohio and three in Indiana are fighting for their political lives.

The 2006 election has been likened to 1994, when backlash against the controlling party — then the Democrats — triggered a change in power and ushered in an era of new rulers.

Now, the tables appear poised to turn — with Democrats returning the favor to the Contract-With-America crew that booted them out of office.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press