Late surprises spice up race for Congress
Political terrain favors Republicans, but personal dynamics in some races favor Democrats
No one expected Kentucky's Senate race to be competitive, not until incumbent GOP Sen. Jim Bunning insisted on using a teleprompter at a remote site instead of facing his counterpart in person for a recent debate.Skip to next paragraph
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It gave a hook to a story that Democrats had been floating for weeks, citing other odd moments in the campaign: That the former Philadelphia Phillies pitcher is throwing wild balls and should be retired. Republicans call it character assassination.
Now, analysts are calling a race that Bunning once led by 26 points a possible Democratic pickup for challenger Daniel Mongiardo, who has fought to within a few points in recent polls. It's one of many races this year that are closer than predicted only a few weeks ago - shifts that go beyond ordinary end-of-campaign tightening of poll numbers.
Democrats still face an uphill fight for control of either the Senate, where they need a net gain of two seats, or the House, where they need a net gain of 12. But the GOP can't take for granted its lock on Capitol Hill, which had been expected to hold until 2006. In addition to Kentucky, eight other Senate races are still too close to call within a week of the vote. On the House side, a handful of races are also suddenly more volatile.
"The control of Congress has been in play for 10 years now, after a long period when control of the House wasn't in play and control of the Senate only rarely," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "It's part of the reason politics this year is so intense and nasty."
The last period when Congress saw a battle for control on this scale was in the 1950s, but then the parties were less sharply split ideologically.
Each newly close race could be the one to tip the balance of power on Capitol Hill. That prospect is opening floodgates of new money into congressional races in the last days of a national campaign that, including the presidential race, is expected to top $4 billion. In recent days, Democrats and Democratic-leaning groups such as MoveOn.org have poured nearly $1 million into the Kentucky race.
"A lot of races in the last 10 days have really tightened up," says Karen White of Emily's List, which supports pro-choice Democratic women candidates.
One of the top new Democratic hopes in the House is businesswoman Melissa Bean, seeking an upset against 35-year incumbent Rep. Philip Crane (R) of Illinois. "A few months ago, no one would have returned her call. Now she's in a dead heat," says Ms. White.
Conservative groups such as the Club for Growth are far exceeding their own targets for congressional-race fundraising in the last days of this campaign. "We're definitely over $22 million, when we'd expected to raise $15 million," says David Keating, executive director of the antitax group.
"Republicans would wind up with 49 seats in the Senate or 55," depending on outcomes now too close to call, he says.
Senate races viewed as tossups in the last days of the campaign include Oklahoma, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Colorado, and Alaska. The political terrain in these states favors Republicans, as Bush won all of them in 2000. But the personal dynamics of these races are, in some cases, trumping partisan factors.