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Is Earthquake Likely in America's Political Landscape?

By Tom Bevan

Chicago fans are well aware of the sports truism that "defense wins championships." Republicans are hoping this notion translates to politics as well, because with only 53 days left until the election the GOP is playing defense in congressional races all around the country. How good that defense is will eventually determine whether or not Republicans retain control of the House of Representatives and, possibly, the Senate.

Here is where things stand. In the House, Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats to win control. There are between 35 and 45 competitive races. Roughly three-quarters of these races feature Republicans trying to win re-election or to replace retiring members of their own party. The latter group, referred to as "open seats," is traditionally the toughest to defend, and Republicans are grappling with close to a dozen open seats this year -- including the seat in Illinois' 6th District held by the departing Henry Hyde -- that are among the best chances for Democrats to make gains.

But even if Democrats win every vulnerable Republican open seat in the country, which is highly unlikely, they would still fall short of winning control of the House. For that, Democrats will have to defeat at least a handful of Republican incumbents. Twelve of the most vulnerable Republicans are concentrated in four states that form almost a direct line moving inward from the Northeast to the Midwest: Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. If Democrats can win at least half of these races or better, they will have a good chance of reaching the 15-seat mark they need to capture control of the House Nov. 7.

In the Senate, Democrats need to pick up six seats to take control. This makes it a significantly tougher job than the House because Republicans only have seven seats in play while Democrats are defending five seats.

The task was made much harder by two recent events: last week the U.S. attorney's office announced a probe into the finances of Democrat Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey. Menendez trails his GOP opponent in the polls. Also, on Tuesday moderate Republican Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island survived a tough primary challenge from a conservative, turning what could have been an easy win for Democrats into a dead even contest.

Republican candidates are battling against one of the worst political headwinds in recent memory: public discontent with the war in Iraq, anxiety about the direction of the country, and frighteningly low approval ratings of both Congress and President Bush. Adding to Republican worries is that the base of the party is more disgruntled than it has been in years over issues such as runaway federal spending and illegal immigration.

This is where good defense comes in. The first pillar of the GOP defense is obvious: money. Republicans have historically held a significant cash advantage over Democrats, and when you combine fund-raising totals for the various party organizations that's true again this year, though Democrats have closed the gap in the last two election cycles and some Democratic candidates have had outstanding fund-raising efforts this year.

But most Republican incumbents hold a cash advantage over challengers, and money for ads and direct mail in the final days of a campaign is a serious advantage. This week, for example, on the same day the Democratic National Committee announced it was committing $12 million to support congressional races, the chairman of the Republican National Committee sent out word he would spend five times that amount to defend GOP candidates -- a record breaking $60 million in the next seven weeks.

The second pillar of Republican defense is turnout. Over the last two election cycles Republicans have proved to have a superior turnout effort to Democrats, using an intensive voter contact operation in the final days of the campaign called the "72-Hour Plan." It helped produce a surprise victory for GOP candidates in the first midterm in 2002 and overwhelmed massive Democratic spending and voter registration drives in 2004 to carry Bush to a 3 million vote victory and expand the Republican majority in the Senate to 10 seats.

Taken together, Republicans are hoping their money advantage and superior get-out-the-vote effort will hold off the coming Democratic charge and help mitigate any losses this November. We'll know in the coming days just how well Republicans can play defense, and whether that defense will be good enough.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics. Email: tom@realclearpolitics.com

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