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THE NATION | AMERICA VOTES / Incumbents at risk

GOP Faces a Northeast Chill

Its waning support in the region could give Democrats a base for congressional takeover.

October 16, 2006|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

GROTON, Conn. — The political equivalent of a nor'easter is bearing down on Republicans from New England through Pennsylvania.

With President Bush's approval ratings collapsing across the Northeast, the region presents Democrats an unusually rich concentration of opportunities to capture Republican-held House and Senate seats in the November elections.

In this tempest, Democrats are pressing GOP Sens. Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island and Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania, and mounting fierce challenges to pick up about 10 Republican-held House seats in several states. Half a dozen other House Republicans also could be swept away.

The campaign's atmospherics give Democrats the chance to establish in the region an equivalent to what Republicans have built in the South: an overwhelming regional advantage that anchors their bids for House and Senate majorities. Indeed, if Democrats win most of the House races in play in the Northeast, they will be virtually assured of the net gain of 15 seats nationwide that they need to control the chamber.

On the plus side for the GOP, many of the targeted Republicans are strong candidates.

Rep. Rob Simmons, who represents a sprawling district in eastern Connecticut centered around Groton, is an example. He prepared for heavy political weather by diligently promoting local interests, taking generally moderate positions on social issues and seizing chances to show independence from Bush. Simmons and many of the other at-risk Republicans also are fiercely attacking their Democratic opponents.

Still, analysts in both parties agree that even with these efforts, Republicans in the Northeast's Democratic-leaning states remain especially vulnerable because of pervasive voter dissatisfaction with Bush, the Iraq war and scandals in Washington.

The endangered Republicans usually benefit from "some natural insulation because they happen to be fairly good fits for their districts," said Saul Shorr, a Democratic consultant based in Philadelphia. "But when there is a wave ... places that weren't on the map [as competitive races] just get sucked in."

For decades, Northeast Republicans have experienced a decline that represents the flip-side of the GOP advances in the South. While the party's national identification with a conservative agenda, especially on social issues, has keyed its gains in Dixie, those issues have weakened it in the region that once produced such icons of political moderation as former Sens. Jacob K. Javits of New York and Lowell P. Weicker Jr. of Connecticut.

This year, the climate for further Democratic gains could hardly be more favorable. In an ABC/Washington Post survey this week, Bush's approval rating in the East stood at 27%, much lower than in any other region.

Joe Courtney, the Democrat running against Simmons, feels that wind at his back. He lost to the incumbent, 54% to 46%, in 2002 when Bush was still riding a wave of public support after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"Running in the wake of 9/11 before the invasion of Iraq was a very tough environment as a challenger with a message of change," Courtney said. "Nothing could be more different than today. People have gotten a very good look at [the GOP] agenda ... and I think in a district like this people have really crossed the line as far as wanting out."

That discontent, echoed across the region, has created strong Democratic opportunities in two Senate races. In Pennsylvania, polls have shown Santorum consistently trailing Democrat Bob Casey Jr. In Rhode Island, Chafee is facing a smaller and less settled deficit against Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse.

Democratic pickups in these two states, however, could be undercut in New Jersey. There, Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat appointed to the seat earlier this year, is locked in a tight contest with Republican Tom Kean Jr.

In the House, top Democratic targets include four GOP-held districts in Pennsylvania, an open seat in central New York being vacated by Republican Sherwood Boehlert and a Buffalo-area district where Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds is vulnerable, in part because of the sex scandal surrounding former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.).

At the apex of the Democratic target list are Simmons and two other House Republicans in Connecticut -- Reps. Nancy L. Johnson and Christopher Shays.

Across the region, most Democrats want to nationalize their contests, making them a referendum on the direction Bush and the GOP-led Congress have set for the country. The Republicans want to localize the races, making them a referendum on their personal service to the district -- and the personal shortcomings of their opponent.

Courtney, for instance, last week accused Simmons of failing to hold the administration accountable for reversals in Iraq and denounced him for supporting Bush-backed energy and Medicare prescription drug bills. Courtney characterized those measures as giveaways to the oil and drug industries.

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