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The 2006 Midterms: Guilt by Association?

Just over one month ago, the Crystal Ball argued that a larger wave than currently existed at the time would have to build in order for Republicans to lose their congressional majorities. At the time, the race-by-race rather than national dynamic of competitive races pointed more towards a “micro-wave” than a “macro-wave” for out-of-power Democrats.

But now, with a quarter of time elapsed between that pulse-reading and the election, surer signs are emerging that something more substantial than a “micro-wave” is heating up this summer. Historical trends and big picture indicators–generic congressional ballot tests and approval ratings of President Bush’s job performance in particular – have always been heavily stacked against the GOP in this “sixth year itch” cycle, but aggregations of more race-specific indicators are now suggesting that Republicans are headed for their most serious midterm losses in decades.

As national discontent over gas prices, Iraq, and general instability in the Middle East percolate, approval ratings of Congress, the president, and the national direction continue to languish at torrid depths. But as the Crystal Ball has cautioned again and again, Democrats cannot truly capitalize on the withering political climate faced by the GOP unless they succeed in convincing large numbers of voters to evaluate their home-state Republican candidates through the powerful lens of national displeasure. In other words, the size of Democrats’ gains will be contingent upon how well they play the game of guilt by (Bush) association as Republicans seek to escape the shadow of their unpopular chief executive.

To be certain, the 2006 midterm election cycle promises to feature the most strongly anti-incumbent mood since 1994, a fact Republicans might argue cuts both ways, though the Crystal Ball maintains it will disproportionately debilitate the ruling party. Furthermore, Democrats will have the advantage of a more angry and motivated base to boost turnout. Just how fired up is the liberal Democratic base this year, you ask? Fired up enough to practice guilt by association on its own party’s moderates! Ironically, nowhere is this year’s anti-Bush, anti-incumbent phenomenon more palpable today than in Connecticut, where Sen. Joe Lieberman is fighting for his political life in a Democratic primary after having been tagged one of the White House’s favorite Democrats, whether he likes it or not (Read More).

The problem for Democrats, however, has always been that a remarkable number of the GOP’s targeted moderate incumbents are personally very well-liked in their states and districts. For example, moderate Connecticut GOP Reps. Rob Simmons, Chris Shays, and Nancy Johnson have all earned strong reputations for paying attention to local concerns, and GOP veterans such as Pennsylvania Rep. Curt Weldon and Florida Rep. Clay Shaw have even been able to count on a slew of local Democratic endorsements in past years. For all of the broad, national reasons the party in power should be politically radioactive right now, Democrats know that none of them will matter if they don’t come into focus in districts like these that will decide the balance of power beyond 2006.

But there are already strong indications that this year is different: more voters and local Democratic leaders than ever before seem ready to cast aside their personal affections for longtime GOP incumbents for the sake of sending Congress and the Bush administration a message. Possible Democratic takeover seats such as Rep. Johnson’s and Virginia GOP Rep. Thelma Drake’s, which seemed implausible targets as recently as a year ago, have slowly moved down the pipeline into contention, are now fully engaged by party committees alongside the nation’s most competitive. These are the kinds of movements that are characteristic of “macro-wave” elections, the only kind of election that would flip the leadership of Congress to Democrats this year.

Over all, given the most recent evidence, it’s not difficult for the Crystal Ball to observe which party can now claim the momentum in the guilt by association game. In the past month or so, it’s appeared as if Democrats have been on the upswing almost effortlessly as members of the GOP have suffered under the burden of the administration’s sagging numbers. More individual races are attracting the attention of voters and donors as Election Day comes into closer view, the overwhelming preponderance of finance reports and voter surveys released in the last month have shown races moving in principally one direction–towards Democrats. Here’s some perspective:

The Money Chase

Much has been made of the Democrats’ success at winnowing the GOP’s traditional advantage in national party committee funds. But a fresh look at aggregations of individual candidates’ funds following second quarter fundraising reports reveals that Democrats are performing even better on a local, district-by-district basis, at least in the battle for the House.

To place the data for competitive races in context, we’ll make some comparisons of this year’s House races to House elections two years previous. At the end of the 2nd Quarter of 2004, Democrats were the incumbent party in 53 percent of seats on our “Dirty Thirty” list of competitive races and held 52 percent of the aggregate candidate cash on hand, out-banking GOP candidates $18.1 million to $16.8 million in those thirty districts. By comparison, at the end of the 2nd Quarter of 2006, Democrats held 51 percent of aggregate candidate cash on hand, out-banking GOP candidates $28.6 million to $27.4 million in our current Dirty Thirty. But Democrats managed to maintain this advantage despite being the incumbent party in only 27 percent of the thirty current most competitive seats, half as many as last cycle–a remarkable feat for the party out of power!

What’s more, Democrats are proving their monetary mettle in many more GOP-held districts this year. In 13 of the 22 Republican-held seats listed in our Dirty Thirty, the top Democrat out-raised the top Republican for the second quarter of 2006; 6 of these 13 races even featured a Democratic cash on hand advantage. Though Republicans can take some solace in the fact that they out-raised Democratic counterparts in 4 out of the 8 Democratic-held districts in the Dirty Thirty, it is also true that the GOP has more to lose in what increasingly seems to be a challenger-friendly year. In more than a handful of districts, finance reports are a serious warning sign for Republicans.

The Horse Race

Generic congressional ballot tests have consistently been cited as evidence that Republicans are in for big losses come November, but they can be frustratingly unrevealing: they obviously don’t shed light on any races in particular, and they often mask residents’ preferences for targeted incumbents. Now that more head-to-head races are taking shape, it seems as if we’re faced with a barrage of both independent and partisan polling data on individual match-ups, and we have to evaluate every bit of data we receive with utmost care.

The Crystal Ball is always wary of the first poll showing dramatic change in a race, but when such change becomes a pattern of a series of surveys, we can’t help but take notice. And in about the last month, we have noticed virtually every survey pegs Democratic candidates in crucial statewide races with better chances of winning than previously observed. Although we still don’t buy, for example, that Democratic attorney Amy Klobuchar is clobbering GOP Congressman Mark Kennedy in Minnesota’s Senate race 50 percent to 31 percent as the Minnesota Star Tribune would have us believe, we are beginning to take every poll we receive along this trend line with a smaller and smaller grain of salt, given their abundance.

In Senate races, increasingly respected automated polling firm Rasmussen Reports shows incumbent Republican senators facing some dire circumstances. This past month, the company released data showing GOP Senators Mike DeWine (OH), Jim Talent (MO), Conrad Burns (MT), and Lincoln Chafee (RI), trailing their Democratic challengers, the latter two outside the margin of error. Zogby International and the Columbus Dispatch even released a poll in mid-July showing DeWine trailing Democratic Rep. Sherrod Brown 45 to 37 percent.

In congressional and gubernatorial races, numbers released by myriad survey research organizations, both partisan and independent, have also shown Democrats gaining ground. But often the story is best told by the polls that aren’t released: in the past month, the Crystal Ball has encountered a veritable ocean of polling data released by Democratic candidates and consultants touting substantial (if unbelievable) advances, but GOP firms haven’t been nearly as eager to release private polling. As long as this remains the horse-race storyline, it won’t be hard to tell which party is entering the final stretch of 2006 with confidence in their prospects.

The Bottom Line

At this point, the GOP hopes that one saving grace for their party could be Democrats’ inability to agree on a coherent strategy for turning out voters. But with as poor a political environment as the party in power still faces, it might not matter. It is undeniable that Republicans across the nation are weighed down by the fact they share a party affiliation with a disfavored president, and in most cases, a commitment to his unpopular war.

In this inhospitable climate, the GOP could well get burned worse than initially expected. At this stage, the Crystal Ball is shifting its outlook from a Democratic gain of 6-8 to a Democratic gain of 12-15 seats in the House. We also believe that our original guestimate of a Democratic gain of 2 or 3 seats in the Senate is probably too low; we now expect a Democratic Senate gain of a minimum of 3 seats and a maximum of 6 seats–that’s right, we know that the Democrats would take over the Senate at 6. It is still a long shot, but it is not the long shot of long shots that it once was. We can see a clear pathway to a Democratic Senate pickup of 4 or 5 seats, and at that point it is simply a matter of the Democrats getting lucky and securing one additional seat from among several possibilities. In the governorships we will now be surprised if Democrats do not pick up at least 4 net governorships, bringing them to a total of 26 of the 50 statehouses. The Democratic gubernatorial gains could even be as high as 6 statehouses. We have updated many of our individual ratings for this Crystal Ball release, and you can view them by clicking here. During the coming weeks and months we will be taking a closer look at specific races.

We here at the Crystal Ball are a mix of old and young. Our younger members tend to pick up trends faster than the older members. But the older members have the perspective of many decades worth of elections, and the older minds still suggest caution. We can imagine significant intervening events, including acts of terror, hurricanes, scandals, a dramatic improvement on the ground in Iraq and/or an announcement of significant American troop withdrawals, among others. Then there are the intervening events that cannot be imagined, because they are outside our field of experience. So with just under 100 days to go, Republicans have reason for great concern, Democrats have reason for considerable optimism, but the GOP would be wrong to panic and the Democrats would be wrong to assume an air of celebration. The months that matter most in campaigns are September, October and the small piece of November before Election Day. The vast majority of Americans has not focused–and will not focus–on the upcoming elections until after Labor Day. What occurs in those months can sweep away past events, academic musings and political predictions in a veritable instant.

Crystal Ball interns Tanya Otsuka, J.P. Theroux and Alex Covington contributed to this report. As the summer draws to a close, The Crystal Ball would like to thank all of our summer interns for their hard work; in addition to those listed above, Bobby Dressel, Rebecca McCurdy, Shana McGirl and Evan Pols have provided invaluable support for the site.