Democrats' hopes of regaining the House majority this fall -- never bright at best -- appear increasingly dim, in part because of Sen. John F. Kerry's lackluster campaign performance over the past six weeks, numerous analysts say.
In late July, as upbeat Democrats held their convention in Boston, party leaders said they had capable, well-financed House candidates poised in several states to exploit a nationwide trend that seemed just around the corner. "Democrats can win the House back if this breeze, this movement for a change, continues," said Rep. Robert T. Matsui (Calif.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Since then, however, Republicans conducted a sharp-edged convention in New York, Kerry was slow to respond to attacks on his character and policies, and many of the Democrats' most promising House challengers seemed frozen in place.
When the Massachusetts senator appeared to gain momentum entering and exiting the Boston convention, "the theory was it would all seep down to the House races," said Amy Walter, who tracks House contests for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "But it hasn't happened." Among top Democrats, she said, "you just don't hear that same level of enthusiasm you did a month ago."
Democrats say there is still time for their nominees to catch fire in House campaigns, which typically start much later than presidential and Senate races. Even their biggest cheerleaders, however, acknowledge that the coveted midsummer breeze never came, and the clock is ticking down on a possible Democratic surge.
"It would be less than candid to say there was a great wind out there at this point in time. There is not," House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters last week. But "I do expect it to develop in the next eight weeks."
Many GOP leaders say that their House majority is safe, and that it might even expand on Nov. 2. They point to statistics suggesting that the Democratic goal is extremely difficult. Republicans control 229 House seats, while Democrats have 206 (including a friendly independent). With Democrats failing to contest a reconfigured Texas district they now hold, they will have to pick up 13 seats in November to gain a bare majority. (Two Democratic gains in special elections this year -- in Kentucky and South Dakota -- were offset when lawmakers elected as Democrats in Texas and Louisiana switched to the GOP.)
Analysts say there are fewer than 35 competitive House races this fall, with each party defending 15 to 17 at-risk seats. For Democrats to regain the majority they lost a decade ago, "they would have to win everything in the open seats and hold all their own," said Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.), chairman of the GOP's House campaign committee. They do not need a breeze, he said, "they need a monsoon."
The Democrats' task is more daunting than Reynolds suggested. They could win all eight of the competitive open seats (Republicans now hold five of those), and reelect each of their endangered incumbents, and still fall well short of the majority. To control the House, Democrats must do all of that, plus topple several GOP incumbents.
Political insiders and local reporters do not see that happening -- for now, at least -- in part because there is no national mood remotely resembling the anti-Democratic fervor of the 1994 elections or the deeply anti-Republican sentiments that sprang from the Watergate scandal in 1974.
A prime target is first-term Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.), who won a three-way race in 2002 with less than 50 percent of the vote. Democrats crowed this year when they recruited Paul Babbitt, brother of former interior secretary Bruce Babbitt. But a new poll by the Social Research Laboratory of Northern Arizona University shows Renzi still leading Babbitt by 11 percentage points, virtually identical to an April poll's findings. A new Babbitt campaign poll shows Renzi with a smaller lead, 41 percent to 34 percent.
Democrats are more hopeful in Kentucky, where a recent poll showed Tony Miller leading four-term Rep. Anne M. Northup (R). But GOP campaign spokesman Carl Forti said Northup is a proven political survivor, adding, "We're not worried."
Even if a Democratic breeze starts blowing, Republicans say they will stop in on the Texas plains.
Thanks to aggressive GOP-led redistricting there last year, five Democratic lawmakers from Texas are fighting for survival in districts redrawn to favor Republicans. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Tex.), the plan's chief engineer, told reporters last week that Republicans are ahead in all five of those races, an assertion Democrats dispute.
"We will gain seats in this election," DeLay said.
Top Democrats including Hoyer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) are traveling to battleground districts to help their nominees raise money and attract voters. "We proved the pundits wrong when they said we could not win in Kentucky or South Dakota, and we'll prove them wrong again if they say we can't win the House," Pelosi said last week. "We have the candidates. We have the issues. We are ready to go."