G.O.P. Seen to Be in Peril of Losing House
G.O.P. Seen to Be in Peril of Losing House
By ROBIN TONER and KATE ZERNIKE
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
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
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
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
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
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.