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Democrats, on the Offensive, Could Gain Both Houses

By Dan Balz and David S. Broder
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 5, 2006

Two days before a bitterly fought midterm election, Democrats have moved into position to recapture the House and have laid siege to the Senate, setting the stage for a dramatic recasting of the power structure in Washington for President Bush's final two years in office, according to a Washington Post analysis of competitive races across the country.

In the battle for the House, Democrats appear almost certain to pick up more than the 15 seats needed to regain the majority. Republicans virtually concede 10 seats, and a split of the 30 tossup races would add an additional 15 to the Democratic column.

The Senate poses a tougher challenge for Democrats, who need to gain six seats to take control of that chamber. A three-seat gain is almost assured, but they would have to find the other three seats from four states considered to have tossup races -- Virginia, Tennessee, Missouri and Montana.

In governors' races, Democrats are likely to emerge with the majority for the first time in 12 years. Five states are almost certain to switch parties, including the key battlegrounds of New York, Massachusetts and Ohio. Four races are too close to call, but only one of those seats -- in Wisconsin -- is held by a Democrat.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows some narrowing in the Democratic advantage in House races. The survey gives the Democrats a six-percentage-point lead nationally among likely voters asked which party they prefer for Congress. It was 14 points two weeks ago, but this remains a larger advantage than they have had in recent midterm elections.

The party in power almost always loses ground in the sixth year of a two-term presidency. Republicans had hoped that the partisan gerrymandering of most House districts would protect their majority, but the number of competitive seats has continued to grow throughout the year, increasing the likelihood of a Democratic takeover.

Rep. Rahm Emamuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, stopped short of predicting that Democrats will take the House, but said: "I'm playing defense in one or two districts and offense in 46. I like those odds. I'd rather be us than them."

Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman predicted his party will retain majorities in both the House and Senate. "The Senate is in a better place than it was a week ago," he said, noting that GOP candidates in several of the closest races have improved their positions. "I think that the House remains very competitive," he added, pointing to a strong turnout operation that could save many incumbents in tossup races.

Republicans are fighting three forces: opposition to the war in Iraq, declining approval of the president, and historically low ratings for a Congress that struggled to produce notable achievements and that was often mired in partisanship.

The Democratic swing in the House is most evident in states east of the Mississippi River, where scandals, retirements and disaffection with the war have combined to put almost three dozen Republican-held seats at risk.

Ohio, the swing state that assured Bush's second-term victory, has turned into a Republican killing field. Republicans face the loss of the governorship and a Senate seat, and five GOP House districts are in danger of switching. Republicans fear the loss of other statewide races and at least one house of the state legislature.

Other GOP danger areas include Pennsylvania, where a Senate seat and five House incumbents are at risk, and Indiana, where Democrats could pick up three House seats. In New York, where Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) and gubernatorial candidate Eliot L. Spitzer (D) are cruising toward victory, Republicans are defending half a dozen House districts.

In Connecticut, Republicans are deeply worried about veteran Reps. Nancy L. Johnson and Christopher Shays and are only slightly more assured about Rep. Rob Simmons. Johnson appears to be the most endangered of the three.

The Iraq issue has dominated the Connecticut Senate race between Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, who is running as an independent, and the man who beat him in the Democratic primary, businessman Ned Lamont. Lieberman's appeal to Republicans on his support of the war could help prop up the embattled GOP House trio.

Republicans face difficulties in virtually every region. There are multiple opportunities for Democrats in Florida, Kentucky, Colorado, Minnesota and Arizona. Single seats are at risk of switching in California, Iowa, Idaho, Illinois, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming.

In addition to the 10 seats likely to fall to Democrats, there are 30 tossup races -- out of 63 competitive races -- in the closing days of the campaign, 29 of them for seats held by Republicans. The lone Democratic-held tossup is in Georgia.

The House has not changed hands without the Senate following suit since the popular election of senators began early in the 20th century. But the odds are steeper for the Democrats in their bid to take over the Senate, because they must win at least four states that Bush carried in 2000 and 2004, three of them with incumbent Republicans.

Democrats are favored to defeat Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum with state Treasurer Robert P. Casey Jr. and Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine with Rep. Sherrod Brown. Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee (R) has been trailing former attorney general Sheldon Whitehouse (D) in a state where Bush's popularity numbers are among the lowest in the nation.

Democrats have counted Montana Sen. Conrad Burns (R) as the fourth likeliest pickup, but his race against state Senate Co-President Jon Tester has narrowed in the final two weeks. A Mason-Dixon poll yesterday showed the race tied.

If Burns were to fall in Montana, Democrats still would have to prevail in two of the other three most competitive Republican-held states. In Virginia, Sen. George Allen (R) has been hurt by his own campaign gaffes, and Republicans are increasingly nervous that he will lose to Reagan administration Navy secretary James Webb, the Democratic nominee.

Republicans are more optimistic about former Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker winning the seat of retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist against the challenge of Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. Ford is described by many Democrats as their ablest candidate of the year, but he is going against the history of Tennessee, which has never elected an African American to the Senate.

In Missouri, neither Sen. James M. Talent (R) nor Democrat Claire McCaskill has been able to gain an advantage. McCaskill has a strong urban base in Kansas City and St. Louis but must hold down Talent's advantage in the rural areas, where Bush campaigned late last week.

Maryland is one of four other states drawing significant money and attention. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D) is a veteran Baltimore politician running in a Democratic state in a Democratic year. But Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) has proved to be a strong campaigner in the fight to succeed retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D).

In New Jersey, the race between appointed Sen. Robert Menendez (D) and Republican state Sen. Thomas H. Kean Jr. has been dominated by corruption charges stemming from Menendez's history in Hudson County. As elsewhere in the Northeast, the war in Iraq weighs heavily in this Democratic state.

The parties see long-shot chances in two other states. In Michigan, Republicans threw a batch of late money behind Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard in his bid to defeat Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D). In Arizona, Democrats see Sen. Jon Kyl (R) potentially vulnerable in his race against developer Jim Pederson (D).

Among interesting new faces likely to join the Senate next year are Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar, from Minnesota.

The new Post-ABC News poll, taken Thursday through yesterday, encouraged Republican hopes that they can limit the damage on Tuesday, although some other national polls continue to show a wider Democratic advantage. In the new poll, support for GOP candidates grew among married men and the quarter of the electorate who say they are getting ahead financially.

Opposition to the war has eased a bit, although a majority still say it was not worth fighting. Almost a third say the war is the top issue determining their vote, and three-quarters of them say they will vote for the Democrat in their district.

Bush's approval rating stands at 40 percent among all Americans and 43 percent among registered voters, a small but statistically insignificant increase in the past two weeks. About twice as many strongly disapprove of him as strongly approve.

Independents favor Democrats by an 18-point margin, but that is less than the 28-point advantage Democrats enjoyed two weeks ago.

The poll also showed that the Republican strategy of trying to make Democrats an unacceptable alternative may be working, at least at the margins.

Two weeks ago, 55 percent said Democratic members of Congress deserved reelection. In the new poll, that shrank to 48 percent. But Republicans remain stuck in the high thirties on the same question.

The distemper with Congress has lapped over into the governors' races. Six Republican House members are trying to move up to governors' mansions, and none has a clear path entering the final three days.

Rep. Bob Beaupez (R-Colo.) is badly trailing former Denver district attorney Bill Ritter (D) in Colorado. Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.) is far behind Gov. Brad Henry (D) in Oklahoma, while Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) is struggling behind the Democratic secretary of state, Chet Culver, in Iowa.

Three House Republicans are in tight gubernatorial races. Rep. Mark Green (R-Wis.) has run neck-and-neck with Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D) but may have slipped slightly in the final week. Nevada Rep. Jim Gibbons (R) has been hurt by allegations that he sexually assaulted a cocktail waitress, and his race against Democrat Dina Titus is now a tossup. In Idaho, Rep. C.L. "Butch" Otter (R) is in a surprisingly close race with newspaper publisher Jerry Brady (D).

In three key states, Democrats not only are taking the governorship from Republicans but also are poised to roll up majorities that could affect the rest of the ticket.

In New York, Spitzer, the hard-charging attorney general, has not fallen below 66 percent in a public poll since Labor Day in his bid to succeed retiring Gov. George E. Pataki (R).

In Ohio, Republicans have controlled all statewide offices in recent years, but scandals have left retiring Gov. Bob Taft (R) with approval ratings in the teens. Republican secretary of state J. Kenneth Blackwell has struggled to reach 40 percent in his race against Rep. Ted Strickland (D).

In Massachusetts, another state whose governorship Republicans have controlled for more than a decade, Clinton administration assistant attorney general Deval Patrick (D) has a sizeable lead over Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey (R) for the seat of retiring one-term Gov. Mitt Romney (R), who is planning a presidential run in 2008.

Another Republican presidential hopeful, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, is also likely to see a Democratic successor, with state Attorney General Mike Beebe leading Asa Hutchinson (R), former No. 2 official in the Homeland Security Department.

But Republicans are expected to hold the three big Sun Belt anchors. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has come back from a drubbing on ballot initiatives a year ago and has a big lead over state Treasurer Phil Angelides. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is trying to fend off a field that includes country singer Richard "Kinky" Friedman.

In Florida, where Gov. Jeb Bush (R) is term-limited, state Attorney General Charlie Crist (R) holds a narrowing lead over Rep. Jim Davis (D) and will get a Monday push from the president, who will campaign in the conservative Florida Panhandle.

Republican hopes of defeating Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell and Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm have soured. Rendell holds a comfortable lead over former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann. Granholm faced a well-funded challenger in businessman Dick DeVos, who sought to capitalize on the state's weak economy. But she has moved ahead in the last month.

In Illinois, U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald has been investigating the administration of Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) and has indicted his associates, but state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka (R) has struggled to overcome the barrage of negative advertising unleashed by the governor.

Washington Post polling director Jon Cohen, Post political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb, and washingtonpost.com staff writer Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.

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