Hastert predicts GOP election gains

A top Republican lawmaker brushed off bad poll numbers on Wednesday and said his party would surprise analysts and Democrats by strengthening its grip on the U.S. House of Representatives in November elections.

“We have a good story to tell,” House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois told reporters as he emerged from a closed-door meeting with fellow Republicans, many of whom are worried about their own chances for political survival.

Hastert’s prediction of election victory heartened many Republicans, caught others off guard and drew some ridicule.

“Either he is out of touch or has contempt for his audience,” said Stu Rothenberg of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report that tracks congressional races.

“We are winning in Iraq,” said Hastert, who also declared that the economy is strong and that House Republicans will “increase our majority in November.”

With polls showing most Americans believe the nation is on “the wrong track” and the Iraq war increasingly unpopular, Rothenberg and other analysts predict Democrats will gain seats in the 435-member House.

But they say it is unclear if Democrats can have a net gain of at least 15 seats to retake control of the chamber they lost in 1994.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, asked about Hastert’s comments, said, “They don’t seem grounded in reality.”

Republican aides said Hastert has been encouraged by a recent rise in President George W. Bush’s approval ratings to around 40 percent, as well as a new Gallup Poll that found House Democrats’ advantage shrinking from 16 percentage points to 10 points.

They said Hastert has also been buoyed by new economic numbers including a reduction in the projected federal deficit this year. At $296 billion, the deficit would still be the fourth largest ever.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, who chairs the House Democratic campaign committee and has ripped Bush and the Republican-led Congress for soaring gas prices, said: “Anyone who says the economy is doing well hasn’t filled up their gas tank lately.”

© 2006 Reuters