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Premature Panic

Panic is never a particularly attractive trait. But congressional Republicans were beginning to show some last week. Senate Republicans have been aware for a month or two that their chamber will be "in play" this November. The extreme anxiety among House Republicans, however, is new. One powerful House chairman pulled me aside last week to ask, "Are we in trouble?"

It's not exactly news that this year's presidential contest is likely to be extremely close. But recent polling has jacked up Republican anxiety. For more than a month, no major national poll has put President Bush's approval rating on the sunny side of 50 percent. His average job-approval rating in the last dozen polls is just 46 percent. Meanwhile, "right direction/wrong track" poll results indicate real pessimism among voters. And now, most polls show Kerry ahead, although sometimes by insignificant margins.

While the economy shows signs of improving, Bush's job-approval rating on handling the economy is falling. That slide can partially be attributed to the lag time between a change in the economy's health and public recognition of that change. But rising gasoline and milk prices certainly aren't helping Bush.

The election, though, is still five months away, and presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry has yet to cross the threshold of acceptability that he needs to win. At one point in the fall of 1980, President Carter's approval rating dropped to 17 percent, yet his race with former California Gov. Ronald Reagan was still too close to call. But Reagan's strong performance in the only debate of the campaign, on the Thursday night before the election, pushed him over the threshold of acceptability.

The past few months have not been particularly good for Senate Republicans. Yet the fight for control of their chamber is almost entirely confined to open seats. Among sitting senators, only Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and appointed Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, are in serious danger. Ninety percent of Senate incumbents have been re-elected in each of the last four elections.

Six of this year's eight open Senate seats are in states that Bush carried by wide margins in 2000: Colorado (+9 points), Georgia (+12), Louisiana (+8), Oklahoma (+22), North Carolina (+13), and South Carolina (+16). Bush won Florida by a hair and lost Illinois by 12 points. Even if the bottom falls out for Republicans this fall, their party should still do fairly well in most of those states. So, should Senate Republicans be worried? Absolutely. Panicked or pessimistic? No, not with five months to go.

Meanwhile, in the House, some Democrats are talking about a 2004 tidal wave of 1980 or 1994 proportions that would put them back in charge. But there are important differences in today's landscape. One is the number of seats actually in play. In June 1994, for example, The Cook Political Report rated 72 Democratic seats and 36 Republican seats as competitive. Today, we list just 17 Republican seats and 18 Democratic ones as competitive. Also, in June 1994, Democrats had 28 open seats to defend, compared with just 18 for Republicans. Of those 28 seats, many were in very GOP territory. In fact, of the 17 open Democratic seats listed as toss-ups in the final Cook Report before the 1994 election, all but one went Republican.

In 1980, most of the Democratic losses were among incumbents. That was an era when the incumbency re-election rate tended to be lower than it has been in recent years. In eight of the last 10 elections, the rate was 95 percent or higher.

This year, Republicans have slightly more open seats to defend than do Democrats (17 to 14) and more competitive open seats (seven to three). Still, of those seven GOP competitive open seats, only three -- Pennsylvania's 15th District (now represented by Pat Toomey), New York's 27th (Jack Quinn), and Washington's 8th (Jennifer Dunn) -- are in districts that Al Gore carried.

House Democrats need only 12 seats to win control this year; in 1994, Republicans had to pick up 40. Yet, open seats have become the key to forcing a turnover, since defeating incumbents has become nearly impossible.

On both sides of the Capitol, Democrats have cause to be more upbeat than they have been in a long time. But it is far too soon for Democrats to break out the champagne or for Republicans to mount a suicide watch. The House is still very unlikely to switch control.

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