In race for Congress, terrain favors GOP

Kerry threatens Bush, but Republicans feel confident of hold on House, Senate

While the race for the White House may go down to the wire, political handicappers are writing off prospects for Democrats to take back either the Senate or the House.

The key, experts say, is terrain: Democrats are defending five open seats - all in the South, their weakest region. And redistricting has given Republicans a powerful edge in districts they must hold in the House.

On paper, Democrats don't have far to go. A turnover of just two seats would flip control in the Senate and a dozen would do so in the House. But the battleground states and districts tend to be on harsh political ground for Democrats - a sign that what counts in today's politics, as in real estate, is location, location, location.

"It's very hard to see Democrats making gains. There are too many open seats, and where there are open seats they are in red [Republican-leaning] states," says pollster John Zogby of Zogby International. The road will be toughest in the House, where GOP-engineered redistricting in states like Texas and Georgia has set the stage for what some call an "institutionalized victory."

Democrats, to be sure, aren't giving up. They argue that message may yet trump terrain in Election 2004. If President Bush's numbers continue to slide, and the presidential race morphs into a referendum on jobs, as Democrats hope, it could change the dynamics in battleground states and districts, they say.

"As far as I'm concerned, the conventional wisdom about '04 is slipping. The national mood is with our candidates," says Jon Corzine, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). He cites polls showing that Democrats are gaining ground on issues such as healthcare, education, and jobs and the economy.

An example of a race that Democrats hope will turn on jobs is Colorado, where the surprise retirement of Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, announced March 3, gave Democrats an opening they had not expected. In 2000, Mr. Bush outpolled the combined scores of Vice President Gore and Ralph Nader in Colorado by 8 percent. But the state has a lost 91,600 jobs since Bush took office, says Senator Corzine, who has recruited Rutt Bridges, a software entrepreneur millionaire with deep pockets, into the race. US Rep. Mark Udall is also considering a run for the open seat.

Democrats cite Oklahoma, Illinois, and Alaska as other "prime-time pickups." They also see "serious opportunities" in Missouri, Kentucky, and also in Pennsylvania, where incumbent GOP Sen. Arlen Specter is in a divisive primary slug out with conservative Rep. Pat Toomey. If the primary draws Pennsylvania's GOP nominee too far to the right, Democrats have a good shot at picking up that seat.

Meanwhile, Republicans see their best chances in open seats in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, where Bush outpolled the opposition scores by double digits. Open seats in Louisiana and Florida are also possible GOP pickups. Republicans also see opportunities against Democratic incumbents in Washington, Nevada, Wisconsin, and especially South Dakota.

The race to unseat Democratic leader Tom Daschle is bringing big GOP guns to a state that President Bush won by 22 points. On Monday, Vice President Cheney hosted a fundraiser in Sioux Falls, S.D., for GOP contender and former US Rep. John Thune, who was narrowly defeated in a Senate bid in 2000. Senator Daschle is expected to raise $10 million for his campaign.

But issues that play big for Democrats in national polls can be eclipsed by parochial concerns on the ground. That's what's likely to happen in bids for open seats in the South, especially with Sen. John Kerry at the top of the Democratic ticket.

"One of the Democrats' main challenges is that their standard bearer is the single most liberal member of the US Senate [according to a new National Journal rating], who happens to be from Massachusetts, the most liberal state in the nation," says Whit Ayers, a GOP pollster.

The typical Democratic candidate in the South, he says, faces a tough choice: whether to support Kerry, "which will send a signal to many Southern voters that he doesn't think like they do," or to break with Kerry - a problem for the Democratic base.

Both parties are still scrambling to find strong candidates in several Southern states. Democrats are having the hardest time finding a credible candidate in Georgia, and there is no clear frontrunner for either party in Florida.

"The biggest thing Democrats have going for them [in the South] is weak Republican candidates," says Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. "But I don't think that Kerry is going to run very well in the South. When Republicans get through mining his complete record in the Senate, he is not going to win Southern states, and that hurts Democratic chances," he adds.

A wild card in the race is the possible clout of so-called 527 groups, or "stealth" political action committees, named after that section of the US tax code that exempts issue advocacy-groups from having to report to the IRS or the Federal Elections Commission. Still, Congress watchers say that the Senate is not a hopeless goal for Democrats. "People have developed the idea that Republicans have locked up all these states, and it's not true. The Senate is not hopeless. They're going to have to fight for every win," says Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst for the Cook Political Report in Washington.

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