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Beyond the tipping point

The real question doesn't seem to be whether the Democrats will succeed in getting a House majority, but how large their majority will be. A Democratic edge of five to 10 seats, perhaps more, looks probable.   By Amy Walter, Cook Political Report, for the National Journal.
/ Source: National Journal

Until mid-September, House Republicans' built-in advantages appeared strong enough to protect their majority, despite the electorate's increasingly anti-Republican mood. The GOP had few vulnerable open seats, most of its incumbents were skilled at waging hard-hitting campaigns, and the party seemed to have plenty of time and money to defend its most-endangered seats.

Now, in the final days before Tuesday's election, Democrats are poised to take control of the House by flipping more than the necessary 15 seats. And the real question doesn't seem to be whether they will succeed but how large their majority will be. A Democratic edge of five to 10 seats, perhaps more, looks probable.

All of the political storm gauges suggest that the climate is now at least as bad for Republicans as it was for Democrats heading into the 1994 election, when they lost control of both the House and the Senate. President Bush's job-approval rating, 37 percent in the latest Gallup Poll, is 9 points lower than President Clinton's was at the same point in Gallup's 1994 pre-election survey. Moreover, just 26 percent of voters in the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll (October 13-16) said the country is headed in the right direction, while a whopping 61 percent said it is on the wrong track. That's more pessimism than the electorate showed 12 years ago, when the same poll found 39 percent of likely voters saying "right direction" and 48 percent saying "wrong track."

Difficulty shifting the debate
Even though the number of competitive races continues to grow, Republican operatives are still hoping to localize enough of them to preserve their majority. The most-competitive GOP-held House districts are being flooded with Republican messages -- financed by the National Republican Congressional Committee and the candidates' own campaigns -- that depict the Democratic challenger as an unacceptable alternative to the unpopular status quo. But because the national spotlight has been riveted for weeks on the issues that are most hazardous to the GOP -- the chaos in Iraq, the dysfunction on Capitol Hill, and the unhappiness with Bush -- Republicans have found it all but impossible to shift the debate to topics that might work in their favor.

The political playing field is tilted dramatically against the GOP. In recent elections, the number of competitive House districts was not only small, it was also fairly evenly divided between GOP-held seats and Democratic ones. In October 2004, National Journal's Cook Election Preview listed just 39 competitive seats -- 22 held by Republicans, 16 held by Democrats, and one newly created by redistricting. Likewise, in 2002, Republicans had to defend only about half of the 44 seats in play.

This year, Republicans hold the vast majority of vulnerable seats -- 53 of 60. And of that 60, all 10 of the most endangered are held by Republicans. In other words, not a single Democratic-held House seat is among those most likely to change party. If Democrats do lose any of their own seats, those of Reps. Jim Marshall (GA-08), John Barrow (GA-12), and Melissa Bean (IL-08) are the most likely to go.

The Republicans' 53 jeopardized seats fall into three levels of vulnerability. The first tier comprises 10 districts that the GOP will be lucky to hold. In all 10, the Republican candidates are trailing in the polls. The rapidly expanding next tier comprises 30 battleground districts -- up from 18 just a month ago -- that could go either way. Polls show these races in a tie or with the Republican very narrowly ahead. The GOP's chances are no better than 50-50 in any of these races. And if the widely forecast Democratic wave materializes, the GOP could lose 75 percent of them. In the third tier are 13 longer-shot opportunities for the Democrats.

Tier One: Most-endangered seats
Six of the 10 seats in this category are open -- the Republican incumbent has resigned or is retiring from Congress. Heading into this election year, the GOP was expected to have few open seats to defend in competitive districts -- giving the party a big advantage. In 1994, Democrats had 31 open seats to defend and lost 22 of them, or 71 percent.

This year, Republicans have 21 open seats, most of them in territory that is quite Republican. Nevertheless, the GOP is in real trouble in six of their open-seat races -- those in Arizona's 8th District, where Jim Kolbe is retiring; Colorado's 7th, where Bob Beauprez is leaving to run for governor; Florida's 13th, where Katherine Harris is running for the Senate; Iowa's 1st, where Jim Nussle is running for governor; New York's 24th, where Sherwood Boehlert is retiring; and Ohio's 18th, where Bob Ney is retiring. In 2004, President Bush carried all but the Colorado and Iowa districts.

Some of the GOP's pain in this group of seats has been self-inflicted. Ney dropped his re-election bid while under investigation for his ties to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and he has since pleaded guilty to bribery. Ney's last-minute decision has disadvantaged the Republican candidate who is taking his place in Ohio's 18th. Democrats are using every opportunity to tie GOP state Sen. Joy Padgett to Ney and to the state's scandal-tainted governor, Republican Bob Taft.

Elsewhere, crowded primaries (in Arizona's 8th and Florida's 13th) produced Republican nominees who have been unable to unify their party's base. In both districts, Democrats nominated candidates who are a good fit ideologically and are tough to demonize.

Also in this tier are two Indiana Republicans who are trailing their Democratic challengers and must be considered underdogs. Indiana's unpopular Republican governor, Mitch Daniels, and a restless electorate have exacerbated the problems of Reps. John Hostettler (IN-08) and Chris Chocola (IN-02). Hostettler is a notorious underperformer who has survived his last few campaigns partly because of weak Democratic challengers and a strong standard-bearer at the top of the party's ticket. This year, the six-term lawmaker can count on neither advantage. The most recent independent poll showed Democratic Sheriff Brad Ellsworth ahead of Hostettler, 50 percent to 43 percent. Chocola, meanwhile, is not well liked. Polling has consistently shown the two-term Republican with high negatives among the voters in this northern Indiana district. Democrat Joe Donnelly is not as well financed or well known as Ellsworth, but the Notre Dame graduate is a good fi! t for this blue-collar district. A mid-October poll showed Donnelly ahead of Chocola, 50 percent to 45 percent.

Also on this list are incumbents with heavy personal baggage. In Pennsylvania's 10th, the political career of married Rep. Don Sherwood is on the verge of sinking because of his longtime mistress's allegation that he tried to choke her. The four-termer has tried everything to get his campaign back on track. His ads have highlighted the work he's done for the district and have attacked his Democratic challenger, Chris Carney. In one of the most talked-about ads this cycle, Sherwood asks voters for forgiveness, saying he is "truly sorry for disappointing you." He is quick to add that the "allegation of abuse was never true." Yet, the most recent poll showed Carney well ahead of Sherwood, 48 percent to 39 percent.

And, in the suburbs of Philadelphia, GOP Rep. Curt Weldon finds himself struggling to hold on to a district he has represented for 20 years. Already up against a significant headwind because of the anti-Republican national climate, Weldon's campaign was devastated by the recent disclosure that FBI agents raided the home of his daughter as part of an investigation into whether the congressman used his influence to help her and her business partner win lobbying contracts. The Democratic nominee is retired Vice Adm. Joe Sestak. A recent Democratic-sponsored poll showed Sestak ahead of Weldon, 50 percent to 43 percent.

Tier Two: Toss-up contests
The bulk of the races in this category are in the battleground suburban districts that Democrats have perennially targeted. However, we have cranked up the competitiveness rating of 12 of those 30 contests in the past few weeks, as more and more Republican incumbents have begun to look quite vulnerable. Many of these districts are very Republican and were not long ago considered long shots for the Democrats.

If a wave were to wipe out the Republicans' 10 Tier One seats, Democrats would need just five pickups at this level to take control of the House. In 2004, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry carried nine of these districts -- those represented by Republicans Rob Simmons (CT-02), Christopher Shays (CT-04), Nancy Johnson (CT-05), Clay Shaw (FL-22), Charles Bass (NH-02), Heather Wilson (NM-01), Jim Gerlach (PA-06), Mike Fitzpatrick (PA-08), and Dave Reichert (WA-08). Another five tilt Republican, but not reliably so -- those of the retiring Henry Hyde (IL-06) and of Reps. Jon Porter (NV-03), Steve Chabot (OH-01), Deborah Pryce (OH-15), and Thelma Drake (VA-02).

To win, the Republican candidate in each of these districts needs to attract a significant number of independent and Democratic votes. Yet, strategists on both sides concede that independent voters are angry with President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress. As one GOP operative recently lamented, independents are "not in a forgiving mood." And a very polarized Democratic base is showing very little interest in helping Republicans retain power.

Predicting how many independent voters will actually turn out to vote is difficult. But even in small numbers, they could hurt the GOP if they vote overwhelmingly against its candidates.

In a normal year, the GOP candidate would be favored to win the open seats of retiring Republican Reps. Mark Green (WI-08) and Mark Kennedy (MN-06), as well as those of Republican former Rep. Mark Foley (FL-16), who resigned after news broke that he had sent sexual e-mails to former House pages; and former Rep. Tom DeLay (TX-22). But these races are toss-ups this year because of the anti-Republican climate. And in Florida's 16th, Foley's name will still be on the ballot. To vote for the Republican candidate there, voters will have to choose Foley's name.

DeLay won renomination after being indicted on conspiracy charges, but he then decided not to run. In Texas, national Republicans refuse to write off DeLay's old district. They argue that even though their nominee, Houston City Council member Shelley Sekula Gibbs, does not appear on the ballot, the district's GOP lean could be enough to get her over the finish line as a write-in. The district's cumbersome voting machines make writing in Sekula Gibbs's name difficult, however.

In Wisconsin's 8th District, which Bush carried by 11 points in 2004, polls have consistently shown a tight race between Democratic allergist Steve Kagen and Republican state House Speaker John Gard. Democrats are working hard to portray Gard as a Madison insider who is in the back pocket of special interests. Republicans, meanwhile, are trying to take the shine off of Kagen's outsider appeal with ads labeling him a "millionaire doctor." In a normal year, undecided voters could be expected to break for the Republican. But this year's angry, disillusioned electorate might not.

In Minnesota's 6th District, polling shows a close race between Republican state Sen. Michele Bachman and child-safety advocate Patty Wetterling, who received 46 percent of the vote when she challenged Kennedy two years ago. The dour mood of Minnesota voters can't be helpful to Bachman, but she is the more polished candidate. The district's GOP lean -- Bush carried it by 15 points -- could also help protect the seat. Both sides are working to portray the other as out of step with this suburban/exurban Twin Cities district. Democratic ads hit Bachman on her support for a national sales tax, saying that she favors "radical ideas we can't afford." Similarly, Republicans have attacked Wetterling on taxes and immigration with ads that call her "too extreme for Minnesota."

Floridian Mark Foley's unexpected resignation from Congress created another Republican-leaning open seat -- and put it in peril. Foley resigned too late for his name to be taken off the ballot. So state Rep. Joe Negron, the GOP's designated replacement, is asking voters to support him by casting a ballot for Foley. The contest no longer looks like a lost cause for the GOP because the news media -- and a Republican spending campaign -- are trying to make sure that voters understand how to vote for Negron. The fact that Negron entered the race with his own base of support also helps him.

Negron is counting on voters to look beyond the Foley scandal and to stick with their Republican roots. His first ad featured Republican Gov. Jeb Bush telling viewers that although "we're all angry and upset by what's happened with Mark Foley ... maintaining control of Congress is important." Democratic nominee Tim Mahoney emphasizes his background as a conservative, "commonsense" businessman, while portraying Negron as a political insider who has favored insurers over homeowners.

In North Carolina's 11th District, the race between eight-term Republican Rep. Charles Taylor and Democrat Heath Shuler, a former NFL quarterback, was statistically tied before the candidates even began to campaign -- suggesting that voters are in the mood for change. Shuler's ads stress his "mountain values" and attack Taylor as a 16-year incumbent who is more interested in protecting special interests than the district's residents. Taylor and the NRCC have attacked Shuler for raising money from traditional liberal interest groups, such as trial lawyers and labor unions, and for his businesses' failure to always pay their taxes on time. Taylor hopes to benefit from the pork he has steered to the district as a member of the Appropriations Committee. No reliable public poll has been released recently, but private polling suggests that Taylor is in serious trouble.

Then there are the races that just a month or so ago would have been considered only third-tier opportunities for the Democrats because of an underlying Republican tilt or the lack of an experienced, well-funded Democratic candidate. Today, however, many of these races are tied or nearly tied.

In some places, Republican incumbents' weakness or missteps have put strong GOP districts into play. That's the case for the re-election bids of Richard Pombo (CA-11), Marilyn Musgrave (CO-04), Jean Schmidt (OH-02), and Barbara Cubin (WY-AL). In a different year, these incumbents could count on an energized and enthusiastic Republican base to save them. That's just not the case this year, especially in Ohio. In Colorado's 4th and in Wyoming's at-large race, however, third-party candidates might siphon off enough of the anti-incumbent vote to make Democratic victories in those districts impossible.

In New York's 26th, Tom Reynolds' role in the Foley scandal -- he was one of the Republican leaders who was alerted about the first inappropriate e-mails -- took a toll on his standing. Polling done soon after the Foley story broke showed Reynolds suddenly trailing his Democratic challenger, businessman Jack Davis. Reynolds might recover, however, because of well-stocked campaign coffers (he had more than $1.3 million in the bank on October 18) and Davis's penchant for making controversial statements. A Reynolds ad features Davis calling for increasing the eligibility age for Social Security benefits and suggesting that benefits "may have to be adjusted down."

Tier Three: also competitive
As more Republican-held seats move into Tier Two's danger zone, Tier Three shrinks. If Democrats are picking up third-tier seats on Election Night, they'll likely be headed toward a net gain of 30 or more.

Republicans are counting on their vaunted get-out-the-vote machine to help them overcome a hostile environment. Yet, as one Democratic strategist observed, "All the technology in the world can't do a thing about a pissed-off voter." A strong and sophisticated turnout operation works best when a party's base is at least as motivated as the other side's.

National polls have consistently shown a rather sizable enthusiasm gap, with Republicans much less eager than Democrats to cast ballots. In a Pew Research Poll taken September 21 to October 4, more than half, 51 percent, of Democrats but only 33 percent of Republicans said they were more enthusiastic than usual about voting. Yet one Republican strategist argues that polling in the key battleground districts has not found that the GOP base is turned off. Polling consistently indicates that independents -- who admittedly are less likely to vote in midterm elections than either party's diehards -- want Democrats to take control of Congress.

It's not that Americans view the Democratic Party as more appealing than the GOP. The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed Democrats with a 39 percent approval rating, just 4 points higher than Republicans' rating. The same poll, however, put the Republican Party disapproval rate at 48 percent, 13 points higher than the Democratic Party's.

If Democrats take control of the House, as seems very likely, they'll have voters' hostility to the GOP -- not their own popularity -- to thank. The political environment has not been this bad for any party since 1994. The dour public mood has created a playing field so lopsided that Republicans have more than seven times as many vulnerable seats to defend as Democrats have. Predicting a Democratic gain of 20 seats -- an outcome that looked impossible just a few months ago -- now seems cautious.