January 26, 2006

Democrats ride momentum into mid-term election

By John Whitesides, Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats are riding a wave of
momentum into November's high-stakes battle for the U.S.
Congress, with high hopes for significant gains that could
threaten Republican control of the House and Senate.

Republicans enter the campaign after the toughest stretch
of President George W. Bush's presidency, fueled by an
unpopular war in Iraq, economic uncertainty, political scandals
and Bush's low approval ratings.

But despite the favorable political mood for Democrats,
analysts say the party faces major hurdles to gaining the six
Senate and 15 House seats needed to reclaim control of

To win majorities, Democrats need to capture most of a
small pool of competitive seats in the House while bumping off
at least five Republican Senate incumbents -- tough tasks in
any political climate, but not impossible.

"It looks like the Democrats will gain seats in the House
and Senate, but the question is how many. Is it going to be a
Democratic tide or a Democratic tsunami?" asked Larry Sabato, a
political analyst at the University of Virginia.

"It is going to be hard for Democrats, but if the situation
continues to deteriorate for Republicans this year anything is
possible," he said.

Democratic majorities in Congress would allow them to
control the legislative agenda and put the brakes on many of
Bush's policy initiatives, while even small gains would
increase their clout in Capitol Hill battles over issues like
judges, taxes and national security.

The best chance for a Democratic breakthrough could be the
Senate, where 33 of 100 seats are on the ballot. Republicans
hold 15 of those seats and Democrats 18, but five of the most
endangered incumbents at this stage are Republicans.

Republicans Mike DeWine of Ohio, Rick Santorum of
Pennsylvania, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Jim Talent of
Missouri and Conrad Burns of Montana all face tough re-election

The open Tennessee seat of retiring Republican Bill Frist
is also on the Republican endangered list, while Democrats face
a battle defending the open Minnesota seat of retiring Mark

Democrats also must defend open seats in Maryland and the
Vermont seat of retiring and Democratic-leaning independent Jim
Jeffords, along with incumbents Bill Nelson in Florida, Ben
Nelson in Nebraska, Maria Cantwell in Washington, Robert Byrd
in West Virginia and Debbie Stabenow in Michigan.

"Before they go after our incumbents they are going to have
to defend their own. These open seats certainly offer an
opportunity," said Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, head
of the Senate Republican campaign committee.

The toughest and highest-profile race of the year could be
in Pennsylvania, where Santorum, the third-ranking Republican
in the Senate, badly trails Democratic challenger Bob Casey Jr.


"The Democrats have to sweep the competitive Republican
races to take power, while holding all of their own. That's
tough," said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for the nonpartisan
Cook Political Report.

"That means they have to win the open seat in Tennessee and
beat five Republican incumbents. The last time five incumbents
lost was 1986," she said.

Burns has become ensnared in the growing corruption
investigation involving Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff,
which Democrats use as a prime example of the Republican
"culture of corruption" in Washington.

Also caught up in the explosion of scandals is former House
Republican Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and former House
Administration Committee Chairman Bob Ney of Ohio, who both
face tough re-election races.

The public so far is not blaming either party for the
scandals, polls show, but they crave a change in Washington and
favor Democrats on most issues, with the major exception of
national security and the war on terrorism.

"There is an anti-incumbent mood out there and Republicans
are the ones who will bear the brunt of it," said Senate
Democratic campaign committee spokesman Phil Singer.

On the House side, redistricting after the 2000 census
safeguarded incumbents across the country and reduced the
number of competitive districts to a few dozen. The Cook Report
lists only 28 House districts that are toss-ups or somewhat
competitive, with Republicans defending 18 and Democrats 10.

Republicans say that will force Democrats to score a near
sweep of competitive districts if they want to reclaim power.
They are counting on the races turning on local issues rather
than national trends.

"People don't go into a voting booth and pull the Bush
lever or the anti-Bush lever or the Republican lever, they vote
for a person," said House Republican campaign spokesman Carl

"So you have to make a case to the constituents of a
district why their incumbent needs to be fired, and being from
the same party as Tom DeLay or George Bush isn't enough."