By Freedom Newspapers
When voters troop to the polls in November the two major questions analysts will want answered are whether Democrats will be able to take over one or both houses of Congress, and to what extent disillusionment with the war in Iraq will be a factor.
The first question will be easy to answer, the second a bit more complex.
The party holding the White House traditionally loses seats in the midterm elections of a president’s second term. In national polls Democrats are doing well, and Republicans are hampered enough by President George W. Bush’s low approval ratings that many GOP candidates are running away from the president rather than embracing him, separating themselves on issues ranging from the conduct of the war to immigration.
With a series of speeches centered around Iraq and the war on terror, President Bush (along with Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld) is seeking to rekindle support for administration policies. The risk is in conflating two issues — the war in Iraq and the larger war on “terror” — that voters see differently. The president’s approval ratings languish in the low 40s on the war in Iraq, but more voters approve than disapprove of his conduct of the overall war on terror. Tying the two together runs the risk of hurting the president and Republican candidates.
Republicans currently hold a 55-45 majority in the U.S. Senate. Since Vice President Cheney casts a tie-deciding vote, Democrats need to pick up six seats net.
In the House, Republicans hold 231 of 435 seats, which means Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats to take control. At the beginning of the summer some 20 Republican seats were considered “in play,” but as summer ends that number has increased.
In the Senate, most observers consider Pennsylvania’s Rick Santorum and Montana’s Conrad Burns vulnerable. In Rhode Island, incumbent liberal Republican Lincoln Chafee could lose the GOP primary to Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey, and any Republican nominees will face a tough race against former attorney general Sheldon Whitehouse. Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine is contending not only with President Bush’s unpopularity, but discontent with outgoing Republican Gov. Bob Taft.
Democrats have hopes of picking up Republican Senate seats in Tennessee, Virginia and Missouri. Republicans have hopes of taking Democrat-held seats in Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey and perhaps Minnesota.
In the House, Democrats expect to pick up seats in Colorado (7th), Iowa (1st), Texas (Tom DeLay’s old seat), Arizona (8th), Indiana (2nd, 8th, 9th) Pennsylvania (6th) and perhaps North Carolina (11th), New Mexico (1st, where Republican incumbent Heather Wilson faces Democrat Patricia Madrid) and Florida (22nd). Seats in Connecticut, Ohio, Kentucky and Virginia may also be in play.
A majority of Americans now believe the war in Iraq was a mistake, and some 55 percent to 60 percent disapprove of the way the president has conducted the war. While national trends are important, however, congressional races often turn more on local issues. Most Americans, for example, have a negative view of Congress as a whole but have a much more positive view of their own member of Congress, from either party.
Two months remain until election day and much could change. Expect mostly negative ads and campaigning, especially in tight races. Nationally, Republicans have more money on hand and a better campaign organization. Focusing on terrorism and national security was a winning strategy for Republicans in 2002 and 2004, but things may be different this year.