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Just how perilously close are Republicans to losing their congressional majority in 2006? The way several independent observers and Democrats are talking and acting these days, you might guess the GOP’s demise was all but a done deal.

Only last month, veteran bipartisan polling team Thom Riehle and Lance Tarrance concluded that Republicans were “on the road to losing their majority status” after finding that by a margin of 44 percent to 32 percent, registered voters nationwide preferred the generic Democratic candidate for Congress in their district to the generic Republican. In Texas Hold’em poker terms, Riehle and Tarrance argued then that “Republicans need some great flop cards, a lucky turn card and a killer river card if they have any hopes of avoiding an all-in disaster in November.”

And earlier this month, veteran western Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. John Murtha made a splash by preemptively announcing a bid for House majority leader should his party take the body, only to suspend his campaign next week after acknowledging he had jumped the gun. Murtha, who at age 74 only recently soared to celebrity status in the eyes of rank and file anti-war Democrats across the country thanks to his November 2005 surprise call for troop withdrawal, expressed zero uncertainty in his initial declaration that Democrats would end the GOP’s 12-year congressional reign in 2006.

But a little more than four months out from the election, the Crystal Ball is not yet ready to view the GOP majority as a flimsy house of cards, nor in our estimation should Murtha fast-forward to helping Pelosi hand out committee gavels to the ranking members of his caucus. The Republican margin in the House of Representatives may be more tenuous this year than it has been in any election cycle since its inception in 1994, but a larger wave than currently exists must build in order to completely erode the GOP’s 15-seat edge, and by no means has the party in power already been swept out to sea.

Given President Bush’s upside-down approval ratings just about everywhere except Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho, we have always sung the tune that Democratic chances of capturing Congress in 2006 depend entirely on the party’s ability to nationalize the midterm election and capitalize on voter discontent over Iraq, oil, and scandal among other issues. And of course, there’s also the flip side: Republican chances for keeping control depend on the GOP’s ability to stress incumbent attention to local concern, and in many cases, independence from the administration. So what, then, of this wisdom? In the first six months of 2006, how have each of the parties succeeded or failed?

The Crystal Ball has observed something remarkable taking shape: a unique split decision. Democrats have succeeded in placing national issues of great consequence front and center in individual races for the House, but they have thus far failed to establish a truly national narrative to frame the battles in each of their targeted districts within a single, compelling context. Iraq has dominated neck-and-neck horse races in districts such as Connecticut’s 4th and Pennsylvania’s 7th, but ethics has (rightfully) trumped other contests in districts that have grown to know congressional scandal all too well, such as California’s 50th and Ohio’s 18th. Immigration has dominated still more campaigns, especially where districts are in close proximity to borders (again, CA-50, among others).

This variegation of the 2006 issue landscape complicates Democratic efforts a great deal. But there is little the party out of power can do in this respect–the diversity of competitive districts and candidates greatly reduces the party’s ability to craft anything close to a simple, powerful banner under which all of its candidates could run. Yes, generic congressional ballot tests indicate startling weakness for the GOP, but Republicans can take heart in the difficulty of their opponents’ challenge. For all of the GOP’s very serious woes, the Democratic search for a national message and an electoral wave seems unlikely to produce anything quite as potent as the “Contract with America” and the tsunami of twelve years ago.

Then again, even on a race-by-race basis, Democratic prospects seem brighter by the day in large part because of the president’s unpopularity, which appears to have settled somewhat, and the salience of issues with which the president and his party continue to struggle in the polls. A look at our updated Dirty Thirty list of competitive House races immediately reveals an unlucky number for Republicans: 13 races can now be considered “toss-ups,” and 12 of those districts are currently held by Republicans. In February, we rated only 11 races as “toss-ups,” and only 8 of those races were in Republican-held seats. Additionally, as we have rotated some districts in to the Dirty Thirty and others out, we now estimate that Democrats will only need to win 22 of the 30 most competitive races to win control of the House, down from 24 in February and 26 in October–still a tall mountain to climb, but more surmountable than ever.

So in view of these realities of 2006, towards what will the Crystal Ball be turning its attention over the next four months to help better predict the balance of power in the House in 2007? Introducing…

The Four T’s of the 2006 Battle for the House

  1. Terrain

    In which kinds of districts will the battle for the House be won and lost? Let’s examine the composition of the this year’s Dirty Thirty in comparison to the lineup of competitive races we identified in the very final run-up to 2004’s House elections. Severely threatened by Texas redistricting in November 2004, Democrats were stuck playing defense in 17 out of the 30 most competitive House races at the end of that cycle; only 13 competitive districts were held by members of the GOP. But because Democrats have succeeded in putting the Republicans on the defensive this year, there are now more than three times as many GOP-held seats as there are Democratic-held seats in the Dirty Thirty! The count stands at 23 vulnerable seats for Republicans and only 7 for Democrats.

    But there’s one even more telling statistic concerning the differences in competitive congressional terrain between 2004 and 2006. If many more GOP seats than Democratic seats are in the Dirty Thirty this year, the average Dirty Thirty district would be more reliably Republican this time around, right? Wrong! Whereas the average 2004 Bush percentage in 2004 Dirty Thirty districts stood at 56.3 percent, the average 2004 Bush percentage in 2006 Dirty Thirty districts actually stands at 53.6 percent, a result indicative of the success Democrats have had in putting swing and Democratic districts held by moderate Republicans into play this year. IF we begin to see evidence showing that Democrats are successfully mobilizing their typically presidential-year-only voters in these types of districts, we will know the GOP’s grip on the House is in trouble.
  2. Top-of-the-Ticket Influences

    Next, to what extent will races higher on the ballot affect outcomes in House contests? Here, it is worth noting the stunning lack of geographical diversity found in the Dirty Thirty. Districts west of the Rockies account for exactly one fifth of the nation’s 435 House seats, yet only two of the Dirty Thirty races are in this region – and both of them are in Arizona! Meanwhile, the contiguous strand of states from Connecticut through New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana accounts for less than one fifth of the nation’s total seats, but this stretch of land is home to over a third of seats in the Dirty Thirty.

    Why is this phenomenon worth mentioning? Well, as long as competitive races are clustered in only a few battleground states, the top-of-the-ticket dynamic in each of these disproportionately influential states becomes more important in determining which voters will come out to decide control of the House. In New York, for example, where Democrats have one great takeover opportunity and four other long-shots (as will be described in our soon-to-be released updated Watch List), Democrats probably wish they could trade in all of their long-shots into one slam dunk. But if upstate Empire State Republicans remain so depressed about their chances against Hillary Clinton and Eliot Spitzer that many stay home on November 7th, some of those longer shots down-ballot could easily come into closer range. The same storyline applies in competitive House race-heavy Pennsylvania and Ohio.
  3. Treasuries of Campaigns

    Looking for indications as to which open seat contenders and challengers will have the resources to be competitive in November? Watch for the July quarterly FEC fundraising reports to come out over the next few weeks. Already, Democrats have impressed in the money race nationally: for the first time in recent memory, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has close to a $3 million cash-on-hand advantage over its GOP counterpart, the National Republican Congressional Committee. And though Republicans still retain a sizeable net dollar advantage in total money raised by individual campaigns, one indication of a favorable political climate for Democrats this year is the party’s considerable Democratic improvement in this category over past years. Still, if any challenger is still not raising a total in the neighborhood of at least $200,000-$300,000 per quarter by this point, it will be hard to take him or her seriously down the final stretch without major party help.

    Another financial matter to keep tabs on in House races: which political figures are helping candidates fundraise? With presidential approval ratings still stuck in the 30-40 percent range in most districts, many Republican candidates are realizing they must pay at least a momentary public relations price when they host President Bush or Vice President Cheney in their districts for lavish high-dollar affairs. Although the Crystal Ball sympathizes with Democratic readers who are still bombarded by email from Sen. John Kerry close to 20 months after his loss, one recent blast finally struck us as more clever than mediocre: borrowing liberally from GOP Chairman Ken Mehlman’s lexicon, Kerry accused the GOP of “cut and run” fundraising, whereby Republican candidates ask contributors to “cut” checks with Bush’s help and then “run” away before they can be caught in the public eye with the unpopular president. Still, this type of fundraising guilt-by-association only rarely acquires the staying power to ultimately decide races.
  4. Traits of Candidates

    As we witnessed in the California 50th District special election, there’s simply no substitute for quality candidates with solid campaign skills. Whether or not Democratic nominee Francine Busby’s last-minute “you don’t need papers to vote” gaffe cost her a ticket to Washington, the quote was definitely not the headline Democrats had hoped to find in the newspaper in the days leading up to the June 6th vote. With a slew of first-time Democratic candidates competing in targeted races, Republicans will be looking to pounce on “rookie” mistakes at every opportunity.

    Even as the 2006 elections continue to focus on big national issues, candidate quality will be the primary factor determining the extent to which Democrats can outperform their traditional percentages in districts across the nation. Democrat Paul Hackett’s ability to combine a compelling personal war background with blistering attacks on unpopular state Republicans in Ohio propelled him to outperform the 2004 Kerry percentage in his district by 12 percentage points in August of 2005; Democrats know that if Busby had had similar advantages, they would be one seat closer to control of the House. Sure, many lower-tier Democratic challengers may ride voter discontent to victory in November, but the strength of these candidates as messengers and campaigners will help determine whether their party reaches the magic House number, 218.

Looking at each of these four factors carefully will tell us much about whether Democratic chances of sweeping the House sweepstakes keep moving closer to 50 percent over the next few months. At least for now, the race-by-race rather than national dynamic of competitive congressional races points to a “micro-wave” rather than a “macro-wave” for Democrats, and the current heat level places the Crystal Ball’s best House estimate in the area of a 6-8 seat Democratic gain.

Now, on to the June 2006 Dirty Thirty…

The June 2006 “Dirty Thirty” Competitive House Races

State District Current Party Current Outlook Link to State Page
Arizona 5 Republican Leans Republican Read more
Arizona 8 Republican Toss-up Read more
Colorado 7 Republican Toss-up Read more
Connecticut 2 Republican Toss-up Read more
Connecticut 4 Republican Toss-up Read more
Florida 22 Republican Leans Republican Read more
Georgia 8 Democratic Leans Democratic Read more
Georgia 12 Democratic Leans Democratic Read more
Illinois 6 Republican Leans Republican Read more
Illinois 8 Democratic Toss-up Read more
Indiana 8 Republican Toss-up Read more
Indiana 9 Republican Toss-up Read more
Iowa 1 Republican Toss-up Read more
Iowa 3 Democratic Leans Democratic Read more
Kentucky 4 Republican Toss-up Read more
Louisiana 3 Democratic Leans Democratic Read more
Minnesota 6 Republican Leans Republican Read more
New Mexico 1 Republican Toss-up Read more
New York 24 Republican Toss-up Read more
North Carolina 11 Republican Leans Republican Read more
Ohio 6 Democratic Leans Democratic Read more
Ohio 15 Republican Leans Republican Read more
Ohio 18 Republican Toss-up Read more
Pennsylvania 6 Republican Toss-up Read more
Pennsylvania 7 Republican Leans Republican Read more
Pennsylvania 8 Republican Leans Republican Read more
Texas 17 Democratic Leans Democratic Read more
Texas 22 Republican Leans Republican Read more
Virginia 2 Republican Leans Republican Read more
West Virginia 1 Democratic Leans Democratic Read more