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POLITICS-US: Republican Control of Congress in Peril

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Sep 4 2006 (IPS) - As the 2006 U.S. mid-term election campaign officially got underway over the three-day Labour Day weekend, Republican hopes of retaining control of both houses of Congress look increasingly fragile.

Most political analysts believe Democrats are poised to gain a majority – albeit a narrow one – in the House of Representatives for the first time since 1994 after the polls close Nov. 7.

Recapturing control of the Senate – where they would have to make a net gain of six seats – will be significantly more difficult, although most observers do not rule it out completely.

The stakes for President George W. Bush are high: even if only the lower house falls to the Democrats, they will have the ability not only to stymie his legislative agenda, but they are virtually certain to launch high-profile and potentially very damaging investigations of the administration’s performance, including allegations of corruption and gross incompetence, from Iraq to Hurricane Katrina.

Until now, the Republican leadership in both houses has protected the administration from that kind of scrutiny.

A series of public opinion surveys dating back to last spring has suggested that voters are more inclined to vote for Democratic candidates than at any time since the aftermath of the Watergate scandal that forced Richard Nixon to resign his presidency in 1974.

According to polls conducted in the last month, voters prefer a generic Democratic candidate over their Republican rivals in the House of Representatives by an average of about 12 percent.

That is close to the margin of the voters’ preference for Republicans before the 1994 mid-term elections when the latter won control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

The latest national survey, by Fox News and Opinion Dyamics, showed a 16-point, 48-32 percent spread in favour of Democrats.

Republicans “ought to be concerned, because we are in a very competitive environment,” the normally upbeat chairman of the Republican National Committee, Ken Mehlman, told the Washington Post this weekend.

Iraq and the public’s loss of confidence in Bush’s management of the war there are viewed by the political pros as the Republicans’ biggest liability going into the election. According to the latest polls, nearly two-thirds of voters say they disapprove of his handling of Iraq.

In recognition of the damage inflicted on his party by the situation in Iraq, Bush and his top aides launched a major new campaign last week, in anticipation of the 5th anniversary of the “9/11” attacks by al Qaeda on New York and the Pentagon, to highlight the risks that a quick withdrawal from that country would pose to the larger “global war on terror”.

But more bad news from Iraq, such as a gloomy Pentagon report released here Friday and fierce new fighting by U.S. and western soldiers against resurgent Taliban forces in Afghanistan – as well as the fact that the death toll for U.S. troops and military contractors in both Iraq and Afghanistan over the past five years has just surpassed the 2,973 people killed in the 9/11 attacks themselves – pose serious risks to the White House’s strategy.

Indeed, a New York Times/CBS poll conducted two weeks ago found that, for the first time, a majority of voters see the war in Iraq as distinct, if not a distraction, from the broader anti-terror effort, a key Democratic theme in this year’s campaign and one that contradicts the thrust of the administration’s new offensive.

But it is not only Iraq that is hurting Republicans, according to the analysts who say that concerns about the economy – particularly the stagnation in real wages and the sharp rise in gasoline prices – have contributed to a strong anti-incumbent wave in public sentiment.

“I’m not saying this is another 1994,” Tim Hibbits, a West Coast-based independent pollster, told the Post this weekend. “But voters are not happy. It’s not just Iraq. It’s also that most people don’t feel better off economically.”

According to several major surveys taken over the past month, the belief that the country is “on the wrong track” is shared by an average of about two-thirds of the public, at or near the highest levels of the Bush presidency. Bush’s overall approval ratings have hovered between a dismal 35 and 40 percent for most of 2006 – about five percent lower on average for the same time last year.

All of these considerations have put many Republican incumbents, particularly those considered “moderate” in a party that has moved ever more to the right under Bush, in a difficult position. In order to survive Democratic challenges, many of them have been trying to distance themselves from the president – particularly on Iraq.

To date, the most significant defectors have been Connecticut Rep. Chris Shays, formerly an enthusiastic supporter of the war, who last week came out in favour of what is increasingly the Democrats’ consensus position – setting a timetable for withdrawal that would begin before the end of this year, and Minnesota Rep. Gil Gutknecht, who, as recently as July, accused Democrats during a fiery debate on the House floor of “go(ing) wobbly” on Iraq.

All 435 House seats are up for election on Nov. 7. Democrats will have to make a net gain of 15 seats to win control. The vast majority – normally more than 90 percent – of the seats are considered “safe” for the incumbent or the incumbent’s party as a result of “gerrymandering”, the carving out, usually by state governments, of legislative districts designed to assure strong majorities by one party or the other.

Of the 435 seats, an unusually high 50 – of which 40 are currently held by Republicans – are considered up for grabs. Over the past several months, most political analysts have increased their estimates of the number of seats Democrats are likely to pick up.

Democrats face a much tougher challenge in the Senate, where only a third of the 100 seats will be on the ballot. Democrats, several of whom are in trouble, currently hold 18 of those seats; Republicans hold the remaining 15, at least seven of which are considered “safe”.

Despite the unpopularity of their president and the prevailing anti-incumbent sentiment, Republicans still enjoy several advantages that Democrats lack – including significantly more campaign money and the ability of the White House to influence or even control events.

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