Control of Congress too close to call
Iraq, war on terror likely to remain a dominant issue
By John Mercurio
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Less than six weeks before voters hold the first national election since terrorist attacks altered the country's political tenor, the battle to control Congress remains too close to call, but Republicans appear to have brightened their prospects in several gubernatorial races, according to CNN's state-by-state analysis of key contests.
Democrats remain likely to pick up several governors' offices this fall, especially in strategically important states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Illinois. They may even score an upset in Kansas, a GOP stronghold. But Republicans are performing better than expected these days in Maryland, Iowa, Hawaii and South Carolina, and they appear to have stopped the free-fall -- for now, at least -- of Bill Simon's challenge to California Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat backed by just 38 percent of voters in a recent Field Poll.
Republicans also enjoy slightly better footing in crucial Senate races than they did two months ago, when Democrats seemed well poised to increase their one-seat majority. Developments this summer revived GOP challenges to Democratic Sens. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, while Republicans are now better suited to hold seats in New Hampshire and Tennessee. Republican candidates also continue to hold Senate Democrats in statistical dead heats in Missouri, Minnesota and South Dakota.
"Before we left for recess in July, I would have said we had about a 40-percent chance of taking back the Senate," National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Bill Frist said recently. "Now, if I happened to be a betting man, I'd say we're going to be one seat up on Election Night."
Nonetheless, strategists for both parties acknowledge they are navigating a particularly uncertain terrain this fall. Talk of war against Iraq increasingly dominates the nation's airwaves, and while polls show voters are more concerned about the sluggish economy, any new terrorist attack and subsequent military action before the November 5 general election obviously would influence the vote.
Congressional leaders said in mid-September they are eyeing a pre-election vote on a resolution authorizing the use of force against Saddam Hussein, which would guarantee that Iraq, and the larger war on terrorism, remain a dominant issue throughout the fall.
Some candidates are already injecting Iraq into close races, highlighting rivals' reservations about military action or, in some cases, attacking incumbents who voted against a 1991 resolution authorizing former President Bush to declare war to drive Hussein out of Kuwait.
In South Dakota, for example, Rep. John Thune, a Republican, who's locked in a tight race with Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson, is attacking Johnson for opposing that resolution. Johnson, who was then a House member, later joined a lawsuit designed to prevent the former president from committing troops to the Persian Gulf. The former president headlined a major fundraiser for Thune on September 19, further highlighting the issue.
Sen. Patty Murray, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairwoman, said such tactics are out of bounds. She said an 11-year-old vote is not relevant to campaigns this year, especially given how much the world changed on September 11, 2001.
"They're talking about a vote from a decade ago?" Murray said. "Certainly, I think they understand, and I think voters understand, that September 11 has changed the equation for everyone, that it has changed the landscape in everyone's eyes. It's really interesting, Washington is focused on Iraq, but outside the capital, people are focused on what's going on in their own homes. I just don't believe that a debate over Iraq will be part of these races."
Largely immune from that debate, however, are gubernatorial races, which are dominated for the first time in nearly a decade by widespread budget shortfalls and discouraging fiscal forecasts. Economic problems are hurting Democrats running in Iowa, California, Alabama and Maryland; Republicans are distancing themselves from money problems in Tennessee, Kansas and Michigan.
Voters will choose governors in 36 states -- 23 held by Republicans, 11 by Democrats. Republicans currently hold 27 governors' offices, including four of the nation's five largest states. There are 21 Democratic governors, while independents hold executive offices in Maine and Minnesota. Six Democrats, 12 Republicans and both independents are retiring this year, offering Democrats a decisive edge among open seats.
Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, said key opportunities exist for Democrats in open-seat races like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, New Mexico and Kansas, several of which are opening up for the first time since Republican governors took power in the 1994 GOP revolution. "We're going to continue to do very well in those states," he said, touting a recent independent poll that shows Democrat Kathleen Sebelius leading Republican Tim Shallenburger by 22 points in Kansas.
Republicans predict they will hold anywhere from 23 to 29 governors offices after November. They're particularly optimistic about ousting Democratic incumbents in Alabama, Iowa and South Carolina and winning Democratic-held open seats in Maryland and Hawaii.
The battle for control of the Senate focuses on about a dozen races, most of them in relatively small states with inexpensive media markets across the midwest and south. While all 14 Democrats up for re-election are running, four Republican incumbents decided to retire, giving Democrats another crucial open-seat advantage.
However, Republicans blunted that dynamic by recruiting top candidates in all of those open-seat races and avoiding major primary battles in three of them. (Former Gov. Lamar Alexander beat Rep. Ed Bryant in the Tennessee GOP Senate primary, but Bryant has endorsed Alexander, who raised $1.1 million at a September 17 fundraiser with President Bush, another former campaign foe.)
Frist notes that most of the close Senate races are in states Bush won, which he said should benefit Republicans. "People may not always agree with their president, but they want him to succeed, and that works to our advantage," he said.
Murray acknowledged that Bush's approval ratings remain relatively high, but she said voters rely on a divided government (read: a Democratic Senate) to advance a domestic agenda.
"Their message is that Bush needs Republicans on his team," she said. "But out in the country, people feel strongly that while they support Bush in the war on terrorism, they also support a Democratic Senate to make sure there's a check and balance on the issues that are going to be confronting this nation -- health care, retirement security, pensions, social security."
House seats 'in play'
The House landscape is, of course, much more volatile. Only 50 of the 435 House seats are considered to be "in play," and as few as 25 are truly competitive. Again, Democrats are defending fewer open seats, giving them a crucial advantage. But again, Republicans scored several key recruiting coups that helped level the playing field.
"I feel so much better about it than I did two years ago at this time," said Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "The historical trends [that favor Democrats] just aren't there. Race by race, our incumbents are in much better shape than they were two years ago. We have fewer targets that we're defending."
"We do a better job of running campaigns than the Democrats do," Davis added. "If they can't nationalize these races and get the wind at their back, they have a huge problem."
Indeed, New York Rep. Nita Lowey, chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Democrats are benefiting from the so-called "wind."
"Something has been happening out there in the last couple of months that has given us, not exactly a hurricane, but a good wind at our back," Lowey said. "We're making progress race by race, state by state."