Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Forecasts that the Democrats are going to cut deeply into the Republican majority in Congress are a little premature at this point in the 2006 midterm election season. True, several Republican-held Senate seats look vulnerable right now, including Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who is running 10 points behind his Democratic challenger, state treasurer Robert P. Casey Jr.

Election trackers also point to Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee, the liberal Republican renegade who faces a dangerous primary challenge by his party's conservatives that could lead to a Democratic turnover there.

And Republican Sen. Mike DeWine is on the endangered species list in Ohio where the GOP's hugely unpopular Gov. Bob Taft (with a 15 percent approval rating), who pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor ethics charges last year, has damaged the party's statewide standing.

But that's only one side of this year's political ledger in an election that could produce some surprising GOP turnovers in heavily Democratic states. Like New Jersey, Minnesota and Maryland of all places. Let's take them one at a time. New Jersey: It's not being picked up by most political radars, but this may be the GOP's best opportunity to pick up another Senate seat.

After Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine's easy election as governor last year, it was a virtual foregone conclusion that his party would hold on to his seat. But the entry of a popular Republican name in the Senate race and Corzine's unpopular decision to appoint a Democrat associated with the state's seamy political bosses has changed the entire scenario.

Right now, in fact, polls show Republican state Sen. Thomas H. Kean Jr., son of the popular former governor, with a 13-point lead over Robert Menendez, the Democratic congressman Corzine named to fill the rest of his unexpired term. Other Democrats are about to jump in the race, raising the likelihood of a divisive party primary, while Republicans are energized and united behind Kean's candidacy.

Kean is helped by his father's good name along with his own squeaky-clean political reputation as a reformer. Hurting the Democrats this year is their sordid record of corruption and convictions.

"New Jersey suddenly becomes the Republicans' best Senate takeover opportunity -- yes, probably better than Minnesota," says veteran elections tracker Stuart Rothenberg.

In Minnesota, Republican Rep. Mark Kennedy is widely considered the GOP's best hope to win the seat being vacated by Democratic Sen. Mark Dayton.

While the state remains strongly Democratic, it has been trending Republican lately, following the 2002 election of GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty who has significantly improved the economy and held the line on taxes.

Kennedy is an attractive and articulate candidate who has strong White House backing which means heavy fundraising help from President Bush.

Perhaps the most interesting Republican opportunity of all is in the state of Maryland, one of the country's bluest Democratic states -- until Gov. Bob Ehrlich and his running mate, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, kicked the Democrats out of the state house in 2002 and breathed new life into a moribund GOP.

When Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes announced last year that he would not seek re-election, just about everyone believed the seat would remain safely in Democratic hands. But when Steele, an African-American with strong statewide name ID, announced that he was in the running, all bets were off.

The Democrats' core political strength in the state is in heavily black Baltimore and Prince Georges counties. But Steele will be competitive in both jurisdictions, while drawing strong support from Republicans and swing independent voters elsewhere in the state.

Steele's candidacy is so feared by Maryland Democratic lawmakers that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), under the hands-on chairmanship of New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, tried to dig up some dirt on him by prying into his credit records (a crime that resulted in two DSCC investigators being fired).

To be sure, Maryland remains a very Democratic state, but at this early juncture, polls show Steele within striking distance of his Democratic rivals.

The result of all this could well be a wash in which Senate Republicans emerge after some losses elsewhere with their five-seat majority intact.

Meantime, no one predicts a Democratic takeover in the House, where at best fewer than three-dozen seats are competitive, though the Democrats could gain half a dozen or so if everything goes their way -- far from the 15 seats needed to regain control.

Even so, the political landscape could change dramatically by then in the GOP's favor.

President Bush's job approval numbers rose last month, though still remain below 50 percent, as Americans sensed political progress being made in Iraq. The increasing turnover of security responsibilities to the Iraqis and the start of U.S. troop withdrawals this year will likely move his polling numbers higher. On the economic front, the campaigns begin with the surveys showing consumer confidence up significantly and forecasters predicting that the nation's economy will continue to grow around 3.5 percent this year.

Meantime, Bush is telling aides that he intends to campaign hard for his party in the fall, just as he did in 2002 and 2004, a prospect that can't make the Democrats feel very good about their chances.


Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.