Democrats have the money and reach to add substantially to their House majority in November, but public sentiment is moving in Republicans' direction, according to a poll that suggests the GOP could limit those gains.
An Associated Press-GfK poll conducted Sept. 5-10 found Republicans trailing Democrats by just 5 percentage points when likely voters were asked which party they want to control Congress next year. That is a substantial improvement from the double-digit disadvantage Republicans were suffering in most public polls so far this year, although the boost could prove fleeting.
Holding a large cash advantage over the GOP, Democrats have solid chances to take over seats from Arizona to New York because of more than two dozen Republican retirements. In Idaho, Missouri, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, the GOP is scrambling to defend incumbents once considered safe for re-election.
More than 20 seats in jeopardy
More than 20 Republican seats are in serious jeopardy compared with only six to eight Democrats at real risk. As a result, Democrats have the opportunity to add as many as 10 votes to their majority — possibly more if Democratic groundswell develops.
"We're confident we'll break the historical curse where the party that benefited from a wave election from one cycle loses seats in the following cycle," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who heads the Democrats' House campaign committee.
All 435 House seats — including one vacancy — are up for grabs. Democrats, with a 235-199 majority, are focusing their money and attention on 75 seats, two-thirds of them in Republican hands, he said.
For Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who leads his party's House campaign committee, "The biggest single challenge we face is just the size of the battlefield."
Following a GOP loss of 30 seats in the 2006 elections, "We've got a lot of rebuilding to do at the same time we're having to compete," Cole said. By contrast, he said, Democrats are "at the top of their game."
The GOP has faced a troubling election-year combination of demoralized party members, fewer supporters registering to vote and paltry fundraising compared with Democrats — all stirred by the deep unpopularity of President Bush.
GOP trying to claw its way back
Republican strategists believe the nomination of John McCain, who has distanced himself from Bush, and his selection of running mate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a darling of the party base, plus a national focus on high gasoline prices, have begun to help Republicans claw their way back.
"We have sort of air cover here that we've not had before," Cole said.
Democrats are defending a group of members in districts that traditionally prefer Republicans, but they probably will rack up enough victories to offset any damage and add to their numbers.
Republicans are "likely to win back some seats we never should have lost," said Pat Toomey, a former GOP congressman who heads the Club for Growth, which backs fiscally conservative candidates. "The problem is we're going to lose much more than that."
Money illustrates the lopsided nature of the fight. Not including donations in August and since the conventions, Democrats' House campaign arm has $56 million to spend, compared with $14 million for Republicans.
Both parties plan to put much of their money into television advertising that can be crucial to driving home candidates' messages and tarnishing their opponents in the final weeks of a campaign.
The Democrats' House campaign operation has reserved $53 million worth of TV time in 51 districts, two-thirds of them held by Republicans. The GOP campaign committee is playing defense, having reserved about one-third as much money in 26 districts, all but five of them Republican-held.
Those plans can change as Nov. 4 nears, but they highlight the two parties' strategies entering a crucial period.
Top Democratic targets
Top Democratic targets include Colorado's Marilyn Musgrave, Chris Shays of Connecticut, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Tim Walberg and Joe Knollenberg of Michigan, Sam Graves of Missouri, Jon Porter in Nevada, Robin Hayes in North Carolina, Steve Chabot of Ohio and Dave Reichert of Washington.
If Alaska's Don Young, running under an ethics cloud, survives his primary challenge, Democrats believe they can defeat the 35-year House veteran.
They also have solid chances in districts where Republicans are retiring, including two each in New Jersey, New York and Ohio. There are still more opportunities in Alabama, Arizona, Illinois, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Mexico and Virginia.
Party strategists expect Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama to give them boosts in districts with large populations of young people and African-Americans, including Chabot's in Ohio and Hayes' in North Carolina.
Republicans have at least one advantage: Democrats are competing mostly on GOP turf. Many of the most competitive races are unfolding in districts that prefer the GOP, although some of them have been leaning left in recent years.
Stiff challenges for some
And Democrats are playing defense for some of the very people who handed them their majority two years ago. The haul included many "scandal seats" in Republican districts where the GOP incumbent left under ethics clouds: Tom DeLay of Texas, linked to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff; Mark Foley of Florida, accused of lurid e-mailing with former teenage male congressional pages; and Don Sherwood of Pennsylvania, defeated after a sex scandal.
The first-term Democrats who replaced them — Nick Lampson of Texas, Tim Mahoney of Florida and Chris Carney of Pennsylvania — face stiff challenges. Other top Republican targets include Jerry McNerney of California, Nancy Boyda of Kansas, Dan Cazayoux of Louisiana, Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire and Paul E. Kanjorski of Pennsylvania — in his 12th term, the only senior House Democrat in trouble this year.
Democrats launched their first TV ad of the season in July in defense of Kanjorski. Republicans are planning blitzes against Mahoney, Boyda, Cazayoux and Lampson, as well as Wisconsin's Steve Kagen. GOP officials have set aside the rest of their advertising budget to protect incumbents and counter Democrats' attempts to flip seats in districts in Alabama, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Mexico and Ohio where Republicans are retiring.