Time to Play Offense

By Charlie Cook

September 21, 2004

With just six weeks to go before the election, Republicans are favored to hold the White House and to maintain their majorities in the Senate and House, although only their House victory seems certain. President Bush runs ahead of Sen. John Kerry by an average of about 6 points in three-way trial heats, with independent Ralph Nader in the low single digits. Two-way trial heats tend to show Bush with a lead of about 3 points. Campaign insiders on both sides say their surveys indicate Bush's lead is about 5 points.

Kerry has suffered the past six weeks, and it's unlikely that the next six will be as destructive to his campaign. U.S. casualties in Iraq and an assortment of other stories that cast Bush in a negative light are more in the news now than in the recent past, so it's reasonable to expect the race to tighten a bit. Worse economic news, more bad news from Iraq, or a weak debate performance by Bush could give Kerry the opening he needs.

Immediately after the Democratic convention, Kerry probably led in eight of the 10 "toss-up" states -- the critical states of Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, along with Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Wisconsin. In all but Pennsylvania, the margin of whichever candidate was leading was in the low single digits.

Now Bush's lead in Missouri has expanded to the point that the state is no longer a toss-up. And in most of the other nine, Bush holds a lead in the low to mid-single digits.

So, even though the presidential race hasn't shifted dramatically, most battleground states have gone from light "blue" to light "red." If Kerry is to take the upper hand, he'll need to much more aggressively attack Bush, particularly on the economy, jobs, health care, drug costs, and the federal deficit.

Senate

Although Republicans hold only 51 seats in the Senate, Democrats have a daunting task before them. To take control, Democrats would need to win six of the eight most competitive races if Kerry wins the White House (enabling John Edwards to cast tiebreaking votes), or seven of the eight if Bush wins.

Democrats hold five of the eight seats currently rated as toss-ups. Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota is the lone endangered Democratic incumbent. He is locked in a tight race with former Rep. John Thune. Republicans are working to tie Daschle to the national Democratic Party, arguing that he puts its agenda ahead of the state's interests. The races for four seats being vacated by Democrats are also too close to call.

An August 31 primary in Florida produced a general election contest between Democrat Betty Castor, a former state commissioner of education and former president of the University of South Florida, and Republican Mel Martinez, a Cuban-American who served as Bush's first secretary of Housing and Urban Development. The race has gotten off to a slow start because of the hurricanes, but it should end up very close.

In Louisiana, a December runoff between GOP Rep. David Vitter, the front-runner in the polls, and Democratic Rep. Chris John appears likely, although state Treasurer John Kennedy's support in the black community is causing some observers to reassess.

In North Carolina, former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, who lost his 2002 Senate bid, is running ahead of GOP Rep. Richard Burr. Bowles is a stronger candidate than he was two years ago. And Burr needs to begin moving up in the polls soon, or his national party might shift resources away from him.

Finally, in South Carolina, Republican Rep. Jim DeMint is running slightly ahead of state Education Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum, who hopes to make DeMint's support for a national sales tax the defining issue. The race in this GOP-leaning state had seemed to be moving into the GOP column, but we now must wait and see whether the tax issue hurts DeMint.

On the Republican side, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska is working to win a term in her own right, but she is weighed down by the fact that her father, Gov. Frank Murkowski, appointed her to the seat, and that he is now unpopular. Lisa Murkowski is running on her Senate record. The GOP is working to tie her Democratic challenger, former Gov. Tony Knowles, to national Democrats. Knowles supports drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, while many national Democrats, including Kerry, oppose it. Knowles is the strongest candidate Democrats could have run here. And this race is a dead heat.

In Colorado, Democratic state Attorney General Ken Salazar is locked in a tight race with brewery magnate Pete Coors, the GOP nominee. Democrats hope that Salazar's Hispanic heritage, moderate stances, and support in rural areas can overcome the state's GOP leanings. Coors is a first-time contender at risk of making mistakes. His advantage is his deep pockets.

And in Oklahoma, Democratic Rep. Brad Carson, a moderate, is facing off against former GOP Rep. Tom Coburn, a physician. Democrats are working to portray Coburn, who is very conservative, as an extremist and Carson as the candidate who will fight for more federal funds for the state. Carson's biggest challenge is geography. He and Coburn share a base, and Coburn has been able to get support from socially conservative Democrats in past races. Polls indicate a tied race.

House

Earlier this summer, Democrats were riding high. Pointing to polls that showed Bush's support declining, Democrats leading in the congressional ballot test, and most voters saying the country was headed in the "wrong direction," House Democrats argued that the political winds were blowing their way. Down 11 seats, they conceded that they needed a strong wind at their backs to have any real chance of winning control.

Today, those winds have shifted. Bush's standing has improved, and recent polls show the parties essentially tied on the congressional ballot test.

Also hurting Democrats' chances was the decision by Rep. Rodney Alexander of Louisiana's 5th District to unexpectedly switch to the Republican Party minutes before the race's filing deadline -- upping the number of seats that Democrats need to win to 12. In a recent briefing, Robert Matsui, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said neither party's presidential nominee is likely to have coattails. If House races are decided individually, as he predicts, the Republicans are likely to do well, if the past is any guide. The GOP lost just one seat in 2000 and picked up six in 2002.

To be fair, even when the political environment was looking better for Democrats, the odds of their seizing the House were long.

First, they need to make up for what is likely to be a setback of one to six seats in Texas, where state lawmakers redrew district lines to put six Democratic incumbents in jeopardy. Based on the political makeup of the five contested districts, Republicans should win all five, although the Democrats are running strong, well-financed campaigns. In the few polls that have been taken, none of the Democratic incumbents was pulling as much as 50 percent support. Democrats are not contesting the open seat in Texas's 10th District, meaning that Republicans are already up one seat in the Lone Star State.

Nine other House Democrats have competitive races, but all are favored to win.

Second, the playing field continues to be very narrow. Republicans have more open seats to worry about (six, to the Democrats' three), but they have only one incumbent, freshman Rep. Max Burns, who is in as much peril as the "Texas Five" Democrats.

After Burns, Republicans have nine incumbents in competitive races: Reps. Bob Beauprez (CO-07), Jim Gerlach (PA-06), John Hostettler (IN-08), Mark Kennedy (MN-06), Anne Northup (KY-03), Jon Porter (NV-03), Rick Renzi (AZ-01), Rob Simmons (CT-02), and Heather Wilson (NM-01). Two others, Reps. Randy Neugebauer and Pete Sessions, are battling Democratic incumbents in newly drawn Texas districts.

Most of these GOP incumbents, such as Beauprez, Porter, Simmons, and Wilson, are vulnerable largely because they are in swing districts. Voter anxiety about the economy and/or the war in Iraq could translate into real trouble for these Republicans. Their Democratic challengers are trying to make these races a referendum on Bush, while the Republican incumbents are pursuing on an "all politics is local" strategy.

Associate Editors Jennifer E. Duffy and Amy Walter contributed to this report.


By Charlie Cook

September 21, 2004

http://www.govexec.com/oversight/on-politics/2004/09/time-to-play-offense/17621/