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Speculation about selecting the next Congress

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted October 17, 2005

Washington is abuzz with rumors and projections that the Democrats are heading back to power. Polls show that when a generic ballot is offered, Democrats outperform Republicans by 11 percentage points. A generic ballot simply asks, "If the elections were held today which party would you like to see control Congress?" The national polls don't ask about the individual Representative in Congress from the district of the voter polled. Often voters, while expressing support for Democrats, will tell pollsters their own Congressman is okay even though he may be a Republican. Yet it can't be comforting to Republican Congressional leaders when they observe the current political situation. After 12 years in the House and 10-plus in the Senate voters seem ready to switch party control. A prominent House GOP leader told me, "I am glad the elections are a year from now." It is true that Republicans have a chance to recover by the November 2006 elections. Will they?

There are many "if" scenarios. If Tom DeLay were to win his court battle and be restored to the House GOP Leadership. If, led by the House and Senate Republican Leadership, Congress enacted major spending cuts so the Congress could no longer rightfully be accused of profligate spending and also enacted meaningful immigration reform which secured the borders of this country. If the Iraqi War appeared more successful to the point where people begin to think it was worthwhile again. If the Bush Administration straightened out some of the scandals and appearances of scandal. If more electable candidates for Senate and House seats were nominated. So many "if" situations. Except perhaps for Delay's return to office these possibilities presently don't seem worth the proverbial plugged nickel.

In the past couple of Senate elections Republican candidate recruitment was first-rate. As a result Republicans won back control of the Senate in 2002 with victories in Georgia, Minnesota and Missouri. Then in 2004 Republicans strengthened their majority with victories in Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina and South Dakota. This time, however, with the exception of Minnesota where Representative Mark Kennedy is thought to have a good shot at the seat of retiring Senator Mark Dayton and Maryland where Lt. Gov. Michael Steele has an outside chance for the seat being vacated by Senator Paul Sarbanes, Republican recruitment largely has failed.

On the other hand, Democrats have top-tier candidates in Arizona, Missouri, Montana, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Republicans failed to get the candidates they wanted in Florida, Nebraska, North Dakota and West Virginia. With sufficient breaks in 2006 Democrats well could win enough seats to put them in control by a single seat, the same margin they had for a year and a half during 2001 and 2002 after Senator James Jeffords of Vermont switched from Republican to nominally Independent but functionally Democratic. Speaking of Vermont, Republicans failed to persuade both the Governor and the Lieutenant Governor to run for the Senate so the odds-on favorite to be elected Senator is Representative Bernie Sanders, the only Socialist in the House of Representatives. Some pundits blame Senator Elizabeth H. Dole, Chairman of the National Republican Senatorial [Campaign] Committee. My estimation is that is that few, if any, could have done better. The climate is anti-Republican, just as it was pro-Republican a year ago.

The House will be more difficult for Democrats to re-capture. There will be only about 30 seats in genuine play next Fall. Democrats would have to capture 15 Republican seats to switch control. More likely Democrats will gain seats short of a majority in 2006. After the 1998 elections, when President Bill Clinton made his emotional pitch to voters to spare him from impeachment, Republicans held onto the House by a scant five votes. That ratio is the more likely scenario.

If Democrats do capture the Senate they would make miserable President Bush's last two years in office, 2007 and 2008. In 2001, when Democrats took temporary control of the Senate, they saw to it that no worthwhile legislation passed the Senate. The House passed over 100 measures; the Senate enacted none. This time if Democrats were to capture the Senate there would be hearings on every possible scandal, real or manufactured, and they would attempt to repeal some favorite Bush programs, such as tax cuts and tort reform. They also probably would enact a deadline as to when our troops should be out of Iraq. They would know it never would become law. They would be making an issue for 2008. Democrats are far better at that than are Republicans.

A major problem for President Bush is that there are almost no conservative Democrats remaining in the Senate. The closest to a conservative Democrat in the Senate is Senator Ben Nelson, of Nebraska. Nelson votes with Republicans when he believes he is being watched but otherwise votes with his Democratic colleagues. Any other Democratic Senator who came close to moderation or conservatism, such as John Breaux, of Louisiana, is gone. So President Bush must hope that the Senate will remain Republican, which is why, for example, the White House is backing the renomination of Rhode Island's Lincoln Chaffee, challenged in the GOP primary by a far more conservative Mayor. Considering that Chaffee often sticks it to the President it would be logical that the White House would want to get rid of him. On the contrary, the President is doing everything he can to save him. The White House figures he would be the stronger candidate to win in November and he may be what stands between Republicans and Democrats in organizing the Senate.

Likewise the White House is going to throw every available resource into Pennsylvania to try to save Senator Rick Santorum. Santorum is said to be running from 10 to 13 points behind. Last year the President campaigned more in Pennsylvania than in any other state. More money was spent there than about anywhere else except Florida and Ohio. However, the President convincingly lost Pennsylvania. So unless State Auditor Robert Casey, Jr. stumbles badly along the way as of this writing he appears to have an excellent opportunity to be the next Senator. His father was a beloved two-term Governor. Half the electorate is estimated to believe it would be voting for Casey's late father.

The 2006 election will be the so-called sixth-year itch election. Parties in the White House for six of eight years typically get clobbered in the sixth year Congressional elections. Unless Republicans defy history this next election for them will not likely be pretty.

Paul M. Weyrich is the Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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