More GOP Districts Counted as Vulnerable

By Dan Balz and David S. Broder
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 3, 2006

Facing the most difficult political environment since they took control of Congress in 1994, Republicans begin the final two months of the midterm campaign in growing danger of losing the House while fighting to preserve at best a slim majority in the Senate, according to strategists and officials in both parties.

Over the summer, the political battlefield has expanded well beyond the roughly 20 GOP House seats originally thought to be vulnerable. Now some Republicans concede there may be almost twice as many districts from which Democrats could wrest the 15 additional seats they need to take control.

President Bush's low approval ratings, the sharp divisions over the war in Iraq, dissatisfaction with Congress, and economic anxiety caused by high gasoline prices and stagnant wages have alienated independent voters, energized the Democratic base and thrown once-safe Republican incumbents on the defensive.

As the campaign season begins, Democrats are trying to guard against premature celebration, even as their prospects are brighter than most ever imagined. Republicans are hoping for some outside event that would show the president and their party in a better light -- a spate of good news from Iraq, a foiled terrorist plot or an unlikely break in the deadlock over immigration on Capitol Hill.

Meanwhile, finger-pointing has begun as Republicans here and around the country blame the White House and the GOP congressional leadership for leaving Republican candidates in such a vulnerable position.

Despite these advantages, Democratic strategists say they see ways they could fall short of their goal of capturing one or both houses of Congress. They cite what they consider to be a superior Republican get-out-the-vote operation, a coming barrage of negative ads aimed at their challenger candidates, and a sizable cash-on-hand disparity between the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee.

Even with the political winds at their backs, Democrats, to take control, must defeat a significant number of incumbents -- ordinarily one of the hardest tasks in politics -- and, in most cases, do so in districts that have voted consistently Republican in recent presidential races.

'Voters Are Not Happy'

Nonetheless, everything points today to Democratic gains across the board on Nov. 7. Tim Hibbits, an independent pollster in Portland, Ore., who has been surveying voters for decades, said, "I'm not saying this is another 1994," when the then-dominant Democrats lost the House and Senate. "But voters are not happy. It's not just Iraq. It's also that most people don't feel better off economically."

Privately, many Republican strategists fear there may be no way to prevent the Democrats from winning the House, where Republicans hold 231 of 435 seats. One prominent consultant -- who like many of the people interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer candid appraisals -- put the odds of a Democratic takeover at 75 percent. Another strategist who has worked as part of Bush's campaign team said he believes there is a 9-in-10 chance that Republicans will lose their 12-year-old House majority.

Other GOP officials, while nervous, believe they can hold the House with aggressive local campaigns and a national effort to focus on terrorism and security to raise voter fears about the consequences of Democratic control.

All predict one of the most negative midterm elections in memory, with virtually no positive advertising from the national GOP committees or individual GOP candidates.

Republicans "ought to be concerned, because we are in a very competitive environment," said RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman, citing the Iraq war and the traditional losses suffered by the party in power during a president's second term.

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