Campaign 2010

Oct 09, 2008

New York Times - G.O.P. Faces Tough Races for Congress

WASHINGTON — The economic upheaval is threatening to topple Republican Congressional candidates, putting more Senate and House seats within Democratic reach less than a month before the elections, lawmakers and campaign strategists say.

Top campaign officials for both parties, pollsters and independent experts say the intense focus on the economic turmoil and last week’s bailout vote have combined to rapidly expand a Democratic advantage in Congressional contests. Analysts now predict a Democratic surge on a scale that seemed unlikely just weeks ago, with even some Republicans in traditional strongholds fighting for their political careers, and Democratic leaders dreaming of ironclad majorities.

In North Carolina, Senator Elizabeth Dole, a former Republican presidential contender and cabinet member, is teetering. In Kentucky, the opponent of the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, has drawn even in some polls, though Republicans say they believe he will win.

Democrats say they feel confidently ahead in five Senate races where they hope to pick up Republican seats, and they believe their candidates are running competitively in seven more.

In the House, Democrats say they could capture a dozen of the 26 Republican seats left open by retirements, and challengers are closing in on Republican incumbents in Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, New York and elsewhere.

“The last week has severely damaged Republican candidates,” said Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan analyst who predicts that Democrats could gain as many as six to nine Senate seats and 25 to 30 House seats. “Everything points to warning signals for Republicans.”

If such projections by Mr. Rothenberg and others are realized, it would push Senate Democrats tantalizingly close to the filibuster-proof 60-vote majority that has eluded Senate leaders since the late 1970s. While the environment could change again in the remaining weeks, recent polling suggests a fundamental shift, with Republicans absorbing more of the blame for the economic uncertainty.

At the same time, the political arms of Congressional Republicans are being outspent — their House organization recently borrowed $8 million — and have fewer targets, with only a handful of Democrats in Florida, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin and in potential trouble. Republicans are understandably nervous.

“There is no question the economic crisis, the great stimulus debate and the aftermath changed a playing field that had been improving to one that has become considerably more challenging,” said Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Senator John Ensign of Nevada, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said he was encouraging candidates to “stay positive” and “run like you are 10 points down,” which in some cases they are. “You don’t have to scare people this election cycle,” Mr. Ensign said. “As far as our candidates, they know to take this seriously.” Strategists for both parties say Republican House and Senate candidates are being hurt by the dip in support for Senator John McCain at the top of the ticket, frustrating Republicans who had initially viewed Mr. McCain as a strong asset who could appeal to independents and even moderate Democrats and protect Republicans in a tough year. But the market volatility and perceived Democratic edge on handling the economy has evidently turned voters to Democrats, a view supported by one top adviser to Republican candidates.

“This financial crisis has provided momentum to Barack Obama and other Democrats, and their campaigns now have the wind at their backs,” said the consultant, who asked not to be identified speaking pessimistically about the Republican outlook.

Republicans say they could still limit losses by arguing to voters that Democrats would pursue a tax-heavy agenda if they were to strengthen their grip on Washington and by pointing to Democratic fault in the economic situation.

“Seize every opportunity to hold Democrats accountable for their role in creating the economic crisis,” Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader, urged his colleagues in a memorandum distributed Wednesday.

But the numbers illustrate a stark challenge for Republicans. In the House, 23 seats held by Republicans are generally rated tossups and 4 others are leaning Democratic; just 8 Democratic seats fall into the tossup category and one, now held by Representative Nick Lampson in the Houston area, is rated likely to change parties. In the Senate, one Republican seat — Virginia — is considered safely in the Democratic column, and Alaska and New Mexico are considered leaning Democratic. Five states — Colorado, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Oregon — are tossups.

“We’re doing extremely well in places we didn’t expect to do well,” Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Wednesday.

In putting their vying messages before the voters, the Democrats’ campaign committees have an edge in how much advertising they can afford. The committees tend to focus their spending in the most competitive districts.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has spent well under $1 million on advertisements in House districts, compared with more than $16 million invested in advertising by the House Democrats’ campaign committee. And it can only afford to spend in defense of select Republican seats. On Wednesday, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call first reported that the Republican campaign group was borrowing $8 million to buy more advertising in the closing weeks, and to avoid being heavily outspent.

In district after district, House Democrats are running advertisements seeking to link Republicans with President Bush and his economic record.

A Democratic commercial against Representative Christopher Shays of Connecticut, the only Republican House member in New England, shows him shaking hands with Mr. Bush. It includes audio of a September radio interview where Mr. Shays asserted that “our economy is fundamentally strong.” A similar statement by Mr. McCain put him on the defensive last month. Polls show Mr. Shays with a lead, but Democrats say their candidate, Jim Himes, is gaining ground.

Mr. McConnell, the Republican leader whom Democrats would relish knocking off as payback for the 2004 defeat of their leader, Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, is being tied to the economic deterioration in new commercials on behalf of his Democratic challenger, Bruce Lunsford, a wealthy businessman.

In an advertisement that began running on Wednesday in Kentucky, Democrats showed Mr. McConnell’s face on an Old West-style wanted poster. “Some places it’d be considered a crime, but not in Washington,” an announcer says with a cowboy twang. “Wall Street and the big banks gave Mitch McConnell $4.4 million for his campaigns, and he fought for less regulation of Wall Street.” Showing a stampede of wild horses, the announcer continues: “McConnell opened the gate and Wall Street went wild, and now our entire economy is at risk. Maybe it’s time we bring Mitch McConnell back to the corral.”

Republicans remain confident that Mr. McConnell will prevail.

The economy is also a main advertising theme in New Hampshire and Oregon, two other states where Democrats are taking aim at Republican incumbents.

A commercial from Senator Gordon H. Smith’s Democratic opponent, Jeff Merkley, the speaker of the Oregon House, says: “Gordon Smith and George Bush, billions and billions in tax breaks for big oil and corporations that ship jobs overseas. Now a blank check for Wall Street.” In North Carolina, Kay Hagan, a Democratic state senator, has mounted a surprisingly aggressive challenge that has catapulted her ahead of Mrs. Dole in some recent polls. She has gained ground, in part, by emphasizing how little time Mrs. Dole spent in North Carolina in the early years of her first term. In recent days, the Hagan campaign has focused on blaming both Mrs. Dole and President Bush for the troubled economy. Trying to get ahead of voter anger, Senator Saxby Chambliss, Republican of Georgia, uses a commercial to defend his vote for the bailout, which he said was in response to the worst financial crisis of his lifetime. “I’m as mad as you are about what happened,” he tells viewers, “but doing nothing would have been a disaster.”

The Georgia race, where Jim Martin, a former Democratic state legislator, is seeking to deny Mr. Chambliss a second term, would seem a long shot for Democrats. But they are hoping for a huge increase in turnout among African-Americans excited about the presidential candidacy of Senator Barack Obama to notch a victory.

In the House, the National Republican Congressional Committee has begun its own television advertising campaign and is emphasizing economics, though with a twist. In a new advertisement against Steve Driehaus, a Democratic state lawmaker challenging Representative Steve Chabot, the Republican incumbent in a Cincinnati district hit by home foreclosures, the narrator faults Mr. Driehaus for missing a legislative vote to limit foreclosures while fund-raising in Washington.


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