WASHINGTON -- There's a pivotal question pundits were not asking this week as the midterm elections officially got under way: What if the political climate dramatically changes in the GOP's favor?
Two months before Election Day, some things were happening in the political environment that showed how quickly the tide can turn in the rough and tumble of American elections.
Earlier this week, Chevron's announcement of major new oil discovery in the Gulf of Mexico -- perhaps the biggest in a generation, with a potential yield of 400,000 barrels per day -- had a positive impact on the oil markets.
Oil and gas prices were already falling significantly as we entered Labor Day weekend, the combined result of reduced fears of supply interruptions in global markets, especially in the Gulf, and a falloff in demand for gas in the United States as the summer-vacation driving season came to a close.
As this is written, the national average price of gas at the pump was $2.70 a gallon and falling, while oil had dropped from $77 a barrel to $69 or less. Further price reductions will likely ease the squeeze on consumer budgets at a time when Republicans need all the good news they can get.
While this alone may not be enough to overcome the electorate's sour mood about a number of vexing issues -- from the increasing violence in Iraq to the failure of Congress to pass an immigration fix-it bill -- it chips away at one of the biggest voter complaints.
Still, the environment heading into the general-election season could not be worse for President Bush and the GOP. With the exception of his 55 percent approval score on the war on terrorism, he receives failing grades on just about every other issue -- from (inexplicably) the economy to Iraq. Voters take an even dimmer view of Congress, with its approval polls falling to the low 30s. Veteran election forecasters were flatly predicting the Democrats would take back the House and eat into the GOP's 55-seat majority in the Senate. Analyst Stu Rothenberg's latest forecast of Democratic gains was revised upward to between 15 and 20 additional House seats -- enough to take control of the chamber and effectively kill Bush's remaining agenda.
Usually cautious elections tracker Charlie Cook summed up the GOP's future this way over Labor Day weekend: If "the political climate remains as it is today -- a very big 'if' -- Republicans will likely lose the House and their dominance of the nation's governorships but hang on to the Senate by a thread."
But interviews with key Democrats who are advising all levels of their party's campaign apparatus and with Republican officials suggest the big "if" that Cook worries about is a wild-card issue or event that could give the GOP a winning hand. Maybe not enough to avoid losses in the House and Senate and among the governorships, but possibly enough to keep both chambers in GOP control.
One of the big ifs has to do with the generic voter-preference polls that have shown Democrats with a strong advantage over Republicans all year. As reported in an earlier column, the latest Gallup Poll showed that edge shrinking to a statistical tie -- a poll virtually ignored in the Labor Day news stories. But even if the generic poll showed a continued Democratic advantage, it may not be enough in a number of GOP districts. The reason: Pollsters acknowledge that generic surveys have long skewed the results against the GOP by anywhere from 6 to 10 points.
Republican campaign officials told me that if Democrats are leading in the generic polls by 6 points or so, they feel confident they can repel the Democratic assault on the House.
"We look at the individual races and we find in our polling data that the Republicans are in very good positions," said Carl Forti, chief spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
"Republicans will be in the majority in the next Congress," he told me. The Democrats, though, are not making any such claim for their party. "We're not predicting we are going to take over the House," said Bill Burton, chief spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The tightening of the generic numbers is one reason for the Democrats' reticence. But other factors have created self-doubts about their chances: One is the GOP's superior voter-turnout ground game and the higher redistricting walls they have built since the 2000 census to protect their incumbents. "The way the congressional district lines have been drawn (around GOP-held House seats) is going to be a challenge," Burton admitted.
As for those tightening voter-preference polls, Democratic officials told me they have seen similar movement in their internal surveys.
"What you are seeing is, yes, some Republicans are coming home in certain districts and there is some firming up of the Republican vote," another prominent Democratic adviser told me.
There "aren't as many vulnerable Republicans now as a month or more ago," he said.