GOP Sees Rebound in Battle for Congress

Sen. Elizabeth Dole, with husband Robert J. Dole, is relying on enthusiasm from GOP faithful in her reelection bid.
Sen. Elizabeth Dole, with husband Robert J. Dole, is relying on enthusiasm from GOP faithful in her reelection bid. (By Chuck Liddy -- News And Observer)
By Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 19, 2008

Like many of her Republican colleagues concerned about their reelection prospects, Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina skipped the party's national convention to focus on campaigning back home. But even in her absence, the gathering may have given her bid for a return to office its biggest boost yet.

Volunteers began showing up at GOP campaign offices at quadruple the pre-convention pace, many of them conservatives who were lukewarm to presidential nominee John McCain but ecstatic about his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Their enthusiasm could be Dole's saving grace on Nov. 4.

"We have to move out of here and take on this fight big-time," Dole said at a GOP dinner in North Carolina earlier this month, acknowledging, "We're in a very tough cycle."

After months of fundraising doldrums, recruitment misfires and daunting polls, Republicans believe they are finally on the rebound in the battle for Congress. Both sides concede that the GOP stands almost no chance of taking back the House or Senate in November, but party leaders think the Palin factor and an increasingly competitive fight for the White House have generated enthusiasm and momentum that could limit GOP losses to only a few Senate seats and perhaps fewer than a dozen House seats.

As evidence of the jolt provided to the party base by the Republican convention and the selection of Palin, strategists point to recent polls showing a bounce in "generic" polling. In August, a USA Today-Gallup poll gave Democrats a 51 to 42 percent lead on the question of which party voters would support in a congressional election in their district. In the days after the GOP convention in St. Paul, Minn., ended earlier this month, Republicans had climbed to a 50 to 45 percent advantage.

Republicans are especially bullish about the changing Senate landscape. Democrats have never envisioned an easy path to a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority, but polls suggest that prospect has been reduced to a near impossibility in recent weeks.

Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign has pulled out of Georgia, probably a fatal blow to former state representative Jim Martin in his bid to unseat Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss. Another long shot, state Rep. Rick Noriega in Texas, has been outraised 9 to 1 by Republican Sen. John Cornyn. State Sen. Andrew Rice is not showing significant gains against GOP Sen. James M. Inhofe in Oklahoma, and Republican Sen. Susan Collins appears to be holding firm in Maine, where she faces Rep. Tom Allen.

"Sarah Palin definitely gave a boost, no question" said Sen. John Ensign (Nev.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "In races where we were way down, a lot of those races are even. In some of the races that were even, we are up." And public polls do not tell the full story, Ensign argued. He said internal data show a decisive shift among likely Republican voters who appear ready to turn out in droves on Election Day in states across the board.

But Democrats continue to believe that their prospects remain bright in a number of states that would normally appear to be reaches for the party, including the showdown in North Carolina between Dole and state Sen. Kay Hagan. The party's best chances in the Senate are open seats in Virginia and New Mexico, gateways to two regions -- the South and the West -- that Democrats hope they have room to grow in. The party also has strong potential in Oregon, Colorado, New Hampshire and even Mississippi.

Despite the Dole campaign's renewed optimism, polls show the presidential race is close in North Carolina, and congressional elections analyst Stuart Rothenberg recently shifted the state race from "narrow advantage for incumbent" to "tossup," concluding in his Sept. 10 newsletter that "North Carolina is a problem for Republicans."

Mississippi is a GOP headache that neither party anticipated until Democrats scored an unlikely victory in a special election to fill a vacant House seat in the state earlier this year. Party leaders convinced former governor Ronnie Musgrove to challenge Sen. Roger Wicker, who was appointed to the seat left vacant by Republican Trent Lott's resignation earlier this year. The NRSC has become so concerned with its prospects there that it announced this week that it would finance its second statewide round of advertising for Wicker.

Ensign said he remains "very confident" that Republicans will be able to prevail in North Carolina and Mississippi, but acknowledged that such unexpected vulnerabilities have created a financial hardship for his committee -- which lagged far behind its Democratic counterpart in available cash, $43 million to $25 million, at the end of July.

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