GOP Sees Rebound in Battle for Congress
Party Hopes Momentum Will Help Limit Losses

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.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said the only discernable slippage in Senate polls for Democrats has come in Alaska, Palin's home state (although he noted that Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich is still favored over Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, who will go on trial next week on corruption charges).

Disputing Ensign's rosy view of the playing field for Republicans, Schumer said Democratic candidates have stabilized in Colorado and New Hampshire and have gained in races in Oregon and Minnesota. "I expected us to be down in the last two weeks in a number of races," he said. "But we have found that the little surge that McCain and Palin have had, which we think is temporary, has not affected our Senate races. We're in better shape today than we were a month ago."

Republican optimism also is on the rise in the House, where more than 70 seats are considered competitive. Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) predicted that increased enthusiasm among Christian conservatives will result in a strong finish for McCain and GOP congressional candidates. In addition to Palin, Blunt credited McCain with his performance in a nationally televised appearance with evangelical minister Rick Warren that was well received by conservatives, along with his reversal on offshore oil drilling (McCain now favors expanding production).

"We still have some significant challenges out there, but House Republicans are feeling a lot better," Blunt said.

Democrats continue to take heart in the fact that President Bush remains deeply unpopular -- something a fresh round of economic turmoil is unlikely to change -- and the party's challengers in races nationwide, such as Hagan, are working furiously to link Republican incumbents to his legacy. The president frequently visited North Carolina when Dole ran for the Senate six years ago. The former Cabinet secretary touted her close ties to the administration.

Dole's loyalty may now be cutting the other way. Hagan connects her to Bush in every speech and campaign ad, and even Dole insiders concede that Hagan's hard-charging style and aggressive fundraising paid early dividends, drawing the notice of Democratic leaders months ago and resulting in a big advertising investment for her despite Dole's lopsided victory in 2002.

Neither side is pulling punches. One pro-Hagan DSCC ad featured two older men in rocking chairs debating whether Dole was "92" or "93" -- a reference to her voting percentage in support of Bush, but widely interpreted as a dig at her age (she is 72).

Dole responded with an ad questioning Hagan's truthfulness, portraying the Democrat as a barking dog named "Fibber Kay." An NRSC-funded spot features a Dr. Seuss-style reading lesson about Hagan's tax record.

But Hagan's biggest asset may be the massive Obama organizing effort that began in the state during the primary season. New voter registrations favor Democrats by an 8 to 1 ratio.

Hagan said she noticed "a bump after the Republican convention," but contends her race with Dole "is starting to settle back down." Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), the Democratic vice presidential nominee, campaigned in Charlotte earlier this week, and Obama's wife, Michelle, appeared on her behalf in Greensboro yesterday.

Dole spokesman Dan McLagan said he is confident that the race has shifted. "I get the sense that we're starting to pull away," he said. But state political experts say the outcome is far from clear.

Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at North Carolina State University, said: "The state is increasingly cosmopolitan, with a large number of people who have moved in from the East and the Midwest. Dole used to be seen as the kind of Republican who should do well in the new demographics. The old Republican model was seen as antiquated, and she represented the new model. If she can't win, or doesn't win, I think it says more than 'It's a bad year.' "

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company