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.
In fact, if one event put an exclamation point on the deep concerns held by many of the GOP's congressional rank-and-file, it was last week's surprise election of semi-dark horse Ohio Rep. John Boehner as their new Majority Leader over the old guard's preferred candidate. Although publicly mum prior to the leadership shuffle, many members were privately hankering for the chance to hang an "under new management" sign outside their caucus door following the exit of embattled former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (though in his first week, the "new boss" has not exactly embraced the kind of insurgent, "clean-house" mantle of broad party change many of his supporters certainly hoped he would).
It's not so difficult to see, then, given this electoral environment, why gleeful Democrats seem to be catching all the breaks in House races while the downtrodden GOP continues to take its lumps as the House candidate recruitment cycle nears its finale. After all, the overall calculus of each cycle's set of candidacy decisions tends to reflect the conventional wisdom concerning each party's chances to gain or lose seats come November, and right now, the perception is simply that Republicans are in a deep but something-short-of-fatal rut.
That said, Democratic leaders still deserve plenty of credit for enhancing their party's prospects in scores of districts around the country. For his part, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Rep. Rahm Emnauel has kept his meanest, Bill Cowher-like game face on throughout this cycle, barnstorming the country at breakneck pace to entice top-tier would-be candidates into battle. We at the Crystal Ball have always said that the name of the game for Democrats in 2006 would be "expanding the playing field." So what's new? Principally, to the extent Democrats faced questions several months ago as to HOW they might be able to put a critical mass of GOP-held seats in play this year, lady luck and the Democratic party apparatus have largely quashed those basic doubts. Thanks to recent recruiting coups (see KY-4 or NM-1) and a few unlucky breaks for Republicans (see AZ-8 or CA-50), we now know WHERE Democrats will win the seats necessary to reach 218, IF November's electoral climate is sufficiently hostile to the GOP.
Our freshly updated "Dirty Thirty" index of competitive House races indicates that the electoral environment has tilted slightly but significantly towards the Democrats since October. The list of top battles is more overwhelmingly populated by GOP-held seats than ever: fully 21 of the nation's top 30 competitive races (or 70 percent) will feature Democratic efforts to erode Republican turf, up from 19 in October. Furthermore, within the "Dirty Thirty," Republicans will be playing defense in 9 out of the 12 districts we currently estimate as "toss-ups" (75 percent), a dramatic shift from the 4-4 "toss-up" tie score we outlined four months ago.
But before Democratic ranking members start fighting over committee gavels, we should caution that the Democratic quest for majority status is still a decidedly uphill climb. While the Crystal Ball recognizes the minority's momentum and foresees that a good number of this month's GOP "leaners" could well end up in the "toss-up" column before all is said and done, we must note that Democratic chances of taking back the House have only improved from around 20 percent to about 30 percent at best since our last update. Whereas in October we estimated that Democrats would need to win 26 of the 30 races seriously "in play"--pretty much a run of the table--in order to recapture the majority, we now estimate that Democrats will need to win only 24 of them--more reasonable, but still a very tall task.
With the recruitment phase of election 2006 all but over and additional retirements unlikely, new questions abound. For Democrats, who have relied on a steady "this is our year" drumbeat to create opportunities for House gains over the last year, the next few months of winter and spring will be a critical test season for campaigns. Whether the lion's share of their key challengers and open seat combatants, so many of whom are political neophyes, will develop strong candidate skills remains an open question. Already, some have impressed (a la Ron Klein in FL-22), and some have lost their footing (a la Coleen Rowley in MN-2). Still, if the political winds blow severely at the Democrats' backs on Election Day, even many second- and third-tier candidates could conceivably be swept into office.
For Republicans in 2006, rebuilding a strong congressional party image while seeking to enable members to stress their independence from Washington troubles will remain a fragile and essential balancing act. GOP leadership insists that the party will ultimately cross the finish line thanks at least in part to their perennial ace in the hole: a sizeable, across-the-board, fundraising advantage that the Democrats, for all their exuberance, still haven't cracked. As of this month, Republicans can take solace in the fact that the National Republican Congressional Committee enjoys a $4 million cash-on-hand advantage over its Democratic counterpart. Still, the financial picture could be clouded this year by the influence of new-fangled independent advocacy outfits, whose possible impact on midterm elections remains uncharted territory for us all.
The bottom line? Observing how these and local factors play out on this year's field of battle will be crucial to determining whether Democrats and Republicans have any chance of waking up in each others' shoes come Nov. 8th. At this writing, the Crystal Ball maintains that a Democratic net gain on the order of 5 to 10 seats is currently the most likely scenario, but with continued momentum and new openings brought about by the wildcard of scandal, today's minority would quickly be within reach of "running the table" Pittsburgh-style all the way to a paper-thin majority. Such a consequential "six-year itch" outcome would certainly prove a giant rash for the Bush Administration's final two years.