Democrats Confident Despite Low Approval

Paul Kane
Wednesday, November 7, 2007; 7:57 PM

One year out from the election, congressional Democrats are increasingly confident they can tighten their hold on the House and Senate.

Although public approval of Congress has dipped dramatically since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) took control early this year, Democratic operatives believe they still can expand their majorities in 2008 by running hard against President Bush and his war policies. Republicans are also hampered by mounting retirements of veteran member and a huge disparity in fundraising by the two parties.

"I'd much rather be in our shoes than their shoes," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "George Bush and his legacy will be on the ballot."

Democrats wrested control of both chambers last year for the first time since 1994. The Democrats began the 110th Congress this year with a 233 to 202 vote edge over the Republicans, while on the Senate side Democrats and Republicans are evenly divided, 49 to 49, but two independents caucus with the Democrats, giving them a narrow ruling majority.

Van Hollen initially hoped his party could merely preserve their current majority in the 2008 election, after they picked up 30 seats last year, including many in conservative-leaning districts. Now, Van Hollen says he is "very much on offense" because of Bush's continued poor approval ratings and the sustained unpopularity of the Iraq war, both of which he expects to drag down a significant number of Republican incumbents.

Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, flatly predicted a pickup of GOP seats next year, but without setting a target. "We expect to win all 12 [Democratic incumbents] and pick up a nice number of Republican seats," he said.

But Republicans contend that Democrats are running next year's campaign based on the previous political battle, overlooking the fact that their nascent majority has few substantial achievements and Congress is now even more unpopular than Bush.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows Bush's approval rating at a career low mark of 33 percent, but approval of Congress is only 28 percent.

While Republicans acknowledge Bush is currently a drag on their approval ratings, they are increasingly insistent that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) will be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2008 and that she will weigh down Democratic congressional candidates more than Bush with GOP candidates.

"I think the '08 election is going to be about Senator Clinton and where she wants to take America," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on Wednesday, the one-year anniversary of the Democratic takeover of Congress. "So the landscape, next year, in my view, is going to be about this new Congress and its presidential nominee . . . and where they want to take America."

Both sides have searched for the historical parallels to present their case. For McConnell, next year's House and Senate races harken back to 1948 or 1996, election cycles that followed major political waves. Two years later the new congressional majority suffered major losses, with Republicans losing 75 House seats in 1948 and nine in 1996. Explaining those losses in anticipation of next year's elections, McConnell said: "The new Congress, misinterpreting its mandate, overreaches."

But Democrats believe they are on the cusp of what Schumer calls a "seminal election" that shifts the "plate tectonics" of the political map, shoring up a lasting Democratic majority for the next political generation. Schumer likens next year to 1932, a political watershed that led to Democratic control of the White House for 28 of the next 36 years and a Democratic majority in Congress over most of that period.

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