Larry J. Sabato

Fresh off the Superbowl, Americans are once again reminded that every once in a while, an underdog team can come back up from the depths, run the table, and pull off a remarkable victory. This year, congressional Democrats, ever-so-desperate to pick up the 15 seats they need to reclaim the lower chamber this year, are crossing their fingers for some of the against-the-odds Steelers magic they'll need to last them through November 7th in order to reshuffle the congressional deck.
Gradually for House Democrats, however, their dream of ending their twelve years in the wilderness seems less and less far-fetched with each passing week. For one, Bush fatigue is emerging as a very serious electoral drag on the GOP in elections all across the nation, and the threat to Republicans of a big old traditional "sixth year itch" midterm election remains very real. The president's approval ratings, not considerably altered by the State of the Union, continue to weigh down the House GOP, whose scores in generic ballot tests give the majority's members pause even as public opinion of both parties in Congress grows colder yet.

Moreover, the persistence of congressional scandal continues to hamstring the party in power, compounding the GOP's woes by hindering its ability to articulate an agenda and reassume offensive stances on a whole host of issues. Revelations of gross impropriety have already swiftly befallen one member, now-disgraced former Rep. Duke Cunningham, and have soured the reelection fortunes of two powerful House veterans, most notably self-demoted Texas Rep. Tom DeLay and now also Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, both of whose odds of winning at home in 2006 we now estimate are even at best.

While both parties are haunted by the specter of even more allegations coming out against their sides' members (Democratic Rep. William Jefferson's legal woes illustrate the bipartisan nature of this whirlwind of controversy), it is clear that the GOP stands to lose more as new facts emerge about ethics breeches--Abramoff-attributable, MZM-manufactured, and otherwise. And we'll bet more casualty possibilities will manifest themselves before November. For the GOP, danger exists on several levels: the pinpoint effects of scandal on individual races where incumbents are affected are one thing; the nationalized effects of a malodorous mushroom cloud of scandal are another thing altogether. We can be sure that Democrats secretly hope any additional GOP members whose practices come into question will favor the Ney-DeLay route of sticking around to face voters in November over showing themselves the door for the sake of party chances.

Larry J. Sabato

Larry Sabato is the founder and director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics as well as author of Divided States of America: The Slash and Burn Politics of the 2004 Presidential Election.

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