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
“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
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
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
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
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
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.