washingtonpost.com
Democrats Confident Despite Low Approval

Paul Kane
washingtonpost.com
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.

"The numbers are at record levels for Democrats," Schumer said, pointing to most recent polling data favoring his party over Republicans on many issues.

This week's Washington Post-ABC News Poll revealed just 39 percent of voters hold a favorable image of the GOP with 56 percent viewing it unfavorably. The Democratic Party, however, held a 51 to 45 favorability edge. Moreover, asked which party they want to control Congress in 2009 regardless of who wins the White House, voters favored Democrats by 54 to 40 percent.

On five key issues -- the Iraq war, healthcare, the economy, taxes and immigration -- Democrats hold advantages ranging from 6 to 27 percentage points over Republicans in terms of which party is more trusted. Only on combating terrorism do Republicans hold an edge, 42 to 41 percent, over Democrats.

Democrats also continue to hold critical advantages in the electoral and financial landscapes. House Republicans have suffered 14 retirements, including several in seats considered newly competitive because of the veteran incumbent's departure. Meanwhile, some Republicans linked to corruption investigations, including Reps. John T. Doolittle (Calif.) and Don Young (Alaska), are seeking re-election for seats that are highly competitive only because of the incumbent's weaknesses.

Democrats have seen just three retirements, all from safe districts. And two of the retiring Democrats -- Reps. Tom Allen (Maine) and Mark Udall (Colo.) -- believe the political environment is so conducive to Democratic gains that they are giving up safe seats for Senate bids.

Financially, the National Republican Congressional Committee is essentially bankrupt, with just $1.6 million in cash available at the end of the 3rd quarter and almost $4 million in leftover debt from the 2006 cycle. Meanwhile, Van Hollen's DCCC is awash in cash, with more than $28 million available to spend as of Sept. 30.

Van Hollen has warned his colleagues that he will need much more money this year than the DCCC spent in the last election cycle because an expanded playing field has left 70 seats in question ¿ about 40 of which are held by Republicans now. In 2006, for example, the DCCC spent $70 million on a TV and radio advertising campaign that hit only 47 districts total, only seven of which were held by Democrats.

Schumer's DSCC also holds a large financial advantage over the National Republican Senatorial Committee, while, more importantly, Democrats do not have a single retiring senator. Three veteran Republican senators from Virginia, Colorado and New Mexico have announced their plans to retire at the end of their terms next year.

Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst, already rates Virginia as a likely pick-up for Democrats with former Gov. Mark Warner (Va.) holding wide leads over any potential challenger. His latest Rothenberg Report rates Virginia and four other GOP seats as good pick-up opportunities for Democrats, while just one Democrat ¿ Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.) ¿ is considered in a toss-up race.

But Republicans are adamant that the tide will turn, at least in House races, because there are about 60 Democrats sitting in districts that voted for Bush in 2004. "The structure of the playing field, I would argue, favors us," said Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), chairman of the NRCC.

Cole, who said his goal is merely to "gain seats", has prime targets in several dozen of the 42 freshman Democrats. Many freshmen hold seats that have been historically conservative, including a few ¿ Reps. Tim Mahoney (D-Fla.), Nick Lampson (D-Texas) and Zack Space (D-Ohio) ¿ who claimed seats in which incumbents retired amid corruption and scandal charges. This time around the GOP nominee in those districts will not have any scandal taint.

In particular, Cole promises to make the achievements of the 110th Congress a central plank, saying that Pelosi's leadership style has been confrontation with Bush in a manner that has not brought any landmark legislative successes.

"They desperately need signing ceremonies with George Bush. They desperately need to show they can make the place work," Cole said, adding that the new GOP majority eventually crafted a host of compromises with President Clinton in 1996. "That's what saved the Republican majority."

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