For GOP, Bad Gets Worse in Northeast

By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 14, 2006

PHOENIXVILLE, Pa. -- When it comes to President Bush and the Republican Congress, Rep. Jim Gerlach says voters in his suburban Philadelphia district are in a "sour mood."

That's why when it comes to his reelection, the two-term incumbent says "the name of the game" is to convince those same voters that he can be independent of his own party. He has turned his standard line about Bush -- "When I think he's wrong, I let him know" -- into a virtual campaign slogan, repeated in interviews and TV ads.

"It is a combination of things, from the war in Iraq to gas prices to what they are experiencing in their local areas," Gerlach said of the surly electorate whose decision he will know on Nov. 7.

The Iraq war and Bush's low approval ratings have created trouble for Republicans in all regions. But nowhere is the GOP brand more scuffed than in the Northeast, where this year's circumstances are combining with long-term trends to endanger numerous incumbents.

Sounding very much like Gerlach, state Sen. Raymond Meier, a Republican running for an open seat in Upstate New York, observed: "People around here are anxious and concerned not just about the national state of affairs, but also their personal state of affairs. As a Republican candidate, the challenge is to show you have even a clue about what their lives are like."

Also sounding very much like Gerlach is Rep. Rob Simmons. His eastern Connecticut seat is the most Democratic-leaning district in the country still held by a Republican. "My friend calls me Salmon Simmons . . . because I am always swimming upstream" against a Democratic current, he said.

Last week's defeat of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut moderate who has supported the Iraq war, in the Democratic primary gave Republicans a vivid look at some of the same angry currents likely to buffet them this fall. A Washington-Post ABC News poll this month found Bush's approval rating at 28 percent in the Northeast -- 12 points below his national average. The Republican Congress fared no better.

Republican losses in the region could echo well beyond the 2006 campaign. Because much of the region is tilting Democratic, history suggests Republicans would find it hard to recapture seats once lost.

That is why GOP operatives in Washington are alarmed not just about Gerlach's predicament, but about that of two congressional neighbors in suburban Philadelphia: Reps. Michael G. Fitzpatrick and Curt Weldon, both in tough districts.

In Connecticut, Republican Reps. Nancy L. Johnson and Christopher Shays -- like Simmons -- are in highly competitive contests. And several New York Republicans are facing their most difficult reelection fights ever.

One reason Republicans understand the risk is that they were beneficiaries of a strikingly similar regional upheaval a decade ago.

Before the 1994 elections, when Republicans won control of the House for the first time in 40 years, Democrats held dozens of Southern districts in which the electorate had been gradually growing more conservative. That year, Republicans picked up 20 of those Southern seats, including several held by Democratic incumbents who -- like Northeast Republicans today -- tried to distance themselves from an unpopular White House and Congress controlled by their party.

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