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GOP Can Win by Limiting Losses

Voters may want change in Washington, but the clout incumbents wield may impede Democrats.

May 08, 2006|Ronald Brownstein and Janet Hook | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — In this year's midterm election, control of Congress may turn on whether the public's clear desire for change is powerful enough to overcome the resistance to change built into the political system.

Discontent with the nation's direction and the federal government's performance is virtually screaming from public opinion surveys, which show approval ratings for President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress falling to their lowest levels.

On many measures, Bush and the GOP are facing at least as much dissatisfaction as Democrats and President Clinton did just before the 1994 midterm landslide that swept Republicans into control of the House and Senate.

But today's wave of dissatisfaction is crashing into a political structure that is much more stable than in 1994. It now is tougher to beat House incumbents or to win Senate seats in states that usually back the other party in presidential elections.

This year "is going to be a real test to see what happens when you get a fairly strong political tide coming up against this very rigidified system," said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Atlanta's Emory University.

Or, as Democratic pollster Mark Mellman put it: "The question is: Which is going to be more important, the stability of the structure or the size of the wave?"

To gain a majority in the House, Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats. To capture the Senate, they need a net gain of six seats.

It won't be easy for them to reach either number, experts in both parties agree. But increasingly, analysts say it is no longer inconceivable that Democrats could capture one -- or both -- of the chambers.

"I don't think the question is, 'Will the Republicans lose [seats in] the midterm election?' " said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. "The question is, 'How badly will they lose?' "

As a result, some Republican incumbents who thought themselves secure are girding for the worst by stockpiling campaign cash and, where necessary, spending it early. To coordinate political strategy, House GOP leaders have begun holding weekly meetings for staff members of about a dozen of the most vulnerable Republicans.

Democrats, meanwhile, are trying to broaden the battlefield, recruiting serious challengers to House Republicans who have not been targeted in the past. The political action committee associated with the liberal group already has aired advertisements attacking four such incumbents -- including Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.), a veteran lawmaker who has responded with ads of her own.

With voters unhappy over high gasoline prices, the war in Iraq and scandals in the Capitol, Democrats are looking to frame the race as a national referendum on the country's direction and to tie Republicans to President Bush.

In states as different as Arizona and Pennsylvania, Democratic Senate challengers are highlighting statistics that show GOP incumbents supporting Bush on legislation almost all of the time.

"The idea of Republicans being a rubber stamp for Bush is pretty powerful," said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin.

By contrast, most Republicans are trying to localize and personalize their races. They believe that the GOP will fare better if the election is seen not as a retrospective referendum on Bush and Congress, but as a choice about which party has better ideas for the future.

"We are going to have to make this into [an election] ... where people say, 'I might not be happy with Republicans overall, but this Democrat is too risky,' " said GOP pollster Glen Bolger.

Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), who has been battered over reports about his links to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, has demonstrated one element of that strategy. He is running an ad criticizing both of his potential Democratic opponents as weak on national security.

Another element is apparent in the subtle -- or sometimes overt -- efforts of Republican candidates to distance themselves from Bush.

Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), facing a tough reelection race, recently had a fundraiser featuring Bush but avoided being photographed with the president because the event was closed to reporters. DeWine's latest television ad ends with a line calling him an "independent fighter for Ohio families."

Such positioning isn't hard to explain: In the most recent Gallup Poll, Bush's approval rating stood at 34% -- well below Clinton's 46% in the final Gallup survey before the '94 midterm election. Gallup's most recent approval rating for Congress stood at 23%, with 70% disapproving; that's exactly the same showing for Congress that the poll recorded in its final survey in the '94 campaign.

Notwithstanding such numbers, no expert in either party is forecasting Democratic gains comparable to the 52 House and eight Senate seats the GOP won in 1994.

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