US elections: Bush fears the mid-term blues

The Republicans face their biggest challenge for 12 years, thanks to an unpopular president and an equally unpopular war. But the Democrats should not celebrate yet, warns Rupert Cornwell
Click to follow
The Independent US

For an idea of the upheaval that may be about to overtake the US Congress, just three words suffice: Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

This is no denigration of the member for California's 8th District in the House of Representatives. She is as competent, ambitious and driven a politician as they come. But nothing would so perfectly symbolise the twilight of a conservative era as a House led by a woman with a near perfect liberal voting record from the great city of San Francisco, a place that lives in Republican mythology as Sodom and Gomorrah made flesh.

And the chances right now are that it will happen. America's mid-term elections, in which all 435 House seats and a third of the Senate are at stake, are just two months away. A new poll yesterday found the Democrats leading by 53 per cent to 43 per cent in a generic vote for Congress, while they are set to gain several state governorships as well. Rarely have the stars been as favourably aligned - an unpopular President, an equally unpopular foreign war, a stumbling economy, above all the pervasive mood that the present lot have been in power too long, and that it's time for a change.

America has been here before. The irresistible parallel is with the mid-terms of 1994, the year of the "Republican Revolution" led by Newt Gingrich - exuberant, iconoclastic and ruthless in equal measure - that stunned Democrats who had taken their control of Congress for granted. For the first time in 130 years, a sitting Speaker was voted out, and then President Bill Clinton found himself obliged to declare that despite everything he was still "relevant" to how the country was run.

That year the Republicans gained a net 53 seats and seized control of the House which they have not relinquished to this day. Then as now, national discontent with Congress was enormous. Then as now, the feeling was strong that power had corrupted the incumbent party. Then as now, an overwhelming majority - more than 70 per cent of Americans - felt the country was "on the wrong track". In 1994, the "angry voter", who turned out en masse, decided matters. The same is on the cards in 2006.

There are differences, of course. Sensing the national mood, Gingrich came up 12 years ago with Contract with America, a catchy 10-point programme that claimed to be a conservative manifesto for government. In 2006 Democrats have produced nothing as ambitious.

The nearest equivalent is The Plan: Big Ideas for America, which was written by two former advisers to Bill Clinton.

One of them is Rahm Emanuel, arguably the contemporary Democrat who most resembles Gingrich. Opinionated, fast-talking and fiercely partisan, Emanuel is now a member of Congress for a Chicago district, and widely tipped as the next majority whip, the ruling party's third ranking post in Congress, should the Democrats win on 7 November. But even he would not pretend that the book, more of a treatise than a pamphlet, has all the answers.

Nor could it, given the rifts in Democratic ranks. The party is united above all in its yearning to evict the Republicans from power. The party is split on Iraq, divided on the crucial domestic issue of immigration, and torn between a left wing that insists the party has not been liberal enough, and centrists who yearn for a return to the Clinton strategy of compromise and moderation - the "Third Way". The other big difference is the widespread re-drawing of Congressional districts - gerrymandering by another name. Redistricting is nothing new, but computer technology has refined it to a previously unimaginable degree. Districts are now sculpted to the smallest street, all in the interests of giving incumbents a safe berth.

As a result, congressional elections have in some respects become a travesty of democracy. A swing in seats from one party to the other on the 1994 scale is simply inconceivable. Of the 435 House seats, only 40-odd at the very most are genuinely competitive. Nonetheless, Charles Cook and Stuart Rothenburg, two of America's most respected and non-partisan analysts of congressional politics, reckon that the Democrats are on course to make a net gain of 15 to 20 House seats, perhaps a few more - and in any case enough for victory.

The Senate is more problematic. Republicans now control the upper chamber by 55 to 45 (there are 44 Democrats and one independent who invariably votes with them). In the event of a tie, Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, casts the deciding vote. To capture control, Democrats must therefore gain six seats among the 33 that are up in 2006.

Five are eminently do-able, in Pennsylvania, Montana, Rhode Island, Missouri and Ohio. But a sixth would mean a win in Arizona, Virginia or Tennessee, all three solid Republican territory. And to secure even that narrowest of victories, Democrats would have to hang on to all of their own seats contested this year. A Democratic Senate for the 110th Congress is possible, both Rothenburg and Cook say, but as matters stand it is distinctly unlikely.

And do not count the Republicans out. The tide, both presidential and congressional, may be running against them. But the Republicans tend to be better financed and better organised than their rivals. And to beat off the Democratic attack, they have already devised a double defence. First, they plan to beat the war on terror drum as loudly as possible. Second, and simultaneously, close races will be depicted as contests between two candidates to be judged on their own individual merits, rather than as part of a national referendum on Mr Bush.

The White House did not even wait for the traditional campaign kick-off on Labour Day to launch part one of their strategy. Iraq may be in chaos and the economy showing signs of foundering, but Americans still give the President a narrow edge in his handling of the terror threat - and last week, as the country whiled away the last lazy days of August, Messrs Bush, Rumsfeld and Cheney were making high-profile speeches, likening the "Islamo-fascist" terrorist menace of today to the Nazi peril of the 1930s and implying that Democrats are appeasers.

Indeed, listeners to the Defence Secretary's speech the other day to a veterans' convention in Salt Lake City could be forgiven for imagining that Neville Chamberlain had risen from the grave to lead the Democrats into battle. As proof of this thesis, Republicans point to the shock defeat of sitting Senator Joe Lieberman, a staunch supporter of the Iraq war, by an anti-war candidate in last month's Democratic primary in Connecticut. What more evidence was needed that the party of Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, had surrendered its soul to bloggers, lefties and peaceniks?

Such tactics worked in 2002 and 2004, but they may not do so again. Bush aides scrambled to claim an administration hand in the foiling of Britain's terror plot last month, and the President's approval ratings duly improved. But they quickly fell back to 40 per cent or less. They may bounce back with the approaching fifth anniversary of the 11 September terrorist attacks, whose immediate aftermath was Bush's finest hour.

But unlike the congressional Democrats in 2002, or John Kerry two years later, this time party leaders will not turn the other cheek to such criticism. "The key on national security is, every time they hit us, strike back strongly and hard," says Senator Charles Schumer, who is in charge of the party's 2006 Senate campaign.

Most important, Americans no longer buy the White House line that Iraq is the central front in the war on terror. There could yet be an "October Surprise", an out-of-the-blue event - another terrorist attack, say, or less plausibly a dramatic improvement on the ground in Iraq. But for Republicans, these are slender straws to clutch at.

No less ominously, the economy is turning against the Republicans. After almost five years of solid expansion, growth is slowing and consumer spending is weakening. If the gloomiest forecasts are right, a collapse in the housing market could lead to recession next year.

The Bush tax cuts have overwhelmingly favoured the rich. Ordinary "middle-class" Americans are worried about jobs and pay. This too spells trouble for the incumbent party. It is no co-incidence that many of the most vulnerable Republican-held seats in the House are in the old industrial states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois, where such economic worries are greatest.

A Democratic capture of the House - even of the Senate as well - will not resolve these problems. Rather, the US would be back where it has spent much of the past 40 years, with a divided government, and the certain prospect that this President would veto any controversial measure sent him by a Democratic Congress. The upshot would be more, rather than less, legislative gridlock.

But even partial defeat for Republicans would hasten the end of the Bush era. Almost every President is a lame duck in his final two years, as the battle to succeed him grips the national attention. But this one's abysmal approval ratings means he would be virtually a dead duck.

Finally too, his policies would come under the scrutiny by Capitol Hill committees that has been shamefully absent since 2002, when the Democrats lost a narrow majority in the Senate. Such, until January 2009 at least, may be Washington's improbable age of Nancy Pelosi.

Where the fighting will be fiercest


In the Senate, Republican incumbent Mike DeWine faces a tough challenge from Democrat Sherrod Brown, who currently has a six-point lead. Ohio is a bellwether state.

In the House, 15th District Republican incumbent Deborah Pryce is challenged by Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy. A recent internal poll by Kilroy placed her within three points of Pryce with 44 for Pryce and 41 for Kilroy.

In Ohio's 18th District, incumbent Republican Bob Ney is stepping down. Democrat Zack Space is likely to face Republican Joy Padgett, who competes in a Republican primary next week.


James Talent is the Republican senator who has managed to build a six-point lead over Democratic challenger Claire McCaskill.


Republican Senator Lincoln Chaffee faces a tough primary next week against fellow Republican Steve Laffey. If he wins he will face one of several Democrats, possibly Sheldon Whitehouse.


Incumbent Republican Dave Reichert, standing in the 8th District of Washington state, is challenged by former Microsoft executive Darcy Burner. Changing demographics mean a once staunchly Republican district is now much less conservative.


The 8th District race is wide open because gay Republican incumbent Jim Kolbe is stepping down. Republican Randy Graf and Democrat Gabrielle Giffords are leading polls for next week's primaries.


Former House leader Tom Delay, a close ally of President Bush, was forced to step down in 22nd District after being caught up in a lobbying scandal. Contest pits Democrat Nick Lampson against Republican Shelley Sekula-Gibbs.


1st District Republican incumbent Heather Wilson is challenged by Democrat Patricia Madrid, currently the state's attorney general. Wilson currently leads the polls by only two points.


Bob Beauprez, the Republican incumbent in 7th District, is stepping down to run for governor. Republican Rick O'Donnell is challenged by Democrat Ed Perlmutter. Polls have them tied.


The 6th District Republican incumbent Henry Hyde is stepping down. Democrat candidate Tammy Duckworth, an Iraqi veteran, faces Republican Peter Roskam, a state senator. Polls are tied.


Republican incumbent Chris Chocola faces Democrat Joe Donnelly in 2nd District. Polls from July give Donnelly a five point lead. In 9th District, Republican incumbent Mike Sodrel is challenged by Democrat Baron Hill. Two years ago Sodrel beat Hill, then the incumbent, by 1,425 votes - the smallest margin in the 2004 race. Hill has slight poll lead.


Republican Thelma Drake is challenged in 2nd District by Democrat Philip Kellam, supported by MoveOn.Org. Kellam's own polls give him a three-point lead.


Twelve-term incumbent Republican Clay Shaw faces Democrat Ron Klein in 22nd District in what for Shaw, who recently revealed he has lung cancer, will be the toughest challenge in years.


Republican incumbent Sherwood Boehlert is stepping down in 24th District after 24 years. Moderate Republican Ray Meier faces Democrat Michael Arcuri, who boasts a four-point lead.


In the Senate, Joe Lieberman lost the Democratic primary to Ned Lamont and will run as an independent. A recent poll predicts 45 to Lieberman, 43 to Lamont and six to Republican Alan Schlesinger.

In the House, 2nd District Republican incumbent Robert Simmons, a Vietnam veteran, faces a tough challenge from Democrat Joe Courtney. Simmons is a friend of Senator John McCain.

The 4th District Republican incumbent Christopher Shays is challenged by Democrat Dianne Farrell. Shays beat her by four points two years ago but this time she is well-funded. Race considered very close.


The Republican incumbent Jim Gerlach is challenged in 6th District by Democrat Lois Murphy. Two years ago he won by two points but a recent poll gave Murphy a 42-41 lead.

In the Senate, the conservative Republican incumbent Rick Santorum is anything up to 18 points behind Democrat Robert Casey, though some polls are tighter. Casey could lose votes if Green candidate Carl Romanelli gets on the ballot.

Andrew Buncombe