2008 GOP down ballots - The year of limited opportunities

Salena Zito

3/23/2008 12:00:52 AM - Salena Zito

Politics in America right now is all about the race for the presidency, with the lens focused on who will be the Democrats’ nominee.

Beyond that view of daily political drama (and forgotten presumptive Republican nominee John McCain) are the races to control Congress.

All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs this November. Of those, 198 are held by the Republican minority. Fifteen percent, or 28, of those Republicans have opted out of seeking another term.

This is a year of limited opportunities for Republicans. The bleeding that began with the Democrats’ sweeping wins in the 2006 midterm election seems to have no end.

The special election held recently in suburban Chicago to replace former House Speaker Dennis Hastert is a reminder for Republicans; that seat went from being safe for the GOP into the Democrats’ column.

House races (or “down-tickets,” as they’re known in a presidential year because of their positioning on the ballot) are not getting much traction right now for either party.

While Democrats sit in the catbird’s seat, none of them can be thrilled that the party’s presidential primary is extending on for so long.

“Just as it would help the nominee to be running a general-election campaign at this point, it would also help the Democratic congressional candidates … to unify as soon as possible,” says American University’s Brian Schaffner.

If the nomination race was over, Schaffner explains, more time would be available for donors and activists to mobilize in order to help Democrats running for all offices. “But with this race still going, a lot of that work may be in a holding pattern.”

American politics is in uncharted territory; coattails of presidential candidates used to matter -- a lot. But no one knows if the Democrats’ nomination fight is going to have a major impact on the campaigns for down-ticket offices. Right now, the biggest effect is that the prolonged race is making it hard to raise money or to scare up volunteers.

All of that aside, most Democrats running down-ticket must feel pretty good about their chances: More Americans are affiliating with the Democratic Party than in previous years, an unpopular Republican president is in the White House, and Republicans in Congress are retiring in droves.

By all rights, Democrats should fare very well in races across the country this year, regardless of how long the nomination campaign drags out. Sans any complete disaster between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Democrats’ fundraising is rocking; the Democrats’ freshman class in Congress has taken careful votes.

Bottom line: No one expects Republicans will take control of Congress in November.

Then again, no one thought nine months out from November 2006 that Democrats stood a chance to take the House that fall. Just ask former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Rahm Emanuel.

The House’s freshman class of 2006 is largely a moderate-to-conservative group of Democrats who represent red-to-purple districts. John McCain will play well in those “Reagan Democrat” areas, which means ticket-splitting by thousands of voters.

In those districts, the “new guys” will need to focus on their own records -- telling their own stories, not the story of the party’s presidential candidate.

Rush Limbaugh seizures aside, John McCain probably is the strongest candidate the GOP could field. He may cause numerous Democrat congressional candidates to run campaigns separate and apart from whoever the Democrats’ nominee may be.

That is just smart politics for Democrats in competitive House districts.

Democrats should pick up House seats, regardless of who gets their nomination; the one thing that can clothesline their sweeping gains will be if McCain wins the White House -- and carries other Republicans into the House on his coattails.

According to the rolling opinion polls at RealClearPolitics, that is not an impossibility. Those numbers show Obama and Clinton holding a slim lead -- just 1.5 percent -- over the Arizona senator.