WASHINGTON — The ups and downs of this roller-coaster campaign year are starting to make my stomach queasy, but then again it may just be all of the airline food I've been eating lately.
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The combination of the worsening situation in Iraq and the Foleygate scandal have effectively crowded terrorism, national security and falling gasoline prices out of the public eye, shifting the venue of this campaign away from three things that had, albeit briefly, advantaged Republicans. Still, with four weeks to go, the nuclear test in North Korea should serve as a reminder that events could shift this spotlight yet again to more favorable -- or at least less unfavorable -- terms for the GOP. We will be watching the situation with North Korea to see if it gives Republicans any traction.
The fact that the situation has turned grim for the GOP can hardly be disputed. On a macro level, Republicans have lost the ground they gained in early September, with the generic congressional ballot test now back to where it was before gasoline prices began to fall, the terrorist suspects were arrested in London and the focus was on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. In a just completed Oct. 5-8 national survey by RT Strategies for the Cook Political Report, Democrats held an 11-point lead among the 837 registered voters interviewed, 49 percent to 38 percent (margin of error +/-3.3 percent). Among the 321 voters deemed most likely to vote, Democrats led by nine points, 50 percent to 41 percent. Combining these results with the Cook Political Report pollingfrom the two previous weekends, among 2,491 registered voters (m.o.e. +/-1.8 percent), Democrats had a 13-point lead, 49 percent to 36 percent, and among 997 most likely voters (m.o.e. +/-3.1 percent), Democrats had a 12-point lead, 50 percent to 38 percent. Even allowing for a five-point historic skew in favor of Democrats for the generic ballot test, this is a real bad situation for the GOP.
Besides the fundamental question of what news and events will dominate voters' minds over the next four weeks -- Iraq and any scandals would favor Democrats, while national security and terrorism would help Republicans -- there is the issue of voter turnout. There are considerable signs that Republican voters are lethargic and disillusioned this year and that Democratic voters are angry and energized. This is evidenced by a new CNN/Opinion Research poll, conducted Oct. 6-8. Among the bigger pool of registered voters, Democrats led Republicans by 16 points on the generic ballot, 54 percent to 38 percent. But among likely voters, the lead was 21 points, 58 percent to 37 percent. The larger Democratic lead among likely voters shows the problem Republicans are having with motivating their base this year.
2006 key racesOne can get a good debate going over whether the Foley scandal will hurt the GOP's standing more among evangelical and social conservative voters or among mothers, but there really isn't any doubt the issue has and will continue to hurt, unless it's eclipsed by something else.
On a more micro level, the Cook Political Report now ratesthree Republican House seats as leaning toward the Democrats, plus 25 more in the toss-up column. There are no longer any Democratic seats at comparable levels of vulnerability. Fifteen more GOP seats are in the lean-Republican column, bringing the total number of GOP seats in competitive races to 43 (including the three in the lean-Democratic category), with 16 more in the likely Republican column -- not clearly competitive today but worth watching if things remain bad or get worse for Republicans.
On the Senate side, Republicans now have seven seats in the toss-up column, which is one more than Democrats need to gain a majority. Democrats have one seat in the toss-up column, in New Jersey, where appointed Sen. Robert Menendez is locked in a very tight battle. Incumbents Conrad Burns of Montana and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania remain the two most-endangered Republicans, followed by George Allen of Virginia, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Mike DeWine of Ohio. In Missouri, Jim Talent may be in a tiny bit less danger. Then there is the open seat in Tennessee, where Democratic Rep. Harold Ford Jr. is running at least even with former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker (R) in current polls.
Allen appeared to have stabilized his situation in Virginia earlier, but revelations over the weekend that he held -- but had not reported to the Senate ethics committee -- corporate stock options he had gained before entering the Senate may drop him back in the soup again.
It is no longer far-fetched to see how Democrats could win six Republican seats, or even seven -- which would be necessary for them to gain a majority if they lose one of their own seats.
Other seats that do not look likely to turn over but merit watching are Arizona's Jon Kyl on the Republican side, and on the Democratic side, Maria Cantwell in Washington and Michigan's Debbie Stabenow, along with open seats in Maryland and Minnesota.
Four weeks is a lifetime in politics and the tide still could shift. But for Republicans to salvage their majorities in the House and Senate, quite a bit would have to change.
Charlie Cook is a NationalJournal.com contributing editor, weekly columnist for National Journal magazine and the founder and publisher of the Cook Political Report. This column also runs in CongressDailyAM when Congress is in session. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.