Too close to call

Posted: Oct 18, 2006 12:01 AM

Three weeks from Election Day, control of the House and Senate is still up for grabs. Despite proclamations of an imminent Republican demise, November 7 will not be a blowout. If Democrats retake the House and Senate, they will do so by the slimmest of margins. There will be no wholesale turnover in the Congress, merely a slide back into closely divided government.

Democrats must win 15 seats to take control of the House and six seats to take control of the Senate. Whether they do so depends largely on five states: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Arizona and Connecticut. For Democrats to retake the Senate, they will have to sweep Ohio. For them to retake the House, they will have to win big in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Arizona, and come out slightly ahead in Indiana.

Republicans will lose at least four House seats to scandal. Mark Foley's seat in the Florida 16th Congressional District will go Democrat. Foley's name remains on the ballot, meaning that voters would have to pull the lever for a man who writes well-publicized dirty e-mails to congressional pages. The Ohio 18th will go Democrat. Bob Ney, the incumbent, left the seat open after pleading guilty to federal corruption charges in connection with the Jack Abramoff scandal. The Texas 22nd will go Democrat for perhaps the silliest reason in recent political history: The Texas court system prevented Republicans from placing a candidate on the ballot to replace Tom DeLay. Republican candidate Shelley Sekula-Gibbs would have to win via write-in. And the Pennsylvania 10th will go Democrat because Republican incumbent Don Sherwood had a longstanding affair with a woman who later accused him of assault and sued him for millions of dollars.

This year's midterm elections look gloomy for the Pennsylvania GOP. Two-term Senator Rick Santorum will likely end up out on his ear after becoming perhaps the chief target of leftist rage across the nation for his social conservatism. Rep. Curt Weldon (R) may be out, especially in the wake of politically motivated allegations that he steered government contracts to his daughter's firm. Along with Rep. Jim Gerlach (R), that would add two more seats to the Democrat total: 6.

Add two seats from Arizona -- Democrat Gabrielle Giffords will take the open Republican seat, and Republican Rick Renzi is in surprisingly poor shape despite President Bush's border fence bill -- and another two from Indiana -- Brad Ellsworth will defeat incumbent John Hostettler, and Joe Donnelly looks strong against incumbent Chris Chocola -- to bring the total to 10.

And then there's Ohio. Ohio Governor Bob Taft was convicted of ethics violations last year, and Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell trails by a large margin against Democrat Ted Strickland. Both Republican senators are in trouble; Mike DeWine is running a losing race, and Jim Talent is neck-and-neck with Democrat Claire McCaskill. In the House, Ohio Republicans may lose as many as four seats, though only two losses seem assured.

Add two seats in New York -- Mike Arcuri and Jack Davis are both up big in their respective races -- another seat in North Carolina -- former NFL quarterback Heath Shuler leads Rep. Charles Taylor -- and one in New Mexico -- Patricia Madrid -- and the Democrats would gain 16 seats and control of the House.

This would hardly constitute the seismic shift in the political landscape it could have been. What will keep the race for the House from becoming a landslide, ironically, is the race liberals most cared about: the Connecticut Senate race. There are three vulnerable Republican House seats in Connecticut. Because liberal Democrats ousted Joe Lieberman in the party primary, and because Lieberman is running as an independent, Republicans will turn out to see Lieberman elected -- and in doing so, they will maintain those three House seats for Republicans.

It is still early. There is time enough for Renzi to pull out his race in Arizona, or for Chocola to pull out his in Indiana, or Weldon and Gerlach theirs in Pennsylvania. The 2006 election turns on the thinnest of margins. If Republicans can return America's focus to the crucial issue of national security and rise above day-to-day political pettiness, they may retain control yet.