One year before the 2006 midterm elections, Republicans are facing the most adverse political conditions of the 11 years since they vaulted to power in Congress in 1994. Powerful currents of voter unrest -- including unhappiness over the war in Iraq and dissatisfaction with the leadership of President Bush -- have undermined confidence in government and are stirring fears among GOP candidates of a backlash.
Interviews with voters, politicians and strategists in four battleground states, supplemented by a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, found significant discontent with the performance of both political parties. Frustration has not reached the level that existed before the 1994 earthquake, but many strategists say that if the public mood further darkens, Republican majorities in the House and Senate could be at risk.
One bright spot for the Republicans is the low regard in which many Americans hold the Democrats. The public sees the Democrats as disorganized, lacking in clear ideas or a positive alternative to the GOP agenda, and bereft of appealing leaders. In the Post-ABC News poll, voters gave Washington low grades without favor: Just 35 percent said they approved of the job Republicans in Congress were doing, while only 41 percent gave a positive rating to the Democrats.
In shopping malls, town hall meetings and on front porches, Americans expressed their concerns about the country's problems. The president still has strong supporters, but more common are questions about his and the country's priorities. A young mother in the Denver suburbs complained about the state of public education. An Ohio retiree complained about energy prices and said, "We're getting ripped off left and right by the oil companies." Immigration appears to be a volatile issue far from the U.S.-Mexico border. And looming over all else is the U.S. involvement in Iraq, which continues to gnaw at the country's psyche.
Republican strategists and candidates are bracing for losses next year, while hoping that Bush's fortunes and the overall environment improve. They take some comfort in the expectation that the worst of times has come a year ahead of the elections, and relief in the fact that, by historical measures, the number of genuinely competitive contests is likely to be small.
But Republicans have expanded their majorities in Congress in each of the last two elections, and strategists expect, at a minimum, that Democrats will narrow those margins next year. A Democratic takeover of either the House or Senate is not out of the question.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), the architect of the 1994 GOP victory, said Republicans must take the initiative or risk serious losses next year. "If we regroup and reclaim the mantle of reform and change, we are likely to win '06 and '08," he said. "If we do not regroup, we are likely to have a very difficult '06 and '08."
Republicans believe that, given clear choices, voters will continue to favor candidates who preach, if not always practice, smaller government and who favor lower taxes and the vigorous pursuit of terrorists. But the Republican coalition is showing signs of fraying after almost 11 years of nearly continuous majority status. Conservatives have rebelled against some of Bush's priorities, and moderates are voicing increasing disaffection with their leaders.
If next year's elections prove to be a referendum on the party in power, as is often the case in midterm contests, the image of the Democrats may be less important than the broader unrest in the country over Iraq, immigration, energy and health care prices and the president's popularity.
The findings in this report are based on interviews in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Ohio and Colorado, as well as on a survey of 1,202 randomly selected adults nationwide contacted between Oct. 30 and Nov. 2. The margin of error for the poll is plus or minus three percentage points.
More Trust for Democrats
Two-thirds of those surveyed by The Post and ABC News said the country is heading in the wrong direction. Asked whom they were likely to support in next year's House elections, 52 percent of registered voters said the Democratic candidate, while 37 percent said the Republican. While this testing of generic preferences is not always a reliable indicator of elections, the result suggests that Republicans for now are in trouble.
Republicans may find solace in the fact that 60 percent of those surveyed approved of the job their own House member is doing -- but that, too, was the case one year before the 1994 election. Then the percentage declined throughout 1994; if the same happens next year, Republicans will be in serious trouble.
In another indication of unrest, a majority now say they have little or no confidence in the government in Washington to solve problems, another statistic that is similar to findings at this point 12 years ago. Confidence deteriorated steadily throughout 1994.
When asked which party they trusted to handle the main problems facing the nation, registered voters preferred Democrats by 49 percent to 38 percent. On the eve of the 2002 midterms, when the GOP defied historical trends by gaining House and Senate seats, Republicans led on that question among those most likely to vote by 51 percent to 39 percent.
None of these results can be used to predict the future, but together they explain why many GOP strategists privately are in such an anxious mood. One claimed that this is the most sour environment for the party in power since 1994, when Democrats lost 53 House and seven Senate seats and surrendered their majority. Another said Republicans have not faced such potential backlash since 1982, when the party lost 26 House seats in the midst of a recession.
GOP candidates running as challengers or in districts without an incumbent in the race have begun to separate themselves from the problems in Washington, which range from the unpopularity of the Iraq war to the ethical problems of Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), the former House majority leader.
"I think people are angry and concerned about what's going on in Washington," said Rick O'Donnell, a Republican candidate in Colorado's 7th District, a swing district considered one of the most competitive in the nation. "I don't have to defend what's happened in Washington. If the party made mistakes, I'm going to say so. I'm not necessarily going to Washington for the same old, same old."
Democratic candidates are optimistic but well aware of the GOP's political arsenal, which includes an ample treasury and a tested turnout operation. "At this point the climate is positive for a Democratic candidate because there is trepidation about this Congress and the administration," said Ed Perlmutter, one of several Democrats running in the same Colorado district as O'Donnell. "Whether that remains a year from now is another story. Republicans have been resilient and very disciplined in the way they stay on message and win campaigns."
Iraq a Key Concern
Pat Swensen, 61, stood on a chilly night with more than a dozen others at a busy intersection in Coon Rapids, Minn., and held a candle in honor and sorrow over the 2,000th American casualty in Iraq. Her niece's husband, an Army soldier, is preparing for a third deployment to Iraq.
"What's so difficult is there is no plan," said Swensen, an assistant registrar at a school in Ham Lake. "Nothing concrete that you can start measuring and say, 'We've done this, we've done that, the troops can start coming home.' How many times will my niece's husband have to go back?"
Swensen's question echoes across the country, among those who backed the war from the beginning and among those who opposed it.
The Post-ABC poll found that 68 percent of Americans say the country is off track, with only 30 percent saying things are going in the right direction. Among those who offered a pessimistic assessment, 30 percent cited one of a basket of economic issues: gas prices, jobs, incomes, inflation, the deficit. This downbeat mood has so far been impervious to strong economic news, including the recent announcement of a 3.8 percent annual growth rate in the third quarter.
"The big concern is the economy," said Nancy Emerick, a Toledo, Ohio, librarian. "There are still layoffs all the time in Toledo. [Auto parts maker] Dana, one of our biggest employers, is cutting jobs. My husband lost his job a couple years ago; he's working now, but he's not making what he did."
The president's Supreme Court nominations, for all the intensity they generate in Washington, do not appear to be significant issues with most voters. Nor did the controversy over the CIA leak case, including the recent indictment of Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, register significantly in voter interviews.
But anguish about Iraq comes through unmistakably in conversations at shopping malls, coffee shops and on doorsteps around the country. In the Post-ABC poll, 21 percent of those dissatisfied with the direction of the country cited Iraq as the principal reason.
Kerry Parker, a veterinarian from Lakewood, Colo., opposed the war and believes the administration misled the country about the reasons for the invasion. But like many others, she opposes a hasty withdrawal. "I think that, if we get out, it's just going to go back into chaos with infighting," she said. "There's no one in control over there, and when you take the kingpin species out of the area, everybody else fights. We're trying to establish order and I think we should finish what we started."
Some Americans agree with the president that Iraq is the key to protecting America from terrorism. Others say the United States has already accomplished something positive.
"I think we've accomplished a lot of good," said Frank Erisman, who lives outside Denver. "I think there's a despot [former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein] who's not in power. Who knows what the future is going to be? I think the seeds of discontent are in that part of the world and have been for centuries. We're fooling ourselves thinking we can for all time make it different, but I believe that we have made a difference in a lot of lives."
John Lebenick, a retired engineer attending a congressional town hall meeting near Reading, Pa., said, "I don't like what they're doing in the Middle East." The revelations about intelligence failures in Iraq have left a deep impression on him. "People are going to see this war bogging down and they haven't been told much of the truth."
In Columbus, Army Sgt. Stephen Yeager was home last week from assignment in Iraq. He did not agree with the deployment when it was ordered but has come to believe the United States must stay the longer he has been in Baghdad.
"It is very moving to see the Iraqis," he said. "At first they were pretty hostile, but they are really coming around. And now you see them volunteering for their army, even though they get hit very hard, much harder than we do. But the terrorists are still too strong for them to handle themselves, so we have to stay and help them."
Negatives for Both Parties
Democrats see hopeful signs in an uneasy public mood. In the Post-ABC poll, Americans prefer the opposition party to congressional Republicans on every issue measured but one, including Iraq. The only exception was on terrorism; there the two parties are tied.
But those strengths are offset by two glaring weaknesses. A majority of Americans say the Democrats are not offering the country a clear direction that is different from the Republicans, and on the question of which party has stronger leaders, Republicans thump the Democrats by 51 percent to 35 percent.
"I just think they're sitting back waiting for something to happen," said Diane Mashman, a retired high school teacher who lives in the Denver suburbs and generally votes Democratic. "I don't know if they have anybody ready to run for president. They need to get their act together."
Ask people to name attractive Democratic leaders and they hesitate, pause or come up empty. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York enjoys clear support, but even several who said positive things about her questioned whether she could win the presidency, given the controversy that attaches to her history and name.
Republicans have their own divisions to deal with, from ethics scandals in Ohio to conflicts between conservatives and moderates. Prospective Republican candidates fear they will be caught in the fallout next year.
Republican state Rep. Jim Knoblach is running for Congress in Minnesota's 6th District, an open seat. "I've waited my whole life for a Republican president, Republican House and Republican Senate," he said. "Somehow I expected something more. There's a general uncomfortable feeling in the public, too. So many things are so unsustainable at the federal level."
The Post-ABC News poll shows that moderate Republicans are more unhappy with their party than are conservatives. Bush's approval rating stands at 61 percent among GOP moderates, compared with 89 percent among conservatives.
Other Americans are simply fed up with what they see as the "gotcha culture" of Washington. "It's hard to know the truth coming out of Washington," said Stephen Libor of Andover, Minn. " 'This guy did this, this guy did that.' It seems there's no love, kindness or understanding of other people. It's just, 'Nail 'em!' "
The Power of Incumbency
As ever in politics, a measure of caution is justified in predicting trends. Stuart Rothenberg, a prominent independent political analyst, wrote a recent column in Roll Call debunking suggestions that there may be 100 competitive House races next year.
At this point, he counts fewer than 40, although he said that could grow to 50 or 55 by the time of the election. Democrats will need some breaks to pick up the 15 seats needed to take back control, but Rothenberg said conditions have deteriorated enough to make that possible: "It's not just a cool breeze in their face, it's a strong gust."
Adding to the Democrats' challenge is the fact that there are only 18 Republican-held seats in districts that voted for Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) in last year's presidential race, compared with 41 districts held by Democrats that were carried by Bush.
Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.) is in one of those Kerry districts, in the Philadelphia suburbs and beyond. Mindful of Congress's and Bush's plummeting popularity, Gerlach walks a tightrope with voters. "I may agree with the president on some issues," he said, "but I don't agree with him about everything" -- most prominently Bush's effort to overhaul Social Security by introducing private accounts.
In the Senate, there are perhaps half a dozen GOP seats at risk and a handful of potentially competitive races in states held by the Democrats. Vulnerable Republican seats include Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Missouri and Ohio. Democrats would have to win virtually every competitive race to retake the Senate, while avoiding losses of their own. Sometimes races all break in one direction, but not always.
In recent elections, parties have made their biggest gains in Senate seats where no incumbent was running, but at this point, nearly all the GOP-held seats at risk require the Democrats to defeat the incumbent. "The fact that Democrats have to knock off five Republican incumbents to get the Senate back makes it hard," said Charlie Cook, who produces a leading independent political forecast.
Those watching the public mood most closely today are the candidates gearing up for next year. In Minnesota, state Rep. Philip Krinkie is seeking the GOP nomination in the 6th District, which wraps around the northern edges of the Twin Cities. Bush carried the district handily in 2000 and 2004, and while Krinkie, if he becomes the party's nominee next year, would welcome Bush's help, he recognizes that the president may not be as big an asset as he was in 2002.
"The word I hear most often is 'disappointment,' " he said. "There's some skepticism, some doubt: 'I voted for President Bush. How come he hasn't done a better job?' There's some discontentment. There's a drumbeat in the district, but it hasn't gotten to be loud voices of objection."
Staff writer David S. Broder, polling director Richard Morin and assistant polling director Claudia Deane contributed to this report.
Rick O'Donnell, a Republican congressional candidate in Colorado, says he will say so when he disagrees with his party's actions in Washington.