Republican missteps give Democrats midterm hope

Last week might have brought the GOP a lot of bad news but at least it isn't 2008.

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There are good weeks. There are bad weeks. And then there are weeks like the GOP just had - a triple dose of wretched news.

The man who had organized, cajoled, and whipped the Republicans into order in the House, Tom DeLay, announced he was leaving Congress because he wasn't sure he could win his seat back in November. That's the stated reason, but there's also the slow simmering Jack Abramoff scandal dragging down Mr. DeLay and potentially other Republicans in the House.

President Bush found his approval number sitting at 36 percent in the latest AP poll, just as he learned that I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the one person indicted in the Valerie Plame investigation, was telling people that the president had ordered him to leak information to the press. Oh yes, and the information being leaked, that Iraq had tried to buy enriched uranium, was largely known to be incorrect at the time of leakage, which all sounds a bit like intentional misleading.

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And as if that weren't all bad enough, talk about Iraq turned from worse to downright awful, as more bombings and sectarian violence raged and internal documents from the country showed there is real concern among US and Iraqi officials that the country is in an extremely fragile state.

But as unhappy as things look for the Republicans right now, it actually could be much worse. Politics, like most things in life, is all in the timing. And right now there are GOP strategists around the country thanking their lucky stars the calendar says 2006 and not 2008.

All the talk about the trouble the party is in is a bit premature. Things certainly don't look good for the Republicans and, in truth, they look a lot worse this week than they did even a month ago. The effect all of it will have on this year's election, though, is far from certain.

Yes, Democrats are talking about how they now like their chances to take back one or both houses of Congress, but it's early in the year and there's a big obstacle to those plans.

Midterm elections are normally not "national" elections. That is, they are not as much about the fate of the nation as they are about voters' feelings about their individual House member or senator. There are exceptions, of course, like 1994, but those elections are just that, exceptions. Most of the time midterms are "they're all crooked except my guy" elections where, despite voters' supposed dislike of Congress, they regularly return incumbents.

If this were 2008, the GOP would be facing much more serious problems. In the current flood of bad news, voters would have the option of wiping the slate clean - changing the White House, House, and Senate at the same time - and, considering the amount of negative headlines coming from this town lately, that might be a real concern.

None of this means the Republicans are out of the woods, of course. The 2006 midterms could still become a national race. That's certainly what the Democrats are trying to turn it into, maybe even with some success.

The AP poll that showed the president's approval mired in the mid-30s, also showed Democrats beating Republicans on a generic ballot. Those polled said they would rather see Democrats than Republicans in control of Congress by a tally of 49 percent to 33 percent.

But before the Democrats start measuring the drapes for the majority offices on the Hill, they should remember that November is still more than a half year away and incumbency is a strong force - particularly the way the districts are drawn now to make sure very few are in play.

More interesting, however, may be how the Republicans are viewing this midterm election. Some, particularly those with presidential hopes, may be contemplating an ugly question. Would it be better for the GOP to lose control of one house of Congress - say the House - just so the party would have something to run against and someone easier to blame? Not that they would try to lose any races, but might they see something positive in a loss?

After all, if the bad news doesn't get better in 12 months, the Republicans could find themselves in this situation again and the date on the calendar wouldn't be much comfort.

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In my April 4 column, I said Michigan gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos started Amway. That's wrong. His father Richard DeVos started the company. Dick DeVos was head of international operations for Amway's parent company, Alticor.

Dante Chinni writes a twice-monthly political column for the Monitor.

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