Will Foley fallout decide GOP's fate?

Donald Lambro

10/5/2006 12:01:00 AM - Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Some Democratic strategists were a little less sanguine they could win back the House last week in the wake of much tighter voter-preference polls showing Republicans rallying behind their embattled party.

"I'm not as confident of the House switching as I once was," a veteran Democratic campaign consultant told me, echoing a privately voiced anxiety I've encountered from several Democrats lately.

That, of course, was before Florida GOP Rep. Mark Foley resigned after sexually explicit e-mails he sent to teenagers were reported in the press. The impact of that scandal is not clear at press time, but it only makes the Republicans more vulnerable to the anti-incumbent mood in the country.

Still, several changes in the economic and political environment that had boosted the GOP's numbers were feeding the Democrats' uncertainty: The terrorist threat about which President Bush has been warning Americans looms larger as an issue in voters' minds; gas prices have plunged across the country; the economy continues to show vitality; the stock market has rebounded from its six-year low; consumer confidence is up significantly; and Gallup's party-preference polls are in a dead heat.

But other Democratic congressional-campaign strategists point to as many as two dozen or more House races in which Republican incumbents are facing aggressive challengers who, they say, could return Democrats to power if there is a voter-turnout surge in November demanding change.

The Iraq war is a major issue in most of these races, and it isn't going away -- though President Bush has strong support for the war among the GOP's base, which appears to be coming home to the party.

"I think in a lot of places where there really isn't a competitive race at hand, Republicans are finding their way back into the electorate and are voting for their own," said Alan Secrest, a longtime Democratic campaign consultant and pollster.

"But in the hot races, the competitive races where we're working, they remain as competitive as they were. So the Gallup numbers showing a tightening in the generic polls can be true, even as the truly competitive races remain so," Secrest told me last week.

Nowhere is this competitiveness more evident than in Indiana, a red state that now seems to have bluish streaks running through it.

In the 9th district, Republican Mike Sodrel, who ousted Rep. Baron Hill in one of the closest House races of 2004, is in a rematch with his former foe. Sodrel was running 6 points behind, according to an independent poll for WISH-TV in Indianapolis.

In the 8th district, GOP Rep. John Hostettler, who is in a tough fight with Vanderburgh County Sheriff Brad Ellsworth, trails by 15 points, according to an Evansville Courier & Press poll of 603 registered voters.

Several seats are at risk in Democratic-leaning Pennsylvania, including that of Rep. Don Sherwood, a four-term Republican embroiled in a sex scandal last year. Democrat Chris Carney, a college professor, is leading by 7 points in the polls. Even in Republican-heavy Virginia, freshman Republican Rep. Thelma Drake is in trouble, running 8 points behind Democrat Phil Kellam, the Virginia Beach commissioner of revenue.

And then there is Ohio, a political basket case for the GOP, where the Democrats see a sweep in the making. Even the once solidly Republican 18th district, held by six-term Rep. Bob Ney until he withdrew from the race after pleading guilty to corruption charges, is threatened by a Democratic takeover by little-known attorney Zack Space.

Secrest says his polls show Space leading Republican state Sen. Joy Padgett, who had little time to get her campaign up and running after Ney dropped out. "The broader context for change is dramatic in that race," Secrest said. But other voices in his party are not as confident about the Democrats' chances to take control of the House. One campaign adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity said the GOP's stronger party-preference poll numbers could make the Democrats' efforts "a steeper climb. I expect things to tighten up."

Election forecaster Stuart Rothenberg, who has been predicting for months that the Democrats will win 15 seats or more, enough to topple the Republicans from power, acknowledged the change in the nation's mood.

"There has been a slight uptick in national GOP numbers, and that could help in a number of tight races, particularly in Republican-leaning districts that have been regarded as in play," he told his newsletter subscribers last week.

Still, Rothenberg continues to believe "the Democrats are now poised to net 15 to 20 seats, which would narrowly return the House to their control," but with the caveat that "they don't have much of a margin for error."

In the "margin for error" department, several vulnerable Republicans appear to be making a comeback in races that were once on the tossup list.

In Florida, for example, a Democratic poll showed Republican Rep. E. Clay Shaw leading Democratic challenger Ron Klein by 42 percent to 38 percent. GOP polls have Shaw comfortably leading at this point.

In New Mexico, an Albuquerque Journal poll of voters showed GOP Rep. Heather Wilson narrowly leading Democrat attorney general Patricia Madrid 45 percent to 42 percent.

The bottom line is, the Republicans are scrambling and fighting back. But can they overcome the election-year undertow that threatens to remove them from power -- worsened by the House-page sex scandal? Right now, the Democrats have the edge. Stay tuned.