By Thomas Ferraro and Samuel P. Jacobs
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In forecasting what the U.S. Congress will look like after the November 6 elections, Princeton University's Sam Wang is what his fellow analysts call an "outlier."
Wang, one of a dozen or so leading academics who use statistical data to forecast elections, says there is a 74 percent probability that the Democrats will gain the net 25 seats they need to take control of the 435-seat House of Representatives from the Republicans.
He cites President Barack Obama's recent rise in the polls, which Wang says could help other Democrats on House ballots. Wang says his estimate "suggests that in coming weeks, we might look for (congressional) district polls to move in the Democrats' direction."
Since Obama jumped to a significant lead over Republican challenger Mitt Romney during the past two weeks, there has been an increasing chance that the presidential race could create a larger-than-expected ripple across the congressional elections in the Democrats' favor. That has triggered anxiety among Republicans and raised hopes among Democrats.
It remains a minority view, however.
The conventional wisdom in Washington is that on November 6, a politically divided nation is likely to reinstall a largely familiar cast of characters at each end of Pennsylvania Avenue: a Democratic president, a Republican-led House, and a Democratic-led Senate.
For all the turbulence of the last few years - including the rise of the conservative, compromise-resistant Tea Party movement and the resulting gridlock in Washington that led to historically low approval ratings for Congress, Americans are on course to keep most of the same people in charge, most analysts say.
That may not be good news for those hoping to see an early deal between the parties on how to tackle the nation's high unemployment and debt and deficit problems. If there is no compromise in Congress soon, big tax increases and mandatory spending cuts early next year could send the economy over the "fiscal cliff" and back into recession.
In the House - where every seat is up for election every two years - there likely will be a backlash against some of the 87 first-term Republicans, many of whom were elected with the Tea Party's support, who helped give their party control of the chamber. Democrats have targeted two dozen freshman Republicans in the House who are seen as particularly vulnerable.
But district-by-district analyses by the Cook Political Report, the Rothenberg Political Report and others suggest that any gain in House seats for either party probably will be small. The most likely scenario: Democrats will have a net gain of a few seats - perhaps as many as 15 - but will remain in the minority.
A big reason for such estimates: In many cases, the results of the November election for House seats essentially were decided months ago, when states went through the once-a-decade process of redrawing their congressional districts.
In two dozen states with Republican-led legislatures, districts typically were redrawn to help the party's incumbent members of Congress win re-election by making their districts more conservative - and to make some Democrats more vulnerable.
Democrats did the same thing, protecting their own in eight states where they control the legislatures. In Illinois, Democratic lawmakers carved up five congressional districts now represented by Republicans so that each had more Democrats.
That is partly why Illinois Republican Representative Joe Walsh, an outspoken hero of the Tea Party, is likely to be bounced from the House by Democratic challenger Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq war veteran. A recent poll in the district had Duckworth up by 14 percentage points.
Other states used bipartisan panels to redraw House districts, in part to spread the political impact.
Overall, however, the politically charged redistricting system is likely to help preserve the status quo in Washington. Analysts say that for this election, the calculus in House races would change only if there were a significant margin of victory in the presidential race.
"If Obama wins by a wide margin - say, 53 percent to 46 percent - it could increase Democratic gains in the House from six seats to maybe 12 or 15," said Larry Sabato, who tracks congressional races at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
A ROMNEY ‘COAT TAIL' EFFECT?
In the Senate - where 33 of the 100 seats are up for election - most analysts see Republicans making a small dent in the Democrats' 53-47 majority, but not enough for a takeover.
The Senate is where the Tea Party's rising influence could really be felt - in ways that could help or hurt Republicans. Some analysts say Republicans need Romney to defeat Obama in the presidential race to have any hope of a "coattail" effect that could give them control of the Senate.
The Tea Party is likely to have unprecedented power in the Senate. Three Tea Party-backed challengers - Ted Cruz in Texas, Deb Fischer in Nebraska and Jeff Flake in Arizona - are favored to win. A fourth, Richard Mourdock, is in a close race in Indiana against Democrat Joe Donnelly.
Mourdock's emergence has become a symbol of the divisions within the Republican Party that could prevent it from taking over the Senate. In the Republican primary this year, Mourdock defeated six-term Senator Richard Lugar, a moderate Republican who would have been a fairly safe bet to win re-election.
Now, with Lugar gone amid criticism from the Tea Party that he was too willing to work with Democrats, his Senate seat - which he had held since 1977 - is in jeopardy for Republicans. The race between Mourdock and Donnelly is widely seen as a toss-up.
Republicans' hopes of controlling the next Senate also are in doubt because of the retirement of Maine Senator Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican who cited partisan gridlock in announcing her departure. The favorite to replace her is Angus King, a former Maine governor who is running for the Senate as an independent but who both parties assume would caucus with Democrats.
Then there is the case of Todd Akin, the Tea Party-backed Missouri congressman who won a three-way primary fight to oppose Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill.
Both parties considered McCaskill vulnerable heading into this election year, but controversial comments by Akin suggesting that rape victims could naturally prevent pregnancy have shifted the race in McCaskill's favor. Akin has rejected calls by several Republican leaders to drop out of the race.
More recently, several Republican Senate candidates trying to lure votes from Democrats have faced another headache: the videotape of Romney in which he dismissed the 47 percent of Americans who receive government benefits as "victims" who are looking for handouts.
At least three Republican Senate candidates - Scott Brown in Massachusetts, Linda McMahon in Connecticut and Dean Heller in Nevada - have spoken out against Romney's remarks.
"I'm Scott Brown. He's Mitt Romney," Brown said. "We disagree on a whole host of things."
The University of Virginia's Sabato said Romney's fortunes could be key to Republicans' chances of winning Senate seats that have been held by Democrats in Virginia, Montana, North Dakota and Florida.
"It's going to be very difficult for Republicans to take over the Senate if Romney doesn't capture the White House," Sabato said. "That's a different evaluation than a year ago, when the GOP (Republican Party) looked to be a good bet to grab the Senate."
A ‘STATUS QUO ELECTION'
Several months ago, Ethan Siegal of The Washington Exchange, a private firm that tracks Washington for institutional investors, predicted a Republican sweep of the White House, the House and the Senate because of the weak economy and polls indicating Americans were not satisfied with the direction of the country.
"But now I think we are heading to a status quo election," with Republicans keeping the House and Democrats retaining the Senate and White House, Siegal said.
He pinned his shifting view on Romney's struggling campaign for president.
Romney, whose approval ratings have been lower than Obama's, "is stinking up the place," Siegal said, reflecting the anxiety among some Republicans over Romney's campaign.
Republicans hope the former Massachusetts governor can gain some momentum in his three debates with Obama, the first of which is on Wednesday in Denver.
Siegal said it is unclear if a status quo election would lead Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell to be more willing to cut deals with Obama on issues such as the budget, taxes and the nation's escalating debt.
"They could say it's time to compromise," Siegal said. "Or Boehner and McConnell could say, 'We should have won this year. We just had the wrong guy at the top of the ticket. We need to block Obama again and wait for the next election.'"
(Editing by David Lindsey, Christopher Wilson and Philip Barbara)