February 10, 2006
are catching all the breaks, but can they take it to the House?
Wasserman and Larry J. Sabato
the Superbowl, Americans are once again reminded that every once
in a while, an underdog team can come back up from the depths,
run the table, and pull off a remarkable victory. This year, congressional
Democrats, ever-so-desperate to pick up the 15 seats they need
to reclaim the lower chamber this year, are crossing their fingers
for some of the against-the-odds Steelers magic they'll need to
last them through November 7th in order to reshuffle the congressional
Gradually for House Democrats, however, their dream of ending
their twelve years in the wilderness seems less and less far-fetched
with each passing week. For one, Bush fatigue is emerging as a
very serious electoral drag on the GOP in elections all across
the nation, and the threat to Republicans of a big old traditional
"sixth year itch" midterm election remains very real.
The president's approval ratings, not considerably altered by
the State of the Union, continue to weigh down the House GOP,
whose scores in generic ballot tests give the majority's members
pause even as public opinion of both parties in Congress grows
the persistence of congressional scandal continues to hamstring
the party in power, compounding the GOP's woes by hindering its
ability to articulate an agenda and reassume offensive stances
on a whole host of issues. Revelations of gross impropriety have
already swiftly befallen one member, now-disgraced former Rep.
Duke Cunningham, and have soured the reelection fortunes of two
powerful House veterans, most notably self-demoted Texas Rep.
Tom DeLay and now also Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, both of whose odds
of winning at home in 2006 we now estimate are even at best.
parties are haunted by the specter of even more allegations coming
out against their sides' members (Democratic Rep. William Jefferson's
legal woes illustrate the bipartisan nature of this whirlwind
of controversy), it is clear that the GOP stands to lose more
as new facts emerge about ethics breeches--Abramoff-attributable,
MZM-manufactured, and otherwise. And we'll bet more casualty possibilities
will manifest themselves before November. For the GOP, danger
exists on several levels: the pinpoint effects of scandal on individual
races where incumbents are affected are one thing; the nationalized
effects of a malodorous mushroom cloud of scandal are another
thing altogether. We can be sure that Democrats secretly hope
any additional GOP members whose practices come into question
will favor the Ney-DeLay route of sticking around to face voters
in November over showing themselves the door for the sake of party
if one event put an exclamation point on the deep concerns held
by many of the GOP's congressional rank-and-file, it was last
week's surprise election of semi-dark horse Ohio Rep. John Boehner
as their new Majority Leader over the old guard's preferred candidate.
Although publicly mum prior to the leadership shuffle, many members
were privately hankering for the chance to hang an "under
new management" sign outside their caucus door following
the exit of embattled former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (though
in his first week, the "new boss" has not exactly embraced
the kind of insurgent, "clean-house" mantle of broad
party change many of his supporters certainly hoped he would).
so difficult to see, then, given this electoral environment, why
gleeful Democrats seem to be catching all the breaks in House
races while the downtrodden GOP continues to take its lumps as
the House candidate recruitment cycle nears its finale. After
all, the overall calculus of each cycle's set of candidacy decisions
tends to reflect the conventional wisdom concerning each party's
chances to gain or lose seats come November, and right now, the
perception is simply that Republicans are in a deep but something-short-of-fatal
Democratic leaders still deserve plenty of credit for enhancing
their party's prospects in scores of districts around the country.
For his part, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair
Rep. Rahm Emnauel has kept his meanest, Bill Cowher-like game
face on throughout this cycle, barnstorming the country at breakneck
pace to entice top-tier would-be candidates into battle. We at
the Crystal Ball have always said that the name of the game for
Democrats in 2006 would be "expanding the playing field."
So what's new? Principally, to the extent Democrats faced questions
several months ago as to HOW they might be able to put a critical
mass of GOP-held seats in play this year, lady luck and the Democratic
party apparatus have largely quashed those basic doubts. Thanks
to recent recruiting coups (see KY-4 or NM-1) and a few unlucky
breaks for Republicans (see AZ-8 or CA-50), we now know WHERE
Democrats will win the seats necessary to reach 218, IF November's
electoral climate is sufficiently hostile to the GOP.
updated "Dirty Thirty" index of competitive House races
indicates that the electoral environment has tilted slightly but
significantly towards the Democrats since October. The list of
top battles is more overwhelmingly populated by GOP-held seats
than ever: fully 21 of the nation's top 30 competitive races (or
70 percent) will feature Democratic efforts to erode Republican
turf, up from 19 in October. Furthermore, within the "Dirty
Thirty," Republicans will be playing defense in 9 out of
the 12 districts we currently estimate as "toss-ups"
(75 percent), a dramatic shift from the 4-4 "toss-up"
tie score we outlined four months ago.
But before Democratic ranking members start fighting over committee
gavels, we should caution that the Democratic quest for majority
status is still a decidedly uphill climb. While the Crystal Ball
recognizes the minority's momentum and foresees that a good number
of this month's GOP "leaners" could well end up in the
"toss-up" column before all is said and done, we must
note that Democratic chances of taking back the House have only
improved from around 20 percent to about 30 percent at best since
our last update. Whereas in October we estimated that Democrats
would need to win 26 of the 30 races seriously "in play"--pretty
much a run of the table--in order to recapture the majority, we
now estimate that Democrats will need to win only 24 of them--more
reasonable, but still a very tall task.
recruitment phase of election 2006 all but over and additional
retirements unlikely, new questions abound. For Democrats, who
have relied on a steady "this is our year" drumbeat
to create opportunities for House gains over the last year, the
next few months of winter and spring will be a critical test season
for campaigns. Whether the lion's share of their key challengers
and open seat combatants, so many of whom are political neophyes,
will develop strong candidate skills remains an open question.
Already, some have impressed (a la Ron Klein in FL-22), and some
have lost their footing (a la Coleen Rowley in MN-2). Still, if
the political winds blow severely at the Democrats' backs on Election
Day, even many second- and third-tier candidates could conceivably
be swept into office.
in 2006, rebuilding a strong congressional party image while seeking
to enable members to stress their independence from Washington
troubles will remain a fragile and essential balancing act. GOP
leadership insists that the party will ultimately cross the finish
line thanks at least in part to their perennial ace in the hole:
a sizeable, across-the-board, fundraising advantage that the Democrats,
for all their exuberance, still haven't cracked. As of this month,
Republicans can take solace in the fact that the National Republican
Congressional Committee enjoys a $4 million cash-on-hand advantage
over its Democratic counterpart. Still, the financial picture
could be clouded this year by the influence of new-fangled independent
advocacy outfits, whose possible impact on midterm elections remains
uncharted territory for us all.
The bottom line? Observing how these and local factors play out
on this year's field of battle will be crucial to determining
whether Democrats and Republicans have any chance of waking up
in each others' shoes come Nov. 8th. At this writing, the Crystal
Ball maintains that a Democratic net gain on the order of 5 to
10 seats is currently the most likely scenario, but with continued
momentum and new openings brought about by the wildcard of scandal,
today's minority would quickly be within reach of "running
the table" Pittsburgh-style all the way to a paper-thin majority.
Such a consequential "six-year itch" outcome would certainly
prove a giant rash for the Bush Administration's final two years.
Sabato, the Robert Kent Gooch Professor of Politics at the University
of Virginia, founded the Center
for Politics in 1998. David Wasserman is the Crystal Ball's