Democratic prospects for Hill takeover dim

Unless Kerry surges, Democrats may see hope of controlling House or Senate slip away.

In a sharp change from just two months ago, Republicans are gaining a commanding position in the race for control of the US House and Senate.

While Democrats still say that a takeover on Capitol Hill, at least in the Senate, is within reach, they're saying it with less conviction.

The reasons range from fundraising to the ability of GOP lawmakers to show results by working with a president of their own party, such as movement this week toward an extension of $146 billion in middle-class tax cuts.

But another factor looms large: the Democrats' expected lift from a strong presidential showing has yet to materialize. A surge at the top of the ticket can transform the campaign landscape down to the county or town. It can rouse the base and prod the uncommitted to commit the simple act of voting.

With the Kerry campaign running only even with President Bush or falling back, that momentum is missing.

"Two months ago, there was a sense that Kerry was going to run so well that that could be enough to give Democratic challengers a victory in tough districts. Now, I don't see that," says Amy Walter, an analyst at the Cook Political Report.

The latest Ipsos-Public Affairs poll shows that voters now favor Republicans to control the Congress 47 percent to 45 percent. In May, voters favored Democrats 50 percent to 41 percent.

When some Democrats back in June predicted a sweep in November, President Bush's approval ratings were falling. Democrats had recruited strong candidates, even in the South, and won two House special elections in Kentucky and South Dakota, previously held by Republicans. And Republicans faced some unexpected retirements that suddenly made safe seats highly competitive.

Also, at least at first glance, the numbers needed to take back the House and Senate didn't seem daunting: Democrats are only two short of a majority in the Senate and 11 down in the 435-member House.

But the environment for challengers in American politics is becoming increasingly hostile, as redistricting and soaring campaign costs raise the bar. Analysts say only about 33 House races this year and 10 Senate races are competitive - most on electoral turf favorable to Republicans. Since 1998, only 16 House incumbents have been defeated. Partisan turnovers in Senate races are even rarer. And this year, redistricting is expected to net the GOP five new house seats in Texas.

Even before the presidential race took hold, Republicans held a tactical advantage in the South as well as states like Alaska and South Dakota, where President Bush ran strong in 2000. But recent setbacks for presidential nominee John Kerry, including a campaign shakeup and retrenchment in some battleground states, raise GOP hopes for even greater gains - gains they say will trickle down through the congressional races, as well. This week, the Kerry campaign canceled a $5 million television ad campaign in Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Missouri.

Pollsters, who often differ widely in their assessments of the 2004 presidential race, concede that the poll numbers are shifting. Also, the map of presidential battleground states does not perfectly track the key races for control of the Senate, which includes states such as Alaska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, North Carolina, and South Dakota that are not targets in the presidential race.

"Bush had a few good weeks, Kerry a terrible few weeks. It's a very close race, very close nationally and very close in most of the battleground states. A number of these Senate races really stand on their own," says pollster John Zogby of Zogby International.

Without a hot presidential race in town, many Democrats in Bush territory are running independent of the national ticket - or at least, attempting to create some distance. In one of the most striking examples in this campaign cycle, Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle is running an ad where President Bush appears to be hugging him. It begins with Mr. Daschle saying: "Tonight, the president has called us again to greatness. And tonight, we answer that call." In a debate Sunday on "Meet the Press," GOP challenger John Thune called the ad a bid "to throw John Kerry overboard in order to help himself."

In addition, Democrats like Erskine Bowles in North Carolina and Rep. Brad Carson in Oklahoma are siding with the GOP on some economic issues.

"The congressman is running his own race out here. He isn't bringing national people in to help, as our opponent has done. He's getting into his blue pickup truck and traveling from county to county," says Kristofer Eisenla, a spokesman for the Carson campaign. Democrat Inez Tenenbaum, South Carolina's superintendent of education, is campaigning close to GOP on many social issues, while steering clear of the national Democratic campaign.

But even in states that are not targets for the presidential race, presidential politics can move voter turnout, up or down. And lately, at least, the prospects for Democrats have been looking worse.

"Coattails still matter. It doesn't affect the landslides, but it does affect the couple of dozen House seats that are very close, as well as the half-dozen Senate contests that are pure tossups. Most will go the way of the presidential winner," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.

Groups such as Emily's List are stepping up efforts to boost turnout for congressional candidates. "The turnout in Pennsylvania, Florida, Missouri, and Wisconsin will be unprecedented," predicts Karen White, national political director for Emily's List, which supports pro-choice women candidates. In states like South Carolina, where neither national campaign is investing much effort, groups like Emily's List can help boost the profile of candidates they support.

Meanwhile, The National Republican Senatorial Committee reported Thursday that it ended August with a cash-on-hand advantage of 2 to 1 over the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee - $22 million to $10.5 million.

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