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Democrats gain as November vote nears

They have a chance to take control of the House and make Senate gains as voters sour on Republicans, analysts say.

Published September 17, 2006

WASHINGTON — If you’re a Democrat, autumn is looking bright.

With just seven weeks before the November elections, Democrats have their best chance in a dozen years to take control of the House of Representatives. They’re less likely to seize the Senate but are poised to gain several seats.

Polls show, and politicians from both parties agree, that a steady drip of bad news from Iraq, anger over high fuel prices and a spate of corruption scandals have soured the public’s feelings toward the ruling Republicans. President Bush, with his approval rating hovering near 40 percent, does not have the political clout he had in past campaigns.

In many races — especially in key battlegrounds such as Indiana, Connecticut and Pennsylvania — the Democratic Party has well-funded candidates who could take advantage of the current climate. Experts predict the Democrats could gain three to six seats in the Senate, and pick up the 15 seats necessary to win the House.

“It’s no longer about whether Democrats can win control,” said Amy Walter, who tracks House races for the Cook Political Report. “It’s whether Republicans can stop it.”

Publicly, Republican strategists and members of Congress insist they are optimistic. But privately, they say they are worried their 12-year rule of the House is about to end. A recent National Journal poll of Republican insiders showed their pessimism, indicating they believe the odds are better than 50-50 their party will lose the House.

Unseating incumbents is usually difficult, but a growing number of Republican seats are up for grabs. The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan, online analysis of electoral politics, says the number of GOP seats considered a tossup has ballooned from nine in January to 19 today. But the number of Democratic tossup seats has shrunk from two to zero.

Among those 19 tossup seats is one held by Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale. Shaw has always had close races because of the party split in his district, but this year he’s facing a particularly tough challenge from state Sen. Ron Klein of Boca Raton, who has said Shaw is too closely aligned with Bush.

In other races around the country, Democrats are the beneficiaries of Republican missteps or weak incumbents.
In Texas, Democrats stand a surprisingly good chance of seizing the seat of retired House Majority Leader Tom DeLay because he abruptly resigned from Congress and there was no way to get another Republican’s name on the ballot. In Montana, Sen. Conrad Burns is in jeopardy because of his verbal gaffes and his ties to lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

In other races, the Democrats are running candidates who can appeal to conservative voters.

In North Carolina, Republican incumbent Charles Taylor is facing a tough race from former NFL quarterback Heath Shuler, , an antiabortion, progun Democrat running on a platform of economic growth. In Virginia, Sen. George Allen, a Republican, is being challenged by Democratic candidate Jim Webb, a former Navy secretary whose TV ads show him being praised by Ronald Reagan.

And in Tennessee, Democratic Rep. Harold Ford Jr. has surprised analysts by mounting a robust bid for the Senate seat now held by Majority Leader Bill Frist, who is retiring. Republicans had figured the Tennessee seat was theirs to keep, but their candidate, former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker, was battered during the GOP primary.

Ford, a moderate, is a talented campaigner. Should he win, he would become the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction.

“Corker is not bad, but he’s just … an average, generic Republican candidate, and this is not a good year for generic Republican candidates,’’ said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Democrats have another advantage: Republican House members are rusty. Many incumbents, such as Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., haven’t faced a serious challenger in more than a decade.

“These guys haven’t been to the gym in a long time,’’ said Walter, of the Cook Political Report. “You can’t go in one day and put on 30 pounds of muscle.’’

The Democratic strategy for the next few weeks is to emphasize the Bush administration’s performance in Iraq and Republican allegiance to the wealthy, big business and big oil, at a time when many Americans feel their paycheck isn’t going very far.

Republicans, meanwhile, are borrowing from their 2004 playbook, emphasizing national security and saying the nation would be less safe under the Democrats.

Republicans also will fire up conservatives by painting a dire scenario if the Democrats take control, and plan to launch aggressive personal attacks against their Democratic challengers.

Weldon of suburban Philadelphia has gone so far as to question why his opponent, Joseph Sestak Jr., had his 5-year-old daughter treated for cancer in Washington rather than Philadelphia.

Seven weeks is a long time in politics, and some stunning turnaround in the war in Iraq, or a major victory against terrorism, could restore some of the luster for the president and his party.

Rep. Adam Putnam of Bartow, the fifth-ranking House Republican, said GOP leaders are concerned, but they believe their superior get-out-the-vote effort will help them hold their majority.Despite concerns over federal spending and failure to improve border security, the Republican base also “appears to be settling back in and re-engaging as we go into the fall,” he said.“I don’t think that the Republican base is as depressed, or that the Democratic base is as energized, as some of the national talking heads would have you believe.’’

But pollsters and political analysts say conditions are ripe for a major change. Voters are grumpy.

“There is an angry independent voter out there that hasn’t decided if they are going to vote or not,” said Chuck Todd, editor of Hotline, a Web site that analyzes political races. “If they do show up, then Republicans are going to be swept out.”

[Last modified September 17, 2006, 20:49:38]

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