Issues That Will Shape The 2006 Elections
Less than four months before the mid-term elections, there is one question that is preoccupying candidates around the country: How big will the Republican losses be in November?
History suggests, and operatives in both parties agree, that Republicans are virtually certain to lose ground. The party that holds the White House almost always loses House seats in the midterm elections held in the sixth year of a two-term presidency. Only once in the past century has that pattern not held.
There are no signs this year will be an aberration. President Bush is suffering from low approval ratings, and there is widespread discontent over the war in Iraq. Polls likewise show frustration with the Republican majority in Congress and an increased willingness to give Democrats the leadership reins.
No one can predict whether 2006 will be one of those seismic years in which control of Congress switches parties. But small shifts could have large consequences. If Democrats in the House gain 15 seats -- a number that analysts in both parties say is within reach -- Republicans will relinquish power there for the first time since 1994. In the Senate, Democrats need to gain six seats to take control -- a more remote prospect, but by most estimates a plausible one.
The Washington Post's Bellwether project looks at the battle to control Congress by taking the "how big" question and breaking it down into eight factors that will probably determine the answer. The bellwethers, as defined here, are not simply a collection of competitive races: They are the contests that illuminate in especially vivid fashion the currents shaping a potentially historic year.
Some of these bellwether questions are about ideological and geographic trends defining the elections. Some deal with the practical side of politics -- how the parties mobilize and turn out voters. Some deal with what are plainly on the minds of many voters: war, immigration and the economy.
Between now and Nov. 7, The Post and washingtonpost.com will be returning regularly to these questions and the specific races that illustrate them. The list is not exhaustive, and it is not static. Some contests that look close in July might be all but settled by October. Other contests may get more exciting as Election Day nears. The Bellwether project is a way of making sense of the chaos and the drama -- for political junkies and ordinary voters alike.
-- Dan Balz