With two weeks to go before the mid-terms, National Affairs Daily will be rolling out our top ten Congressional races to watch (adapted from RS 1011). Will the Democrats seize control in the House? If they can pull off a handful of these races, there's no doubt about it...
It has been twelve years — dating back to Newt Gingrich's revolution of 1994 — since Democrats held a majority in the House of Representatives. And it has been thirty-two years since, thanks to Watergate, they enjoyed what veteran political analyst Charlie Cook refers to as a "big goddamn tidal wave" — the kind of national electoral upheaval that sweeps the ruling party out of power, regardless of the size of its war chest.
"It's a hell of a sight to behold, and if you haven't seen one yourself, it's hard to imagine it can really happen — particularly for Democrats," Cook says. "But right now it's almost like there's an invisible hand pushing the Democrats forward and pulling the Republicans back."
At issue is no longer whether the GOP will lose seats in November — it will. According to recent polls, fifty-five percent of Americans say they would rather vote for a challenger than an incumbent — a level of backlash that is seven points higher than it was during Gingrich's '94 revolution, when the Republicans picked up fifty-four seats.
The real question today is whether Republicans will lose one chamber of Congress — or two. While retaking the Senate remains a stretch for Democrats, even GOP leaders concede privately that the Democrats are likely to pick up the fifteen seats they need to capture the House. Only forty of the 435 seats up for grabs in November are truly competitive — thanks to the advantages of incumbency, even a patently corrupt politician like Rep. William Jefferson, the Louisiana Democrat caught with $90,000 of bribe money in his freezer, is breezing toward reelection. Yet Democrats are targeting thirty four GOP seats this fall — while the National Republican Congressional Committee concedes that it can "play offense" against only ten sitting Democrats.
"In the past, the Republican advantage has always been they had so much money that if there was a hole someplace they could plug it," says Cook. "The question is now: Are there just so many holes that even they don't have enough money to plug 'em all up?" The final days will tell: In an attempt to minimize their losses, Republicans have unleashed $45 million in attack advertising — some of it redolent of the worst of Willie Horton politics. "You'll only see them become more desperate," says Rep. Nancy Pelosi, slated to become Speaker of the House should Democrats retake the majority. "We are going to restore the balance of power that our Constitution calls for — a system of checks and balances with the proper oversight." And there's nothing Republicans fear more than Democrats with subpoena power. "You'll see very personal attacks launched on our candidates in the coming days," Pelosi adds.
Among the hard-fought campaigns being waged this fall, ten races stand out. Each is a showdown in a swing district that would normally favor Republicans — the kind of seat, in other words, that Democrats must win if they hope to retake the House. To make inroads in red districts, the party has reached beyond its traditional base to recruit some surprising candidates — a three-star admiral, a former NFL quarterback, even a few hard-right conservatives who have defected from the Republican Party.
Although they are pitted against some of the GOP's most powerful incumbents and prodigious campaigners, Democrats are genuinely optimistic about these ten bellwether races. Win only two, they believe, and the party will likely be on track to regain the majority. Win seven or more, and Cook's"big goddamn wave" could sweep Democrats to power in both houses of Congress.
"We have the edge in these races," says Rep. Chris Van Hollen, co-chair of Red-to-Blue, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's multimillion-dollar campaign to recapture the House. "But it's all going to depend on turnout — and the national mood going into the final days."