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A Powerful Wind

Democrats' chances of capturing the House of Representatives depend on the answers to two questions. First, will the 2006 political environment and issue agenda enable their party to win a large portion of the competitive races?

Second, are there enough reasonably strong Democratic candidates running against vulnerable Republicans and for open seats to take advantage of any climatic advantages that Democrats might enjoy?

For the time being, the answer to the first question is easy: Yes. The political playing field is tilted about 45 degrees in favor of Democrats. While the generic congressional ballot test question that pollsters ask is a very rough gauge of a party's prospects of gaining House seats, asking voters whether they would prefer to vote for a Democratic House candidate or a Republican does reveal in which direction and how strongly the wind is blowing.

Recent polling indicates the Democrats have an advantage of 7 to 17 percentage points, which meteorologically speaking could be anything from a Category 2 to a Category 5 hurricane in their favor.

Another factor is the dismal job-approval ratings of the Republican-controlled Congress. Recent national polling puts public approval of Congress between 28 percent and 34 percent.

Republicans argue that even though their party isn't especially popular right now, voters make distinctions between how they feel about "good old Joe (or Jane)" -- their own lawmaker -- and all the others. Well, maybe, but a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll suggests otherwise.

When asked, "In the 2006 election for the U.S. Congress, do you feel that your representative deserves to be re-elected, or do you think it is time to give a new person a chance?" only 37 percent said their member of Congress has earned another term; 51 percent wanted a change.

Asked, "Will your vote for Congress in November 2006 be a vote to send a signal of support for President Bush, a sign of opposition to President Bush, or not a signal either way about President Bush?" 39 percent said they intend to show they oppose Bush. Only 21 percent intend to signal support. This suggests that the intense opposition to the president may well trickle down to congressional races.

The level of that intensity is another important factor. The most recent AP/Ipsos poll showed that Bush's overall job-approval rating is just 37 percent, with 61 percent disapproval. And while only 18 percent of the public "strongly" approve of Bush's performance, 43 percent "strongly" disapprove. The strong-disapproval percentage has been steadily inching up since July, when it was 35 percent.

In terms of the political climate, every indicator suggests that we could see a tidal wave in favor of the Democrats. Of course, no one knows what the environment will look like a year from now.

This leads us to the second question: Even if the environment strongly favors Democrats, will enough seats be in play for them to seize control?

The first place to look for pickup opportunities is any district where a Republican is retiring. Even in a wave election, winning an open-seat contest is easier than ousting an incumbent. But Democrats face some big speed bumps in their path: Only 13 House Republicans have announced their departures -- and most of their districts lean Republican.

The Democrats' best opportunities are in Iowa's 1st Congressional District, where Jim Nussle is leaving to run for governor, and in Colorado's 7th, where Bob Beauprez is likewise departing to run for governor.

With few obviously vulnerable Republican incumbents (just 19 won in 2004 with 55 percent of the vote or less), Democrats need to set their sights on GOP-held seats that they might not have traditionally targeted. Democrats talk about putting 50 GOP seats in play, but at this point there are only 32 GOP-held districts where Democrats have at least a second- or third-tier candidate.

In years when the playing field is even or just slightly tilted, only top-tier, "A," candidates win. When the playing field tilts dramatically, "B" and "C" candidate often can win.

What will the House look like in 2007? The answer will hinge on whether the political environment (assuming it continues to be pro-Democratic) can trump Republicans' structural advantages in protecting their majority. Today, because Republican have few open seats and only a handful of obviously vulnerable incumbents, the GOP's structural edge looks strong. But that edge has never been tested by the high winds and rough seas that are now raging.

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