The Battle For Congress

Random Lengths News | October 25, 2006
Heading into the last few days of the election campaign, roughly 60 Congressional seats are potentially in play as battleground districts. The GOPs aggressive use of computer-aided political gerrymandering has reinforced pre-existing trends that have sharply reduced the volatility of House elections, but voter dissatisfaction is so intense that the loss of their 15-seat majority seems almost certain. Many consider it likely that the Democrats will gain a similar margin for themselves, making San Francisco Democrat Nancy Pelosi the first female Speaker of the House in history, third in line for the presidency.

Up until the 1940s, “wave� elections with a 10 percent or more shift of House seats were fairly common, occurring two or three times per decade. Since then, they’ve happened once per decade, except for the 1980s, when there were none.

Much more modest swings of 3.5 percent or more—the 15 seats Democrats need to retake the House—have declined as well. From 1910 to 1960, only five out of 26 elections were that placid, but since 1962, 14 of 22 elections had shifts of less than 15 seats, seven were more volatile, and one (1978) saw a shift of exactly 15 seats. Aside from 1994, the last time an election saw more than 15 seats shift was 1984, when there were 16.

This reduced volatility means that Congress is far less responsive to voters, who rarely throw them out, and far more responsive to special interests, but this time it's different. Buoyed by Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean's “50-State Strategy,� Democrats have widened the field of competitive seats far beyond what any Washington insiders considered possible just last winter.

In the swing state of Ohio, long dominated by Republicans internally, Democrats are poised to win the governorship, one US Senate seat, and up to four House seats—including OH-02-–the deep red district almost won by Iraq vet Paul Hackett in a special election last year. Now, a doctor, Victoria Wulsin is virtually neck-and-neck with incumbent Jean Schmidt, who distinguished herself rather dubiously last December by calling Congressman John Murtha, a Vietnam Vet, a coward.

In New England and New York House Republicans are on the “Endangered Species List�—both GOP seats in New Hampshire and all three GOP seats in Connecticut are in danger, along with seven of New York’s nine GOP seats. Philadelphia’s suburbs account for three of five Pennsylvania seats Democrats are threatening to pick up.

In red states like Kansas, Montana, and Arizona, popular Democratic governors—two of them women—are increasingly changing the political climate, producing potential House and Senate gains in what “should� be safe GOP territory. Montana’s Senate seat, one House seat in Kansas and three in Arizona are within Democratic reach. In fact, John Tester is leading an increasingly desperate incumbent Conrad Burns in the Montana Senate race, which the GOP seems to have conceded.

Additionally, Democrats are running competitively in other red states—such as Indiana, Virginia, Florida and Colorado (three seats each), North Carolina, Kentucky, Texas, Nevada (two seats each), and even Wyoming and Idaho (one seat each).

Then, of course, there’s the impact of the Foley scandal. This has not only directly affected several races, and affected voters’ attitudes nationwide, but has also raised the visibility of other GOP scandals, such as Pennsylvania Congressmember Don Sherwood, whose mistress accused him of trying to strangle her in a lawsuit settled out of court. Ordinarily, the scandal-plagued Sherwood would stand out, but this election he’s part of a crowd of damaged GOP candidates who’ve given lock-step support to a damaging agenda. On Nov. 7, we’ll see how much damage the GOP will sustain in return.

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