Bellwethers: Election 2006

Dan Balz
Washington Post Chief Political Reporter
Wednesday, July 26, 2006; 12:00 PM

Washington Post chief political reporter Dan Balz was online Wednesday, July 26, at noon ET to discuss the top issues and races that could determine control of Congress this fall. The war in Iraq, President Bush's approval ratings, corruption in Congress, immigration and the economy are issues roiling congressional races around the country. Political questions also loom large. Can the Democrats win in the upper South? Can Republicans hold onto seats in the Northeast? How will hot button issues affect voter turnout?

Read The Post's Bellwethers series.

The transcript follows.


Dan Balz: Hello to everyone. Welcome to the continuation of our discussion of The Post's Bellwethers Project, which we launched in the newspaper and on the Web site at the beginning of the week. We've tried to organize the fall campaigns around eight questions that we think will define the ultimate outcome. My colleagues John Harris and Chris Cillizza took questions about the project on Monday and we'll be revisiting this regularly on the web and in the newspaper between now and November.

For today, I'd like to try to confine questions to the midterm elections. In our regular 11 a.m. political chats, we're dealing with other issues -- 2008, for example -- that are on people's minds. Away we go.


Washington, D.C.: Dan,

The structural context of the upcoming midterms, as we have been informed for the past few years, is a 95 percent "coronation" effect in congressional elections (i.e., incumbents almost always win) due to the gerrymandering of districts. This has been discussed in many places and fora, books such as "Fixing Elections," etc. Now, given that reality, isn't all the hubbub about a potential tidal wave of discontent (although it does exist) manifesting itself at the November polls mere cheerleading for a game that has been fixed long before the teams take the field? Personally, I think the MSM's "sports coverage" of non-competitive elections is a convenient way of avoiding the unpleasant topic of structural failure, which is what a free press should be discussing. This comment, of course, excludes primaries, which appears to be the one place where competitive selection actually exists.

Dan Balz: We'll start with a global question, not one focused on a specific House district. "Washington" has identified the tension built into this election. The macro political climate says Republicans are in big trouble. But the structural realities --redistricting, incumbent reelection rates, local issues and the fact that Republicans have learned how to fight these races locally -- all make it more difficult to predict whether the House or Senate will flip in November.

It's been quite clear for months that Republicans will lose ground in November, but just how much is what the next few months will be about. Democrats only have to pick up 15 House seats to capture control, so even with the built-in advantages for incumbents and other structural factors "Washington" mentioned, the outcome is in doubt. Republicans we've talked to recently certainly sound worried.


San Francisco, Calif.: Hello, Dan, and thanks for chatting with us this morning about the Bellwethers Project. Since gubernatorial and statehouse races will have a big impact on re-districting -- which the Supreme Court says can be done whenever party control changes at the state level -- are there some Bellwether State races you might want to focus on, or is all about who gets sworn in next January in DeeCee?

Dan Balz: You're quite right about that and we'll be looking in particular at governors' races in the not-so-distant future. State legislative battles also will be significant, as you suggest, because there are a number of states where control is in the balance.

For the Bellwethers Project, however, we decided to stick to House and Senate races. But we won't ignore what's going on in the states. There are lots of good governor's races out there. I was in Colorado over the weekend doing reporting and that's just one of a bunch of states where the governor's race is very competitive. Republicans there now hold the governor's office but are worried they might lose it in November.


Fort Myers, Fla.: Hello Mr. Balz:

It appears to me that many of the same dynamics that were the hallmark of the 1994 election are in play again; corruption by majority party leaders, dissatisfaction with the president, a restive and angry electorate.

Add to that a phenomenally unpopular war and a president with approval ratings in the mid 30s, and it seems that this is a prescription for a sea change in Washington.

Do you see parallels between '94 and '06?

Dan Balz: Anyone who has done what you've done, which is to compare the climates in 1994 and today, has come to a similar conclusion about GOP vulnerability.

Bush's approval actually is lower than Clinton's was in 1994. Clinton hit a low of 41 percent in the Gallup Poll in August 1994. Bush has struggled lately to get as high as 41 percent.

The best any party has done when its president is below 50 percent approval was Democrats in 1978, when Jimmy Carter was at 49 percent. Democrats lost 15 House seats. So Bush has put his party clearly at risk. Add to that the approval ratings for Congress and you can see why Republicans are worried.

One factor to remember, however, is that unhappiness with Republicans hasn't clearly translated into enthusiasm for the Democrats. The Democrats' numbers are more mixed, so this is not a case where the lower Republicans have gone, the higher Democrats have risen.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: Dan, do you see any chance that Jim Walsh (NY-25) will get a competitive race from Dan Maffei, Charles Rangel's former press secretary? The district, which includes Syracuse, voted for Gore in 2000 and Kerry in 2004.

Dan Balz: Possible but Walsh still looks tough to beat there. The June 30 FEC reports showed Walsh with $608,000 on hand to Maffei's $208,000. Maffei got a break when Paloma Capanna dropped out of the Democratic primary, so he'll be able to concentrate on Walsh without having to spend his money winning the nomination. The fact that Kerry and Gore both won the district in their presidential races makes it attractive to the Democrats, but Walsh is still the favorite there.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Balz,

There you go again.

Every two years since 1994, The Washington Post runs a story or series of stories about what the Democrats have to do to retake Congress.

Forgive me, but this seems to be a broken-record exercise in wishful thinking on the part of The Post's editors.

I didn't live in Washington before 1994. But I'm curious. Did The Post run stories then on what the Republicans had to do to retake Congress?

Dan Balz: If you go back and look at our coverage in the late summer of 1994, you'll see that we were projecting big gains for the Republicans, with the only real question being whether they could win as many seats as they needed that year to take control. In that year, Republicans needed almost three times as many seats to take control as Democrats do this year. As noted here already today, many of the problems facing the GOP this year were problems the Democrats faced in 1994.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Right now, it looks like Casey and Rendell will both win easily, especially as Lynn Swann's candidacy continues to disappoint. What effect do you think that these will have upon the House races in Pennsylvania? What about Spitzer's and Hillary Clinton's twin landslides in New York State?

Dan Balz: Rendell looks in very good shape at this point, and you'd have to say Santorum is in real danger of losing, but I don't put Casey in Rendell's category yet. Having Rendell at the top of the ticket should be a boost for Democratic congressional candidates, particularly the races around Philadelphia that are competitive. Being the former mayor of Philadelphia, Rendell always pulls a big vote in and around the city.

New York is a little harder to read. Neither Clinton nor Spitzer seems to have a very competitive race. Will that hold down turnout and if so, which party will benefit?


Alpharetta, Ga.: Do you think the CT senate primary will impact the three House races there this fall: Johnson, Simmons and Shays?

Dan Balz: The Lieberman-Lamont race is such a fascinating contest. If Lieberman loses and runs as an independent, that could hurt Democratic chances of sweeping the three GOP-held congressional seats you mentioned: CT 2 Simmons), CT 4 (Shays) and CT 5 (Johnson). Lieberman will be trying to draw out independent and Republican voters to support his independent candidacy and Democrats will find themselves in a potentially debilitating split. No one knows at this point what all that will add up to but Democrats involved in the race don't think a Lieberman independent candidacy is good for those House candidates.


B.C., Canada: Thanks for taking my question, Dan. How significant do you think the recently released agenda of the Democrats for middle class tax breaks and tuition help will be to voters this November?

Dan Balz: It depends on how much candidates choose to talk about those proposals. Some of them have clear appeal -- my guess is they would poll well -- but somebody will have to spend real money to get them in front of the voters. This is not like the Contract with America that the Republicans put out in 1994 (and there is still debate about how much difference that really made in the GOP landslide that year).


Washington, D.C.: What is your estimate of voter turnout this year?

Clearly, immigration and gay marriage are voter turnout issues for the right wing. What are the turnout issues for the somewhat disaffected middle-of-the-road voter who seems content to sit out many elections?

Social Security and Medicare are turnout items for the older generation, and it was the draft for the participants at the lower ages in 2004.

The Republican party works hard to keep participation down generally, while activating their base.

Do you see any issues to mobilize the slightly disaffected or disengaged voter in this election cycle?

Dan Balz: There are clear signs of voter anger/dissatisfaction/disaffection/etc. around the country. But turnout in primaries has been unimpressive. That doesn't mean there won't be a surge in November, but you shouldn't assume that at this point.


San Francisco, Calif.: Hello, Mr. Balz, and thanks for choosing my question for your chat this morning. Of your favorite races, which were NOT chosen for the Bellwethers Project? Is there a specific race you think touches several issues that did NOT make the cut?

Dan Balz: I wouldn't say there is a favorite race that we didn't include, but take Connecticut 2nd District. We didn't include that on the lists in large part because we already had two other Connecticut races included (our list, as we said on Monday, is not exhaustive but simply representative), but it would certainly qualify under the question of whether there will be a big shift toward Democrats in the Northeast, and also Simmons could be hurt by Bush's low approval ratings.


Fairfax, Va.: Does the media have an obligation to ask candidates in the upcoming elections to answer questions like: why are we in Iraq; why over 40 million Americans don't have health insurance; why there is no public financing of elections; why nothing has been done to stop North Korea from building a nuclear arsenal; why the rich are getting disproportionately richer while the middle class is stagnating; why New Orleans is not ready yet to withstand another major hurricane, etc.? Why not devote a portion of the front page every day between now and the mid-term elections to comparing each Senate and House candidates' positions on these kinds of issues? Depending on the questioning skills of the reporters, this could establish a clear record the electorate could use to make up its mind in November.

Dan Balz: Those sound like questions that many Democratic candidates may be asking their Republican opponents this fall, but there will be questions Republicans will be asking Democrats as well.

I'd like to see local papers all around the country do more to put questions to candidates of both parties and to give readers a more complete look at the battles for the House and Senate in their areas. No paper has the space or resources to do it for every race around the country, but local papers can step up -- and I should add that many are already.


Nashville, Tenn.: What do you think about the Tenn. Senate race? With Bob Corker most likely coming out of the primary next week pretty beat up by his own party, what are your thoughts on a Ford, Corker, race? Do you think Ford has a chance? Thanks.

Dan Balz: Republicans I've talked to believe the Tennessee Senate race will be competitive for the reasons you suggest. Whoever comes out of that GOP primary will be nicked up pretty badly. The state obviously tilts towards the Republicans, but Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen is popular and is on the ballot this fall. Rep. Harold Ford will have his work cut out for him, and may have some limitations of his own, but this is likely to be a race people are watching in October.


Washington, D.C.: I read the article on Steele being mystery candidate Scarlet R... What are your thoughts? Steele Admits He Criticized GOP in Interview (Post, July 26)

Dan Balz: He should have done that lunch on the record. Most Republican candidates I've talked to say, on the record, that this is a tough year to be running as a Republican and many are willing to say, on the record, whether they want President Bush to campaign for them in the fall. You'll find GOP candidates in open seats or running against incumbent Democrats fairly critical of the way Washington works these days. Steele's mistake was in using the cloak of anonymity, which made his comments seem all-the-more provocative. He and his staff must be wondering how they got themselves into that situation.


New York, N.Y.: One difference between 1994 and 2006 that you haven't mentioned is the length of time the Democrats had power, and the comfort of the media (I don't mean bias) with the story as it played out: Republican presidents (Clinton was a surprise to DC media) and Democratic Congress. It was the narrative, so, even if the WP saw it coming, the pundits afterward seemed very surprised. I think the media is determined not to be caught napping this time. That's not bias, that's changing the narrative.

Dan Balz: Let me clarify one thing. We saw a Republican tide coming in 1994 but at this point we did not see it being large enough to produce the kind of upheaval that it did. Some Republicans saw it clearly -- or believed it in their gut. But we weren't predicting a GOP takeover of the House at this point. Things build in the final two months, which is what makes this year so interesting.


Freiburg, Germany: Democrats are advertising heavily in Iowa?

Is there any chance they will also target Jim Leach, the Republican representing the heavily democratic 2nd district, or is he just too popular?

Dan Balz: Jim Leach will be tough to beat. Democrats are focused on capturing the 1st District, where incumbent Rep. Jim Nussle (R) is running for governor, and in the 3rd District, where Rep. Leonard Boswell (D) has a tough fight on his hands. Leach has an energetic Democratic opponent, but he is still favored.


San Francisco, Calif.: Mr. Balz, thanks for selecting my question for your chat this morning. The Bellwethers Project is fascinating! I wonder why there's no evaluation of the impact of this "on-line" community I keep reading about. Do you think these "bloggers" that people mention will be a measurable force in the 2006 midterms?

Dan Balz: First big test for the bloggers will be in the Connecticut primary. The bloggers are enthusiastic supporters of Ned Lamont in his challenge to Sen. Lieberman. That primary is Aug. 8, so that will give you some clues. Many in the blog world think they've already had an impact because the race is so competitive.


Fairfax, Va.: "...but there will be questions Republicans will be asking Democrats as well." Since the Republicans have been in control of the House, Senate and White House, what might some of those questions be?

Dan Balz: I assume Republicans will be asking Democrats what they would do if they were in charge, including their views on Iraq (troop pullout quickly, within a year, etc., on what they want to do about Bush's tax cuts (repeal them, leave them in place, etc.) -- just to name a couple.


Washington, D.C.: Thanks for taking my question. I'm from D.C. where we don't have Senators or voting Congress folk running in the mid-terms.

My question about the Bellwethers is, "where is the question that captures the issues of fiscal sanity or the debate about what services governments should provide?" The folks that are running the government currently, i.e. the GOP has a "cut-taxes and spend, spend spend" philosophy, which even their Treasury Department today admits is not sustainable.

Is it really not a a "bellwether" issue that will affect the midterm elections?

Dan Balz: It's a good question and one likely to have some impact with some voters this fall. We tried to limit the total number of questions. Originally we thought we could do five or six. We decided we needed more. If we had gone to 10, fiscal issues likely would have made the cut. But we were trying not to make the list endless. In any case, it's a smart question.

We're now out of time but I thank all of you for sending in questions and for focusing on the Bellwethers Project. We'll have more to say as we go along and hope that you will keep us abreast of things you're seeing in races around the country. Have a great day.

Dan Balz


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company