O'er the Ramparts They Watched: GOP Eyes November Warily

Posted: May 10, 2006 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Republicans believe two powerful, protective bulwarks -- incumbency and gerrymandering -- will help them withstand Democratic attempts to win control of Congress in November.

No matter what all those widely reported generic polls say now about Democrats being ahead of the Republicans, no one named Generic will be on the ballot this year. It will be a real person with a real name -- in most cases, an incumbent member of Congress. And every poll says voters like the people who represent them -- a lot.

"Voters do not go to the polls on election day and vote for an R or a D," said Ed Patru, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). "They are voting for an actual person with whom they have a relationship. And on the question, 'Do you approve of your member of the House?' 60 percent answer yes."

There has been some erosion in the number of people who feel this way, though a strong majority still answers in the affirmative when asked if they support their own representative.

The other political barrier protecting Republicans may be more powerful, because it was built with state-of-the-art technology to keep members of Congress in office. These are the district boundary lines that are adjusted every 10 years to make sure the party in power stays in power.

Both parties take full advantage of congressional redistricting when the time for reapportionment (to adjust to population changes) comes around each decade. Only this time, the Republicans who controlled more state legislatures in 2000 got to redraw more district lines, picking up new seats and making sure there were even more GOP voters in their constituencies than ever before.

How strong are these lines? Here's what a veteran Democratic election consultant who specializes in House races told me last week:

"The level of congressional redistricting that took place in 2000 was so technologically advanced that it can pretty much withstand the strongest challenges. That's why it's become much harder to beat incumbents who are using other technical advances in mailings and voter targeting."

But if these are the Republicans' front lines of defense, the Democrats are going to have to breach still others if they are going to cut deeply into the GOP's House and Senate majorities in the fall.

One of the GOP's latest strategic shifts is to play to local issues -- from sales taxes to overcrowded suburbs -- in an effort to blunt the Democrats hopes of nationalizing the election.

I discussed this lucrative political opening for the GOP in a recent column, but for the first time last week, top Republican campaign officials said it was now a major strategy they were planning to exploit in races across the country.

"We're content to have Democrats talk about the national atmosphere. We're focused on local issues," Ed Patru told me.

And it's not just in the House campaigns where this shift is becoming apparent. This strategy is being pursued in the GOP's Senate races, too.

"Winning on the local issues is going to be the key to Republican success in November," said Brian Nick, chief spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). The word has gone out at the highest levels, he added, to play to local concerns every chance you get.

North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole, the NRSC chairman, "is definitely stressing to the candidates to run on local issues," Nick said.

The GOP's switch to local concerns has been building slowly for months, as poll after poll showed increasing voter dissatisfaction of the Bush administration and the Republican-run Congress.

But this is the first time that national party officials have begun to talk openly about changing the focus of their campaign debate away from the national issues, which Democrats say favor them, to local issues that often draw more voter interest than do national issues.

In West Virginia, for example, Republicans vying to challenge Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd are focusing on coal-mine safety in the aftermath of the Sago Mine disaster.

In Pennsylvania, embattled Republican Sen. Rick Santorum is speaking out against the use of tax dollars to build a sports arena in Pittsburgh and is fighting overdevelopment in the Philadelphia suburbs, where residents have complained of urban sprawl.

In Michigan, there is only one local issue: the state's dismal economy, plant closings and unemployment.

This doesn't mean that GOP candidates can ignore national issues such as Iraq, terrorism and the lobbying scandal in Washington. But the word has clearly gone out to change the debate.

Says veteran GOP consultant Scott Reed: "When the national climate stinks, you have no choice but to go local."

Republican campaign officials are loath to blame their predicament on Bush alone, but many believe his unpopularity is their biggest albatross. "It would be very helpful if Bush's numbers could go above 40," said one national party official.