Six Weeks to Go

With less than six weeks to go before November’s mid-term election, Democrats still appear to have the edge. Questions remain, however, as to whether that edge will be big enough to give Democrats control over one or both houses of Congress.

To win control, Democrats will have to take 15 House seats and/or six Senate seats from the Republicans. A difficult but not impossible task, given that many of this years’ most competitive races feature vulnerable Republicans. Thirty of the nation’s most competitive Congressional races feature 27 vulnerable Republicans. And six of the seven most competitive Senate races, likewise involve weak Republican incumbents. All of this makes it quite possible for the Democrats to take control of at least one house in November.

Just a few months ago some analysts were predicting a possible Democratic romp on November 7. With the President’s high unfavorable ratings and corruption problems plaguing a number of Republican Congressional leaders, it appeared that Democrats might win a national mandate.

The Iraq war and the failed federal response to Katrina had shaken voter confidence in both the White House and the Republican leadership that had supported its policies. Many Democrats knew the situation would not remain static. Republican operatives had been public about their November game plan. As in 2002 and 2004, Republicans declared their intention to focus this election on national security and their "war on terror," confident that this issue would resonate with enough voters to erase the Democrat’s edge.

Because Democrats were unable to forge a consensus on alternatives to the President’s manifestly failed Middle East policy or domestic national security programs, their response has been confused or muted . Afraid of being seen as "weak," no clear Democratic approach emerged. Some Democratic strategists actually thought that they could simply let the President’s failings speak for themselves, allowing their candidates to ride the current of negative attitudes toward the President and his party. This and a combination of local concerns and other policy differences they believed would be enough to give their party a decisive victory.

With six weeks left, the climate has changed, For the past several weeks the White House has been on a national campaign to refocus the election on the war in Iraq and on terrorism. In a series of national addresses the President worked to frame those two issues as the national priorities. At the same time, the White House and Republicans were able to dominate the closing days of this session of Congress with debates on a controversial proposal to deal with "enemy combatants."

As a result, Iraq and national security are once again front and center with Republicans defining the issues, and this has been to the Administration’s advantage–not because their performance on these issues has been so successful, (as was demonstrated in the leaked national intelligence report that noted that the Iraq war was creating a greater terrorist threat), but because these are the issues that "fire up" Republican voters. Recent polling reflects this. The President’s overall approval ratings have only slightly increased, but his approval among Republican voters is now more solid that it has been in over a year–and these are the voters that Republicans must get out to the polls in November.

Now it is true that most Congressional races will be decided on the local level, where the personalities and policies of the individual candidates and regional peculiarities are decisive. Even a cursory glance at newspaper stories or campaign materials makes this clear. In one state it is immigration, in another it is the local economy. In one contest, the issues have become whether or not the candidate made racist comments in his youth (and still has those attitudes) while in another it is whether the challenger to a long-time incumbent "shares our values."

Even looked at in this way, Democrats retain an edge. But many strategists feel that that edge would have been amplified if the party had been able to present the November election as a clear mandate on a failed Administration. This opportunity to have a nationalized contest would have required a strong Democratic challenge to the President’s failed policies. This did not occur.

What is unclear at this point is whether or not a nationalized contest will still materialize. Is there enough anger at Republicans, enough dissatisfaction with the Bush Presidency, that voters, on their own, decide to change direction? Although, it’s never a good idea to count on spontaneity to determine the outcome of an election, it may still occur with Republicans being out in a tidal wave of voter dissatisfaction. But, if this does in fact occur, it will be because voters figured it out on their own and are hoping that Democrats will make a difference.