November 29, 2005
Despite Woes, GOP Confident for 2006

By Mort Kondracke

As bad as Republican fortunes look at the moment, party leaders and the Bush White House believe the GOP will retain control of Congress in the 2006 elections.

In part, they think Democrats can't assemble an alternative agenda that's sufficiently attractive, and they think President Bush has a strategy to come back from the political doldrums.

Keys to the strategy include an effort to win back support for the war in Iraq and action to deal with border security and illegal immigration, plus a new domestic agenda to be unveiled in the State of the Union address in January.

But to retain control of Congress, the GOP also is counting on the gerrymandering of House districts, which limits the number of competitive seats, and its favorable prospects in a number of Senate races.

A poll by the liberal Democracy Corps confirmed that, despite a collapse in support for Bush and Congressional Republicans and tangible Democratic advantages on key issues, Democrats still do not have enough public trust to secure a net gain of 15 seats for a House takeover.

"Voters are deeply discontented on Iraq, the economy, gas prices and health care, with corruption and [GOP] failure to address problems," Democratic strategists James Carville and Stan Greenberg wrote in a widely distributed memo Nov. 14.

And yet, in a generic Congressional ballot test, Democrats lead Republicans 48 percent to 40 percent, "not good enough to win control," the strategists said.

Democrats now are viewed favorably by 39 percent of voters and unfavorably by 39 percent, Democracy Corps reported - well short of the favorable situation that prevailed in 1993 before the GOP took control of Congress in 1994. Then, favorable attitudes toward the GOP were 13 percent ahead of unfavorables.

Carville and Greenberg advised that Democrats combine attacks on GOP failures with a promise, akin to the one the GOP made in its 1994 "Contract with America," to pass an agenda within 100 days of taking control of Congress that includes an increase in the minimum wage, lower Medicare drug prices and a windfall profits tax on oil companies to fund alternative energy sources.

But in an interview, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman told me that "if you look at the polls, you'll see that Democrats are not seen as having a clear agenda. In the last 20 years, every time one party has been down, the other party has been up. But not now. It's true, we have difficult poll numbers. We need to change the numbers. And we have a plan to do so. But the Democrats also have bad numbers - just as bad. That tells you a lot about where they stand."

Mehlman and other GOP leaders say the 2005 off-year elections showed no particular strength for the Democrats. Even though Bush's approval ratings were at or below 40 percent on Nov. 8, Democrats polled no better in winning the governorships of Virginia and New Jersey than winning Democrats did in 2001, when Bush's approval rating was near 80 percent.

In fact, Mehlman said that Democratic Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine won in Virginia by using "a model of victory that's just the opposite of the national Democratic Party and leaders like [Senate Minority Leader] Harry Reid [Nev.] and [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi [Calif.]. To the extent that Democrats want to have a big debate on taxes and health care, I look forward to that. We'll make this election a choice, not a referendum."

Republicans claim that Bush has already begun to recover on Iraq - though it doesn't show in the polls - by mounting a "push-back" strategy against Democratic charges that he deceived the country about weapons of mass destruction prior to the war.They count it as a victory when the House rejected by a vote of 403-3 the idea of immediate troop withdrawals from Iraq - meaning that Democrats were not willing to vote for an idea that many of them, deep down, presumably favor. (Democrats, of course, dispute this assessment, claiming that they simply would not go along with a GOP attempt to embarrass them.)

In the future, Bush plans more speeches on Iraq that include specifics about his political, military and reconstruction strategies and a stark description of the stakes in Iraq.

The White House also plans to upgrade its efforts to get the word about progress in Iraq to the American people, partly by ensuring that U.S. journalists can travel around Iraq more easily and partly by inviting retired U.S. generals and other "friendly skeptics" to visit Iraq and report back on what's happening.

Republicans also hope to benefit by reuniting their base on immigration. The White House is backing a House GOP move to strengthen border security through a combination of patrol agents, detention facilities, barriers and sensors (though not a "wall"). The legislation also will make it possible for the government to switch from a policy of "catch and release," whereby illegal immigrants caught at the border are allowed to skip on court dates and stay in the United States, to "catch and return," allowing for immediate repatriation.

Bush traditionally has favored comprehensive immigration reform that includes provisions for work permits for illegal immigrants and foreigners, but he's going along with the House's border-first approach to defuse conservative criticism that he's soft on the issue.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has drafted a comprehensive bill for consideration early next year, and the White House would weigh in during House-Senate conference deliberations to work out a final bill.

Top Bush aide Karl Rove already is deeply involved in immigration strategy, which allies say is evidence that he's confident he won't be indicted in the CIA leak investigation.

When all is said and done on the policy front, however, Mehlman and others say they are confident about 2006, because they don't think it's possible for Democrats to pull off a 1994-style reversal. "In 1992, you had 42 House races that were decided by less than 5 points. In 2004, there were only nine, and only five were Republican seats," he said.

"There were 50 open seats in 1994, but there are only 20 open so far. There were 53 districts that went Republican in the 1992 presidential election that were represented by Democrats. This past time there were only 18 that are represented by Republicans that were carried by [Sen. John] Kerry" (D-Mass.).

Eighteen seats, of course, would be enough to deliver control to the Democrats. But GOP leaders think they can make 2006 a "status quo" election. They like the status quo.

Mort Kondracke is the Executive Editor of Roll Call.

Mort Kondracke

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