November 29, 2005
Despite Woes, GOP Confident for 2006
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.
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
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.
in a generic Congressional ballot test, Democrats lead Republicans
48 percent to 40 percent, "not good enough to win control,"
the strategists said.
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.
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."
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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.).
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.
Kondracke is the Executive Editor of Roll Call.