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Odds improve for Democratic takeover of Congress

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March 3, 2006

By THOMAS HARGROVE

A Democratic takeover of Congress, especially the House, appears possible this year despite conventional wisdom.

Pundits and odds makers recently have upped the numbers of House districts they count as competitive despite a still common assumption that Congress is so carefully gerrymandered that challengers have little hope.

Mid-terms at a glance

SENATE

33 seats up for election

Four open seats:

  • Tennessee (Republican Bill Frist retiring)
  • Maryland (Democrat Paul Sarbanes, retiring)
  • Minnesota (Democrat Mark Dayton retiring)
  • Vermont (Jim Jeffords, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, retiring)

Republican-held seats being targeted by Democrats:

  • Pennsylvania _ incumbent: Rick Santorum
  • Rhode Island _ incumbent: Lincoln Chafee
  • Ohio _ incumbent: Mike DeWine
  • Missouri _ incumbent: Jim Talent
  • Montana _ incumbent: Conrad Burns
  • Tennessee _ OPEN (Majority Leader Bill Frist retiring)

Democrat-held seats being targeted by Republicans:

  • Minnesota _ OPEN (Mark Dayton retiring)
  • Washington _ incumbent: Maria Cantwell
  • New Jersey _ incumbent: Bob Menendez
  • Michigan _ incumbent: Debbie Stabenow
  • Nebraska _ incumbent: Ben Nelson

HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

435 seats up for election

23 open seats (15 held by Republicans, eight by Democrats)

Republican-held seats being targeted by Democrats:

  • Ohio _ 1st District: Steve Chabot; 15th District: Deborah Pryce; 18th District: Bob Ney
  • Texas _ 22nd District: Tom DeLay
  • New Mexico _1st District: Heather Wilson
  • Connecticut _ 2nd District: Rob Simmons; 4th District: Chris Shays
  • Pennsylvania _ 6th District: Jim Gerlach
  • Florida _ 22nd District: Clay Shaw Jr.
  • Indiana _ 8th District: John Hostettler; 9th District: Mike Sodrel
  • Arizona _ 8th District: OPEN (Jim Kolbe retiring)
  • Iowa _ 1st District: OPEN (Jim Nussle running for governor)
  • Colorado _ 7th District: OPEN (Bob Beauprez running for governor)

Democrat-held seats being targeted by Republicans:

  • South Carolina _ 5th District: John Spratt
  • Texas _ 17th District: Chet Edwards
  • Illinois _ 8th District: Melissa Bean
  • Georgia _ 3rd District: Jim Marshall; 12th District: John Barrow
  • Iowa _ 3rd District: Leonard Boswell
  • Louisiana _ 3rd District: Charlie Melancon
  • Ohio _ 6th District: OPEN (Ted Strickland running for governor)
  • Vermont _ At-large: OPEN (Bernie Sanders, independent but caucuses with Democrats, retiring)

Sources: Cook Political Report, Democratic and Republican party organizations

Actually, dozens of House seats are anything but safe if recent election trends are an accurate guide. Sixty of the 435 House districts were politically divided in 2004, voting for candidates of different parties in the races for president and U.S. representative. Twenty-one House incumbents were elected by less than a 5 percent margin two years ago.

Democrats need to capture 15 seats from the GOP to retake the House.

"Yeah, that could happen. But I’d still say the chances are less than 50 percent for the Democrats," said Texas A&M University political science professor Harvey Tucker. "It’s a long way until the election. And it’s still true that people hate Congress, but love their own congressman."

Yet Democrats find hope in the dramatic declines in popularity of President Bush and the Republican-led Congress. Bush’s approval rating has dropped as low as 34 percent in recent polls, while approval of Congress has slunk to 27 percent.

Every national poll conducted in the last six months has shown Democrats running well ahead of Republicans _ sometimes by as much as 16 percentage points _ in the so-called "generic ballot" for the House.

The Gallup Organization last month reported Democrats are 7 points ahead, although survey editor David W. Moore said "experience suggests Democrats need at least an 11-point margin among registered voters to have a chance of gaining majority control of the House."

The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics last month issued it’s "dirty thirty" list of House districts that are "extremely likely to experience strong inter-party competition in November." Republicans currently hold 21 of these. But to hedge their bets, the scholars at the center recently issued a watch list of 20 other races that could quickly become competitive, 17 of which are currently in GOP hands.

"The watchword for parties holding borderline-competitive seats? Be on the lookout," warned the center’s political scholars, David Wasserman and Larry Sabato. "Take a good, hard look at all kinds of House districts right now."

Charles Cook of the Washington-based "Cook Political Report" newsletter also has been adding names to his congressional watch list. He now estimates that 21 House seats currently held by Republicans are either toss-ups or are only leaning in the GOP’s favor, while Democrats have 11 districts under similar threat.

Republican incumbents certainly go into the final months of the 2006 campaign with some important advantages _ fat campaign coffers and political districts that were carefully designed using the computer models to protect them.

"The people who drew these districts had access to all kinds of data _ records of the dominant vote down to the precinct level _ and the computers to manipulate and exploit that information," said Tucker. "The goal was to protect incumbents and the major political parties actually worked together to accomplish this."

And yet these advantages easily could be swamped if the winds of public opinion blow hard enough against incumbency.

"These structural advantages are probably sufficiently strong enough to withstand a political hurricane on the level of a category 1, 2 or 3," said Cook. "But, if the political environment looks like a category 4, those structures may not be enough to hold back the tide. If it’s a category 5, those structures would almost certainly fail."

Cook said he believes the winds of anti-incumbency are currently at category 1 or 2. "Still, the elements are there to see the potential for a category 3, 4 or even 5. But it’s not there yet," he said.

The last really big shake up of Congress was 1994, when 34 Democratic incumbents were kicked out in an angry backlash to some of President Clinton’s policies and general irritation at Democratic domination of both White House and Congress.

"The very earliest signs of a wave in 1994 did not manifest themselves until late spring or early summer," Cook said.

 

(Contact Thomas Hargrove at HargroveT(at)shns.com)