By MARC SANDALOW
San Francisco Chronicle
September 05, 2006
Nine weeks before election day, Democrats are poised to make their biggest gains since the post-Watergate elections more than three decades ago.
Discontent over the war in Iraq, falling wages, corruption on Capitol Hill and President Bush's sinking popularity have led experts to forecast a perfect storm that will return Democrats to a majority in the House for the first time since 1994, and make San Francisco Rep. Nancy Pelosi the speaker.
The experts give Democrats a shot at winning control of the Senate, a possibility that was regarded as unthinkable when the summer began, and say the party's prospects of taking over more than half of the nation's governorships are near certain.
Yet even as they foresee the strongest Democratic election in a generation, these same prognosticators see sharp limits to the party's potential gains.
Unlike 1974, when Democrats picked up 49 House seats, or 1994, when Republicans won 52 House seats and regained the majority for the first time in half a century, the political system today has been fortified to withstand big partisan waves or demands for change.
Sophisticated redistricting, strengthened party loyalty and the advantages of incumbency are so powerful that even in a year when voters seem to be hollering for change, most strategists regard just 1 in 3 Senate seats and 1 in 8 House seats as being competitive.
Many analysts still consider control of Congress up for grabs, and predict that whichever party wins will govern with one of the narrowest majorities in history.
The campaign for the Nov. 7 vote is shaping up as a clash between a potent call for change and a system designed to prevent it.
"The Democratic upside is limited by the paucity of districts in play," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, which handicaps every congressional race in the country.
"There are enough seats for Democrats to take control. But there are not a lot of seats" in play, Rothenberg said.
As the campaign season enters its prime, most analysts identify roughly between 25 and 50 truly competitive House seats, and anywhere from six to 12 competitive Senate seats.
Of the 36 most competitive districts identified by analyst Charlie Cook, who publishes another nonpartisan political newsletter, 14 are in the New England states, New York, New Jersey or Pennsylvania. Another 12 are in the Midwest. In California, home to roughly 1 in 12 Americans, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein is considered a lock for re-election, and only one of the state's 53 congressional districts - the Central Valley district represented by Republican Richard Pombo - is regarded as in play.
It is only over the past few weeks that nonpartisan analysts have identified enough likely victories for Democrats to pick up the 15 House seats they need for a majority.
Rothenberg predicts Democrats will win between 15 and 20 additional seats. University of Virginia political scientist and congressional race handicapper Larry Sabato projects the party will pick up between 13 and 19 seats. Cook identifies 46 competitive seats - 36 of which are held by Republicans - and predicts: "Unless something dramatic happens before election day, Democrats will take control of the House."
As a sign of the growing acceptance that Democrats are poised to win, the National Journal asked 75 GOP insiders last week to assign a number between zero (no chance) and 10 (virtual certainty) to the likelihood that Democrats will take over the House. The average score was 5.7.
Things are not as bleak for Republicans in the Senate, where Democrats must pick up six new seats for a majority. Polls suggest Democrats have a good shot at winning GOP seats in Pennsylvania, Montana, Ohio, Rhode Island and Missouri. But to win the majority, Democrats must win a sixth Republican seat in a less politically hospitable state such as Tennessee, Virginia or Arizona, as well as hold onto their own vulnerable seats in places like Minnesota and New Jersey.
The parity between parties in Congress reflects a divided electorate that dates back to the 2000 presidential election, which was decided by just over 500 votes in Florida.
Republicans have added to their majorities in each of the previous two elections, buttressed by concerns over national security brought on by the Sept. 11 attacks. But there are indications that the politics of terrorism will not help Republicans as they did in 2002 and 2004.
The public has turned against Bush and his war in Iraq. Americans are not as anxious about the prospect of another terrorist attack. And polls show the GOP's edge on national security, as high as 25 percentage points last year, has eroded to the point of near parity.
"The public is far past where it was in 2002 and 2004," said Allan Lichtman, a professor of political history at American University in Washington, D.C., who is running a long shot campaign for the Democratic Senate nomination in Maryland.
"I think they've seen the folly of the Bush administration, and the midterm elections are the last chance (the electorate) will ever have to express its frustration at George Bush," Lichtman said.
Yet there are important differences in the composition of districts from the 1994 election. Congressional districts lean more strongly to one party or another. The number of House members serving in safe districts in which they won by comfortable margins was considerably smaller. In 1994, 53 House Democrats represented districts in which President Bill Clinton had lost. By comparison, there are only 18 House Republicans who represent districts in which Bush lost.
"If a huge wave hits, the races all tend to go in one direction, so Democrats have an opportunity," Rothenberg said. "But Democrats don't have a huge margin of error."
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