WASHINGTON — If most of the political prognosticators are calling it right, the House of Representatives is poised for a change of leadership: the first Democratic majority in 12 years.
Among the nonpartisan analysts who study the polls and dynamics of each of the 435 House races, the more cautious see the lower range of the Democratic net gain at about 20 seats – more than enough to achieve the 15-seat net gain needed to take control. On the higher end, the Democrats could achieve a more commanding takeover with net gains of 30 to 40 seats, they say.
Some Republicans, citing a superior turnout operation and a tendency among voters to "come home" to their political base on Election Day, are holding out hope that they can minimize losses and even hold on to a sliver of a majority. But privately, many Republicans are bracing themselves for a loss of at least the House, saying that national conditions – frustration over Iraq, scandals, economic insecurity, and an unpopular president – are likely to overwhelm the party's structural strengths. History also works against the GOP: Two-term presidents almost always see a loss of House seats by their party in the sixth year in office.
"If the Democrats can't win under these circumstances, then it's hard to imagine how they can ever win," says Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego.
The chairs of the two House campaign committees steered clear of forecasting net gains or losses Sunday, pointing instead to signs of hope for each side.
"Right now the 72-hour efforts by Republicans to turn their vote out will make the difference in what it looks like on Election Day," said Rep. Tom Reynolds (R) of New York on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Mr. Reynolds himself is fighting for his political life in a tough reelection battle, fueled in part by his role in the scandal over Florida Rep. Mark Foley's inappropriate messages to male former pages. Reynolds has faced charges of appearing more concerned with holding onto Mr. Foley's seat than for the welfare of pages.
Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D) of Illinois, the Democratic campaign committee chair, resisted an overt prediction that his party will take over the House, and instead cited the scorecard on the eve of the election.
"There's one or two Democratic seats I'm concerned about, with about 48 Republican seats that we are contesting. I like those numbers," Mr. Emanuel said on "Meet the Press."
In some regions, the House electoral landscape presents a potentially bleak picture for Republicans. Clumps of seats with unfavorable local conditions – such as those of Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania – could go in a wave. The Republican Party of Ohio has been mired in scandal, putting Republicans up and down the ticket in trouble. Democrats are strongly favored to win the governor's and Senate races there, which could depress Republican turnout and boost Democratic House challengers, including some in historically Republican districts.
Rep. Steve Chabot (R) has held onto his seat in Cincinnati for six terms, despite Democrats' efforts election after election to pry him loose, but in this year's "wave" election, he could be swept out. Rep. Jean Schmidt (R), also of Ohio, who won a special election to fill the seat vacated by former Rep. Rob Portman (R) (now White House budget director) made national headlines for her criticism of Rep. John Murtha (R) when he turned against the Iraq war, and she has been in the Demo-crats' sights ever since.
House Republicans from New York also face the potential for depressed turnout, as polls show both the state's gubernatorial and Senate races will likely be blowouts favoring the Democrats. In Pennsylvania, also with strong Democrats topping their Senate and governor's races, at least four Republican-held House seats face varying degrees of vulnerability.
But most striking in this election cycle is how many once-solidly Republican seats have moved into the tossup column – seats in states such as Kansas, Florida, Arizona, Indiana, and North Carolina. The travel schedules of President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and other top administration officials betray a GOP playing defense, despite their rosy predictions that the party will hold onto Congress.
Some of the hard work by Republican officials on the ground may have paid off, making seats once assumed to be a lost cause appear competitive.
In Florida, the Foley seat is back in tossup range, and away from "lean Democratic" in most prognosticators' lists. The local GOP faces the challenge of educating voters that, in order to vote for Republican candidate Joe Negron, they must check off "Foley," since he resigned his seat too late to get his name off the ballot, but Negron is a popular state representative in a Republican district, and could win.
In Texas, the seat once held by Rep. Tom DeLay is also now a tossup, in spite of the fact that voters must write in the name of the replacement Republican – Shelley Sekula Gibbs – tapped to run for that seat after Mr. DeLay resigned amid scandal.