GOP Poised to Hold Edge on Hill

Democrats Hope for Last-Minute Tailwind

Posted November 1, 2004 at 6:41pm

Voters head to the polls across the nation today with nine Senate races and approximately 35 House contests set to decide control of the 109th Congress.

Though the battle for the majority in the two chambers has been largely overshadowed by the clash between President Bush and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (D), the outlook for the victor’s agenda will largely be dictated by which party controls Congress next year.

The Senate remains Democrats’ stronger option in terms of winning a measure of Congressional control, although Republicans are waging that battle largely on friendly turf, particularly in key races in states such as the Carolinas, Oklahoma, Alaska and others.

Because of the vice president’s role in breaking Senate ties, if Kerry wins today, Democrats need a net gain of one seat to take back the majority they lost in 2002. If Bush is re-elected, Democrats must pick up two seats to seize control.

Brad Woodhouse, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, balked when asked for a specific prediction about today’s results.

“If you go back to January 2003 and look at where we started, we will exceed expectations,” he offered.

House Republicans have begun privately to express cautious confidence about their chances of maintaining their 12-seat majority or perhaps even expanding it by a seat or two.

National Republican Congressional Committee Communications Director Carl Forti said only that “our stated goal has been to bring back 229 [GOP Members]. We feel confident that we can do that.”

Republicans currently control 227 seats to 205 for Democrats. Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) caucuses with Democrats. There are two vacancies — in Florida’s 14th and Nebraska’s 1st — both of which are likely to remain in GOP hands.

On the flipside, House Democrats continue to talk up their chances for a majority publicly while privately acknowledging that, barring some unforeseen wave for their party, they will begin their 11th year in the minority in January.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) remained optimistic Monday, noting that polls throughout the cycle have shown Democrats with an edge in the generic ballot.

“Democrats will be successful tomorrow because our candidates have such a strong message backed by unprecedented mobilization at the grassroots level,” Pelosi said in a statement.

After months of nonstop stumping and fundraising, the heads of all four party campaign committees will congregate in Washington tonight to monitor the election results.

Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) will spend Election Night in his suburban Chicago district after campaigning in 18 Congressional districts since Oct. 20.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) campaigned in the presidential swing state of Ohio on Monday; he had also visited South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida, Colorado and Wisconsin in the past 10 days. Regardless of today’s outcome on the presidential level, Frist is seen as a likely entrant into the 2008 presidential field.

The party figureheads join a cadre of campaign consultants, lobbyists and staffers who have spent the past 48 hours trading gossip on who’s up and who’s down.

Of the nine Senate seats at the epicenter of the fight for control, several appear to have tilted toward one side over the past few days.

Leading that list is the open-seat race in South Carolina, where Rep. Jim DeMint (R) seems to have settled into a comfortable high-single-digit margin over state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum (D).

Tenenbaum appears to have peaked too early, coming from a dead stop in August to a dead heat in mid-October by clubbing DeMint for his support of a 23 percent national sales tax.

In the race’s final weeks, DeMint has sought to tie himself closely to Bush as well as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) and Gov. Mark Sanford (R), a strategy that has paid off.

Similarly, Democrats are growing more and more confident in Colorado’s open-seat Senate race, as state Attorney General Ken Salazar (D) has pulled away from brewing magnate Pete Coors (R).

Salazar has led throughout in public and private polling, but Republicans held out hope that the state’s GOP tilt coupled with Coors’ immense personal fortune would put him over the top. While Coors has largely unified the Republican base, he is lagging far behind Salazar among independent voters, the key voting bloc in the race.

Recent Colorado political history provides a reminder that polls quite often miss the mark, however.

In 2002, Democrats were convinced that 1996 Senate nominee Tom Strickland (D) would oust Sen. Wayne Allard (R), pointing to a slew of polls showing their candidate with a growing lead.

Allard won a comfortable 51 percent to 46 percent victory in an exact replica of the pair’s 1996 faceoff.

The marquee race today is without question the battle between Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and former Rep. John Thune (R), which remains a jump ball.

Upwards of $35 million has been spent on the race, and even the most partisan of observers seem to be hedging their bets, bracing themselves for the possibility that their chosen candidate comes up short.

The race is the final test of the vaunted Daschle ground operation, which was largely credited with Sen. Tim Johnson’s (D) 524-vote victory over Thune in 2002.

Counterbalancing the grassroots power of the Daschle operation is the decided Republican tilt of the South Dakota electorate, a partisan bent enhanced by the presidential race at the top of the ticket.

With 350,000 votes likely to be cast, a margin of 1,000 votes or less for either candidate is not implausible.

The South Dakota race is about far more than just deciding the ratio of the chamber, and it could set in motion a domino effect with potentially far-reaching impact on the future of the Democratic Caucus.

A Daschle loss would set off a chain reaction of leadership bids, the first set of tight internal races for Democrats since Daschle took the reins in his Caucus 10 years ago. Minority Whip Harry Reid (Nev.) is best positioned to take over for Daschle, largely because of his role as a workhorse for the party over the past few years.

Assuming Reid runs for leader, the battle for Minority Whip would likely pit Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.) against Sen. Byron Dorgan (N.D.).

On the House side, the story is centered on Texas, where four of the five Democrats targeted by a Republican-led redrawing of the state’s Congressional lines in 2003 are on the brink of defeat.

Democratic Reps. Max Sandlin and Charlie Stenholm are all-but-certain losers, while Reps. Nick Lampson and Martin Frost are given a narrow chance of hanging on in the Lone Star State.

Rep. Chet Edwards’ (D-Texas) race against Republican state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth has narrowed considerably thanks to massive spending by the NRCC, but the Democratic incumbent may emerge as the sole survivor among the “Texas Five” on Wednesday.

Outside of Texas, neither party is facing much vulnerability among its incumbents.

Republicans see Rep. Max Burns (Ga.) as their most vulnerable Member due largely to the Democratic nature of his 12th district.

Connecticut Reps. Rob Simmons (R) and Christopher Shays (R) have been anchored down by Bush’s flagging numbers in the state, though at least one of the two seems likely to survive.

Illinois Rep. Phil Crane (R) remains in major trouble, although party strategists have grown slightly more optimistic about his chances against business consultant Melissa Bean (D) in the 8th district.

Few Democratic incumbents outside of Texas appear vulnerable, although Reps. Baron Hill (Ind.) and Leonard Boswell (Iowa) face real tests.

Democrats do have an advantage in the 34 House seats that are open.

Of their 15 open seats, just five — California’s 20th, Kentucky’s 4th, Louisiana’s 7th, Missouri’s 5th and Pennsylvania’s 13th — are being targeted by both parties.

Nine of Republicans’ 19 open seats are closely fought: Colorado’s 3rd, Louisiana’s 3rd, Nebraska’s 1st, New York’s 27th, Pennsylvania’s 8th and 15th, Virginia’s 2nd and Washington’s 5th and 8th.

Paul Kane, Erin P. Billings and Ben Pershing contributed to this report.