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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.

The DSCC ended last year with about $15 million more in the bank than the NRSC. On the House side, the NRCC raised $22 million more than its Democratic counterpart, but ended the year with just $4 million more in its campaign coffers. Looming over all of these financial calculations is the sizable $28.5 million cash edge the Republican National Committee has over the Democratic National Committee, which could wipe out other Democratic fundraising successes in 2005.

If there is a wave that carries Democrats to power in the Senate, it must begin in Democratic strongholds of the East, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, before sweeping west through such traditionally GOP-leaning states as Montana, Ohio, Missouri and Arizona. Democrats are most optimistic about defeating Republican incumbents in the first four of these half-dozen states. Beating the incumbents in the other two looks more difficult.

Republicans hope to insulate themselves from expected losses by targeting two of the Democrats' three open Senate seats -- Maryland and Minnesota -- and are talking up their chances against three Democratic incumbents: Sens. Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.), Robert Menendez (N.J.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.).

The marquee Senate contest this year is in Pennsylvania, where Santorum is being challenged in his bid for a third term by state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. (D). Santorum's high-profile conservatism combined with Bush's flagging numbers in the Democratic-leaning state have given Casey a clear edge in polls the past six months. But Casey has yet to define himself as a Senate candidate, preferring to stay away from hot-button issues and focus on Santorum.

In Rhode Island, Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee (R) faces a two-front battle. He will face off against Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey, who is running as a populist outsider, in the Sept. 12 GOP primary. Should he advance to the general election, Chafee will face one of two Democrats: former state attorney general Sheldon Whitehouse, the current front-runner for his party's nomination, or Secretary of State Matt Brown.

Republican strategists are more concerned about Chafee's ability to win the primary than the general election. One of the most moderate Republicans in the Senate, Chafee must win over a significant portion of his party's conservative base to defeat Laffey in a primary that is open only to registered Republicans and independents. Most strategists say any Republican but Chafee would be hard-pressed to win the general election in a heavily Democratic state.

Two other Republican senators appear to be in real trouble at the moment, as two different scandals echo through the election year.

In Montana, Burns has been hurt by reports detailing his financial and staff ties to disgraced lobbyist Abramoff. Democrats have already run three ads hitting Burns on the scandal. Burns has responded with a commercial insisting that Abramoff never influenced him. Republicans say that Burns is ramping up his campaign now and dismiss chatter about his potential retirement.

Nevertheless, the scandal publicity has dampened Burns's reelection prospects. He holds narrow leads over state Auditor John Morrison and state Sen. Jon Tester, the two Democrats seeking to unseat him in November.

DeWine, on the other hand, is struggling in his reelection race because of GOP scandals in the Buckeye State, which have scuffed the Republican brand in Ohio even though DeWine is not personally implicated. Outgoing Gov. Bob Taft (R) was convicted of a misdemeanor offense last year for his role in the scandals, and his approval ratings are now below 20 percent.

Not all is gloomy for DeWine, however, as Democrats seem headed toward a nasty May primary that could leave the opposition drained. That contest pits Rep. Sherrod Brown against Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett, who excited liberal bloggers last year with a narrower-than-expected loss in a congressional special election.

Even if Democrats defeated those four vulnerable Republicans, they would have to beat two somewhat less vulnerable Republicans, Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl and Missouri Sen. James M. Talent, to pick up the six seats needed for control. Or they would have to beat one of the two and count on Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. (D) winning the Tennessee open seat vacated by retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

At this point estimates of the number of genuinely competitive House races ranges from a low of 25 or 30 to as high as 40 in the most optimistic Democratic scenarios. Democrats' best opportunities will come in Republican-held open seats, with the three best prospects, according to both parties, in Arizona's 8th District, Colorado's 7th District and Iowa's 1st District.

But Republicans say they have opportunities to pick up seats in Ohio's 6th and 13th districts, both of which are being vacated by Democratic members seeking statewide office.

Given recent trends, in which reelection rates have hovered around 95 percent in the House, it is no easy task to beat a sitting member of Congress. Because of the Abramoff scandal, however, Democrats have two golden opportunities to oust embattled incumbents in Ohio and Texas.

Former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), who, in addition to his connections to Abramoff, is under indictment by an Austin grand jury, finds himself in what promises to be a close race against former representative Nick Lampson (D). Former Republican representative Steve Stockman's independent candidacy is another complicating factor for DeLay.

Ohio Rep. Robert W. Ney (R) appears to be at the center of the pay-to-play schemes of Abramoff and has been informed by federal investigators that he may be indicted. Ney has pledged to run regardless but is trailing his two little-known Democratic opponents in internal GOP surveys.

Indiana is another place to watch as GOP Reps. Michael E. Sodrel and John N. Hostettler both face extremely competitive Democratic challenges in districts that favor Republicans on the presidential level. Sodrel faces a rematch against Baron Hill (D), the incumbent he narrowly ousted in 2004. Hostettler -- who makes little effort to raise money and forswears political consultants in favor of a local network of conservative activists -- is being challenged by Vanderburgh County Sheriff Brad Ellsworth (D).

Among Democratic incumbents, Republican House strategists see Reps. John Barrow (Ga.), Melissa L. Bean (Ill.), Leonard L. Boswell (Iowa), Chet Edwards (Tex.) and Jim Marshall (Ga.) as beatable.

Cillizza is a staff writer for washingtonpost.com. Political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.

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