San Diego Union Tribune

November 6, 2006

2006 VOTE
Capitol Hill bracing for election shock wave

Congress may shift on independents' vote

COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON – A midterm election that could result in the most sweeping political upheaval on Capitol Hill in more than a decade is roaring toward a climax tomorrow with a beleaguered president scrambling to contain Republican losses and resurgent Democrats grasping for power.

 

Paced by a blizzard of last-minute negative ads and a record-setting torrent of cash by both parties, the campaign trend has favored Democrats with the focus on dozens of House races and a handful of Senate seats.

Republicans are pinning their hopes on a vaunted voter turnout operation and President Bush's ability to rally the party's most faithful voters.

Public opinion polls last week suggested the Democrats could pick up a couple dozen House seats. The Democrats need to gain 15 seats to take control of the House for the first time since 1994.

Most pollsters and political experts doubt that the GOP will lose its Senate majority, but agree that its ruling margin is likely to diminish. They predict Democratic victories over Republican incumbents in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and, possibly, Rhode Island. The Democrats need to pick up six seats to win control of the Senate.

Republican losses could mount depending on the outcome of tight races in Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia. Republican and White House spirits inched up a bit late in the week with polling data indicating that Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana was closing the once-formidable lead of Democratic challenger of Jon Tester.

The overall outcome appears to rest in the hands of independent-minded voters seeking a course change over the war in Iraq and a Congress that has mainly produced scandals and gridlock rather than popular legislation.

“It's all about the war,” said John Zogby, an independent pollster. “That's the overriding issue. It is just simply a revulsion against the war. The economy does not mitigate that in any way.”

Said Republican pollster Whit Ayres: “Iraq is the elephant in the room.”

The looming verdict threatens to rob Bush of control over the national agenda during his final two years in office, suggesting a loss of momentum customary in two-term presidencies and an exposure of flaws in Bush's governing style.

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“There is rigidity, a clinging to a failed course of action,” said Bruce Buchanan, a presidential scholar at the University of Texas. “There's not enough flexibility there – (voters sense) that there's not a good plan that's working and the president doesn't seem to be supple enough to adjust the direction.”

Bush's travel schedule for the campaign's closing days underscores Republican concerns. Rather than repeating the winning formula of the midterm election four years ago when he swooped into enemy territory hoping to upend Democratic incumbents, Bush has been touching down in conservative bastions that should have been locked up weeks ago.

At each stop, he has sought to excite the party's base by touting a strong economy and issuing dire warnings of the tax hikes, liberal judges and cut-and-run Iraqi war policies that he says would follow a Democratic victory.

On Thursday, the president campaigned for Burns in the normally reliable red state of Montana. He also stumped for a Republican congressman in a Nevada district that has never voted Democratic since its lines were drawn 24 years ago.

On Friday and Saturday, Air Force One landed him in Missouri, Iowa and Colorado. All are states that voted for Bush in the presidential election two years ago. His pre-election itinerary also included stops in Nebraska and Kansas yesterday, and Florida, Arkansas and Texas.

Democratic strategists, on the other hand, have been trying to expand the map. Buoyed by a poll of early voters in Arizona, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has plunked down a late investment of $1 million on Phoenix and Tucson television to boost Democrat Jim Pederson in his race against Sen. Jon Kyl, a Republican.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee been spending heavily on behalf of challengers tackling GOP incumbents in Illinois, northern Kentucky, and Arizona – all seats once deemed safely Republican. Meanwhile, its Republican counterpart has been working to defend endangered Republican incumbents in such areas as suburban Philadelphia and in Indiana.

“The public has a 16 percent job approval of Congress,” said Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster. “It is a great unhappiness for the public. It is not something that broke late. It is something that happened early. And it has been a year for the outs, the nonincumbents where the public has been looking for a change.”

For many analysts, the campaign offers a mirror image of the 1994 midterm election, when a long-smoldering Republican insurgency overthrew four decades of Democratic control of Congress. The prologue to the GOP takeover involved a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who stumbled badly in trying to redesign the nation's health care system. But there was also corruption and arrogance within the ranks of Congress' then-ruling party.

“I think this will be one of those midterm elections that generate a tide that changes the direction of a presidency or at least deprives it of momentum,” said Fred Greenstein, a Princeton University political scientist and presidential scholar. “These kinds of elections are often associated with presidential overreaching.”

Still, Republicans held out hopes of staving off the Democratic offensive and retaining their majorities in both houses of Congress.

In addition to Montana, they pointed optimistically to the Senate race in Tennessee. Polls there show Republican Bob Corker, the former mayor of Chattanooga, opening a modest lead over Democratic Rep. Harold Ford Jr. They are vying for the seat left vacant by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Republican who is considering a run for president in 2008.

In the Virginia Senate race, several polls give challenger James Webb, a Ronald Reagan appointee turned Democrat, a slight lead over the Republican incumbent, George Allen. One survey, however, showed Allen with a slender lead.

The tightest race of all may be in Missouri, where Republican freshman Sen. Jim Talent is locked in a statistical dead heat with Claire McCaskill, the Democratic state auditor.

GOP strategists are also guardedly hopeful about picking off two Democratic seats. In Maryland, Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele is gunning for an open seat against longtime Democratic Rep. Ben Cardin. In New Jersey, appointed Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez is fending off corruption charges being leveled by challenger Tom Kean Jr.

Republicans hold out less hope for GOP incumbents Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania and Mike DeWine in Ohio, although Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee has narrowed the gap in recent polls.

Meanwhile, Bush late last month made forays into Georgia in hopes of bolstering two GOP challengers seeking to oust Democratic Reps. John Barrow and Jim Marshall. Redistricting made both incumbents vulnerable and strategists are hopeful that popular Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue's re-election coattails will give them a decisive boost.

In addition, some Republicans say prospects may be brightening for their candidates defending two seats that became vacant when scandals forced Tom DeLay of Texas and Mark Foley of Florida to resign from the House after it was too late to remove their names from the ballot.

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