Campaign 2006

Bellwethers: Key Issues in the Battle for Congress

Eight Issues That Will
Shape the 2006 Elections

Which party will control Congress?

October has not been kind to the Republicans and they are now clearly on the defensive with the midterm campaign in its final weeks.

September provided some breathing room for beleaguered Republicans. President Bush went on the offensive over terrorism, using the fifth anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to make the case that he and his party were more resolute in fighting terrorism than the Democrats. For a time, the strategy worked, pushing his approval ratings up over 40 percent and giving Republicans hope that they might be successful in holding off Democratic challengers in some tough House and Senate contests.

Then came October. The Mark Foley scandal put an unfavorable spotlight on Republican House leaders. Those leaders claimed they acted appropriately when informed of questionable emails between the Florida congressman and former House pages but it took days for the top Republicans to get their stories straight. In the interim, pressure mounted on House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to step down from his post. He vowed to stay on and Republicans rallied behind him, if only because they feared the worst from a leadership upheaval weeks before the elections.

If the Foley scandal reminded Americans of their dissatisfaction with the performance of Congress, Iraq brought renewed attention to the president's handling of that conflict. Violence in Baghdad continued to rise in the first week of October, as did U.S. casualties. Officials in Iraq took an Iraqi police brigade off the streets because of suspicions that members of the brigade were complicit with sectarian death squads there.

In a blow to the administration, Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, returned from a trip to Iraq sounding more pessimistic than he had ever been and warning that, unless the Iraqis got the situation under control soon, the United States should review its policies and consider all options for changing course.

The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, completed on Oct. 8, showed that Democrats had regained a commanding position in the election. Bush's approval rating was at 39 percent, down from 42 percent. Congressional approval, at 32 percent, was at its lowest point in a decade. Americans said they trusted Democrats over Republicans to handle the country's biggest problems by a margin of 19 percentage points. And on the question of who they would vote for in House races in November, Americans said Democrats, by a margin of 54-41 percent.

Those numbers don't translate directly into individual House races, but they reinforced the reality that the climate for Republicans, after an ever-so-brief respite, remains extremely sour.

The Democrats need 15 seats to regain control of the House and that is now clearly within reach. Republican leaders anticipate that, at a minimum, they will lose seven or 10 or even 12 seats in the House. Their worst-case scenarios have jumped from losing 20 seats to losing 30.

The Senate also is in jeopardy. Democrats need to win six seats to capture the Senate and enough races are in the tossup category now to make that possible, though still more difficult than taking back the House. Republicans are in deep trouble in Pennsylvania, Montana, Ohio and Rhode Island. Contests in Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia are considered toss-ups. Republicans appear to have just one chance to pick up a Democratic seat and that is in New Jersey.

The Post's Bellwether project looks at the battle to control Congress by taking the broad question of how big will Republican losses be in November and breaks it down into eight factors likely to determine the outcome.

The bellwethers, as defined here, are not simply a collection of competitive races. Instead they are contests that illuminate in vivid fashion the currents shaping a potentially historic election year.

Some of these bellwether questions are about ideological and geographical trends defining the election. Some deal with the practical side of politics -- how parties mobilize and turn out voters. Some deal with issues that continue to be at the forefront of voters' concerns: war, the economy and immigration.

We invite you to tell us what you think is important this fall, particularly areas you believe we've overlooked. Ours is not intended to be a comprehensive list of all the issues out there this year, but we believe those we've highlighted are likely to decide who controls Congress come next January. Already we've heard from quite a few people and we welcome more as we enter the decisive stage of the election.

Between now and Nov. 7, we will continue to return to these questions, with regular updates on whether the currents are shifting. We will do that by focusing on races for House and Senate that illustrate the big questions for 2006. This list is not exhaustive and it is not static. We've made a few changes in the lineup recently and will continue to monitor. In the end, the Bellwether project is a way of making sense of the chaos and the drama -- for political junkies and ordinary voters alike.

-- Dan Balz

» View the complete list of bellwether races. Click on incumbent names for bios, congressional voting records, and financial statements. Click on each race to view race analysis, candidate profiles, campaign finance information, historical election data, and voter demographics.

» Submit your own list of top trends and issues. What are voters in your hometown or neigborhood talking about?

» Current Party Standings in Congress

» Full 2006 Election Coverage

U.S. Capitol

The Issues

» The Elephant in the Room

How Big a Problem is President Bush for the GOP?

President George W. BushHis name is not on any ballot this fall, but George W. Bush is the central issue of campaign 2006. With Bush's approval ratings hovering just below 40 percent, GOP is braced for big losses. (11/01/06)

» Scandal Alert

Will Foley Fallout Swamp the GOP?

Mark FoleyThanks to former Rep. Mark Foley, ethics in government has risen again, in the final weeks before the election, as key factor in tight congressional contests.

» Money Matters

Will Pocketbook Concerns Move Votes?

U.S. CurrencyEvery election cycle has its own important set of swing voters. This year could mark the emergence of "mortgage moms" -- voters freighted with anxiety about their families' financial squeeze. (9/05/06)

» Border Patrol

Will the Immigration Issue Save Republicans?

U.S., Mexico FlagsRepublicans hope to boost turnout with hardline stances on immigration. But will their strategy work when so many voters are disenchanted with the GOP?


Will the Iraq War Come Home in November?

U.S. SolidersIraq is not only a potent issue in its own right, but is also a resonant metaphor for doubts about the competence and accountability of the Republican Party. (10/26/06)


Can Republicans Win in the Northeast?

Northeast United StatesNowhere is the GOP brand more scuffed than in the Northeast, where this year's circumstances are combining with long-term trends to endanger numerous incumbents. (8/13/06)


Can Democrats Compete in the Upper South?

Electoral MapDemocratic hopefuls are betting that they can overcome the unpopularity of their party affiliation by shrewdly combining artful positioning on social issues with personal style. (10/9/06)

» Tune In, Turn Out

Which Ballot Issues Will Drive Voters to the Polls?

Ballot BoxIn 2006, Democrats are hoping to prove that ballot initiatives on stem cell research and the minimum wage will work to their advantage.

The Washington Post - October 11, 2006

© 2006 The Washington Post Company