George W. Bush is the first president since FDR to pick up Congressional seats for his party in his first two mid-term elections. The last president to pick up seats in all three mid-terms was James Madison, and current polls indicate Bush is unlikely to tie Madison’s record. (The opposition Federalist Party did Madison the favor of siding with the British during the War of 1812, and disappeared from the American political landscape.)
If the election were held today and the polls are correct, the GOP would hold 50 seats in the U.S. Senate and maintain control with the Vice Presidential tie-breaker. Interestingly, Democratic Rep. Harold Ford has pulled up in deep Red Tennessee, while Republican Tom Kean has a decent lead in deep Blue New Jersey. If Kean were to slip that would be enough for the Democrats to take control of the Senate. Sens. Burns, Santorum and DeWine are in deep trouble, and Chafee and Talent are barely hanging on. Aside from appointed New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, there is no incumbent Democrat Senator currently behind.
There are of course numerous wildcards in the race for control of the Senate. Senator Lieberman has built a decent, though not huge, lead over Ned Lamont, and Lieberman has been treated so badly by his erstwhile Party there is a 20% chance he might organize with the GOP. In Maryland’s open Democrat seat Republican Michael Steele’s numbers are competitive, though it is hard to picture him winning in a heavy Democrat state with Bush so unpopular.
The contest for the House leans towards a Democratic takeover with the President’s job approval so low and the Iraq war so unpopular. All the Democrats need are 15 seats, a drop in the bucket compared with earlier Congressional shifts. It feels like 1952 or 1966 to many old political hands, with a strong economy being trumped by an unpopular war.
There has been a small rise in Bush’s job approval in the last week, from 39-40 to 40-41, according to the realclearpolitics.com average. There appears to be a further hardening underway among GOP voters in favor of the President, and maybe even a few more independents keeping an open mind. This move up might also be a temporary blip from the 9-11 anniversary. It is still a lousy number.
As always, money will play a big role in the final outcome of this election. For instance, in Virginia Democrat Jim Webb can actually produce some pretty good polls, but he is being so badly outspent by Senator Allen it is hard to take him seriously. The Republican National Committee has something like three times as much cash on hand as the Democratic National Committee, which could be a big factor if Bush’s job approval continues to rise. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee head Rep. Rahm Emanuel is worried about being outspent.
There are a few other factors that could save the GOP. High levels of employment, a rising stock market and falling gas prices could be lifelines. However, the unpopular Iraq war continues to be center stage in the electorate’s mind. Every day is Tet in Iraq, as political analyst Jeff Bell says, so we should expect it will continue dominating the debate going into the election, now only 50 days away.
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