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Chris Cillizza
washingtonpost.com Political Columnist/Blogger
Monday, February 6, 2006; 11:00 AM

Don't want to miss out on the latest buzz in politics? Start each day at wonk central: The Post Politics Hour. Join in each weekday morning at 11 a.m. as a member of The Washington Post's team of White House and Congressional reporters answers questions about the latest in buzz in Washington and The Post's coverage of political news.

washingtonpost.com Political Columnist/Blogger Chris Cillizza was online Monday, Feb. 6, at 11 a.m. ET .

Handful of Races May Tip Control of Congress , ( Post, Feb, 26, 2006 )

Read more on The Fix

The transcript follows.

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Chris Cillizza: Good morning. The political season is now (finally) in full swing -- great news for a political junkie like me.

Dan Balz and I wrote a story in today's Post looking at the state of play in the 2006 midterm elections for this morning's paper and on the web there is a great interactive map that shows you where the fight for control of both chambers is being staged. Please check it out and offer your own thoughts and comments on The Fix.

Let's get started.

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Avon Park, Fla.: As a Democrat I'm concerned that the Republican problems have raised Democratic expectations too high. The fact is that gerrymandering has made it unlikely that Democrats will win control of Congress. Do you think that Democrats could plausibly lower expectations so that any net gain of seats in the House or Senate would be seen as a victory?

Chris Cillizza: Expectation-setting is always a huge part of electoral politics and this election is no different.

As Dan and I were writing the story I mentioned above,many of the Democrats we talked to were quick to note that coming into the 2006 cycle few neutral observers thought Democrats had any chance of picking up the House and Senate.

Republicans on the other hand said that victory in 2006 means simply reminding in the majority after the election.

So, there is no question there is real gamesmanship going on in terms of expectations on both sides.

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Baltimore, Md.: Hey Chris,

I'm submitting this early because I have a comment. Not to be disrespectful, but I think your prediction that the Dems will have a successful election shows just how out of touch you are with middle America.

For many people, the way the democrats have behaved on national security is a giant turn off. I realize The Post doesn't always cover every comment made by Dems, but from Kerry to Kennedy to Gore and Dean and all the rest, the Democrats sound shrill and meaningless on national security. I think you need to realize that middle America hates it when Gore, Kerry and Dean either bash the troops or sound the retreat. Just last week you had Cindy Sheehan as a guest of a democratic congresswoman, the week before she's in Venezuela with dictator Chavez calling Bush a terrorist. Is any of this sinking in? Its odd and disturbing to be objective about it. To be partisan, I would say the dems are committing political suicide in front of our very eyes and you don't even see it.

Chris Cillizza: For those of who you think we only answer the questions praising us.....

I think this is a valid point about some of Democrats high-profile leaders (Kerry, Gore etc.) being seen as out of step with some folks in middle America.

But, if you look at polls in the most competitive House and Senate races as well as national surveys, Republicans are clearly fighting on tough terrain at the moment. This is not a conclusion that we drew in the story -- it is one born out time and time again by polls.

Even Republicans privately admit that if the election were held this week they would suffer major losses in both the Senate and the House. To sound a cliche, a year is an eternity in politics and much can change between now and November but all signs at the moment point to Democratic gains.

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Trevose, Pa.: How big a role will Bush be playing in 06 in comparison to '02 in the Congressional elections.

Chris Cillizza: Democrats seem likely to try and make this election a referendum on President Bush.

The party -- led by Rep. Rahm Emanuel and Sen. Chuck Schumer -- have been bashing Congressional Republicans as a "rubberstamp" for the president over the past five years -- and even have a web site up and running to drive this point home.

For Republicans, Bush as well as Vice President Dick Cheney are likely to be utilized as fundraisers rather than campaigners -- assuming the Administration's approval numbers remain where they are now.

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Springfield, Mo.: You appear to have overlooked the Missouri senatorial race: GOP incumbent Jim Talent v. Dem state auditor Claire McCaskill, who was narrowly defeated by young blunt for governor in the last election.

Chris Cillizza: We mentioned the Missouri Senate race in the story as one of the seven seats that Democrats are targeting.

Sen. Jim Talent (along with Sen. Jon Kyl from Arizona) are -- at the moment -- the two least vulnerable of the six Republican Senators who Democrats are hoping to defeat in November.

Yes, state Auditor Claire McCaskill has a slight lead in polling taken in the race but the contest has yet to really engage as of yet.

Talent is a solid campaigner and a very strong fundraiser and at least for now doesn't appear to have committed any fire-able offense.

McCaskill is clearly Democrats' strongest potential candidate given her fundraising ability and her name identification from her 2004 gubernatorial loss.

For McCaskill to win this race, she needs the national playing field to be tilted (as it is now) toward Democrats.

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Arlington, Va.: We don't hear much about the Vermont Senate race. Who are the leading candidates? What are the chances of the Democrats taking Jefford's seat and that adding to their potential majority? Any chance former Vt. governor Dean (and DNC Chair) can jump into that race?

Chris Cillizza: You don't hear much about it because of the decided Democratic lean of the state (Kerry won it by 20 points in 2004) and the fact that Republicans were unable to convince Gov. Jim Douglas (R) to run.

Independent Rep. Bernie Sanders, who caucuses with Democrats in the House, has successfully convinced Democrats not to run a candidate of their own for the Senate seat.

Republicans seem happy with wealthy businessman Richard Tarrant as their nominee. Tarrant is traveling the state holding pancake breakfasts but doesn't seem to have gained much traction against Sanders here yet.

A major uphill race for Republicans.

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Boston, Mass.: What is the outlook for the VT house seat being vacated by Bernie Sanders? Are there any competitive races in Michigan?

Chris Cillizza: And now for the seat Sanders is vacating to run for the Senate....

Republicans are extremely enthusiastic about their chances in the open seat despite all of the factors I outlined above that seem to favor Democrats.

Much of Republicans optimism is centered on their likely candidate: Adjutant General Martha Rainville. Rainville was courted by both parties to run for the seat but chose the Republicans.

An exploratory committee for her has raised $100,000 and she is expected to get into the race within the month. She'll face a primary challenge from state Sen. Mark Shephard and likely be challenged in the fall by state Sen. Peter Welch (D).

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Washington, D.C.: Thanks for the tips in today's article on which House/Senate races to watch. Which governor races do you think will be most interesting?

Chris Cillizza: Good question. If you go to Washingtonpost.com, there is an interactive map that details the top 5 governors races to watch with a bit of analysis for each contest.

Florida, California, New York, Iowa and Ohio are all listed there and should all be great to watch. But, with 36 governors' mansions up for grabs in November there are so many more to keep an eye on including Colorado, Alaska, Arkansas, Maine and many others.

If you want a little more information on the hottest governors' races, check out The Fix's Friday Line on the topic.

Can we link to that?

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washingtonpost.com: Friday Line: Winning the 2008 Money Primary

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Nokesville, Va.: Chris, thanks for getting a little campaign news on the front page of the paper. It's fun for junkies to know which House and Senate races are going to be hot. Having said that, isn't this a bit of a valentine to Schumer and Co? Isn't it possible we can find Post articles from February 2002 and February 2004 touting the Democrats' chances? Afraid your crystal ball might be cloudy?

Chris Cillizza: I don't think the comparison to 2002 and 2004 is entirely apt.

In 2002, the impact of Sept. 11 was still being felt deeply by the country and there was little indication that the national playing field favored either party overwhelmingly.

It's true that in 2004, some of the poll numbers (right direction/wrong track, Bush's job approval numbers) SEEMED to point to Kerry and the Democrats winning. But, a presidential election cycle is so different than a midterm election that it isn't entirely fair to compare them.

So, I don't think this story was too friendly toward Democrats. I think it reflected the current political reality seen by smart observers on both sides of the partisan divide, which is that Democratic gains are likely but Democratic takeovers of the House and Senate aren't in the cards just yet.

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Rochester, N.Y.: What impact will the statewide elections in New York State have on elections for the House upstate? Will Hillary Clinton and Spitzer have coattails if they're running essentially unopposed? Or will Weld mange to give Spitzer some kind of a run for his money? Are upstate Republicans like Kuhl, Boehlert, McHugh going to put at much of a disadvantage by the weakness of the GOP at the state level?

Chris Cillizza: Great question.

Democrats are beginning to talk about their chances of ousting people like Republican Reps. John Sweeney and Randy Kuhl in the Upstate because of the GOP's weakness at the top of the ticket.

Both Spitzer and Clinton have huge leads over their Republican rivals and New York GOPers seem headed for a very tough election this November.

Whether the lack of a competitive top of the ticket pushes Sweeney, Kul or others out remains to be seen but it is certainly not good news for them.

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Silly-zza!: I'm a dyed-in-the-woolly Republican, but casting Kyl as vulnerable? You might as well say the Democrats are vulnerable in Maryland. Major stretch, pal.

Chris Cillizza: Silly-zza. That's good.

Well, we did in fact say that Republicans have a chance in the open Maryland Senate seat. Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R) is running and many in the party believe his star power can overcome the Democratic nature of the state.

As for Arizona, we noted in the story that Kyl and Talent are the last two GOP incumbents likely to fall in November. But, Democrats have a wealthy candidate to run against Kyl and believe they can drive a wedge between he and the better known and more popular John McCain.

I stand by our contention that it's one to watch -- as is Maryland for that matter.

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Arlington, Va.: On the Virginia Senate race: first I heard Webb was in. Then he was officially out. Now I hear he's reconsidering and might be in again. First off, if you could clarify his status, even it's a "not sure" or "under consideration".

Secondly, do either him or Miller stand a chance at beating Allen or even being competitive?

Chris Cillizza: Well, Jim Webb is not -- at the moment -- consulting me on his decision. His candidacy seems to me to be largely based on a group of persistent online activists rather than any real interest in the contest by Webb himself.

I think Harris Miller (and his deep pockets) is the likely nominee. Miller isn't likely to beat Allen, who remains extremely popular in the Commonwealth, but may do something more important for the Democratic party: keep Allen occupied through November.

Allen is eyeing a 2008 presidential race and the more time and money he has to devote to winning re-election comes directly out of the planning and fundraising for a presidential bid.

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Medford, Mass.: Moving on to '08 for a moment-- in just about every news story about the next presidential election, Hilary Clinton is dubbed the assumed frontrunner. Yet it seems to me that most Americans acknowledge that she is unlikely to be elected in a general election, and recently much more of the talk is about the "anti-Hilary candidates," primarily Evan Bayh and Mark Warner. Do you foresee a real chance of a Clinton nomination, or is it just talk fueling talk?

Chris Cillizza: Speaking of 2008....

I think Senator Clinton has to be considered the Democratic frontrunner for the nomination. She will hold a major fundraising edge over all of the other candidates and don't overlook the advantage she enjoys as the only woman in the field.

As for whether she can win the presidency, I recently wrote about that in The Fix -- a post I hope we can link to below. Polling shows that while there is a considerable bloc of people who will vote for anyone but Hillary, there is a similar group of people who would brave a blizzard to cast a vote for her.

Unlike many of the other Democrats looking at the race, I think Clinton's electoral math if decidedly non-traditional. A recent poll had 20 percent of Democrats saying they would never vote for her but a corresponding 20 percent of Republicans saying they would consider doing so.

I think there is a somewhat silent group of people (mostly moderate to GOP leaning suburban women) who might pull the lever for Hillary and surprise us all.

So, I wouldn't rule her out.

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washingtonpost.com: Parsing the Polls: Can Hillary Win the White House?

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Rolla, Mo.: Switching gears to the '08 presidential run, why is Ken Mehlman attacking Hillary Clinton? As a Democrat I fear her sure loss in the general election. Why would the Republicans go after her now, shouldn't they relish her candidacy? Let her get the nomination then crush her with the "liberal, angry" rhetoric.

Chris Cillizza: I think Republicans, too, are divided about Hillary.

Sure, she unites their base like no other potential Democratic candidate (except for maybe Al Gore) but she also bring a unique ability to raise scads of money and co-opt the women's vote as well.

So, Mehlman is smart to rhetorically jab at HRC when he can. it's a win-win for him. It helps raise money for Republicans and may take some of the luster off of HRC for those Republicans on the fence about her potential candidacy.

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Somerset, Pa.: A political story after the Super Bowl and no mention of Steeler great Lynn Swann?

Chris Cillizza: We mentioned Swann recently in the Post politics column. He looks to have the votes wrapped up to secure the official endorsement of the state party later this month although his primary challenger -- former Lt. Gov. Bill Scranton -- has pledged to run in the May primary regardless of whether Swann is the state party's pick.

Swann seems likely to win the primary. Whether he's ready for the November election against Gov. Ed Rendell (D) -- a consummate pol -- remains to be seen.

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Washington, D.C.: So did Roethlisberger cross the goal line?

Chris Cillizza: NO WAY. And I feel as though I am an expert on that play because I watched it on my friend Bart Radolinski's massive television, which was far better than actually being at the game.

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Rixeyville, Va.: Would you care to hazard a guess as to how high a percentage Hillary Clinton will ring up in the fall, now that she's running against the Mayor of Yonkers? On the spin scale, how big a margin dampens her buzz?

Chris Cillizza: I think Senator Clinton is likely to be in the high 50s and could possibly top 60 percent in her re-election race if the GOP candidate remains former Yonkers Mayor John Spencer.

Clinton set a high bar for herself in 2000 when she beat then Rep. Rick Lazio (R) 55 percent to 43 percent -- a much wider margin than expected heading into election day.

If Clinton breaks 60, I thinks he has real momentum heading into 2008. More important than her re-election percentage is how much money she saves in her campaign war chest. Clinton had $17 million in the bank at the end of 2005. If Spencer doesn't force Clinton to spend heavily from this account, and at this point it doesn't look like he will, she could end 2006 with $25-30 million in the bank -- all of which could be directly transferred to a presidential campaign.

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Chris Cillizza: That's all I have time for today but make sure to check The Fix later today. I'll answer some of the questions I couldn't get to in the chat.

Thanks for all the interest.

Chris

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