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The Last Straw

To say that Tom DeLay's indictment was the last thing the Republican Party needed right now is, of course, a gigantic understatement. The original autumn agendas of President Bush and the party's congressional leaders had already been largely trashed by Hurricane Katrina. Now the highly effective DeLay, who has played both quarterback and enforcer for the House GOP, is not only out as majority leader, but also must concentrate his energies on fighting a multifaceted legal battle.

Republicans are having a truly horrible year. The president's Social Security proposal crashed on takeoff. The war in Iraq is going badly. Allegations swirl that White House staffers illegally leaked the name of an undercover CIA officer. Gasoline prices have surged. The administration is mired in a controversy over its early handling of Katrina. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is fighting off suggestions that he engaged in insider stock trading. And now, DeLay has been clobbered by a Texas prosecutor.

With an average of 32 percent of Americans believing that the country is headed in the right direction, 33 percent approving of the job Congress is doing, and 41 percent approving of Bush's performance, the GOP was already reeling. With barely 13 months to go to the midterms, the party's troubles are mounting.

Democrats signaled early this year that they intend to emulate the Republican strategy of 1994 -- running against a majority party that they charge is arrogant, ideological, out of touch, and corrupt. The latest round of DeLay and Frist stories certainly aid the Democrats and, conceivably, could help create the kind of tidal wave they will need if they are to win control of the House and Senate next year.

In the House, 16 Republican seats and 11 Democratic ones are in play. To take control, Democrats would need to keep their own 11, plus seize 15 of those 16 GOP seats. Not included in that 16 are the literally dozens of Republican-held seats that, based on presidential-voting patterns, credible Democratic candidates in a pro-Democratic year might win.

Take Ohio, for example, where scandals in the Republican-dominated state capital have already created a toxic political environment for the GOP. Reps. Steve Chabot (1st Congressional District), Michael Turner (3rd), Pat Tiberi (12th), Steven LaTourette (14th), and Deborah Pryce (15th) all occupy potentially vulnerable seats. Those five seats represent one-third of the GOP's margin in the House. And that list does not include Ohio's Bob Ney (18th), who could be hurt by ties to embattled lobbyist Jack Abramoff; or Ralph Regula (16th), who is only a little safer than the others.

In Ohio, the mid-Atlantic states, and the Northeast, at least 15 GOP-held seats could be at risk if credible Democrats run. The House candidate-recruiting season is only about half over. The first filing deadlines are December 19 (Illinois) and January 2 (Texas); the last is in August (Louisiana). Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel is trying everything short of kidnapping to get potential challengers to run, but the new hits to the GOP may ease his task.

In the Senate, the playing field may not have to tilt much further for the Democrats to be well positioned to take control. In any given year, close Senate races tend to fall in the same direction. In 2000, when the playing field was quite level, The Cook Political Report rated nine Senate contests as toss-ups. Democrats went on to win seven. Two years later, the playing field was tilted a bit in favor of the GOP, and Republicans won six of nine toss-ups. In 2004, Republicans won eight of nine.

Now, seven Republican-held seats look vulnerable -- those of Conrad Burns (Montana), Lincoln Chafee (Rhode Island), Mike DeWine (Ohio), Jon Kyl (Arizona), Rick Santorum (Pennsylvania), and Jim Talent (Missouri), and the Tennessee seat that Frist is giving up. Democrats would need to hold all of their own seats, plus win six of these seven. And if Republican Trent Lott retires, he'll set the stage for a very competitive race in Mississippi.

Today, the Senate playing field looks more tilted than it has in the past four Senate elections. So a Democratic run-of-the-table election is certainly possible. And unlike the Democrats' situation in the House, the party already has credible Senate candidates in every key race, except in Ohio. That will change if Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett, who this summer barely lost an Ohio special election in one of the nation's most Republican House districts, decides to run.

Recent events have certainly raised Democratic prospects -- and GOP blood-pressure levels.

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