By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Sen. John McCain's struggles in a number of reliably Republican regions of the country are further complicating the already tenuous reelection prospects of some congressional Republicans, according to strategists in both parties and independent analysts.
Particularly difficult for Republican prospects is that McCain appears to be trailing badly in several moderate suburban districts across the Midwest and New England, while he is doing worse than President Bush did in rural conservative districts.
Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told MSNBC this week that "there's no question the top of the ticket is affecting our Senate races and it's making it a lot more difficult."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), in a fundraising appeal to supporters yesterday, conceded that a win by Sen. Barack Obama "is a real possibility" as he argued that he should be reelected to check Democratic "domination of the public debate."
And the Republican National Committee, which has historically focused almost single-mindedly on the race for the White House during presidential campaigns, announced yesterday that it is taking out a $5 million line of credit to try to keep Democrats from gaining a supermajority of 60 Senate seats for the first time in 30 years.
The apparent McCain drag on congressional races comes as voters increasingly cast blame on Bush and Republicans for the crumbling economy and at a time when the GOP's national party committees have little financial resources to defend an increasing number of House and Senate seats that are in jeopardy.
"McCain is just running so poorly now. He's collapsed in some districts. It's brutal out there for Republicans," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the independent Rothenberg Political Report.
The environment has created the potential for gains by the Democrats that could leave them in control of the Capitol for years.
Democrats hold a 51 to 49 edge in the Senate when the two independents who caucus with them are factored in, and a 236 to 199 House majority. Rothenberg predicted that Democrats will pick up 27 to 33 House seats, and make gains of six to nine seats in the Senate. The Cook Political Report, another independent political forecaster, suggests that Democrats will net 23 to 28 House seats, and pick up seven to nine Republican-held Senate seats.
Such results would give Democrats larger majorities than they held in 1994, on the eve of the Republican "revolution," which led to 12 years of GOP dominance on Capitol Hill.
Losses of that magnitude would require Republicans to put aside their ideological divisions and appeal to independent voters to have any chance at winning back the majority in the next few years, according to John Feehery, a former spokesman for the House Republican leadership.
"If, however, the GOP goes through a bloodbath and Obama is successful governing from the middle as president," Feehery said, "it could be a long, long time" before Republicans can think about regaining power.
When McCain clinched the nomination earlier this year, GOP leaders in Congress hailed him as the best possible standard-bearer because he had crafted an image independent of Bush. Leaders urged incumbents and challengers alike to lash themselves to McCain's brand.
Instead, the dynamics of the presidential race have created opportunities for Democrats that even they were not anticipating, particularly after the financial meltdown began in mid-September.
In Georgia, where Bush won by 17 points in 2004, Obama has cut McCain's lead roughly in half since Labor Day. At the same time, former state representative Jim Martin (D) has closed in on Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.).
In New York's 26th District, internal GOP polls show McCain trailing Obama by a narrow margin, sources said. Bush won the Buffalo-based district by 12 percentage points in 2004. The race to replace retiring Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.) is considered a tossup.
In Virginia's 2nd District around Virginia Beach, Bush won in 2004 by 16 points, more than in 2000. In recent private GOP polling, McCain is ahead of Obama by two percentage points, and Rep. Thelma Drake (R) has gone from being favored to fighting for her seat.
On the stump, McCain implicitly acknowledges the GOP's pending collapse in congressional elections by suggesting a vote for him is a check against unbridled Democratic power. On Monday in Cleveland he called Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) a "dangerous threesome."
House and Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are arguing that it is they, rather than McCain, who are the only check against Democrats. "Without a strong conservative leader, the Obama/Pelosi/Reid machine will steamroll a host of new taxes and left-wing social policy across the Senate Floor. There'd be an effective 'gag order' on independents and conservatives," McConnell wrote to supporters.
In a memo issued last week, Karen Hanretty, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, did not mention McCain once. Citing a "toxic political environment," Hanretty said her party faces "a situation Republicans simply have never experienced in congressional races."
"It's kind of a perfect storm," Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.) said last week while campaigning in his suburban Detroit district.
Knollenberg, a 15-year incumbent who faces an uphill battle against a former state senator, has no support from the top of the ticket since the McCain campaign abandoned Michigan a month ago. The NRCC announced last week it would not finance ads there in the final days before the elections.
Staff writers Perry Bacon Jr., Chris Cillizza and Ben Pershing contributed to this report.