Republicans have maintained control of both Congress and the White House for five years, but the party has been put on edge by a run of adversity — from ethical questions dogging its leaders to an apparent public disaffection with the country’s overall direction.
Over the past week, House Republican Leader Tom DeLay of Texas was indicted for violating his state’s campaign finance laws, and Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee learned that he is under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for possible insider trading violations.
Meanwhile, President Bush is reeling from negative public reaction to the economy, the war in Iraq and the federal government’s reaction to the hell wrought by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Democrats hope the GOP tribulations will damage Republicans in the 2006 midterm elections. Republicans lost big in 1976 after the political avalanche that was Watergate, and Democrats lost control of the House in 1994 when back-bench Republicans, led by soon-to-be Speaker Newt Gingrich, made stick charges that Democrats were maintaining a “corrupt institution.”
But times change. In 1976 and 1994, during less partisan times, dozens of congressional seats were competitive and could conceivably change hands election after election.
That no longer is the case. Drawing the lines of congressional districts has become a fine art, intended for the most part to provide either a safe haven for incumbents or an opportunity for the party in power _ the Republicans in this case.
The current breakdown shows 231 Republicans in the House compared to 202 Democrats with one independent, Rep. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who usually votes with the Democrats. Democrats would have to pick up 15 seats to regain the majority.
Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report, maintains that to this point, Democrats have failed to field enough top-notch contenders to make a difference, although the recruiting season has not yet come to a close. Some analysts see as few as 35 seats as legitimately competitive this cycle.
In the Senate, six seats need to change hands for Democrats to take control. Despite the recent spate of negative news, only two Republican incumbents _ Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Sen. Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island _ appear to face major hurdles.
Still, polls suggest the American public has tired of the Republican monopoly on government. A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, conducted Sept. 27-28, shows 40 percent believes the country would be better served by a Democrat victory next year, while only 32 percent would feel better with Republicans in control.
Democracy Corps, a pro-Democrat organization founded by two political heavy hitters _ James Carville and pollster Stan Greenburg _ said a survey it conducted shows 60 percent of the public wants the country to go in a “significantly different direction than Bush.” Carville and Greenburg maintain the GOP troubles have more to do with discontent over Bush than concerns about the ethics of Frist and DeLay.
“This is about George Bush, though voters are taking out their discontent on the Republicans in Congress,” they said.
Carville and Greenburg say undecided voters at this juncture are more willing to listen to Democratic entreaties than Republican, and that most of these “winnable” voters are women _ all factors that point to Democratic success.
Despite his indictment, DeLay remains favored to retain his congressional seat in 2006, though his future within the House GOP leadership is clouded. He has no aspirations for higher office and Bush, who has yet to reach even the midway point of his second term, never has to worry about standing for the public’s approval again.
That means the man with potentially the most to lose is Frist, who already has said he doesn’t intend to seek re-election to his Tennessee seat and is pondering a campaign for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. Early polls showed him looking in from the outside and the latest round of bad news is unlikely to enhance his possibilities.
(Contact Bill Straub at StraubB(at)shns.com)