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G.O.P. Seen to Be in Peril of Losing House

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  • Ram Lau
    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/04/washington/04campaign.html G.O.P. Seen to Be in Peril of Losing House By ROBIN TONER and KATE ZERNIKE WASHINGTON, Sept. 3 —
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 4, 2006
      G.O.P. Seen to Be in Peril of Losing House

      WASHINGTON, Sept. 3 — After a year of political turmoil, Republicans
      enter the fall campaign with their control of the House in serious
      jeopardy, the possibility of major losses in the Senate, and a
      national mood so unsettled that districts once considered safely
      Republican are now competitive, analysts and strategists in both
      parties say.

      Sixty-five days before the election, the signs of Republican
      vulnerability are widespread.

      Indiana, which President Bush carried by 21 percentage points in 2004,
      now has three Republican House incumbents in fiercely contested races.
      Around the country, some of the most senior Republicans are facing
      their stiffest challenges in years, including Representative E. Clay
      Shaw Jr. of Florida, the veteran Republican on the House Ways and
      Means Committee; Representative Nancy L. Johnson of Connecticut, a
      state increasingly symbolic of this year's political unrest; and
      Representative Deborah Pryce of Ohio, the No. 4 Republican in the House.

      Two independent political analysts have, in recent weeks, forecast a
      narrow Democratic takeover of the House, if current political
      conditions persist. Stuart Rothenberg, who had predicted Democratic
      gains of 8 to 12 seats in the House, now projects 15 to 20. Democrats
      need 15 to regain the majority. Charles Cook, the other analyst, said:
      "If nothing changes, I think the House will turn. The key is, if
      nothing changes."

      Republican leaders are determined to change things. Unlike the
      Democrats of 1994, caught off guard and astonished when they lost
      control of the Senate and the House that year, the Republicans have
      had ample warning of the gathering storm.

      "I have been in all these tough races, and the ones in those tough
      races are doing what they have to do," said Representative John A.
      Boehner of Ohio, the House majority leader, who spent all but two days
      of the August recess campaigning for fellow Republicans. "It is a
      difficult environment. I can see us losing a seat or two. But I don't
      see us losing our majority at all."

      Representative Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional
      Campaign Committee, countered, "The Republicans are playing defense in
      over 40 races — one-tenth of the House."

      "My biggest worry," Mr. Emanuel said, "is getting overpowered from a
      financial perspective."

      A turnover in the Senate, which would require the Democrats to pick up
      six seats, is considered a longer shot. Democrats' greatest hopes rest
      with Pennsylvania, Montana, Rhode Island, Ohio and Missouri; the sixth
      seat is more of a leap of faith.

      It would require Democrats to carry a state like Tennessee, Arizona or
      Virginia, where Democratic hopes are buoyed as Senator George Allen, a
      Republican, deals with the fallout from his using a demeaning term for
      a young man of Indian descent at a rally last month.

      Democrats must also beat back Republican challenges to Senate seats in
      Washington, New Jersey, Maryland and Minnesota.

      National polls show that key indicators — presidential approval
      ratings, Congressional approval ratings, attitudes on the direction of
      the country — reflect an electorate unhappy with the status quo and
      open to change.

      "It's the most difficult off-year cycle for the Republicans since
      1982," said Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma and former
      chief of staff to the Republican National Committee. "Environmentally,
      it's about as good from the Democratic perspective as they could hope
      to have."

      In the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll, just 29 percent said the
      country was headed in the right direction, a measure of national
      pessimism that rivals the 26 percent who felt that way in October
      1994. The war in Iraq, the price of gas and a sense of economic unease
      all play roles, analysts say. The mood is particularly sour in states
      like Indiana and Ohio, where it is stoked by local issues and the
      Republican governors' political difficulties.

      Representative Chris Chocola, easily re-elected two years ago from the
      district centered in South Bend, Ind., is battling a Democrat, Joe
      Donnelly, in a race so tight that several people offered Mr. Chocola
      their sympathies on the campaign trail this week. "You doing O.K.?" a
      bank executive asked at a groundbreaking for a small manufacturing
      company. Mr. Chocola replied, "It's an exercise in democracy."

      Mr. Chocola began advertising in March, rather than in May as he has
      in his three previous races. The attacks and counterattacks have been
      swift and nasty. In one recent round, the Chocola campaign charged
      that Mr. Donnelly, who owns a printing and rubber stamp company, had
      paid his property taxes late 15 times. "Joe Donnelly wants to raise
      our taxes," the ad warned. "Even worse, he's delinquent paying his own."

      Mr. Donnelly's advertisement pointed out that the company Mr. Chocola
      once ran, which manufactures products for the agricultural industry,
      had itself missed a tax payment of $67 one year. "But hypocrisy is
      normal in Washington," the ad said, concluding, "It's time for a new

      Outside groups are advertising heavily there, as well: trial lawyers
      and MoveOn.org against Mr. Chocola, the Chamber of Commerce in his favor.

      Even in such a climate, Republicans retain some formidable
      institutional advantages to help them hold on, Mr. Cole and others
      say. After 12 years in control of the House, Republicans have done
      much to fortify their incumbents, including having district lines so
      carefully drawn that even in a tumultuous year only about 40 House
      races are seriously competitive, compared with roughly 100 considered
      in play in 1994.

      Moreover, Republicans are counting on their vaunted get-out-the-vote
      campaign, which proved so effective in 2002 and 2004, to overcome what
      many concede is a less than enthusiastic conservative base. The
      Republicans are also expected to have a financial edge this fall,
      although the Democrats have worked hard to narrow it.

      The strategic imperative facing the Republicans, many analysts say, is
      clear: transform each competitive race from a national referendum on
      Mr. Bush and one-party Republican rule into a choice between two
      individuals — and define the Democratic challengers as unacceptable.

      "Democrats are trying to indict an entire class of people, who happen
      to be called Republican candidates for Congress," said Glen Bolger, a
      Republican pollster handling dozens of House races. "We have to bring
      individual indictments with different cases and different pieces of

      Mr. Bolger added, "If you like positive campaigns, you're going to be
      let down."

      The question, analysts say, is whether the Republicans' race-by-race
      strategy can overcome what is shaping up, so far, as a classic midterm
      election driven by national issues. "I don't really care what the
      national climate is," said Representative Tom Reynolds of New York,
      chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "At the
      end of the day, House races are a choice between two people."

      Democrats will be pushing hard to remind voters of the big picture,
      and their frustrations with it. In southeastern Indiana, Baron Hill, a
      Democrat who is trying to reclaim the Congressional seat he lost two
      years ago to Representative Mike Sodrel, held an event at a gas
      station where he pumped fuel at a 2004 price, $1.80, rather than $2.79.

      "People are angry," Mr. Hill said. "They want to know why we're paying
      $3 a gallon and Congress is giving tax breaks to oil companies."

      Another major variable is whether Republicans are able, as they were
      in 2002 and 2004, to make the national security issue work in their
      favor. Democratic strategists say they are determined — this time — to
      answer every suggestion that their party and their candidates are less
      committed to the national defense.

      "The key on national security: every time they hit us, answer them
      back strongly and hard," said Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York,
      chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "People are
      not happy with how George Bush conducted the war in Iraq, and they
      know we're not safer."

      Over the next four weeks of Congress, beginning on Tuesday, both
      parties will try to frame the security debate.

      Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority whip,
      made his party's case on the CBS program "Face the Nation" on Sunday.
      "We've liberated Afghanistan and Iraq, and by staying on offense we've
      protected America here at home," Mr. McConnell said, acknowledging
      that the struggle was "a tough slog." But in terms of the ultimate
      goal of protecting the home front, he said, "that policy has been a
      100 percent success."

      In the end, Democrats are acutely aware of how close they have come
      since 1994 to regaining power on Capitol Hill, and how often a
      majority (218 votes) slipped from their grasp, notably in 2000, when
      the Republicans held on with just 221 seats. Representative Thomas M.
      Davis III of Virginia, a veteran Republican strategist, said Democrats
      simply had trouble "closing the deal."

      Mr. Emanuel, discussing the widespread predictions that his party
      would win the House if the election were held today, said simply: "It
      isn't today. That's the unfortunate part."

      Robin Toner reported from Washington for this article, and Kate
      Zernike from Indiana.
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