By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 9/6/2006 6:34:44 PM ET 2006-09-06T22:34:44

In the last few months I've reported on House and Senate races from New Hampshire to Washington state.

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The question people around the country naturally ask me is, “Will the Democrats take control of Congress on Nov. 7?”

Ever since I predicted Ross Perot would win in 1992, I’ve retired from forecasting election outcomes, but I’ll say this: almost every condition seems to favor Democrats gaining a majority of the House of Representatives. They seem to have good prospects for the Senate too.

I say “almost every condition” because I’ve been struck by one thing about many of the Democratic House challengers I’ve interviewed, especially the ones running for public office for the first time: many of them seem less polished and less proficient in the basic campaigning skills than I’d expected.

And yet, similarly less polished Republican candidates — people such as Andrea Seastrand and Steve Stockman -- won in the 1994 elections when the GOP took the House. The reason you may not recognize the names of Seastrand and Stockman is that they lasted for only one term before voters ousted them.

The big reason why the Democrats’ chances look good: GOP voters’ motivation — or lack of it.

The riddle which Republican strategists have only a short time left to solve is: why should Republican voters bother to vote on Nov. 7?

Bush on the ballot
By Election Day will President Bush and the congressional majority have delivered on the things that Republican voters want: a crackdown on illegal immigration, victory in Iraq, defense against terrorists’ attacks here in the United States, fiscal restraint, a rebuff to liberal social experiments such as same-sex marriage?

The danger for the Republican majority is that GOP voters will be demoralized, in the same way that Democrats were in the 1994 election, when a decline in Democratic turnout led to their party losing control of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

The lesson of 1994 – what happens when a large number of the party’s “base” voters stay home—is chilling, if you’re a Republican strategist.

In the 1990 elections, more than 31 million Democratic votes were cast in House contests. But in the next off-year congressional balloting in 1994, only 30.5 million Democratic votes were cast.

As the Democratic vote dwindled, the GOP surged: 26 million Republican votes were cast in House elections in 1990, but nearly 35 million were cast in 1994, better than a one-third increase over 1990.

The result: Democrats lost 52 House seats.

Issue #1
The war in Iraq remains the most troubling factor for GOP incumbents.

The contrast with the most recent off-year election is glaring: in 2002, Bush insisted on Congress voting before Election Day on whether to allow him to use military force in Iraq. Democratic congressional leaders didn’t want to be portrayed as weak on defense and the party split over the vote to go to war.

Bush campaigned for Republican candidates in 2002 and it paid dividends: in House races the GOP got 37 million votes to the Democrats’ 31.8 million. The Republicans gained six House seats and two in the Senate, the first time since 1934 that the president’s party picked up seats in both houses of Congress in a mid-term election.

Rep. David Obey, D-Wisc., told a reporter during the 2002 campaign, “Karl Rove gets up every morning and his number one job is to get people like you to ask people like me about Iraq, rather than the economy and corporate malfeasance.”

How things have changed: now Democrats are eager to run on the Iraq issue, although very few Democratic candidates have been willing to call for a cut off of funds that would end the Iraq deployment.

Iraq cost Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., his party’s Senate nomination as he lost to anti-war candidate Ned Lamont in an August primary. Lieberman is now running as an independent.

Meanwhile GOP candidates are questioning the president’s strategy.

In a vitally important open-seat contest in upstate New York, the 24th congressional district, where a veteran GOP incumbent is retiring, Republican candidate Ray Meier told me two weeks ago, “Where I would fault the president is: he needs to explain to the American people what the goal is, and to talk about the commitment needed to do it. That has been one of the problems.”

He added, “I have not heard that (plan) clearly articulated” by Bush. People “are sort of flummoxed as to how we’re going to get there.”

Distancing from the president
Some GOP candidates are edging away from their party label and their president. Meier put it this way: “When voters walk into the voting booth, it is not going to say ‘Republican Congress’ or ‘Democrat Congress. It is going to say ‘Ray Meier’ and my opponent.”

“There are people who don’t like President Bush; there are people who like President Bush,” Minnesota Republican Senate candidate Mark Kennedy explained in May. “Whether he’s campaigning for me or not, I don’t think it’s going to influence the outcome….There’ll be a lot of folks trying to make the campaign about President Bush, but the real issue will be the stark contrast on the issues” between himself and his Democratic opponent Amy Klobuchar.

At this point, five GOP Senate incumbents seem to be lagging their Democratic challengers, if polling is accurate. Democrats need a net gain of six seats to control the Senate.

Meanwhile in House races, the non-partisan Cook Political Report rates 18 Republican held seats as toss-ups, but has no Democratic-held seats in that vulnerable category. The Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats.

The Democratic agenda
What are the themes that Democrats are banking on?

1) Above all, change for its own sake:In New Hampshire’s Second Congressional District, Democrat Paul Hodes, who is running against six-term Rep. Charlie Bass, said, “We’re going to ask New Hampshire voters a pretty basic question: Have you had enough? Have you had enough of an imperial president and an ineffective, rubber-stamp Congress who just won’t face the real issues that are facing this country?”

2) Curbing Bush’s power: Democratic voters want their party put a tether on Bush. One rank-and-file Democrat in Connecticut urged Lamont to “mount an effective resistance to the Bush regime.”

This “resistance” would include the use of House committees to probe the origins of the Iraq war.

In a Democratic-controlled Senate we’d likely see a revival of the filibuster (unlimited Senate debate) to block votes on Bush’s judicial nominees. Klobuchar said she won’t rule out filibusters of any future Bush Supreme Court nominees, “I’m not opposed to ever using a filibuster by any means.”

3) Internationalism: Democratic candidates preach multilateralism, working through the United Nations, and a greater focus on poverty and other humanitarian issues.

“I think the United States has got to start dealing with the rest of the world with respect and we start in the United Nations. We’ve disrespected the United Nations and we’ve disrespected an awful lot of our allies and we’re a weaker nation for it,” said Lamont.

“We will defend our nation against all threats, but we have to remember our enemies are also including hunger, poverty, greed, intolerance, chaos and fear,” Hodes told an audience in New Hampshire in June.

4) A confrontation with the pharmaceutical companies:  Democrats say they’ll change the Medicare prescription drug entitlement to force drug makers to negotiate lower prices.

5) A new era of spending: Democrats promise new subsidies for alternative energy sources such as biomass, more spending on education, and health insurance for every American.

Some Democratic candidates this year such Darcy Burner in Washington’s 8th congressional district and Klobuchar in Minnesota indicate they will seek to raise taxes, with some Democrats promising tax hikes on people who make over $200,000, others on people with incomes over $1 million.

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