Leaders play expectations game

When it comes to predicting November’s midterm congressional-election results, some political leaders in Washington prefer to boost expectations while others think it is wiser to lower them.

If Democrats gain control of the House or Senate, they will be viewed as the clear winners. Similarly, if Republicans add to their majority, the GOP will be hailed as the improbable victors.

But if Democrats pick up seats and fall short of controlling a chamber of Congress, the winner of the midterms will be debated. At this point in the 2006 cycle, most independent political analysts believe this scenario is the most likely because there are roughly 40 competitive seats in the House and a dozen in the Senate.

Few doubt that Democrats have the wind at their backs, but the relatively low number of competitive seats is an advantage for Republicans. Some say that it is still early and that the number of close races will increase by the summer.

It appears that, for the first time in several elections, the House has a better chance to flip than the Senate, but any change in power will require Democrats to dominate the close races.

Expectations will play a large role in winning the spin war after the election. Bold predictions help fundraising efforts, but they can backfire after all the returns are in.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), appearing on “Meet the Press” in late May 2004, guaranteed that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) would defeat President Bush and predicted, with less certainty, that she would be the first female Speaker of the House in the 109th Congress. The late Rep. Bob Matsui (D-Calif.), who headed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) two years ago, also suggested that winning the House was plausible, even though Democratic strategists and lobbyists refused to go that far.

If not for the partisan redistricting of Texas, House Democrats would have cut into the GOP majority in 2004. With Bush’s successful reelection, and the Republican-led Senate’s picking up a net of four seats, House Democrats performed relatively well.

But it didn’t feel that way to many Democrats in the lower chamber who thought they were going to be setting the legislative agenda in the 109th Congress instead of reacting to it.

Unlike his predecessor, DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) avoids the crystal ball altogether. He says it is his job to “affect, not predict” House elections.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean has taken the opposite approach, forecasting in a 2005 op-ed in The Hill that Democrats will capture control of both the House and Senate. Dean last week softened his predictions about the Senate during a briefing with reporters.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) earlier this month echoed Dean’s 2005 prediction after Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) announced his resignation.

Senate Democrats have taken a more nuanced stance. In the spring of 2005, Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said it would be a “miracle” if Democrats picked up five or more seats this year. Reid’s spokesman quickly noted that Reid believes in miracles.

A year later, after the inept federal response to Hurricane Katrina and the port-security controversy, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said a current snapshot of the races would leave the Senate 50-50 — a five-seat pickup for Democrats.

While many Democrats and some Republicans believe 2006 is a golden opportunity for the left, there is pressure that comes with those expectations. Some Democrats think that the refusal to unveil a comprehensive, unified agenda nearly six months before the election could be a grave error.

Democratic leaders are betting that voters will use the elections as a referendum on Republicans, not on the Democrats’ legislative wish list. If they are right, the political rewards could be great.

Yet, if the unthinkable happens and Republicans pick up seats, leadership challenges to Reid, Pelosi or Dean would probably follow.

Kenneth Bickers, a professor of political science at University of Colorado, said a challenge of Dean would not surprise him if Republicans remain in control of Congress.

Some believe that predictions don’t matter much. David King, associate director of public institute of politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, said, “People don’t remember the bad predictions.”

Clearly, Democrats are expecting significant gains in November. At a minimum, Democrats expect 2006 to set up 2008 and give them a realistic chance to control the House, Senate, and the White House.

The stakes are high for Republicans as well. National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.) has simply predicted that Republicans will retain their majority this cycle. If he is wrong, Reynolds’s long-whispered aspiration of becoming Speaker of the House will probably never materialize.

Likewise, the presidential aspirations of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) would be dealt a severe blow if Reid took over his office in January 2007. For that to happen, Democrats would probably have to win Frist’s soon-to-be-vacated seat.

Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, refuses to play the prediction numbers game, but she has said Republicans will retain a “strong majority.” Presumably, losing two seats would hold on to such a majority, but a loss of four would not.

In 2003, some GOP strategists, including Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, said Republicans could control 60 Senate seats by 2006. But with Bush’s approval rating in the 30s, Republicans are playing defense.

Asked to make a prediction recently, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said, “We’re going to keep the majority in the House and Senate.”

Pressed on whether that means picking up seats, Mehlman responded, “We’re going to keep the majority.”

This is the last swipe Democrats will have at the duo of Bush and his chief political operative, Karl Rove, who have been crowned as the victors of each election of the 21st century.

In an interview last month on C-SPAN, Reynolds touted the recent track record of Republicans in the House, saying that since 2000 Democrats have not won more than 50 percent of competitive races. To win the House, Reynolds said, Democrats would need to win 82 percent of those contests.

But Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) said there is a unique political atmosphere in 2006.

In a floor speech last month, Davis said House Democrats would win control of the House because “the American people are getting this.”

Still, Davis told The Hill that Emanuel is constantly warning his colleagues about overconfidence.

“We have to do the work,” Davis said.

Jonathan E. Kaplan and Karissa Marcum contributed to this report.