Handful of Races May Tip Control of Congress

By Dan Balz and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 6, 2006

In Pennsylvania, Sen. Rick Santorum (R) has been running behind his challenger for months. In Montana, Sen. Conrad Burns (R), linked to the Jack Abramoff scandal, is on the defensive. In Ohio, Sen. Mike DeWine (R) is struggling to overcome a toxic environment of scandals that have tarnished the state Republican Party.

Not since 1994 has the party in power -- in this case the Republicans -- faced such a discouraging landscape in a midterm election. President Bush is weaker than he was just a year ago, a majority of voters in recent polls have signaled their desire for a change in direction, and Democrats outpoll Republicans on which party voters think is more capable of handling the country's biggest problems.

The result is a midterm already headed toward what appears to be an inevitable conclusion: Democrats are poised to gain seats in the House and in the Senate for the first time since 2000. The difference between modest gains (a few seats in the Senate and fewer than 10 in the House) and significant gains (half a dozen in the Senate and well more than a dozen in the House) is where the battle for control of Congress will be fought.

The contest begins with Republicans holding 231 House seats and Democrats holding 201, with one Democrat-leaning independent and two vacancies, split between the parties. Democrats need to gain 15 seats to dethrone the GOP majority. In the Senate, Republicans hold 55 seats to the Democrats' 44, with one Democrat-leaning independent. Democrats need six more seats to take power.

What makes the year ahead compelling is the tension between two powerful factors: the broader political environment plainly favors Democrats, but the on-the-ground realities of many races give Republicans an advantage as they seek to preserve their majorities.

History dictates a certain modesty about predictions. Early in 1994, few foresaw the size of the Republican landslide-in-the-making. By November, the anti-incumbent mood overwhelmed even well-prepared candidates. If the public mood deteriorates further this year, Republicans could be swamped; if not, the GOP could be adequately equipped to wage trench warfare state by state and district by district and leave Washington's current balance of power intact.

At this point, the biggest challenge facing the Democrats is the narrow size of the battlefield. To win control of the House or Senate, Democrats must either capture the overwhelming percentage of genuinely competitive contests or find a way to put more races "in play" than is the case now.

Redistricting after the 2000 census left most House districts safely in the hands of one party or another. In 2004, just 32 districts were won with less than 55 percent of the vote -- giving incumbents a grip on power, said Rhodes Cook, an independent analyst.

Jim Jordan, a Democratic strategist and former executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said the odds strongly favor gains by the Democrats but not necessarily Democratic takeovers. "From almost every standpoint -- the national political environment, the state political environments, recruiting, retention, fundraising -- Democratic candidates are in exceedingly strong shape," he said. "Because of the map, a flip in either chamber is significantly harder, but you can certainly see how it's done."

Republicans and Democrats have adopted contrasting strategies in the race for the House. Democrats hope to nationalize the elections around the issues of corruption and dissatisfaction with Bush. Republicans want their candidates to run strictly local races. "Incumbents don't get beat because there's a bad national environment," said Carl Forti, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC).

But Joe Gaylord, top political lieutenant to Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) during the 1994 takeover, said Republicans should not underestimate the impact of national tides. "If you have mechanics without message, you have no motivation," he said. "The danger is in a bad year, as the Democrats would remember from 1994, is that you have supporters who stay home."

Party operatives devoted much of 2005 to fundraising and candidate recruitment, with the political climate helping Democrats in both areas. Democratic strategists said Bush's weakness helped attract a number of top-tier candidates, while Democratic campaign committees, particularly the DSCC, outperformed expectations on the fundraising front.

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