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Chances Fade for Upset in House

Many Democrats see their hopes to win a majority of seats slipping away, barring a dramatic shift in voters' focus before Nov. 5.

October 28, 2002|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Even though history and economics are on their side, many Democrats are despairing of their chances of winning control of the House of Representatives this fall -- unless something dramatic changes between now and the Nov. 5 elections.

Democrats' hopes of translating voter anxieties about the economy into political gains large enough to win a House majority have been stubbornly hard to fulfill, as pocketbook issues have been eclipsed in the media by the prospect of war with Iraq and the Washington-area sniper killings.

"Things are very close," said Peter Fenn, a Democratic political consultant. "If I had to look at it right now, I'd have trouble doing the math in such a way that the Democrats pick up" the six seats needed to win back the majority they lost in 1994.

Fenn, like other Democrats, still thinks it possible the party can pull an upset on election day -- especially if last week's arrests in the sniper case clear the way for more public attention to the Democrats' message.

But the problem for Democrats, analysts say, is that no national tide appears to be pushing voters in their direction. And with little more than a week until the vote, the party does not seem to have succeeded in generating one of its own.

While the election results will have major repercussions for the balance of power in Washington -- and for President Bush's ability to get his way in Congress -- the individual House races are not shaping up as a referendum on either the economic issues Democrats emphasize or the national security concerns the GOP spotlights. Instead, many races are being shaped by local concerns and dynamics -- from federal money for dredging the Baltimore shipping channel to a dispute between an Indian tribe and towns in Connecticut.

"It's tough, but doable," Jenny Backus, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said of the fight for control of the House. "We have the pieces on the board. They are ready to be in play. But it has never been a swift shot."

Republicans are confident, even bold. "The chances of us losing the House are remote," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Still, the political climate in the last week of any campaign can be volatile. And while most political analysts predict Republicans will keep the House, such prognostication has proved wrong in the last two midterm elections.

Worried that conventional wisdom has coalesced around the idea that Democrats cannot win the House, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) has circulated a memo to his colleagues reminding them how far off preelection forecasts were in 1998, when Democrats defied expectations and gained seats, and in 1994, when few predicted Republicans would win control of the House.

Confounding Pundits

"Pundits, it turns out, are actually a contrarian indicator," Waxman's memo said. "Based on recent history, the smart bet is that the 2002 elections will again confound their prediction."

But it is not just pundits who view Democrats' road to a House majority as a steep climb.

"We're going to pick up seats, but I don't think we're going to pick up enough," said an influential Democratic pollster who asked not to be named. "I'm less optimistic than I was" in early September, before debate about going to war with Iraq cast a long shadow over Democrats' critique of GOP economic policy.

As of now, the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan publication that scrutinizes every congressional contest, counts 217 House seats as likely or certain to go Republican, and 202 likely or certain to go Democrat. That leaves 16 as tossups. And that means Democrats would have to win every tossup race to eke out the 218 seats needed to claim the majority.

"It is really tough in the absence of some sort of wave at the end -- or some kind of incredible luck," said Amy Walter, who analyzes House races for the Cook Report.

Such comments are surprising, given some key advantages the Democrats would seem to have in the campaign.

For one, it would not take much of a swing in the House to tilt the balance of power: Republicans outnumber Democrats by a mere 223-208 margin (with one independent who usually votes with Democrats and three vacancies). That means that Republicans would be ousted from the majority if they lost a mere six seats.

What's more, history is on the Democrats' side: The party in the White House traditionally loses seats in Congress in the election midway through a president's first term.

The economy is sputtering -- a problem that usually resounds to the disadvantage of the president's party. And recent polls have found trends that should favor Democrats. A survey for National Public Radio, for instance, reported that 51% of those surveyed thought the country is on the wrong track, the kind of pessimism that usually spells trouble for the party in the White House.

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