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Linda Killian

Will the Democrats gain in Congress?

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Linda Killian
May 18, 2008

THE BATTLE over the Democratic presidential nomination has captured the public's attention for obvious reasons - it has high drama, pathos, farce, and of course, race, sex, and religion. But with everyone focused on that race, not much attention has been paid to congressional elections around the country that are bringing increasingly bad news to the Republicans.

Tuesday's Democratic victory in a special House election in Mississippi follows a Democratic win in Louisiana two weeks ago for a House seat that had been held by Republicans for more than 30 years.

In March, the Democrats won an equally reliable Republican district - the seat of former House speaker Dennis Hastert in Illinois.

Congressional Democrats say the wins are a harbinger of what's to come in November and are almost giddy about their chances of picking up seats. However, those races may not be a perfect predictor of the Democrats' fall fortunes.The Democrats do have a number of advantages over the Republicans. Democrats have vastly outraised their Republican counterparts, bad economic news usually favors Democratic candidates and Republican morale is so low as to be almost nonexistent. Republican House minority leader John Boehner of Ohio commented on the situation earlier this year when he exhorted his troops to get off their "dead asses" and start raising money for the party.

There's a lot of GOP finger pointing going on in the wake of these defeats and in a recent closed door meeting, House Republicans were told by their leaders they better do the work to ensure their own reelections because the national party probably won't be able to help them much.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who engineered the landmark GOP congressional victory in 1994, wrote recently that the Republicans in Congress could be headed for a "real disaster" and need to "chart a bold course of real change or they are going to suffer decisive losses this November."

It seems inevitable at this point that the Democrats will pick up seats in both the House and Senate but it is more likely to be an extension of their victory in 2006 than a landslide.

The Cook Political Report predicts a 10 to 20 seat House gain for Democrats, which is up from its prediction just a few weeks ago based on the Mississippi results and the disarray among Republicans. That would be a significant addition to the Democrats' 2006 gains, but not a major realignment.

In the Senate things look pretty good and Democrats could pick up four to five seats, with the most promising prospects in New Hampshire, Colorado, Virginia, and New Mexico. But it is doubtful they will win enough seats to get them to the Holy Grail of 60 - the filibuster-proof requirement.

Just like the Republicans, congressional Democrats are in need of a message. Having been in charge of Congress for two years, they can't call for change again and an anti-Bush, antiwar theme isn't enough.

The Democratic Congress has a disapproval rating topping 70 percent in most polls (higher than President Bush's), and probably doesn't want to focus too much on a referendum on its performance.

Despite all of the sturm und drang of the Democratic presidential primaries, the fortunes of Democratic congressional candidates could be independent of who the Party nominates. The Republican Party spent $3 million in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Illinois unsuccessfully attempting to link the Democratic candidates with Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

It didn't work because those elections featured Democratic candidates who were antiabortion and pro-gun and happy to tell voters they were more conservative than Democratic leaders. In other words, a good fit for their districts.

In congressional elections this fall the outcome is more likely to hinge on the kind of candidates each party has fielded and how much money they have to spend than on what is happening at the top of the ticket or on how Americans feel about the overall performance of the Democratic Congress. Or, asformer House speaker Tip O'Neill once put it, "All politics is local."

Linda Killian, a professor of journalism and the director of Boston University's Washington Center, is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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