Democrats enter the fall campaign with a clear edge in the high-stakes fight for control of the U.S. Congress, riding a wave of momentum that has them positioned to retake the U.S. House of Representatives and make significant gains in the Senate.
President George W. Bush’s low approval ratings and public dissatisfaction with the Iraq war, gas prices and the country’s direction threaten Republican leadership in Congress and put Democrats within reach of victory on November 7, analysts said.
“I don’t think the question any longer is can Democrats win control of Congress, it’s can Republicans do anything to stop it?” said Amy Walter, House analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report newsletter. “All the factors and issues are pushing so strongly against Republicans.”
All 435 House seats, 34 of 100 Senate seats and 36 governorships are at stake in November’s election, with Democrats needing to pick up 15 House seats and six Senate seats to reclaim majorities.
Strategists in both parties say the glum public mood has created a strong desire for change and given Democrats a big advantage at the traditional opening of the campaign season on Monday’s Labor Day holiday.
“It’s too late to fix the national mood — it’s not going to be fixed,” said Republican pollster Frank Luntz. “The major issues are not playing well for Republicans this year, and Republicans are not playing well with America this year.”
History is also with Democrats — the party holding the White House traditionally loses seats in a president’s sixth year. The modern exception was 1998, when public unhappiness over the Republican-led impeachment of President Bill Clinton helped Democrats gain five House seats.
“This looks like a classic sixth-year election,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, who called the president’s low approval ratings, hovering at about 40 percent, “the single best indicator for any mid-term election.”
A Democratic majority in even one chamber of Congress would slam the brakes on what is left of Bush’s second-term legislative agenda and hasten his descent into lame-duck status in the final two years of his presidency.
It also would give Democrats an opportunity to hold hearings and investigate many of the administration’s more controversial foreign, military and energy policy decisions.
Candidates around the country will spend Monday’s Labor Day holiday marching in parades, shaking hands at fairs and laying the groundwork for the final two-month push to the November 7 election.
About 40 House districts and a dozen Senate seats will be the key battlegrounds, and they will be flooded in the next two months with campaign cash and appearances by party big shots.
Democrats are in the strongest position in the House, analysts said, where nearly every endangered incumbent is Republican. Independent analyst Stuart Rothenberg projects a Democratic gain of 15-20 seats, while the Cook Report lists 17 House seats as toss-ups — all Republican.
But Republican House campaign spokesman Carl Forti shrugged off predictions of a takeover.
“We’re nowhere near as bad off as the experts would have you believe,” he said, adding Bush’s low ratings and public dissatisfaction with the Republican-led Congress would not determine House races.
In the Senate, Democrats are expected to pick up seats. But to win control they will need to bump off at least five Republican incumbents — difficult but not impossible even under favorable conditions.
In recent polls, Democratic challengers led Republican incumbents Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania, Conrad Burns in Montana and Mike DeWine in Ohio. Jim Talent in Missouri, Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island and George Allen in Virginia also face re-election struggles.
The open Tennessee seat of retiring Republican Senate Leader Bill Frist is also on the endangered list for Republicans.
Democratic incumbents Maria Cantwell in Washington, Debbie Stabenow in Michigan and Bob Menendez in New Jersey face potentially tough races, and Democrats must defend open seats in Minnesota and Maryland.
Many voters do not start paying attention until late in the campaign and many candidates only start spending heavily in September, giving the races plenty of chances to shift before the election.
Unexpected events, like the capture of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden or a major terrorist strike, could quickly shift the political landscape.
“I’m a political realist. Can we win? Yes, but this is 10 weeks out and a lot can happen in 10 weeks,” said House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
Copyright © 2006 Reuters