Monday, September 04, 2006

`A horror show for Republicans' - Election forecasts dim GOP hopes for an enduring majority

`A horror show for Republicans' - Election forecasts dim GOP hopes for an enduring majority
By Jill Zuckman
Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune
Published September 4, 2006

WASHINGTON -- Karl Rove had a grand vision as he crafted George W. Bush's first presidential campaign.

Republicans not only would capture the White House, they also would realign American politics, creating an enduring majority that would rival President Franklin Roosevelt's accomplishment for Democrats almost 70 years earlier.

Now, though, as the congressional election season kicks off in earnest this Labor Day weekend, nobody is talking about realignment. Rather, Republicans concede they are struggling simply to cling to power.

Numerous political analysts are forecasting that a tidal wave of voter dissatisfaction will wash Republicans out of office on Nov. 7 and possibly hand control of the House back to Democrats, who also are poised for gains in the Senate and to win back governorships.

"The Republicans had a great run for a while, and it's over," said Charlie Cook, a non-partisan analyst and founder of the Cook Political Report.

Rove's thinking was based on the 1896 presidential campaign of William McKinley, who tried to revamp the GOP's image, appealing to immigrants and workers. More than a century later, Rove has sought to reach out to black and Latino voters, as well as socially conservative Democrats and independents.

Republicans seemed to be on the path to achieving this realignment when the president won re-election in 2004 and the GOP kept control of the House and Senate. That momentum, however, has faltered dramatically as the public has soured on the war in Iraq, the economy and, most notably, the president's job performance.

"I think it was a pipe dream then, and it is less than a dream today," said Rep. Steny Hoyer, the House Democratic whip from Maryland who has been raising money and campaigning for Democratic challengers.

With little more than two months to go, a host of indicators portend a dismal Election Day for Republicans, who have narrowly controlled the House since 1994 and kept a tight grip on the Senate for almost all of President Bush's tenure.

Gaining without a message

Democrats have managed to gain on Republicans even without an overarching message, capitalizing more on a frustrated public mood than any embrace of their policies. They're doing well by one important measure--money--maintaining a rare parity with the GOP.

Bush's approval rating is in the mid-to-high 30s, according to recent opinion polls. Multiple polls indicate Americans' overall satisfaction with country's direction is below 30 percent.

In 1994, when a political earthquake gave Republicans 52 seats and control of the House, 5 percent more voters in pre-election polls said they would support a Republican rather than a Democrat. This year, Democrats are winning that contest by 9 to 19 points.

A race-by-race analysis by the Cook Report shows a dramatic tilt toward the Democrats since the beginning of the year. The report now ranks 18 Republican-held House seats as tossups in the election. In contrast, Cook suggests the Democrats will lose no seats.

Since Bush's re-election, virtually every event has favored the Democrats. Bush's push for Social Security privatization proved unpopular. The Iraq war has shown little sign of progress and is widely opposed. The federal response to Hurricane Katrina a year ago seems to have permanently damaged the administration's reputation.

Meanwhile, corruption scandals have prompted the departure of three powerful Republican congressmen--Reps. Tom DeLay of Texas, Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California and Bob Ney of Ohio.

"Unless something big happens, this election is going to be a horror show for Republicans," Cook said. "When you talk to Republican pollsters and strategists, the nicest word you can come up with is `despondent.' This is going to be really bad."

Said John Weaver, the political adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), "We're fighting for survival, and no one's thinking about realignment."

Control of the Senate would shift if Democrats win six seats now held by the GOP. Most observers believe Democrats can gain four or five seats, but the sixth may prove elusive. In the House, Democrats need a net increase of 15 seats to take control. Some independent analysts see that as a real possibility.

Republican leaders acknowledge they will lose seats this year, noting that the party that controls the White House almost always loses seats in the sixth year of a two-term presidency.

"There's no question that this will be a tough cycle," said White House political director Sara Taylor. Still, she added, "I'm confident we'll retain our majorities."

When it comes to handling the war on terrorism and guiding the economy, Taylor said, Americans are more likely to trust the GOP. "I think Americans have confidence in the Republican Party and the president to keep them safe," she said.

Republicans have some built-in advantages. House districts generally are drawn to protect incumbents, and the GOP tends to raise more money than the Democrats.

But Democrats say they have the edge on a broad spectrum of issues, from the Iraq war to high fuel prices to escalating college tuitions. A new Medicare drug benefit has been greeted with mixed reviews.

The last time there was a true political realignment came when Roosevelt took on the Great Depression and led the nation during World War II.

Even Roosevelt's Democrats suffered serious losses in 1938--in the sixth year of his presidency--though they hung on to control of the House and the Senate.

Some conservatives argue that even if the Republicans lose seats in the midterm elections on Nov. 7, they still are on their way to political dominance.

"If you look at the history, it's not uncommon to have a midterm setback in the middle of a series of elections that end up building a majority," said William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard. Kristol nonetheless called the current atmosphere for Republicans "horrible."

It's all about the war, he says

Charles Black Jr., a longtime Republican consultant, said 80 percent of the party's problems stem from the Iraq war.

"If there wasn't an Iraq war going on, Republicans wouldn't be looking to lose elections this year," Black said.

Some Democrats warn that simply capitalizing on GOP woes in November won't be enough to regain dominance.

"It's not clear that we have sold disenchanted voters on our agenda," said Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).



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