Monday, October 09, 2006

How Can the Democrats NOT Win the House ... and the Senate?

By Stuart Rothenberg

After looking at the news for the past 10 days or so, I have to wonder how Democrats can possibly fail in their efforts to take both the House and the Senate.

The national atmospherics don’t merely favor Democrats; they set the stage for a blowout of cosmic proportions next month.

No, that’s not a prediction, since Republicans still have a month to “localize” enough races to hold onto one or both chambers of Congress. But you don’t have to be Teddy White or V.O. Key to know that the GOP is now flirting with disaster.

Let’s forget all of the niceties and diplomatic language and cut to the obvious truth: From the White House to Capitol Hill, Republicans look inept. And that assertion is based on what Republicans are saying. Democratic rhetoric is much harsher and, therefore, easier to dismiss as partisan claptrap.

The Iraq War is going poorly, with daily reports of mounting casualties and little evidence that American policy is achieving its goals. Bob Woodward’s book and the leaked National Intelligence Estimate give more fodder to critics of the White House, undercutting President Bush’s fundamental argument about the war against terror. If Iraq indeed is the front line of the war against terror, then the war on terror isn’t going well, is it?

Republicans failed to produce anything meaningful over the past couple of years on the president’s top priorities, Social Security reform and immigration. And now in the wake of the scandal surrounding former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), the House leadership looks like the Keystone Cops.

You can be sure that the Foley mess will percolate for a while, as Democrats and journalists ask House Republicans what they knew and when they knew it. Instead of being able to focus on their accomplishments in office or their challengers’ warts, Republican House Members running for re-election will have to spend too much of their time answering questions about the scandal.

Even before the Foley eruption and the Woodward book, the president’s job rating stood at 42 percent, with fewer than one in three Americans believing the country was headed in the right direction.

The Woodward book is a serious problem for Republicans, even though many conservatives and supporters of the White House will dismiss it as the product of a biased media. Once again, the administration looks divided, and the “who said what to whom” discussion reminds Americans of the policy’s failures.

On the campaign front, Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) has turned an easy re-election victory into a nail-biter. Allen still may win, but that certainly is not a foregone conclusion. Because Democratic challenger Jim Webb has no legislative record to dissect, it isn’t clear that Allen has enough ammunition to demonize his opponent. The idea that Allen is trying to regain his footing in the race by portraying Webb as someone who doesn’t favor treating women equally qualifies as either strange or funny.

Over in Tennessee, the general election campaign of Republican Bob Corker has been underwhelming. Unlike Webb in Virginia, Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D), Corker’s opponent, does have a voting record that allows Republicans to paint him as a liberal. (Yes, Ford also has votes that allow him to make the opposite case.) But so far, Republicans haven’t made the headway I’d expected them to make, and Ford surely is running a better race than Corker is.

The Pennsylvania Senate race now looks nearly impossible for Republican Sen. Rick Santorum to win. He is stuck around 40 percent in the ballot test, and the gubernatorial race has become a blowout for Gov. Ed Rendell (D). I see no possible roadmap for a Santorum victory, unless, of course, challenger Bob Casey Jr. (D) does something that is mind-bogglingly stupid. And I don’t anticipate that happening.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, which over the past 10 years or so has been the most consistently effective campaign committee, is once again doing everything it can to demolish strong Democratic challengers and open-seat hopefuls. This time, however, its efforts may not be enough, given the national environment.

At this point in the cycle, with four weeks to go, Democrats have enough credible candidates and enough resources to win both the House and the Senate. It’s quite possible that a handful of lower-second-tier, and even some third-tier, Democrats could be swept into the House by an anti-Republican wave, giving Democrats a bigger gain than I had heretofore been estimating.

Republicans may counter that while they have messed up, Democrats haven’t done anything to deserve control of Congress. Sure, I can buy that. But that’s not how our system works. Democrats don’t have to offer an agenda. They don’t have to offer a list of unquestionably able committee chairmen. They don’t have to understand that their election isn’t a mandate for anything — except change.

Given that the past two years produced little good news for the GOP, and the past week has produced even worse news, it’s hard to see how Democrats can fall short in their bid to win at least one chamber of Congress. They are sitting with a lot of very high cards in their hand. A true blowout is now possible.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on October 5, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.