By Jonathan E. Kaplan - 08/16/06 12:00 AM EDT
Despite a divisive Democratic primary in Connecticut and renewed attention to homeland security in the wake of a foiled terrorist plot, the political wave that Democrats hope will wash out Republican majorities in Congress appears to be getter larger.
With 83 days before the election, independent analysts and political observers say that the universe of competitive congressional races is broadening. Most of these newly identified endangered incumbents are Republicans, increasing the chances of a Democratic takeover of one or both chambers of Congress.
Republicans were expected to benefit politically from the thwarted plot to blow up airplanes bound for the U.S. and Sen. Joe Lieberman’s (D-Conn.) loss to Ned Lamont, an anti-war candidate, in the Democratic primary. But lawmakers and political strategists noted that those events have not shifted perceptions about President Bush or the GOP-controlled Congress.
“I don’t think this is much of a reprieve for the Republicans,” said a widely respected Republican strategist. “This foiled airliner attack won’t have a lasting impact on the electoral process because it didn’t happen. I don’t think it changes much of the dynamic.”
Anita Dunn, a Democratic political consultant, said, “The fundamental dynamic of this election is there is an unhappy electorate that wants change. Nothing that happened last week will change that.”
Bush’s approval rating remains stuck at or below 40 percent, according to recent polls, while 62 percent of the public disapproved of his handling of the Iraq war. Meantime, Congress’s popularity has dropped to 36 percent, and in a hypothetical congressional matchup, Democrats were outpacing Republicans, 52 percent to 39 percent.
Perhaps more worrisome for incumbents is that their job approval rating is at 55 percent, a seven percent drop and just two points above where that number stood in September 1994, according to last week’s Washington Post-ABC News poll.
“A lot feel frustrated by the war in Iraq and cost of gasoline,” said Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.). “Voters are not totally comfortable with what they’re getting from Republicans even though we control the White House and House, and [nominally the] Senate. It’s an interesting election where neither party appears to address everyday concerns of Americans.”
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report last week increased the number of GOP House seats up for grabs to 17 from 15; 36 seats are rated “lean Republican” or “toss up.” No Democratic seats are rated “toss up.” The Cook report labels 55 House Republican seats and 20 House Democratic seats as competitive.
Incumbents who earlier this year were expected to easily win reelection could face challenging races, including Reps. Peter King (R-N.Y.), Jerry Weller (R-Ill.), and Mark Foley (R-Fla.). These three races are listed by the Cook report as “likely Republican.”
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.) has said he expected three dozen hotly contested House races. If that holds true, Democrats would have to dominate these races in order to have a realistic shot of winning back the House.
But Democrats say that there are at least 40 close House races and they expect that number to increase down the homestretch of the campaign season.
A change in power is more likely in the House, but Senate Democrats are growing increasingly optimistic.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters Sunday that Democrats would pick up at least five seats in November, which would leave Republicans with the narrowest of majority control in the upper chamber. Reid had previously indicated it would take “a miracle” for Democrats to control the Senate in the 110th Congress.
Republicans, having cast their lot with the war in Iraq, face a tough time trying to disavow their previous support, and they remain worried that Democrats could capitalize on the perception that Republicans have let foreign and domestic policy crises spin out of control.
“You only can play whack-a-mole for so long. [The public is] ready for some action and the White House has been far less than helpful, not working to lay out a path to resolution,” on issues like immigration, said a Republican lawmaker with leadership ambitions.
Voters have punished Republicans and Bush’s congressional allies. Besides Lieberman, Rep. Joe Schwarz (R-Mich.) lost last week in his GOP primary, and scandal forced Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) to withdraw his bid for re-election.
Despite the downcast political climate, Republicans will continue to try to paint Democrats as hopelessly liberal and unreliable in the war on terror.
“That’s going to be the cry. I think you’ll hear from our side that it’s not important what the United Nations thinks about [the situation in the Middle East] as it is that the we stand up for our freedom. I think that will be a much larger theme,” said the top GOP lawmaker. “That theme of … Americans standing up in the world will play a larger role than we thought two months ago.”
Nevertheless, Democrats are confident that 2006 will be different than 2004 when Bush used national security to his advantage. They also believe that Republicans will fail in trying to alter the electorate’s perception of Bush.
“By this time in a president’s term, he is so well known that images [get] awfully hard to change,” said Calvin Mackenzie, a political scientist at Colby College. “Everybody knows how they feel and any new evidence has to be awfully compelling.”
Democratic lawmakers, candidates and political analysts are no longer asking whether momentum is on their side, they’re asking how much.
“I see a tidal wave,” Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) said in a conference call last week with reporters.
Still, there are lingering questions about Democrats’ ability to get out the vote, an area where Republicans have excelled in recent elections.