Video: What will happen on Tuesday?

By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
updated 11/6/2006 11:02:37 AM ET 2006-11-06T16:02:37

Believe it or not, there’s been an election going on, and Simon Cowell isn’t involved. For those of you who have spent more time mulling whether Betty really is Ugly, here’s a helpful talking point, so you won’t be as shocked by Tuesday’s results as you were when they killed off Mr. Eko on “Lost” last week:

There are still Democrats around.

No, really. We were just as surprised as you to learn that these guys hadn’t quietly slunk off into the night, like the Whigs, in the face of Karl Rove’s strategizing, Tom DeLay’s redistricting and the Republicans’ fund-raising. But in fact, the final polls wrapping up over the weekend indicate that the Democrats are probably going to take control of the House and have a shot to do the same in the Senate.

So you’ll sound like you’ve been paying attention, here’s a quick summary:

The House
“In the House, it would take a miracle for the GOP to hold onto their majority ,” says Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report, the Vegas line of election forecasting. “The losses look very likely to exceed 20 seats, and a 20- to 35-seat loss is most likely, but we would not be surprised for it to exceed 35 seats.” Democrats need to flip only 15 seats to take control of the House for the first time in 12 years.

Who could go: The list of House Republicans who could be out of office come January — or already are, like DeLay of Texas, Randy “Duke” Cunningham of California and Mark Foley of Florida — has bookers for “Meet the Press” and Wolf Blitzer pondering how to replenish a seriously depleted supply of go-to-guys.

There’s Chris Shays of Connecticut, who’s being squeezed from the right by conservatives who don’t like his moderate positions and from the left by independents and Democrats who don’t like his vote for the war in Iraq.

Curt Weldon and Don Sherwood of Pennsylvania have the legal system to thank for their peril. The FBI is investigating Weldon for allegedly steering public relations work to his daughter, while Sherwood is being sued by his former mistress, who says he once tried to choke her. In North Carolina, Charles Taylor has fallen behind a failed NFL quarterback with no political experience, Heath Shuler.

Video: What if Democrats win House?

Two powerful members of the House leadership are also in the fights of their lives. Tom Reynolds of New York, normally so good a campaigner that House Republicans put him in charge of their overall election strategy, and Deb Pryce, the No. 4 House Republican, have both been challenged on what they knew about the Mark Foley page scandal and when. So has Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois , but he looks safe.

Why it’s important: If the Democrats do take over, they will likely elect the first female speaker of the House in the nation’s history, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, and they will be in a position to torpedo much of President Bush’s remaining agenda.

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But what really has partisans licking their chops is the prospect of taking over committees that could launch potentially embarrassing investigations of the administration’s handling of the war in Iraq, its maneuvering to limit the rights of defendants in the courts, its domestic surveillance program, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and the secret meetings of Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy commission.

The Senate
It’s tougher for the Democrats in the Senate, where they have to pick up six seats to take clear control.

The latest MSNBC/McClatchy and Mason-Dixon polls indicate that two of them are likely in the bag, but to get to six, they would have to sweep all of the seats of four other Republican incumbents whom the polls show are in dead heats, while holding on to one of their own.

Who could go: The lost causes look to be the re-election campaigns of Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, and Mike DeWine of Ohio. DeWine, although he hasn’t personally been accused of anything, seems to have been washed over by a general backlash against Republicans in Ohio, who have been accused in a number of scandals, while the fiercely conservative Santorum, who has always been a polarizing figure, has run up against an opponent with a famous and respected name in Pennsylvania: Bob Casey Jr., the state treasurer and son of the former governor.

Why it’s important: A Republican Senate could cover Bush’s back by killing unpalatable measures sent up by a Democratic House before he has to veto them. Plus, the Senate gets to confirm or reject Bush’s nominations for judgeships, and Republicans would dearly love to get one more conservative on the Supreme Court.

And depending on exactly how the Senate breaks down, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who couldn’t even win his own Democratic primary, could emerge as the most powerful man in America. He managed to petition his way on to the ballot anyway as an independent, and the latest polls show him leading Democratic nominee Ned Lamont by double digits.

Video: Leaders weigh in

Let’s say the Democrats pick up six seats. That would give them 50, to 49 for the Republicans, plus Lieberman. If he votes with the Democrats, they win, Harry Reid of Nevada becomes majority leader and Democrats head all the committees. If he votes with the Republicans, the resulting 50-50 tie gives Cheney the deciding vote, and Republicans stay in power.

The scenario’s unlikely, because Lieberman says he’d caucus with the Democrats, but it doesn’t mean he couldn’t go off the reservation on individual votes and kill certain initiatives of the party that has already rejected him once and has made him a pariah for refusing to step aside for the more liberal Lamont.

Two years ago, everybody made a big noise about an exit poll that seemed to show that the No. 1 issue for voters was values, beating the war in Iraq. There wasn’t much commentary on the fact that the poll listed the closely related question of terrorism as a separate option, forcing voters to choose one or the other. When they were combined, Iraq and terrorism were clearly overriding.

Nothing’s changed in 2006, as polls show that the war and terrorism are even more galvanizing issues. In the latest Newsweek poll , Iraq and terrorism combined are the No. 1 concern of registered voters by more than 2-to-1 over the second-most-common concern, the economy (44 percent to 19 percent).

Why it’s important: Under the Constitution, spending bills originate in the House, where Democrats, if they take control, could cause no end of headaches for the Pentagon budget and the war effort. On the flip side, they would come under pressure to offer a new policy, which could be treacherous for Democrats eyeing the 2008 presidential race — especially those, like Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and the party’s 2004 ticket, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who voted for the war in 2002.

Those nasty, nasty ads
Boy, they sure are nasty, thanks to a law that was intended to reform campaign advertising but ended up doing the opposite. The law allowed the parties to spend as much as they wanted on ads, as long as they gave the money to outside groups that are barred from communicating with the parties or the candidates themselves.

What happened was that those independent groups took the money and cut some of the most personally ugly and often dishonest ads in memory — on their own, so the parties and their candidates could plausibly deny any responsibility. In effect, it was the legal enshrinement of swiftboating, named for Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group that more or less successfully smeared Kerry’s record as a war hero in 2004.

Most famous this year was the spot produced by an independent group supporting Bob Corker, the Republican nominee for the Senate in Tennessee, which critics said played on white voters’ racial fears by suggesting that Corker’s Democratic opponent, Rep. Harold Ford, who is black, chases after white women.

Others slammed a Democratic House candidate in New York for calling sex lines with taxpayers’ money (in fact, an aide misdialed the office by one digit and hung up immediately) and a Democratic incumbent in Wisconsin for “pay[ing] for sex!” (he actually voted not to end a National Institutes of Health study of HIV infection among sex workers).

Why it’s important: These folks will have to govern together after lobbing rhetorical mortars at one another, most of them grotesquely unfair and many of them downright false. And if candidates backed by the worst transgressors — the nonpartisan research group found most came from Republican groups, but Democrats were by no means 100 percent innocent — end up winning, it could be interpreted as the voters’ endorsement of such tactics.

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