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Dimming Prospects

The mood among House Republicans has grown increasingly somber. They've seen more and more poll results showing GOP incumbents' leads narrowing or disappearing. Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, are optimistic and hopeful, though they're also cautious, because they recall that in early October 2000 all signs seemed to point toward their retaking the House.

By virtually any measure, the Republican Party's national poll numbers are at least as bad as Democrats' were before their 1994 debacle. For a time, the GOP's national problems did not seem to be spilling over onto individual Republican candidates.

But since the first of the year, we have begun to see evidence that most House Republicans are running 5 to 10 points behind where they would be in the absence of a national undertow. And Republicans aren't being pulled down just in those few races where Democrats are fielding first-tier challengers. The pattern now extends to contests where the Democratic candidates are mediocre at best.

One GOP strategist cautioned, however, that many GOP incumbents may have become complacent because they've won in recent years by margins that were bigger than they should have been, given their districts' political makeup. And strategists in both parties suspect that some of the GOP incumbents most likely to end up losing are those who have not had difficult races in many years, if ever, and may be resistant to doing what it takes to wage a strong campaign.

A year ago, just 18 Republican-held House seats were in play: Two were rated by The Cook Political Report as "toss-ups" and 16 as "lean Republican." To make the 15-seat net gain necessary for taking control of the House, Democrats needed to hold all of their own seats and win 83 percent of the competitive Republican ones. By the first of this year, the number of vulnerable GOP seats was still 18 -- but half were in the more dangerous "toss-up" category.

Now the situation has worsened considerably for the GOP: 36 of its seats are in play, and 11 of them are toss-ups. Democrats need to win just 42 percent of the Republican seats in play to reach the magic number of 218. An additional 18 Republican seats are rated "likely Republican," meaning they are potentially competitive. The consensus among veteran Republican campaign consultants, particularly pollsters, is that if the election were held today, their party would lose the House.

Unfortunately, there are few reliable independent polls conducted in House races. Political reporters and analysts are being deluged with polls conducted for Democratic candidates that tout their gains. And Republican campaigns are releasing few poll results that contradict them.

GOP pollsters, media consultants, and other operatives privately concede that the drumbeat of bad numbers coming in -- but not publicly released -- has become depressing and alarming. What most concerns GOP strategists is that these congressional polls may not fully capture the extent of their party's problems, because other polling shows that Republican voters are disillusioned about the Iraq war, the federal budget deficit, illegal immigration, port security, gasoline prices, the response to Hurricane Katrina, and so on -- and are showing less interest than Democrats in the November election.

Since our Cook Election Preview supplement to the May 6 National Journal, we've moved two contests from "lean Republican" to "toss-up" -- for the open CA-50 seat vacated by Randy (Duke) Cunningham, which first will be filled by a June 6 runoff and then fought over again in November, and the KY-04 rematch between Republican freshman Rep. Geoff Davis and Ken Lucas, his Democratic predecessor.

And 12 contests shifted from "likely Republican" to "lean Republican" -- those involving GOP incumbents Richard Pombo (CA-11), Nancy Johnson (CT-05), Anne Northup (KY-03), Jon Porter (NV-03), Jeb Bradley (NH-01), Charles Bass (NH-02), Michael Ferguson (NJ-07), John Sweeney (NY-20), Randy Kuhl (NY-29), Curt Weldon (PA-07), Don Sherwood (PA-10), and Thelma Drake (VA-02).

More and more Republican incumbents previously thought to be in reasonably good shape are in danger.

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