Democrats are riding a wave of momentum into November’s high-stakes
battle for the U.S. Congress, with high hopes for significant gains
that could threaten Republican control of the House and Senate.
enter the campaign after the toughest stretch of President George W.
Bush’s presidency, fueled by an unpopular war in Iraq, economic
uncertainty, political scandals and Bush’s low approval ratings.
despite the favorable political mood for Democrats, analysts say the
party faces major hurdles to gaining the six Senate and 15 House seats
needed to reclaim control of Congress.
To win majorities,
Democrats need to capture most of a small pool of competitive seats in
the House while bumping off at least five Republican Senate incumbents
— tough tasks in any political climate, but not impossible.
looks like the Democrats will gain seats in the House and Senate, but
the question is how many. Is it going to be a Democratic tide or a
Democratic tsunami?” asked Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the
University of Virginia.
“It is going to be hard for Democrats,
but if the situation continues to deteriorate for Republicans this year
anything is possible,” he said.
Democratic majorities in Congress
would allow them to control the legislative agenda and put the brakes
on many of Bush’s policy initiatives, while even small gains would
increase their clout in Capitol Hill battles over issues like judges,
taxes and national security.
The best chance for a Democratic
breakthrough could be the Senate, where 33 of 100 seats are on the
ballot. Republicans hold 15 of those seats and Democrats 18, but five
of the most endangered incumbents at this stage are Republicans.
Mike DeWine of Ohio, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Lincoln Chafee of
Rhode Island, Jim Talent of Missouri and Conrad Burns of Montana all
face tough re-election races.
The open Tennessee seat of retiring
Republican Bill Frist is also on the Republican endangered list, while
Democrats face a battle defending the open Minnesota seat of retiring
Democrats also must defend open seats in Maryland
and the Vermont seat of retiring and Democratic-leaning independent Jim
Jeffords, along with incumbents Bill Nelson in Florida, Ben Nelson in
Nebraska, Maria Cantwell in Washington, Robert Byrd in West Virginia
and Debbie Stabenow in Michigan.
“Before they go after our
incumbents they are going to have to defend their own. These open seats
certainly offer an opportunity,” said Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North
Carolina, head of the Senate Republican campaign committee.
toughest and highest-profile race of the year could be in Pennsylvania,
where Santorum, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, badly
trails Democratic challenger Bob Casey Jr.
DEMOCRATS NEED SWEEP
Democrats have to sweep the competitive Republican races to take power,
while holding all of their own. That’s tough,” said Jennifer Duffy, an
analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
they have to win the open seat in Tennessee and beat five Republican
incumbents. The last time five incumbents lost was 1986,” she said.
has become ensnared in the growing corruption investigation involving
Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, which Democrats use as a prime
example of the Republican “culture of corruption” in Washington.
caught up in the explosion of scandals is former House Republican
Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and former House Administration Committee
Chairman Bob Ney of Ohio, who both face tough re-election races.
public so far is not blaming either party for the scandals, polls show,
but they crave a change in Washington and favor Democrats on most
issues, with the major exception of national security and the war on
“There is an anti-incumbent mood out there and
Republicans are the ones who will bear the brunt of it,” said Senate
Democratic campaign committee spokesman Phil Singer.
On the House
side, redistricting after the 2000 census safeguarded incumbents across
the country and reduced the number of competitive districts to a few
dozen. The Cook Report lists only 28 House districts that are toss-ups
or somewhat competitive, with Republicans defending 18 and Democrats 10.
say that will force Democrats to score a near sweep of competitive
districts if they want to reclaim power. They are counting on the races
turning on local issues rather than national trends.
don’t go into a voting booth and pull the Bush lever or the anti-Bush
lever or the Republican lever, they vote for a person,” said House
Republican campaign spokesman Carl Forti.
“So you have to make a
case to the constituents of a district why their incumbent needs to be
fired, and being from the same party as Tom DeLay or George Bush isn’t