Growing Number of GOP Seats In Doubt

By Michael D. Shear and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 20, 2006

VIRGINIA BEACH, May 19 -- When some of the country's top political handicappers drew up their charts of vulnerable House incumbents at the beginning of this year, Rep. Thelma D. Drake (R-Va.) was not among them. Now she is.

President Bush carried her district with 58 percent of the vote in 2004, but strategists say his travails are part of the reason the freshman lawmaker now has a fight on her hands. He swooped into town briefly Friday for a closed-door fundraiser for Drake but made no public appearances.

Drake, who won with ease two years ago, is not alone. With approval ratings for Bush and congressional Republicans at a low ebb, GOP strategists see signs of weakness where they least expected it -- including a conservative, military-dominated suburb such as Virginia Beach -- and fear that their problems could grow worse unless the national mood brightens.

Some veterans of the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress see worrisome parallels between then and now, in the way once-safe districts are turning into potential problems. Incumbents' poll numbers have softened. Margins against their Democratic opponents have narrowed. Republican voters appear disenchanted. The Bush effect now amounts to a drag of five percentage points or more in many districts.

The changes don't guarantee a Democratic takeover by any means, but they are creating an increasingly asymmetrical battlefield for the fall elections: The number of vulnerable Democratic districts has remained relatively constant while the number of potentially competitive Republican districts continues to climb.

Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of a political newsletter, now has 42 Republican districts, including Drake's, on his list of competitive races. Last September, he had 26 competitive GOP districts, and Drake's wasn't on the list. "That's a pretty significant increase," he said. "The national atmospherics are making long shots suddenly less long."

At the Cook Political Report, Amy Walter has revised an analysis of the battle for control of the House, taking into account the sour mood toward Republicans nationally as a potentially significant factor in races that might otherwise turn on local issues, candidate performance or the size of campaign war chests.

"In a nationalized election, the typical laws of gravity get thrown out the window," Walter said. "Under-funded candidates beat better-funded candidates, and entrenched incumbents lose to first-time challengers."

Republicans said these trends in recent polling data are an early alert, not a cause for panic. Their strategists argue that their incumbents will not be caught by surprise, as many Democrats were in 1994, when they were swept from power in the House after 40 years.

House Republican campaign officials are taking steps to protect their vulnerable candidates with money, opposition research, negative television ads and campaign messages designed to fly below the worst of the national turbulence. But they know there is only so much they can do if Bush's approval rating stays below 40 percent and voters continue to say they want a change in direction.

Drake, a first-term representative, isn't yet among the most endangered GOP incumbents. But she is one of many -- and not just inexperienced lawmakers -- who could be at risk if there is an anti-Republican wave in the fall. Among House incumbents added to some GOP watch lists in recent months are veteran Reps. Nancy L. Johnson (Conn.), Deborah Pryce (Ohio), Charles Bass (N.H.), J.D. Hayworth (Ariz.) and Richard W. Pombo (Calif.).

The National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.), acknowledged Tuesday that the national mood has accelerated campaign planning by many incumbents. While vowing that Republicans will maintain their House majority in the fall, regardless of the national climate, Reynolds said, "Members [are] paying much more attention and putting together campaigns earlier."

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