California Democrat Francine Busby's first-place showing in Round 1 of Tuesday's special congressional race may give her party a jolt of optimism in its quest to retake the House in November.
But come the June 6 runoff, analysts say, reality will set in: The seat she seeks to occupy, the one vacated by the now-imprisoned Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R), represents a strong Republican district and the odds are steep against her in a two-person race against a Republican. The GOP has a 15-point registration advantage in the San Diego district. In at least the past 40 years, the Democrats have never defeated a Republican in a district with more than about a four-point GOP registration advantage, says Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego.
Still, Democrats remain energized about November, when every House seat is up for election, and they seek to wipe out a 15-seat Republican margin of control and then some. Only about 35 of the 435 races are competitive, so there's little room for error. Privately, some GOP political handicappers, in a race-by-race assessment, predict that the Democrats will pull it off, as the national mood toward President Bush and the Republican-ruled Congress sours further.
The two latest generic congressional polls - testing which party voters want in charge - favor the Democrats by large margins: 10 points in one, 16 in the other.
This gap "suggests something about the national mood, but whether it will be sustained through the fall or just how that will translate into seat swings is another question," says Professor Jacobson. "But it's the best shot the Democrats have had since they lost the House in 1994. If they don't get it this time, they'll really have to worry."
The long spate of bad news for Republicans - from indictments in Congress and the White House to a stalled agenda to the Iraq war - has sparked aggressive Democratic recruitment of candidates and fundraising.
Intensity of feeling also favors Democrats. There's little danger that droves of Republicans will vote Democratic, but there is a danger that Republicans will stay home in numbers large enough to swing some contests.
Analysts of congressional races are now looking at the next layer of races - those that would probably stay Republican in a typical year, but could change hands in a "wave" year, which this looks to be - to see if the list of competitive races needs to be expanded.
Nonpartisan campaign-watcher Stuart Rothenberg writes that the Democrats have widened the playing field by putting "at least a handful of new districts" into play, not counting open seats. Both he and Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report have recently added two GOP incumbents to their watch lists - Reps. J.D. Hayworth of Arizona and Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania - with the emergence of potentially strong challengers.
In his 20 years in Congress, Representative Weldon had never faced a serious challenger. This year, his opponent is a political novice - but a well-funded one, retired Navy vice-admiral Joe Sestak. By April 3, just 60 days after announcing his candidacy, he had raised $420,000, including $70,000 that came in after Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts sent out an appeal to his 3 million-strong e-mail list on behalf of Admiral Sestak and two other military veterans running for Congress.
In Arizona, Representative Hayworth faces his first serious opponent since 1998 in the person of Harry Mitchell, who was a popular mayor of Tempe for 16 years and then, until recently, a state senator. Senator Mitchell jumped into the race only in late March, but as a seasoned politician, is seen as a threat.
Mr. Rothenberg, assessing the field now that 40 percent of state filing deadlines have passed, flags other Republicans who have drawn serious challengers: Rep. John Sweeney of New York faces his first real threat since his election in 1998. His opponent, Kirsten Gillibrand, has already raised $750,000. Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio faces Franklin County Commissioner Mary Jo Kilroy (D), the first time the Democrats have put Representative Pryce "in the cross hairs" since her election in 1992, says Rothenberg.
In the Cook Political Report's competitive House race chart dated April 7, 66 Republican-held seats are listed versus 21 Democratic seats. Of those that Cook deems battleground races - either toss-ups or those leaning toward the incumbent party, the Republicans hold 24 seats and the Democrats hold 11. Overall, the House breaks down into 230 Republican seats, 202 Democratic seats, 1 independent, and 2 vacancies.
Even if Democrats can see their way to 15 takeovers of Republican seats, any lost Democratic seats mean more Republican seats that need to be taken elsewhere. Ms. Walter of the Cook report cites a Democrat, Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, who looks vulnerable as he has come under scrutiny for his ties to a defense contractor.
Walter also notes that in a "wave" election, where low national ratings for the GOP could affect local races, members who currently seem safe could emerge as vulnerable. "Some people who today are not on any lists could be by the summer," she says.
Or, says Jacobson of UCSD, "the Republicans could kind of revive and only lose 2 or 3 seats." As of now, "my gut sense tells me it's a dead heat," he says. "They could end up 218 to 217. It's hard to see the Democrats getting a lot more than that."