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Inroads Into GOP Country

Democrats find control of Congress within their grasp as more and more seats appear to be in serious contention, even in solidly red states.

October 19, 2006|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — America does not get much more Republican than Idaho. President Bush pulled in 68% of the vote in 2004, and the state has an all-GOP congressional delegation.

But to keep one of Idaho's House seats in Republican hands, the national GOP in recent weeks has poured in hundreds of thousands of dollars for television ads and brought in a parade of party bigwigs to campaign.

Such a huge effort in a district that should be a cakewalk for Republicans is a measure of how deep into GOP territory the fight for control of Congress has reached.

Over the last two months, the number of House Republican seats in serious contention has jumped week by week, giving Democrats an ever-bigger target to shoot at in their quest for a majority. Even a top Republican strategist estimates that the number of highly vulnerable Republican seats has more than doubled in recent weeks -- and now far exceeds the 15 seats Democrats need to pick up to win a House majority.

"Things look very bad for them now," GOP pollster Frank Luntz said of Republican prospects. "There used to be 15 races that were vulnerable, then it was 20.... Today you'd say 35 seats are in play."

In the battle for the Senate, prospects for Democrats to pick up the six seats they need to win control are brighter than they were a few months ago.

All that reflects an unusually fluid political landscape that has sent candidates, party leaders and interest groups scrambling to recalibrate strategy. The Republican Party has dropped plans for ads in South Carolina and other areas they now consider lost causes. The AFL-CIO has opened fronts in its $40-million get-out-the-vote drive in Tennessee and Virginia, reflecting the union's assessment that Democratic chances have improved there. National Democratic leaders are taking greater interest in districts in California and Minnesota, where newly strengthened candidates need support.

"It's hard to keep track of the new races that are looking very competitive," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), vice chairman of the committee responsible for electing Democrats to the House. "They are popping up all over the place."

Bush will be doing his part for Republicans today, campaigning for two incumbents who are in worse political shape than they were just two months ago: Sen. George Allen of Virginia, who had been expected to coast to reelection but is now less assured after a series of missteps; and Rep. Don Sherwood of Pennsylvania, who is fighting for political survival amid accusations that he tried to choke his mistress in 2004.

The president has remained publicly upbeat about Republicans' prospects, despite the bruising the party has taken over the congressional page sex scandal, sectarian violence in Iraq and criticism of Bush's handling of the North Korean nuclear threat.

But privately, GOP anxiety is growing -- especially among House Republicans who believe their leaders' handling of the page scandal surrounding former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) has made a bad situation worse. After listening in on a telephone conference call among House Republicans last week, Luntz said, "The bitterness about how the leadership has handled Foley is indescribable."

In more evidence of the challenge facing Republicans, a new poll found that voter support for the party and its continued leadership of Congress had sunk below the level Democrats saw before they lost control of the House and Senate in 1994.

The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, released Wednesday, pegged voter approval of Congress at 16%, matching its lowest point since the House bank scandal of 1992 that set the stage for Democrats to lose their majorities. Voters in the new survey also said they preferred Democrats over Republicans to control Congress, 52% to 37% -- a gap that, according to a Wall Street Journal account, far exceeds the 6-point lead that Republicans enjoyed just before taking control of Congress in 1994.

The poll included 1,006 registered voters and carried a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.

Still, some analysts say Republicans could reduce their losses in the final weeks of the campaign if the spotlight moves to issues that play to GOP strengths, such as the war on terrorism and falling gasoline prices.

"The spotlight could shift another time or two before Nov. 7," said Charles Cook, editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

For some time, the House has seemed much more likely than the Senate to turn Democratic. That was in part because most of the competitive Senate races were in conservative-leaning states, such as Montana, Missouri and Tennessee -- thought to be tough terrain for Democrats. Not long ago, only two incumbent Republicans in Democratic-leaning states seemed ripe for picking: Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania and Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island.

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