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Democrats Likely to Get Geography Lesson in 2004

Analyses point to a repeat of what the party faced this year: Many competitive races will be fought where President Bush is the strongest.

November 30, 2002|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Geography is looming as a formidable barrier to Democrats' hopes of recovering from their 2002 losses and recapturing either the Senate or House in 2004.

Strategists in both major parties completing their first analyses of the 2004 political landscape say Democrats will face a repeat of the problem that confronted them in 2002: A disproportionate number of the most competitive races will be fought in the places where President Bush is strongest.

Of the 11 Democratic representatives who won with the narrowest margins this year, seven will be running in districts -- shown in red on election night television -- that Bush carried in 2000. And 10 of the 19 Democratic senators up for reelection in 2004 will be running in red states.

By contrast, just three of the 15 Senate Republicans on the ballot in 2004 are running in "blue" states, the ones that voted for Democrat Al Gore in 2000. Likewise, five of the seven Republican House members who won with the smallest margins in November will be running in districts where Bush carried more than half the vote.

In the Nov. 5 elections, a similar tilt in the key battlegrounds proved an enormous advantage for the GOP. Most of the GOP's House gains came in districts Bush carried in 2000. And Bush's ability to inspire turnout in the red states was a key to the Republicans' recapture of the Senate.

"Geography turned out to be the strongest force in the cycle," said Jim Jordan, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

If anything, the advantage for the GOP in red-state congressional races could be even more pronounced in 2004, when Bush is expected to be on the ballot. After Bush's contribution this fall to Republican victories against Democratic Sens. Max Cleland in Georgia and Jean Carnahan in Missouri -- two states he carried last time -- Democratic senators facing 2004 races in Bush-leaning states are already looking over their shoulders.

"The analogy is a wide receiver who is getting ready to catch the ball, and can hear footsteps behind him," said Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.), who faces a 2004 reelection battle in a state Bush won comfortably last time.

"No matter what you do, you can hear the footsteps of the White House coming after you."

That concern could spell rising conflict for Democrats over the next two years. After the 2002 losses, many Democratic activists are urging more confrontation with Bush.

Already that pressure has been reflected in the selection of liberal Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) as House minority leader, and the escalating attacks on Bush's agenda -- particularly his tax cut -- from the likely 2004 Democratic presidential contenders.

But after this year's elections, many of the Democrats from Bush states may be even more reluctant to oppose him. That's because Republicans scored points against red-state Democrats like Cleland this fall by painting them as obstacles to Bush's agenda on issues such as homeland security.

"Anybody who is running in 2004 and knows the president is going to be on the ballot has to worry," Breaux said. "You know that if I am contrary to the president, he's going to come down and talk about it. And so you worry about it."

Mitch Bainwol, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, predicts that anxiety could produce widespread pressure on Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota to abandon the strategy of maximizing contrast with Bush and instead look to cut deals that would allow vulnerable members to run in 2004 on shared accomplishments with the president.

"Understanding the geography of the election, Daschle took an enormous risk this time by making his guys play the opposition party role," Bainwol said. "If the minority now instead decides to play 'let's make the government work,' then that has an impact on the context of the next cycle."

Most key elements of the electoral environment for that next election cycle, of course, won't be known for many months: the state of the economy, the outcome of the confrontation with Iraq, the nation's success at preventing more terrorist attacks, and the overall level of Bush's popularity.

But one thing is already apparent: Many of the key contests that will probably decide control of Congress will be in the states and districts where Bush's support is almost certain to be at its highest.

And that could allow him to maximize his influence on the congressional elections.

This year, Bush demonstrated an impressive ability to leverage his approval rating into votes, especially in the places where he is most popular.

After the 2000 redistricting, the red states gained seven House seats; if Republican Lee Fletcher, who's favored, wins a runoff next week in Louisiana, the Republicans, on a net basis, will pick up all seven of them.

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