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THE NATION

GOP's Hold on House Shakier

As Labor Day gets the campaign in full swing, Democrats are counting on voters unhappy with one-party rule and Bush's leadership.

September 03, 2006|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Raye Haug, a retired librarian in northern Virginia, for years happily voted to reelect her longtime congressman, Republican Frank R. Wolf. But the GOP record of the last six years -- on foreign policy, the economy and the environment -- has so soured Haug that she wants to vote for a Democrat in this year's midterm election.

Any Democrat.

"I don't think I've ever before been willing to vote for someone just because of their party affiliation," said Haug, who walked precincts one sweltering Saturday for Judy Feder, Wolf's Democratic opponent, even though she knew little about her.

As Labor Day signals the start of intense campaigning for the Nov. 7 election, the political landscape is crowded with disgruntled voters like Haug, who tell pollsters they don't like the direction the country has taken under President Bush and Republican rule in Congress.

Most voters are just now beginning to pay attention to the campaign, but candidates and their advisors have been mobilized for months. After 12 years of Republican dominance, Democrats have their best shot in years at winning control of Congress -- especially the House.

Early this year, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report identified 42 House Republican seats as competitive; now it lists 55. The analysis sees only 20 House Democrats in competitive races. Democrats, who need to gain 15 seats to win control, also have narrowed Republicans' traditional advantage in fundraising.

The mood of the electorate continues to be clouded by deteriorating conditions in Iraq.

"That's a recipe for a GOP disaster, and there is no reason to believe that things will change dramatically between now and election day to improve Republican prospects," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of a nonpartisan newsletter that recently predicted a Democratic takeover of the House.

The Senate remains more firmly in Republican hands, but even GOP strategists fear their party could reduce their 55-45 margin of control.

The winds are blowing so strongly against the GOP that it raises a new question: If Democrats cannot win control of Congress under these circumstances, when will they?

If they do not triumph in such a hospitable climate, it will be a tribute to the strength of the political machine the GOP has built to cement the realignment that has given them control of Congress since 1994 and the White House since 2000. The party's agenda is tailored to mobilize its base, and its campaign machinery has made a fine art of getting Republican voters to the polls.

And most House members are protected by district boundaries that have been drawn by political bosses to keep seats safely in one party's control.

"If we do endure this cycle with a majority in both chambers, you have to argue this has been an unbelievable 12-year run," said Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster. "You'd have to give Bush and his administration credit. That is an enduring legacy."

Helping secure that legacy are incumbents like Wolf, who make the Democrats' job harder than it seems. Although he is facing a well-financed opponent in a district that shows signs of becoming more Democratic, Wolf is still heavily favored to win. A 13-term incumbent who sits on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, Wolf has been bringing home the bacon for decades and is well-known by his constituents.

Even Haug -- who plans to vote against him -- concedes, "I like the guy. He has been a good congressman."

That's why Republicans are trying to keep the focus on individual candidates and local issues, while Democrats are trying to turn the election into a broad national referendum on one-party rule in Washington, the war in Iraq and Bush.

The parties' different strategies were on display last week in a day of campaign events in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Democrat Joe Sestak held an event on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina to criticize Bush's response to the disaster and to link the district's Republican representative to the administration's failures.

"If anybody's happy with George Bush, you are happy with Curt Weldon, and I am not your man," Sestak said. "He is super-glued to the president."

In a nearby district, first-term Republican Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick traveled to a dairy farm to say he had bucked the Bush administration to secure funding for a locally popular conservation program. "I've struck a real chord of independence," Fitzpatrick said.

Some Republicans take heart from a few inklings that Democrats may have peaked too soon.

In recent polls, Bush's approval ratings rose after the arrest last month of terrorism suspects in London. A mid-August Gallup poll found that generic support for a Democratic congressional candidate over a Republican narrowed to 2 percentage points, down from double digits in earlier surveys.

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