Democrats see opportunity to win back House

Special-election wins put Democrats within 11 seats, but still facing big hurdles.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A win in South Dakota's closely watched special election this week brings Democrats within 11 seats of taking back the House - far fewer than insurgent Republicans needed to wrest it from them a decade ago.

For a minority eager to get back control of the House they dominated for 39 years, Tuesday's victory is a sign that the political tides may be shifting back in their favor.

But, even the most partisan insiders concede, the advantage for incumbents on Capitol Hill is now so formidable that it will take a tsunami to get over the top - and many more candidates like Stephanie Herseth.

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Bright, energetic, and deeply rooted in South Dakota's political scene back two generations, Ms. Herseth looked like a winner even when she lost her 2002 bid for the seat to that state's governor, Republican William Janklow. After Representative Janklow resigned in January, following a conviction for manslaughter, she vaulted to virtual incumbent, with a double-digit lead in the polls.

Like many strong Democratic candidates this cycle, she fits her district. A Washington lawyer who kept up ties to South Dakota, she snagged an "A" rating from the National Rifle Association, which spent more than $5 million in 1994 defeating Democrats who opposed gun control.

On Tuesday, she beat GOP state Sen. Larry Diedrich by nearly 3,000 votes - a significant margin in a state where Democrats often eke out victories. Senate minority leader Tom Daschle won his first House race by 139 votes; the state's junior Sen. Tim Johnson won in 2002 by 524 votes - the closest Senate race in the nation that year.

Democrats see glass half full

Despite the erosion of Herseth's lead to 2 percentage points, Democrats claim a significant victory. "If we can win in South Dakota, where George Bush took 60 percent of the vote, we can win anywhere," says Kori Bernard, communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Following on a recent victory for Democrats in Kentucky, "It's the first time in 30 years that two Republican-held seats have elected Democrats in a special election," she adds. Democrat Ben Chandler (D) of Kentucky, the state's attorney general, won what had been a Republican House seat in a special election in February.

In addition, polls are trending toward Democrats, who are favored over Republicans 51 percent to 49 in generic congressional ballots. Most Americans now say that the nation is on the "wrong track," and President Bush's approval ratings are tanking to the mid-40s.

High hurdles in the South

But political handicappers caution that there are high structural hurdles for Democrats hoping to take advantage of these trends, especially the impact of redistricting and the soaring costs of toppling an incumbent.

"There are just not that many competitive seats as there were in '94," says Amy Walter, congressional analyst for the Cook Report. There are only 37 seats in play in June, compared with 108 competitive seats in 1994. In addition, Democrats are defending 28 open seats in "some really tough places for Democrats," such as South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, and Mississippi, she adds.

One of the toughest obstacles to a Democratic takeover of the House is the impact of recent redistricting in Texas, which gives a strong advantage to the GOP. "You can't underestimate the power Texas might have in this election," she says. On a bad night for Democrats, Republicans could pick up as many as six seats. Even if Democrats do hold onto their incumbents they could lose three or four seats in Texas."

While about half of seats in the 435-member House were deemed "competitive" in the early 1960s, political handicappers say there are only about 7 percent, that are competitive today.

"If things go really badly for President Bush and turn strongly toward the Democrats, it could go back to 50 seats being competitive, but even then Democrats would have to win all the really close ones to take over the House by even a seat or two," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "Every single possible thing would have to move in their direction."

Steering clear of wild cards

Another wild card in the race is whether President Bush's numbers will rebound at the top of the ticket - and, if they don't, what impact it will have on congressional races. The GOP candidate in South Dakota's special election steered clear of President Bush's record in his campaign - in sharp contrast with the 2002 race. Republicans say they're not planning on help from the White House, but are building campaigns "from the ground up."

"We successfully held our majority in 2000, and President Bush didn't have any coattails, and we're not anticipating any in '04," says Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Unexpected opportunities

On the Senate side, prospects for a Democratic takeover are more favorable than they were even a few months ago. All the surprises so far in the electoral cycle have favored Democrats. GOP seats in Colorado, Oklahoma, and Illinois opened up, and Democrats have been able to recruit strong candidates even in the South, where they were expected to do poorly.

"They had open seats they did not expect, while most of the open seats we have we did expect. That's why the conventional wisdom has changed about our prospects," says Brad Woodhouse, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Democrats are optimistic about their chances in Illinois, Colorado, and North and South Carolina, where textile job losses, the tobacco buyout, and concerns about Iraq are boosting their prospects.

"The Democrats, with the exception of Georgia, have come up with a substantial number of good candidates to run statewide in the South, and I don't think anybody would have predicted that would be the case," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. "The fact that people are saying this could be '94 all over again [a year when control of the House changed hands] energizes Democrats. It feels like the warm wind of a surge. It's got to make them feel good, but does it predict anything? Not yet," he adds.

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