Voter Anger Might Mean an Electoral Shift in '06

Ed Perlmutter, right, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for a Colorado congressional race, says the current climate favors Democrats.
Ed Perlmutter, right, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for a Colorado congressional race, says the current climate favors Democrats. (By Glen Martin -- Denver Post)
By Dan Balz, Shailagh Murray and Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 6, 2005

One year before the 2006 midterm elections, Republicans are facing the most adverse political conditions of the 11 years since they vaulted to power in Congress in 1994. Powerful currents of voter unrest -- including unhappiness over the war in Iraq and dissatisfaction with the leadership of President Bush -- have undermined confidence in government and are stirring fears among GOP candidates of a backlash.

Interviews with voters, politicians and strategists in four battleground states, supplemented by a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, found significant discontent with the performance of both political parties. Frustration has not reached the level that existed before the 1994 earthquake, but many strategists say that if the public mood further darkens, Republican majorities in the House and Senate could be at risk.

One bright spot for the Republicans is the low regard in which many Americans hold the Democrats. The public sees the Democrats as disorganized, lacking in clear ideas or a positive alternative to the GOP agenda, and bereft of appealing leaders. In the Post-ABC News poll, voters gave Washington low grades without favor: Just 35 percent said they approved of the job Republicans in Congress were doing, while only 41 percent gave a positive rating to the Democrats.

In shopping malls, town hall meetings and on front porches, Americans expressed their concerns about the country's problems. The president still has strong supporters, but more common are questions about his and the country's priorities. A young mother in the Denver suburbs complained about the state of public education. An Ohio retiree complained about energy prices and said, "We're getting ripped off left and right by the oil companies." Immigration appears to be a volatile issue far from the U.S.-Mexico border. And looming over all else is the U.S. involvement in Iraq, which continues to gnaw at the country's psyche.

Republican strategists and candidates are bracing for losses next year, while hoping that Bush's fortunes and the overall environment improve. They take some comfort in the expectation that the worst of times has come a year ahead of the elections, and relief in the fact that, by historical measures, the number of genuinely competitive contests is likely to be small.

But Republicans have expanded their majorities in Congress in each of the last two elections, and strategists expect, at a minimum, that Democrats will narrow those margins next year. A Democratic takeover of either the House or Senate is not out of the question.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), the architect of the 1994 GOP victory, said Republicans must take the initiative or risk serious losses next year. "If we regroup and reclaim the mantle of reform and change, we are likely to win '06 and '08," he said. "If we do not regroup, we are likely to have a very difficult '06 and '08."

Republicans believe that, given clear choices, voters will continue to favor candidates who preach, if not always practice, smaller government and who favor lower taxes and the vigorous pursuit of terrorists. But the Republican coalition is showing signs of fraying after almost 11 years of nearly continuous majority status. Conservatives have rebelled against some of Bush's priorities, and moderates are voicing increasing disaffection with their leaders.

If next year's elections prove to be a referendum on the party in power, as is often the case in midterm contests, the image of the Democrats may be less important than the broader unrest in the country over Iraq, immigration, energy and health care prices and the president's popularity.

The findings in this report are based on interviews in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Ohio and Colorado, as well as on a survey of 1,202 randomly selected adults nationwide contacted between Oct. 30 and Nov. 2. The margin of error for the poll is plus or minus three percentage points.

More Trust for Democrats

Two-thirds of those surveyed by The Post and ABC News said the country is heading in the wrong direction. Asked whom they were likely to support in next year's House elections, 52 percent of registered voters said the Democratic candidate, while 37 percent said the Republican. While this testing of generic preferences is not always a reliable indicator of elections, the result suggests that Republicans for now are in trouble.

Republicans may find solace in the fact that 60 percent of those surveyed approved of the job their own House member is doing -- but that, too, was the case one year before the 1994 election. Then the percentage declined throughout 1994; if the same happens next year, Republicans will be in serious trouble.

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