To the casual observer, politics is hit or miss – but anyone who studies the game knows the importance of trends. Though never hard and fast, previous trends are often a decent gauge for upcoming elections. If the economy is in a recession, the incumbent president should probably start clearing out the Oval Office. If the nation is in a war, the opposite is true, and even a crook like Richard Nixon can easily be re-elected. In a midterm election, the president’s party almost always loses seats in the House of Representatives. Since the Civil War, there have been only three midterm elections where the president’s party managed to escape that fate – though two of those happen to be the last two midterm elections.
Anything goes when the exception becomes the norm, but don’t expect the 2006 midterm elections to go the way of the last two. There were good reasons for the exceptions in 1998 and 2002 (the failed impeachment of a popular president and the Sept. 11 attacks, respectively). There are no such circumstances to link 2006 to the trend-bucking elections of 1998 and 2002.
There are many striking similarities, however, between this election and 1994 – and that would mean that the Republicans might as well start their goodbyes. In that year, after holding the House of Representatives for the better part of 60 years, the Democrats lost an astounding 54 seats in the House. Under the absolute leadership of the brash Newt Gingrich, the Republicans wrested control of the House, and they’ve held it ever since. That, coupled with a less dramatic but equally significant takeover of the Senate, brought on “the Republican Revolution.” With a resounding victory for President Bush and solidified Republican control over both houses of Congress in 2004, the revolution seemed complete.
But in politics, all victories are temporary, and revolutions can be countered. Leading up to 1994, it was the Democrats who had a president with a low approval rating and unpopular policies. In addition, they had to deal with ethics investigations – like the one that forced House Speaker Jim Wright to resign in 1989 – and messes like the house banking scandal, exposed by the bloodthirsty “Gang of Seven” freshman Republican congressmen. The Democrats controlled both branches of Congress and the presidency, and they took the blame squarely on election day.
And now, 12 years later, it’s remarkable how the tables have turned. It’s the Republicans who must defend a president with abysmal approval ratings and a war that’s becoming increasing unpopular, too. And if that’s not enough, they must somehow mitigate the party’s illicit ties to a sketchy lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, and disgraced congressmen such as Tom Delay and Mark Foley. Surely everything can’t be the Republicans’ fault, but with their ironclad control over both houses and the presidency, who else can voters blame?
And so voters face what certainly is the most momentous midterm election since 1994. With Republican incumbents in danger across the country, we offer our analysis of some of the races most pivotal in determining control of Congress. These are by no means the only important races – or even most of them – but space constraints allow us to include only a handful. We have broken them down by region and hope to offer you a hint of the monumental scope of this election.
We owe much of our information to the excellent interactive election guide that The New York Times has posted on its website. We encourage you to consult this or other election guides and become informed on the changes that next week’s elections may bring. After all, Tuesday’s results could very well determine the next decade of American politics.
Driven by a sustained economic downturn and growing disillusionment with the war in Iraq, voters in the Midwest have made their region the toughest of all for Republicans to hold onto.
Missouri: Republican incumbent Jim Talent seeks re-election against Democratic challenger Claire McCaskill in a race that many are calling the closest in the country.
Fueled by ballot initiatives that would allow stem-cell research in Missouri if approved at the federal level and a proposal to raise the minimum wage, Missouri has become a battleground over the economy and socially conservative ideals. Talent – who defends the war in Iraq, proposes a ban on embryonic stem-cell research and opposes an increase in minimum wage – is struggling to justify all three positions to the moderate rural and corporate constituents in his base. McCaskill, on the other hand, supports both proposals and has questioned the administration’s war in Iraq, much to the delight of Missouri’s urban population. Prediction: McCaskill prevails in the nation’s tightest race.
Ohio: Two-term Republican incumbent Mike DeWine is also struggling against his Democratic challenger, Sherrod Brown. Considered a moderate, DeWine is coming under fire from both his conservative base (who disapprove of his willingness to cross aisles) and his moderate supporters (who disagree with his support for the war in Iraq and blame him for the continued economic downturn). On top of this, the Republican Party in Ohio is dealing with corruption scandals involving Gov. Bob Taft and Rep. Bob Ney. In the midst of this GOP upheaval, Brown has pulled in voters with his opposition to the war in Iraq and his expertise on trade and economic policy acquired from serving on various committees in the House. Prediction: Brown defeats DeWine.
House of Representatives:
Ohio (District 18): Democrat Zack Space squares off against Republican Joy Padgett. Republican incumbent Bob Ney was forced to abandon his re-election campaign under allegations links to lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Prediction: Space defeats Padgett handily.
Indiana (District 8): Pro-gun, anti-abortion Democrat Brad Ellsworth faces antiwar Republican John Hostettler in the district known as “the Bloody Eighth.” The race is a toss-up, and the winner hardly gives either party an ideological victory. Prediction: Ellsworth triumphs.
Illinois (District 6): With the retirement of 16-term Republican Henry Hyde, Democrat Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq veteran, faces Peter Roskam, Republican whip of the state Legislature. With total spending in the race nearing the $3-million mark, this race remains close. Prediction: Duckworth prevails.
Though Republicans rode the president’s coattails to fortify control over both houses in 2004, the situation is much different two years later.
Pennsylvania: Republican incumbent Rick Santorum, a close ally of Bush, is seen as too deferential to both the Republican Party and the president himself. Santorum, formerly of the House of Representatives’ infamous “Gang of Seven,” has long been a mouthpiece of the Republican agenda, and he reflects some of the most extreme positions of his party. Even though Santorum has a reputation as a strong finisher and has a large advantage in funding, Democratic challenger Bob Casey continues to lead in the polls. Casey, despite his Democratic stripes, opposes abortion and is considered a cultural conservative, ensuring that he will attract some conservative voters. Prediction: Casey defeats Santorum.
Rhode Island: Even a fiercely centrist reputation might not be enough to save Republican incumbent Lincoln Chafee from voters eager to build a Democratic majority in the Senate.
Rhode Island is a decidedly liberal state, as manifested by the center-Left ideology of even the Republican nominee in this race. Chafee, with the exception of recent legislation regarding bankruptcy and class-action lawsuits, has sided against both President Bush and Senate Republicans on nearly every issue. His support for embryonic stem-cell research, abortion rights and a pullout of troops from Iraq has distinguished him from his Republican colleagues. Democratic challenger Sheldon Whitehouse agrees with Chafee on many of those issues, but a vote against Chafee is ultimately a vote against the Republicans, which explains why Whitehouse is comfortably ahead in most polls. Prediction: Whitehouse wins handily.
House of Representatives
Connecticut (District 4): Republican incumbent Christopher Shays faces Democratic challenger Diane Farrell. A social liberal, Shays is a staunch defender of the environment and stem-cell research. Farrell has made the contest a referendum on Shays’s support for the war in Iraq. That might be enough to put her over the top, but of all the races in the Northeast, this one is the toughest to call. Prediction: Shays survives.
Pennsylvania (District 7): Republican incumbent Curt Weldon faces Democrat Joe Sestak. Weldon has stood his ground as a staunch Republican – he wholeheartedly supports the war in Iraq. Sestak, a former vice admiral in the Navy, has the advantage, thanks to changing district demographics and the current investigation into Weldon’s daughter’s lobbying firm as well as his own questionable business dealings. Prediction: Sestak wins.
Pennsylvania (District 10): Republican incumbent Don Sherwood squares off against Democrat Christopher Carney. Sherwood’s extramarital affair has alienated his conservative base. During last summer’s primary, his opponent garnered 44 percent of the vote despite spending a miniscule $5,000. Carney has an impressive political resume: He was not only a political science professor and a reserve officer in the Navy, but he also served as an advisor on counterterrorism in the Pentagon. Prediction: Carney wins.
Jared Goldberg and Neil Tambe
In a Senate that Democrats see as ripe for the picking, things are relatively quiet on the Western front.
Montana: Democrat John Tester is challenging Republican incumbent Conrad Burns. Recent polls show that Tester holds a reasonable single-digit lead on the incumbent.
Although his campaign spending totals less that half of Burns’s, Tester has seized the lead in the polls in wake of a resurgence of the Democratic Party in Montana – the Democrats recently took control of the state Legislature and governor’s office.
Tester, currently a Montana state senator, was nominated to challenge Burns precisely due to his background in farming. The incumbent Burns is in trouble is because of his ties to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who funneled money into Burns’s previous campaigns. It’s bold for Burns to stay in the race, but his chances are bleak. Prediction: Tester triumphs
Arizona: Republican incumbent John Kyl faces Democratic challenger Jim Pederson. Though the latest polls find Kyl considerably ahead, the race will depend on turnout among Hispanic voters.
Kyl’s voting record on immigration is not a stark departure from the rest of his party, but his views differ from his Arizona colleague, Sen. John McCain, and Pederson. Hispanic voters disapprove of his votes against establishing guest worker programs and providing illegal immigrants with Social Security benefits. Kyl also voted in favor of eliminating food-stamp benefits for children of immigrants and allowing more workers into the country strictly for farm work. Kyl also supported the border fence that was included in the Immigration Reform Bill recently signed into law. Prediction: Kyl survives.
House of Representatives
New Mexico (District 1): Republican incumbent Heather Wilson faces Democratic challenger Patricia Madrid, in a district that is 43 percent Hispanic. Wilson’s chances look greatly diminished considering her support of the president’s unpopular immigration plan. Prediction: Madrid defeats Wilson
Colorado (District 7): Democratic contender Ed Perlmutter, hoping to secure votes from the district’s undecided centrists, has reversed his views on the war in Iraq and embryonic stem-cell research. The Republican candidate Rick O’Donnel hopes to distinguish himself from other Republicans with contrasting views on education and healthcare. This district is pivotal for a Democrat takeover of the House. Prediction: Perlmutter prevails.
Washington (District 8): In this suburban Seattle district, Republican incumbent Dave Reichert faces Democrat Darcy Burner. An ex-Microsoft executive, Burner ranks near the top among challengers in funding. Prediction: Burner unseats Reichert.
Several high-profile races in the South will play a pivotal role in determining the Democrats’ Congressional fortunes.
Virginia: Incumbent Republican George Allen faces an unexpectedly tough race thanks to Virginia’s changing demographics and Allen’s percieved racial insensitivity. At a campaign stop last summer, Allen made a racially offensive comment about an Indian staffer of his opponent Jim Webb. Shortly thereafter, University of Virginia Prof. Larry Sabato accused Allen of making discriminatory comments about blacks earlier in his career.
Traditionally a conservative stronghold, Virginia has had Democrats Mark Warner and Tim Kaine as its last two governors. This gives Webb —- a Vietnam veteran, Secretary of the Navy under President Reagan and an outspoken opponent of the war in Iraq – a strong chance of pulling the upset. Prediction: Allen survives.
Tennessee: In retiring Majority Leader Bill Frist’s state, Democrat Harold Ford seeks to become the first black man elected to the Senate from the South since Reconstruction. His campaign strategy – using Biblical teachings to support his public policy agenda – is also a model for how Democrats can win in red states in the future. Ford, an alum of the University’s Law School, is running neck-and-neck with Republican Bob Corker at this point, and that’s an accomplishment in itself, considering Al Gore failed to pick up Tennessee in 2000 even though it’s his home state. Prediction: Ford pulls off the upset.
House of Representatives
Florida (District 13): With incumbent Katherine Harris looking for a seat in the Senate, Republican Vern Buchanan and Democrat Christine Jennings are vying to replace her. The race is close, but this conservative district is unlikely to fall to the Democrats. Prediction: Buchanan wins.
Florida (District 16): Democrat Timothy Mahoney faces Republican Joe Negron. No matter how conservative this district might traditionally have been, a vote for the Republicans involves voting for the disgraced Mark Foley (who didn’t drop out early enough to have his name removed from the ballot). The Democrats should have no problems here. Prediction: Mahoney wins.
Texas (District 22): Tom DeLay’s seat will go to either Democrat Nicholas Lampson or Republican Shelley Sekula-Gibbs. Sekula-Gibbs is supported by the Republican Party, but her name is not on the ballot. Facing the impossible odds of a write-in campaign, Sekula-Gibbs will be a minor obstacle in Lampson’s victory. Prediction: Lampson wins easily.
John Stiglich and Emmarie Huetteman
by the numbers
The Senate now:
54 Republicans, 44 Democrats, 1 Independent
Seats leaning Democratic: 8
Seats considered toss-ups: 4
The House now:
232 Republicans, 202 Democrats, 1 Independent
Seats leaning Democratic: 19
Seats considered toss-ups: 17
Source: The New York Times