The 2006 Prospects for Capitol Hill Control

Several months back, many political pundits were arguing that the Democrats had a real chance of winning control of the Senate in the 2006 elections. There were fewer stories about the battle for control of the House. This is not surprising since it is a lot harder to focus on 435 House races than 33 Senate races. In addition, campaigns for the Senate, given their  high cost, begin earlier, so potential challengers are often known a year before the general election.

In House races, many challengers need to be recruited by their party (given the recent very low success rate in ousting incumbents) and still have to win party primaries to get to run, and some incumbents announce their intention to retire just months before the election.

Today, nobody is suggesting that the Democrats will gain control of the Senate. But there is a lot of excitement in the political press about Democrats having real shot at winning a majority in the House. Given that the House is a more functional body than the Senate (where a real majority is often 60 votes, and not 51), and the increasingly party line voting of members of both parties in both Houses of Congress, winning control of the House would be a huge success for the Democrats. Since appropriations and tax bills begin in the House, a Democrat—controlled House could force the White House into compromises in both areas. A thin Democratic majority in the Senate (after the Jeffords party switch) served the party in one primary area from 2001—2003— impeding the Judicial nominations to the federal Appeals Courts by President Bush.

Journalists love the horse race aspect of politics, and hyping the potential for a takeover by the Democrats of one branch of Congress, feeds on the 'Bush is down, the GOP is reeling' theme so prevalent in the political media.  The takeover frenzy is also whetted by the fact that most political journalists (at least those in major newspapers, network news programs, most cable news shows and major news magazines) are liberal Democrats, who would be pleased by such a takeover.  There was less palpable excitement in the Fourth Estate over the chances of Newt Gingrich and the GOP taking over the as the majority party in the long—time Democrat—controlled House in 1994. The day after those midterm elections, Peter Jennings, the late former ABC News anchor, notoriously referred to the vote as a "temper tantrum" by voters.

I do not have  a good feel yet for whether the GOP will retain control of the House. Every analysis I have seen on the 20 most hotly contested races suggests that most of them are current GOP held seats. There are about twice as many GOP members retiring as Democrats. Rahm Emanuel has recruited some solid Democratic challengers in some races, including almost a dozen Iraq war veterans.

The GOP seems to be on particularly thin ground in the Northeast, and could lose a few seats in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Democrats also see pickup opportunities in Indiana, Iowa, Colorado, Ohio, Arizona and Minnesota. Winning a net 15 seats does not sound like a big obstacle, though as Michael Barone pointed out this week, it has happened only once in the last two decades, in 1994. In Illinois, where I live, the GOP could gain a seat or two with two competitive open seats (the 6th and 17th, one now held by each party), and a decent GOP pickup opportunity in the GOP leaning  8th district (Dave McSweeney challenging first term Democratic Congresswoman Melissa Bean).  It appears likely that the Democrats will at least cut into the GOP House majority. 

In January, I argued that it was highly unlikely that Democrats could win control of the Senate.  With 55 Republicans in the Senate and Vice President Cheney there to break ties, the Democrats would need to pick up a net six seats to have control of the Senate. 

Five Senate Republicans appear to face some jeopardy in their re—election fights: Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania, Conrad Burns in Montana, Mike De Wine in Ohio, Jim Talent in Missouri, and Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island. In several of these races, the GOP incumbent is in better shape today than in January. Santorum has a huge money advantage over his Democrat opponent Bob Casey, and has come from behind in his prior races for the Senate.

Conrad Burns, scarred in heavy ad buys about contributions to his campaigns from tribes linked to Jack Abramoff, now watches the stronger of his two potential Democratic opponents, John Morrisson,  deal with his own embarrassing problems of the extramarital variety.

Talent is running even in Missouri with Democrat Claire McCaskill, and Mike De Wine is ahead of Sherrod Brown in Ohio, though narrowly. Chafee, a 'Republican' who did not vote for the President's re—election, nor to confirm Judge Samuel Alito (in America's highest percentage Italian—American state) faces a tough primary fight from Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey, and if he survives that, is probably a slight favorite to win re—election in November. In Rhode Island, one of the bluest states in the country, very liberal Republicans with the name of Chafee can win.

While none of the five vulnerable Republicans is a certain or even likely winner, all five could survive, and it is likely that several of them will.

Democrats had hoped to pick up the open seat of retiring Tennessee Senator Bil Frist. But Congressman Harold Ford, their nominee, trails all potential Republican nominees by 5 to 10 points. Republicans are ahead in New Jersey, where Tom Kean faces newly appointed Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, whose close ties with the ethically challenged Hudson County Democratic Party machine seems to be turning off some Garden State voters. 

Mark Kennedy, the Republican candidate for the open seat of retiring Senator Mark Dayton in Minnesota, is running even to slightly behind two potential Democratic opponents, including likely opponent Amy Klobuchar, but has a shot at picking up the seat. In Maryland,  Republican Michael Steele is trailing both of this two potential Democratic opponents, Congressman Ben Cardin and former NAACP head Kwame Mfume, though if Mfume wins the nomination, the race likely will be close.

At one time Democrats talked of knocking  off Jon Kyl in Arizona, George Allen in Virginia or John Ensign in Nevada. But their candidates trail badly behind the Republican incumbents in all three races, and in Nevada, Chip Carter, the son of the former President appears to be on a road to getting trounced, much as his father was in the 1980 Presidential election, when he won fewer electoral votes as an incumbent than any other sitting President in history.

The long shot surprise in the Senate races could be Washington State, where Democratic incumbent Maria Cantwell's lead has dropped to  8 points over her Republican challenger, Safeco executive Mike McGavick. Cantwell, who won by only 2,000 votes in 2000, will face a well funded challenger, and does not appear  to have solidified her appeal in six years.

When the 2006 Senate cycle began, Republicans saw many pickup opportunities given that they only had to defend 15 of the 33 seats contested this November. But the Party failed to get the nominees some hoped for in North Dakota, Nebraska, Florida, Michigan and West Virginia, all states with potentially vulnerable Democratic incumbents, 3 of whom were in their first term .

Then when the President's poll ratings sank, the early Senate polls suggested Democrats could make up some big ground if not take over the chamber. While the best bet today, 6 and a half months out, is for a small Democratic gain— maybe 1 to 2 seats (perhaps 3 at best), it is no longer out of the question that the GOP could hold its current 55 seat majority or even increase its majority if the Party gets a few breaks in close races.

Richard Baehr is the Chief Political Correspondent of The American Thinker.