Cracks show in Democratic House

Donald Lambro

6/21/2007 12:01:00 AM - Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- It may be too early to make any predictions about the 2008 elections, but it's likely the Republicans will win back a number of House seats they lost last year.

Indeed, as I noted in an earlier column, Democrats hold at least eight of the nine "most vulnerable" House seats, according to veteran congressional-elections analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

In Florida's 16th District, for example, Republicans are heavily favored to recapture the seat that Democrat Tim Mahoney narrowly won after Mark Foley resigned in disgrace in the House-page scandal.

In Georgia's heavily Republican 8th District, Democrat Jim Marshall squeaked through with less than 1,800 votes. But the betting in political circles is that his seat, too, will end up in the GOP's column next year. The GOP is rallying behind Rick Goddard, the former commanding general at the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center, who would give Marshall a tough race.

In Texas' Republican-drawn 22nd District (formerly held by Tom DeLay), which gave President Bush 64 percent of its vote in 2004, Democrat Nick Lampson won by a thin margin, even though his opponent was not on the ballot and had to run a write-in campaign. "This is probably the GOP's best opportunity to take back a district they lost last year," Rothenberg said in his latest analysis of the 2008 congressional elections.

In a volatile election cycle when Republican prospects are weakened by the unending war in Iraq and polls show a large majority of Americans believe the country is "on the wrong track," one would think the Democrats would be favored to strengthen their hold on the House.

But Republican campaign strategists now believe last year's wave that swept Democrats to power will not be replicated in 2008 and that many of the seats they lost will be back in GOP hands if they can win back the base of their party.

What has changed the Republican outlook? Candidate recruitment, for one thing, has improved significantly.

Senior strategists at the National Republican Congressional Committee told me a larger number of House seats are now being targeted and that a larger-than-expected number of candidates from state legislatures and other elective offices are eager to challenge Democrats who took over Republican-friendly districts.

"A lot of Republican candidates see an opportunity for higher office for the first time in a while. They've been waiting in the wings with a lot of pent-up ambitions, hoping a Republican incumbent was going to retire and now see the seat's held by a Democrat," said NRCC press secretary Ken Spain.

"These candidates are smart and realize that 2006 was a wave election, and it is highly unlikely Democrats will get back-to-back cycles like that," he said. Whatever troubles the Republicans have had this year and last, they can no longer be blamed for what Congress has or, more to the point, has not done. The Democrats are in charge now and, apparently, the voters do not like the job they've been doing.

The Democratic Congress' job-approval score has sunk to 23 percent, down 8 points since April. Other polls give them even lower marks. A Rasmussen survey found that "just 19 percent of American voters believe Congress is doing a good or excellent job."

Notably, among Democratic voters, only 24 percent say Congress is doing a good job -- down from 35 percent who said that a month ago.

The latest election strategy being implemented by the Republicans and the White House is aimed at re-energizing the party's base, which has been eroded by deepening divisions over the war, immigration and runaway spending.

In the past two weeks, however, Republicans have been mounting an effective counteroffensive against the Democrats that has had GOP allies cheering. House Democrats have been forced to retreat in the face of a furious assault by Republican leaders on wasteful, pork-barrel spending, an issue that angered the GOP's conservative base in 2006. President Bush, abandoning his distaste for vetoing spending bills, now plans to veto a string of them in the coming weeks if Democrats insist on higher-spending levels that exceed his budget proposals.

None of this suggests that Republicans do not face huge obstacles in the coming months in their attempts to win back alienated segments of the electorate. But Rothenberg finds that "for the first time in months, there may be a crack or two starting to show in the Democrats' position" in the coming elections. Those cracks appear to be widening in more than a dozen narrowly won districts where Democrats are vulnerable to a GOP upset.

"In order to win back the majority, we don't have to conquer new territory. We just need to reclaim old territory," Spain said.