With just over two weeks to go until Election Day, the battle for control of the US House of Representatives is hinging on whether Democrats can defeat a handful of moderate Republican lawmakers who for years have managed to hold on to seats in Democratic-leaning districts.
Democrats need just six seats to gain a majority, and both parties are concentrating their resources on a small number of key races, several of which involve longtime GOP incumbents. Reps. Connie Morella of Maryland and Jim Leach of Iowa are locked in the toughest contests of their careers indeed, the battle for Ms. Morella's seat is the most expensive House race in the country. Other moderate Republicans, such as Reps. Nancy Johnson and Rob Simmons of Connecticut, are also among Democrats' top targets.
In many cases, these GOP moderates have become more vulnerable this year because of redistricting, which has added either more Democratic voters to their districts, or voters who are less familiar with them in general. But since many of them have voting records more in line with Democrats than conservative members of their own party, their opponents are also trying to persuade voters to consider not just which candidate is best for the district, but which party should control Congress. For example, Morella's opponent, Democratic state Sen. Christopher Van Hollen, stresses that, regardless of Morella's positions on issues, a vote for her is a vote for the Republican leadership.
"What seems to be going on [in races like Morella's] is that the Democrats are trying to convince the voters ... you've got to vote for the Democrat so we can try to take over the House," says Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, executive director of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a moderate GOP group that is planning to launch an ad on behalf of Morella next week. "That's the biggest message that's going on over there, and that's what's hurting Connie the most."
Ironically, by targeting moderate Republicans, she adds, Democrats are also going after those members who are most willing to work across the aisle with them and are often critical players in forging compromise. The defeat of these incumbents could lead to a Congress that is even more polarized than it is today, she says, resulting in further legislative gridlock.
"The moderates are the ones who quite often reach out and are willing to work with the Democrats," says Ms. Resnick. "If we start losing these people who are willing to do that, then obviously we're going to have a huge problem in getting bills passed."
Yet Democrats argue that many of these lawmakers are not really as moderate as they would have voters believe. Although Morella ranks as the most liberal House Republican, according to National Journal, she still voted with her party 61 percent of the time in the first year of the Bush administration including for the president's tax cut.
And while Mr. Leach, the second-most liberal GOP member, has a moderate record on issues such as gun control and the environment, Democrats say he's far more conservative on economic issues. According to the AFL-CIO, which has endorsed his opponent, pediatrician Julie Thomas, Leach has voted against labor two-thirds of the time.
"Only in the hard-right turn that the Republican Party has taken would he be called a moderate," says Rachel Gorlin, a Democratic consultant for Dr. Thomas.
Generally, analysts say that control of Congress isn't an issue that motivates most voters though it can be helpful in persuading donors to support a candidate.
But this year, with such unusually close margins in both chambers, the question of control may play a larger role in close races. Certainly in Senate races, where the balance of power hangs on a single seat, voters are likely to be aware that each contest could be decisive in terms of control.
Indeed, Republican challengers in a number of states have been hitting this theme, asking voters whether they want a Senate that will "work with President Bush" or against him. Likewise, Democrats have been stressing their precarious edge in states such as South Dakota, where if Sen. Tim Johnson (D) is defeated by Rep. John Thune, the state's other senator, Tom Daschle, may lose his post as majority leader.
"In South Dakota, it's pretty clear that Tom Daschle is [majority leader] because of one seat," says Ms. Gorlin. "It definitely is more part of the mix."
While House races are often dominated by more local concerns than Senate contests, the question of control is clearly cropping up in districts like Morella's, which is located just outside Washington and where national politics often intrude. "It's pretty unusual to make control of Congress an issue," says Carol Arscott, a Maryland pollster. "But there's probably no better place to make it an issue than the 8th district of Maryland which virtually embraces the city of Washington."
Morella has responded by portraying herself as more liberal than her opponent. In a recent television ad, she accuses Mr. Van Hollen of favoring the wealthy on tax cuts, and states: "To hear this guy talk, you'd think he was the Republican."
But lately she, along with other moderates, is also trying to use the question of control in her favor, by arguing that Republicans are likely to retain a majority, in which case, she contends, voters would be better off reelecting a GOP member with seniority than a freshman Democrat.