By Dan Balz and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 20, 2006
With top Republican strategists now privately predicting substantial House losses, President Bush and top GOP officials plan to spend the final days of the 2006 campaign attempting to rally partisans and limit conservative defections with dire warnings about the consequences of a Democratic Congress.
Amid predictions that demoralized conservative voters might sit out the election, Bush and other senior Republicans will escalate charges that Democrats will raise taxes, weaken national security and liberalize social policies. Bush struck those themes in campaign appearances yesterday in Pennsylvania and Virginia, and White House senior adviser Karl Rove said he "will consistently refresh that message" between now and Election Day.
Beyond the White House, however, there is increasing anxiety among Republicans about whether new efforts to frame the party's message can be effective in turning a tide that seems to be running powerfully against them as a result of the Iraq war and the Mark Foley page scandal.
For months, Republican leaders have sought to reassure candidates and activists with a succession of strategies. These included efforts to transcend the national environment by focusing House and Senate races on local issues, as well as high-profile speeches by Bush casting Iraq as just one theater in a larger war against terrorists. But none of these approaches has succeeded over a sustained time in reversing polls showing deep voter unrest and willingness to punish Republicans for the performance of Washington.
The mood among most GOP strategists -- with the exception of Rove and a few others -- is decidedly downbeat heading into the final 18 days. They see poll after poll showing a growing number of GOP House incumbents in serious danger, including many who just weeks ago were considered relatively safe for reelection. The list of most-imperiled incumbents now includes Reps. Heather A. Wilson (N.M.) and Curt Weldon (Pa.), a top GOP strategist said.
By this reckoning, roughly a dozen GOP-controlled House seats are "gone, no ifs, ands or buts about it," said the strategist, who discussed internal party deliberations on the condition of anonymity.
A number of GOP operatives said privately yesterday that they now see minimum losses of perhaps 18 seats, with 25 to 30 a more likely outcome. Democrats need 15 to take control of the House.
Republicans are slightly more optimistic about the Senate but nonetheless are worried about prospects for maintaining control. At this point, they see four seats likely to tip to the Democrats: Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Montana and Ohio. Democrats need six seats to take control. That means the battle could come down to Republican-held seats in Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia, all of which are considered too close to call now. Republicans see New Jersey as their best chance to gain a seat.
"If the vote were today, we would not hold the House," said Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.), one of several Republicans in relatively safe districts running ads and sending mailings to voters to protect their seats. Souder, who easily won two years ago with 69 percent of the vote, said that if Democrats are successful in knocking off the three Indiana GOP lawmakers who are currently trailing in the polls, he could be washed away, too. "This is going to be for me an all-time Republican low in this district," he said.
Still, Souder said the primary factor preventing a Democratic landslide has been the failure of Democrats to a present a clear alternative. Souder, who first won his seat in 1994, said he spent the past few days studying the run-up to the election 12 years ago and found that Republicans are in a slightly better position. But "right now, it is not closing right," he said.
Mike Franc, a senior analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the GOP warnings of Democratic policies might be a hard sell with conservatives upset over recent decisions on spending and other policies.
"Republicans did a lot to soften up their own base to make it very easy for rank-and-file, conservative-minded voters to say there is not a whole lot of difference between the two parties," he said. "That has become a cancerous development on the Republican biosystem." He said even the true believers at his think tank are so fed up with GOP governance that many do not seem overly worried about the consequences of losing the House.
A series of polls show that evangelical Christians, a key component of the GOP, are turning against the Republican Congress and are less likely to vote for GOP candidates this time around.
Former House majority leader Richard K. Armey -- one of the key architects of the GOP takeover in 1994 -- agreed that Republicans have ample reason to be concerned about fiscal conservatives sitting the election out. Armey said the GOP's plan to take advantage of low unemployment and a soaring stock market was destroyed by the Foley page scandal.
"The fact of the matter is, right now people are embarrassed by Republicans, and the economic base is still angry" because of high government spending over the past six years, Armey said. Consequently, he predicted, Democrats will take control of the House in three weeks.
Mark McKinnon, who was Bush's chief media adviser in 2000 and 2004, said the campaign may look better in a few weeks if Republicans can refocus the electorate on what a Democratic takeover might mean in terms of policy.
"I think Republicans wish the election were three weeks ago and the Democrats wish it were today," he said. "The fact is, it is three weeks from now. Whatever is going on right now is not the endgame; it's the middle game."
Rove, who believes that Republicans will hold both the House and Senate, said Democrats have failed to capitalize on events because they lack a clear message that presents a compelling alternative to the Republicans. "Generally when you're trying to nationalize something and you're the out party, you have a consistent message," he said. "I'm not sure what that consistent message is on the other side. Is there unanimity on Iraq? I don't think so."
Rove, speaking by telephone while on a campaign swing with the president, discounted polls and other indicators suggesting that Democratic voters are far more energized than Republicans. He said the GOP's get-out-the-vote operation, which proved more effective than the Democrats' in the past two elections, will be as strong or stronger this year.
Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said that for the past six weeks, a voter mobilization effort in competitive House and Senate districts has produced more contacts than during an equivalent time in 2004.
"Conservatives are cranky but not self-destructive," said GOP adviser Mary Matalin, a former aide to Vice President Cheney. "A thing we could do, have time to do and will do in the remaining time will be to hammer home what a Pelosi-Rangel-Conyers House would really mean." She was referring to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), who would become House speaker if Democrats win, and fellow liberals Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.) and John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), who are in line for committee chairmanships.
"That hasn't reached penetration levels yet," Matalin said.