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Republicans may be in path of political 'hurricane'
Yahoo News/USA Today
By Susan Page and Richard Wolf,
April 5, 2006

Is a tidal wave gathering?

The announcement Tuesday by Rep. Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader, that he would resign from Congress signaled what Democrats hope for and Republicans fear: That Democrats could be swept into power in November by the sort of political tsunami that helped Republicans win control of Congress in 1994.

"We know that there's a hurricane coming, and it's going to hit the Republicans in November," says Charlie Cook of the non-partisan Cook Political Report. "We're just trying to figure out how big this thing is."

Dick Armey, who became House Republican leader when the party gained control in 1994, acknowledges that Republicans have "set the stage for the Democrats." However, he says, Democrats need to offer an alternative rather than just attack. "I think it takes a double-barreled shotgun, and they've only got one barrel."

A Democratic takeover of the Senate seems distant, but Cook and others now figure it's possible (though not yet likely) that Democrats will gain the 15 seats they need to seize control of the House of Representatives.

Three of the five key ingredients of the 1994 turnaround are in place, including broad public dissatisfaction with the direction of the country, dismal approval ratings for the president and the taint of scandal in Congress. But there are differences, too: The number of competitive House districts is much smaller than 12 years ago, and the opposition party has yet to articulate a unified, positive message.

DeLay says his decision to call it quits helps prevent Democrats from gaining the confluence of forces they need, not to mention reducing the chances that the GOP would lose his Texas seat.

His resignation denies Democrats an easy target. "It helps Republicans slightly in that it removes the poster child for bad behavior from the political scene," says Kenneth Baer, a former speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore and author of Reinventing Democrats. He worries fellow Democrats are deluding themselves that the "once-in-a-lifetime convergence" in 1994 is about to be repeated.

He says Democrats could win back the House, though - a turn that would transform the final two years of Bush's presidency. The oversight hearings and congressional investigations that bedeviled the Clinton administration would become a factor for Bush. Even a narrow majority would put Democrats in a stronger position to shape legislation, command attention, even issue subpoenas.

The election is seven months away, and analysts are calculating how 2006 is similar to 1994, and how it's different.

•On the wrong track: Democrats' biggest advantage: Americans are increasingly worried that the country and Congress are moving in the wrong direction. In a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll last month, 29% of those surveyed said they were satisfied with the way things were going in the nation; 68% were dissatisfied. At this point in 1994, 35% were satisfied.

"There's a very big mood out there that the country is way off course," says Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel (news, bio, voting record), chairman of the Democrats' congressional campaign committee. "When they feel this way ... voters take it out on the party in power."

In the latest survey, registered voters said they were leaning toward Democratic congressional candidates over Republicans by 55% to 39%. That's the biggest lead Democrats have had since they lost control of the House.

•An unpopular president: Presidents matter, too. In 1994, Democrats' loss of Congress was in large part a rebuke to Clinton. His complicated proposal to overhaul the health care system and early fumbles on issues including gays in the military pushed his job-approval rating as low as 39% in September and October. By Election Day, it was still below 50%.

Bush's approval rating in the latest survey, taken last month, was 36% - one percentage point below the low point of Clinton's presidency. It hasn't been as high as 50% in almost a year.

"The big Achilles heel for the Republicans are the president's approval rating and the war in Iraq," says Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, a former chairman of the Republicans' congressional campaign committee. "It shapes up in the atmospherics to be a pretty good year to be a Democrat."

•The taint of scandal: In 1994, Democrats were tainted by years of scandal, including the forced resignation of a House speaker, the indictment of a powerful committee chairman and a controversy over bounced checks at the House bank.

This year, Republicans have faced similar ethics issues: the conviction of former California congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham for taking bribes and the continuing investigation into disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. DeLay's decision to resign is the latest reminder of those woes.

Liberal groups are trying to capitalize by tying other Republicans to "a pretty toxic Congress," says Eli Pariser of MoveOn.org.

Republicans counter that the charges won't stick. Rep. Tom Reynolds, chairman of the Republicans' congressional campaign committee, says one lawmaker's ethics troubles don't rub off on others. Voters are more concerned with "pocketbook issues," he says.

•Where's the opening? Democrats' biggest single problem: Where to fight?

The number of competitive House districts has been shrinking, in part because redistricting has protected incumbents in both parties. In 1994, strategists could target 111 members of Congress who had won two years earlier by 55% of the vote or less. This year, there are just 32 members in that category.

Political scientist Alan Abramowitz of Emory University in Atlanta has run two political models for 2006. In one, using such national political conditions as public unease about the country's direction, Democrats gain 33 seats. In a second, which includes more "micro" factors such as the number of open seats, they pick up just eight seats.

MoveOn.org is trying to make some seemingly safe Republican incumbents vulnerable. On Monday, Pariser announced a $1.3 million ad buy in districts in Connecticut, Indiana, Ohio and Virginia.

•The opposition's message: In a sprawling news conference on the steps of the Capitol in September 1994, Newt Gingrich, then the No. 2 ranking Republican in the House, led dozens of Republican House candidates in signing a "Contract with America." It outlined specific congressional reforms and policy votes they promised to pursue if they won control.

Democrats haven't issued their own "contract," although Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California last week unveiled what they called a unified Democratic approach to national security.

"The biggest reason why Republicans may keep the House is the failure of Democrats to articulate anything positive at all," says Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster who helped devise the 1994 plan. Joe Gaylord, a Republican consultant who also advised Gingrich, agrees.

He's not convinced Republicans are safe, though. "It's possible that the Democrats could capture control of the House," he cautions. In the wake of controversies like those that sank DeLay, Republicans better be "pushing the leadership to get as many reform things passed as possible."

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