Dems build momentum for mid-term elections


    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.

    Republicans
    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.

    But
    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.

    “It
    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.

    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
    Mark Dayton.

    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.

    The
    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

    “The
    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.

    “That means
    they have to win the open seat in Tennessee and beat five Republican
    incumbents. The last time five incumbents lost was 1986,” she said.

    Burns
    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.

    Also
    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.

    The
    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
    terrorism.

    “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.

    Republicans
    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.

    “People
    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
    enough.”

    © 2006 Reuters