By Jim VandeHei and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 7, 2006
As the 2006 campaign staggered to an angry close, national security and the Iraq war dominated the final-day debate of midterm elections in which national themes, not simply local choices, have framed the most competitive races. Democrats said a vote for them would force change in Iraq strategy, while President Bush led the GOP charge in warning that the opposition party cannot be trusted in a time of war.
Dozens of too-close-to-call House and Senate races finished on a surly tone, as the traditional political strategy of shifting to a positive message at campaign's end gave way this year to a calculation that the best chance to tip the balance was through continued attacks over personal character and alleged corruption.
But strategists on both sides said yesterday that national security broadly -- and Iraq specifically -- are likely to determine control of Congress today. Unlike in the 2002 and 2004 elections, when Republicans held a decisive edge on national security, polls over the past year have shown the public losing faith in the war and the GOP, and Democratic candidates nationwide were using their last TV advertising dollars on spots critical of Iraq policy.
"I think, frankly, people don't believe the president anymore" when it comes to the war, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, echoing other party leaders, said in an interview. "We are telling people if they want to stay the course, vote Republican. If you want a change of direction, vote Democrat."
Bush, however, was betting that the Republican Party's historic advantage with voters in times when security issues are prominent will pay dividends again. "As you go to the polls, remember we're at war," he told thousands of GOP supporters in Pensacola, Fla. "And if you want this country to do everything in its power to protect you and at the same time lay a foundation for peace for generations to come, vote Republican."
Democrats confidently predicted that they will win control of the House and trim if not topple the GOP's Senate majority. Republican operatives, however, said there is mounting evidence that fears about the nuclear threats in Iran and North Korea, coupled with more generalized doubts about Democratic competence and fortitude on national security, have provided GOP candidates with much-needed momentum in the final days. GOP tracking polls, these strategists said, have shown a slight but steady uptick since Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), in what he called a botched joke, suggested that uneducated people end up fighting in Iraq -- a comment that infuriated top Democrats despite the 2004 presidential nominee's repeated apologies and explanations.
"All of those things remind people we are at war and the importance of the national security issue," said Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee.
There are more than two dozen House races and at least five Senate contests that both sides considered too close to call heading into Election Day. A series of public polls released over the past few days offers contradictory findings about the public's views nationally and in many key races, confounding strategists in both parties. Some surveys show Republicans gaining on the generic question of whom respondents plan to vote for, while others suggest that Democrats are pulling away. The most recent, from CNN, showed Democrats with a 20-point advantage on the generic ballot question, which asks people which party they prefer but does not offer a choice between specific candidates.
Whether Republicans will succumb to adverse trends or manage to at least partly blunt them will determine whether Democrats can win back the House or Senate or both -- all scenarios that could dramatically change the trajectory of Bush's final two years in office.
Regardless of the margins, officials in both parties are planning for the stiffest challenge yet to Bush's war policy when Congress returns for its lame-duck session next week. Lawmakers are also bracing for GOP leadership changes in the House and Senate and a new policy agenda that is not dictated by the White House. Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), a leader of House conservatives, has told colleagues that he plans to seek a top leadership position, congressional aides said.
Democrats, who lost control of the House in 1994, need a net gain of 15 seats to win it back. Republicans generally agree that the opposition is on track to do that, but they hold out hope that a superior voter-turnout effort will tip just enough races to preserve the narrowest of House majorities.
A top GOP strategist said yesterday that several GOP House members who appeared safe one month ago -- including Reps. Charles Bass (N.H.) and Melissa Hart (Pa.) -- are in serious jeopardy. If Bass and Hart lose, it could signal mass casualties for the GOP, other strategists say.
Senior strategists in both parties said the GOP is virtually certain to lose 10 seats, mostly because of a variety of scandals. If these projections are correct, Republicans would have to win more than three-quarters of the 30 or so races that were tied heading into the final weekend.
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, who released a survey of 50 districts yesterday showing Democrats up 49 percent to 44 percent, said Republicans have closed the gap slightly, but not enough to save their majority. "I don't see any evidence of anything but a minor pushback of getting some of the most partisan Republicans re-engaged," Greenberg said. Using his poll, he predicted Democrats will win 30 to 35 seats "as a conservative estimate."
It will be much harder for Democrats to pick up the six seats needed to control the Senate. GOP Sens. Mike DeWine (Ohio) and Rick Santorum (Pa.) are far behind in state-based polling, but Republicans have a shot at winning the five other targeted GOP seats: in Missouri, Montana, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Virginia. Republicans also have a chance to pick up Democratic seats in Maryland and New Jersey, though both are uphill efforts.
Three premier contests -- Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia -- have been in the tossup category for several weeks. Republicans said yesterday that they think Tennessee is the most likely of the three to remain in their hands. Democrats said a big turnout among black voters is Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr.'s best chance for a narrow victory over former Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker, who polls show has taken control of the race in recent days. In Virginia, Sen. George Allen (R) is fighting for his political life against Democrat James Webb, while the race in Missouri between Sen. James M. Talent (R) and State Auditor Claire McCaskill is considered the tightest.
Two other races have given Republicans reason to hope that they can hold the Senate. In Rhode Island, Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee (R) has closed the gap in his contest against former attorney general Sheldon Whitehouse. But Chafee is running into one of the stiffest headwinds in the country, with only about a quarter of voters there approving of Bush's performance.
In Montana, weekend polls painted a conflicting picture of the battle between Sen. Conrad Burns (R) and state Senate President Jon Tester. One survey showed a tie, while another gave Tester a clear lead. Bush and Vice President Cheney campaigned there last week, but Tester has been getting help from popular Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
Campaign volunteers continued to make telephone calls and walk precincts in the most contested races in an effort to maximize voter turnout. A Washington Post-ABC News poll found that as of Saturday, 41 percent of registered voters said they had been contacted directly by a campaign or party, up from 29 percent two weeks earlier.
Of those who said they had been contacted, 29 percent said they had heard from Republicans, 20 percent said they had heard from Democrats and 41 percent said they had been contacted by both parties. Several officials said this comports with anecdotal evidence that Republicans have done a better job than Democrats of reaching voters in the final stretch.
"We've got to get our votes out," former president Bill Clinton said during a campaign stop for House candidates in New York. "There are still people who will go to the polls tomorrow not entirely sure of who they're going to vote for because, frankly, a lot of these people never voted for us before."
Washingtonpost.com staff writer Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.