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THE LAY OF THE LAND IN 2006: Republicans Could Stay Dry on Higher Ground

The drumbeat has become the daily background noise in most Beltway political circles, as pervasive as it is percussive. It echoes on today, just as it has for well over a month: in just 40 days and 40 nights, Democrats will wake up to find that they have emerged from four years in the wilderness, having gained the necessary seats in one or both chambers of Congress to win a legislative check on President Bush and restore divided control of government.

But not so fast! Yes, back at the beginning of last month, the Crystal Ball observed surer signs of a Democratic “micro-wave” gathering strength on its way to “macro-wave” status. And don’t get us wrong, the minority party remains poised to reap sizeable gains in Senate seats, House seats, and governorships, especially in places where the weakest Republican targets have seemed in danger of getting swept out to sea for many months. But with six weeks left to go until the midterm madness draws to a close, the Crystal Ball sees several indications that the tide may be turning back in the GOP’s favor–at least temporarily. Furthermore, some states are starting to look a lot less susceptible to a pro-Democratic tidal wave than others-—in other words, at least some Republican property lies on higher, safer ground.

Since around the time of the fifth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks upon America, Republicans have clearly caught a few breaks. First and foremost, the rebound in President Bush’s approval ratings over the last few weeks has struck us as both stable and perceptible, if tiny, across the average of reputable national surveys. Whereas his job performance approval mark lingered in the mid-to-high 30’s all summer, we suspect the figure is now hovering more closely around 40 percent–still dismal within the historical context of presidents in their sixth year, but slightly less calamitous than before. The slightly improved ratings have given many Republicans new hopes that the campaigner-in-chief will be able to reappear on the campaign trail to help soothe the sixth-year itch.

Such an up-tick, though small, reflects the perpetuation of a trend we have now seen at work in each of the three most recent federal election cycles: a modest-to-severe sharpening of national focus onto terrorism and national security, clearly Bush and the GOP’s most dependable strong suit, during the second-to-last month of each campaign season. Regardless of congressional Republicans’ ability to pass the most sacred provisions of their terror bill during the recent month-long session billed as “Security September,” the slogan more appropriately describes the month’s biennial election agenda-setting tendencies. To many a Democrat’s chagrin, “Security September” has fairly or unfairly become a fixture of our early 21st Century politics.

The Crystal Ball would also note that within the framework of the month’s predominant theme of national security, President Bush may have been shrewd to intensify and increase his rhetorical linkage of the War on Terror to the fight against Nazi Germany in World War II. The association is bound to strike a chord with older Americans for whom a costly and prolonged military struggle with an abhorrent enemy is a familiar and powerful memory. As the president’s political advisors are well aware, older voters turn out to vote at a much higher rate than younger voters to begin with, but the resonance of such an appeal in 2006 is especially critical: voters over age 50 account for an even larger percentage of the electorate in midterm years than they do in presidential years.

So how important is a jump in Bush approval from mid-to-high thirties to high thirties-to-low forties? The difference may seem miniscule, but it cannot be overlooked. For one, it represents a stabilization and possible directional change in his popularity. But 40 days out from Election Day, it seems that 40 percent approval may be the very watermark at which control of Congress is determined in a “wave” election year. The phenomenon can also be thought of as a tug of war in which 40 percent may be a line of demarcation for control: even a tiny change in approval could be enough to shift the votes necessary to move the determinative seats in our “Ferocious Forty” toward one party or the other (Oh, and by the way, have we mentioned the number 40 enough today?).

Another modest boost for Republican congressional prospects promises to be the falling price of oil, the high price of which has contributed to voter unease on a grand scale throughout the 2006 cycle. The relatively precipitous decline coinciding with the conclusion of the summer driving season has helped the GOP in two ways. First, it has helped to calm many voters’ nerves and has contributed to increased public confidence in the general strength of the economy. Second, it has blunted the potential impact and effectiveness of Democratic ads attacking incumbent Republican legislators for “siding with big oil” and not doing enough to combat price gouging. Make no mistake: the emergence of sub-$2.00-a-gallon gasoline comes as a very welcome development for just about everyone except Democratic candidates and campaign committees, who have “pumped” a fortune into independent expenditure ads to seize on oil anxieties.

To be sure, the list of potential developments and events that could restore momentum to the oncoming Democratic wave is considerable: fallout from declassification of the National Intelligence Estimate finding its way into effective Democratic attacks and more turns for the worse in Iraq damaging the GOP are just two possibilities. But the list of possible pro-Republican October surprises is equally long, if not longer: an administration nudge to oil companies to drop prices fast (no wait, that’s a SEPTEMBER surprise!), a surprising announcement mid-October that a big chunk of troops will be leaving by year’s end because of “improving conditions,” whether true or not (and the troops can be left in after the election), and an executive order implementing some of Bush’s positions on immigration (constitutional? The courts will decide AFTER the election) are some of our favorite stabs in the dark.

The point is this: elections are a one-day clearance sale. You either sell on that one day or you don’t. Your opponent can be leading 364 days of the year, but as long as you are ahead on one day, November 7th, by one vote, you win. That’s why a grand SERIES of October surprises leading up to Nov. 7th can work, because the White House can make things happen, or APPEAR to make things happen, just when it matters most. Timing is everything, and the White House political team has understood this well, managing the political game clock to victory in two successive elections. It’s within the realm of possibilities that they could find a way to frustrate Democrats grandly a third time.

Keeping these considerations in mind, the Crystal Ball has not yet changed its outlook from last month to project larger Democratic gains. Contrary to the prognostications of several otherobservers, we continue to see Democrats on the cusp of regaining congressional majorities at the UPPER end of their expected gains: if the election were held today, the party currently out of power would likely net 12-15 seats in the House (+15 needed for control) and 3-5 seats in the Senate (+6 needed for control). At the gubernatorial level, Democrats remain favored pick up 4 to 6 additional states’ top jobs, for a grand total of 26-28 governorships (and unfortunately for the Democrats, it’s the majority that doesn’t matter!).

In predicting the outcome of the 2006 midterm madness, it’s critically important to point out that some states’ Republicans seem far more likely than others’ to ride out a strong Democratic wave unscathed. The uneven lay of the political land in this volatile year means that while only a national “micro-wave” would be needed to wash away Republican seats in some states, a “macro-wave” would be necessary to engulf Republicans and sweep Democrats to gains in others. This week and next, the Crystal Ball will offer this “topographical view” of the 2006 elections, beginning this week with the states in which Republicans are LEAST likely to suffer the consequences of a national, anti-Bush Democratic surge:

Republican Highlands – The States LEAST Vulnerable to a Democratic Wave

  1. Michigan – The Great Lakes State may be facing greater economic woes than any other in the nation as the flagging auto industry continues to hemorrhage jobs, but who’s to blame? President Bush, or the state’s two Democratic senators and Democratic governor? Although the circumstances with regard to auto jobs are most likely out of every officeholder’s control, many Michigan voters are receptive to a “throw the bums out” message, and taking their anger out on incumbents in 2006 means voting to send Democrats Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Sen. Debbie Stabenow packing. Of the two women, Granholm is in much greater political danger: she faces a strong challenge from very wealthy GOP businessman Dick DeVos while Stabenow faces a milder challenge from Oakland County sheriff Mike Bouchard. It’s worth noting that there’s virtually no chance for a Democratic pick-up of any sort in Michigan: none of the state’s nine GOP House seats face serious threat of takeover.
  2. Florida – The Sunshine State’s swampy lowlands belie the state’s relatively high political elevation for Republicans in 2006. The 2000 presidential tie here seemed to be somewhat of a Democratic pinnacle of achievement; it’s been downhill ever since for the party. Sure, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson will be reelected in a walk this November over a candidate just about everyone gave up on months ago, but GOP Attorney General Charlie Crist appears well on his way to succeeding GOP Gov. Jeb Bush against a reasonably strong Democratic opponent, Tampa-area Rep. Jim Davis. Republican enthusiasm here seemed anything but depressed on primary day, when many more Republicans than Democrats showed up to vote. And our sense is that the state’s top GOP House target, veteran Rep. Clay Shaw, is taking his tough reelection bid very seriously and holds an improbable if narrow lead in his Kerry-carried district heading into the final month of the campaign. One possible sudden-upset race to watch: Florida’s 16th District, where allegations GOP Rep. Mark Foley sent inappropriately personal emails to a 16 year old congressional page are sure to raise more than a few very suspicious eyebrows.
  3. California – It’s astonishing: the Golden State accounts for just over 12 percent of the nation’s population, but just about zero percent of the nation’s competitive elections in 2006! Despite the state’s strong liberal lean, moderate-to-liberal GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appears to be cruising to reelection in a contest against his perfect foil: Democratic State Treasurer Phil Angelides, who is eagerly caricatured as a standard, organization politician and whose only reliable support has come from the relatively small but very loud unions many Californians have come to view dimly. And Democratic gains in House seats will be very difficult to come by, even though the state sends the second largest Republican delegation to Congress (Texas moved into the lead last year). Only the seats of northern California GOP Reps. John Doolittle and Richard Pombo appear on the horizon line of outside opportunities for Democratic pick-ups, and even so, their vulnerabilities have been largely self-inflicted.
  4. Georgia – Democrats just can’t seem to catch a break in the Peach State, where Republicans have dominated major statewide elections since turning the tide at the turn of the century. It’s possible that the nastiest Democratic gubernatorial primary of the year took place for no good reason, as the eventual winner, Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, finds himself facing a double-digit deficit against reasonably popular GOP Gov. Sonny Perdue, the surprise upset victor of the 2002 general election. Would Democratic Secretary of State Cathy Cox be doing any better? In our estimation, probably not: this has been Perdue’s race to lose from the start. Notably, Georgia is the only state in which Republicans are exclusively on the OFFENSIVE in competitive House races. Both GOP ex-Reps. Mac Collins and Max Burns are receiving serious White House financial help in their bids to return to Congress after two-year hiatuses, although they remain slight underdogs against Democratic Reps. Jim Marshall and John Barrow in newly redrawn districts, respectively.
  5. New Jersey – Of all years, could 2006 be the one Republicans finally break the statewide losing streak that has frustrated them here for nine years? Such a scenario in the solidly blue Garden State would prove the cruelest irony for national Democrats, who are suddenly very jittery about the prospects of their nominee, appointed Sen. Bob Menendez. Last week, a federal attorney launched an investigation into Hudson County rental properties owned by the new senator, and just this week Menendez was forced to sever his ties to a close campaign adviser, Democratic mega-lawyer Donald Scarinci, after tapes revealed Scarinci had improperly asked for a hiring favor on Menendez’s behalf several years ago. GOP State Sen. Tom Kean, on the other hand, maintains all the advantages of running as the anti-Washington candidate in the race in addition to his politically advantageous last name. A Kean win would be a GOP pick-up and a crippling if not fatal blow to Democratic hopes of retaking the Senate. Down-ballot, Democratic Assemblywoman Linda Stender’s challenge to GOP Rep. Mike Ferguson represents the party’s best hope of adding to its 7-6 edge in the House delegation, but the race is not yet truly competitive. Don’t expect a massive Democratic wave to be pounding the Jersey Shore on November 7th!

Coming next week: (you guessed it!) Republican Lowlands – The States MOST Vulnerable to a Democratic Wave

The 2006 Midterm Map of America

THIS JUST IN: There is no national election in November 2006, whatever you might have heard to the contrary. No, there hasn’t been an overnight jazz-accompanied, Thai-style coup, and the DMV hasn’t mysteriously lost everyone’s “motor voter” applications. Rather, 2006 is comprised of a patchwork collection of party contests scattered across the country.

Just as in a presidential election, it’s easy to think of a midterm election as “national,” since all 435 U.S. House seats are on the ballot, plus 36 governorships and 33 Senate seats. However, there is nothing approaching a presidential contest to tie every state’s ballots together. Generally, midterms feature multiple close races in about two-thirds of the states.

The problem is how to determine where those competitive races lie. Looking at a physical map or a road map isn’t going tell you where the hottest races are to be found–for trees, rocks and acres aren’t the currency of American politics. In order to provide a clearer guide to the 2006 midterms, the Crystal Ball has put together the 2006 Midterm Map of America. A state is assigned 10 points for a very competitive Senate race; 10 points for a large-state governorship contest of the same variety; 8 points for a very competitive medium- or small-state governorship; 6 points for a second-tier competitive race for the Senate anywhere or a governorship in a large state; 4 points for a second-tier governor’s contest in a medium or small state; 2 points for each competitive House seat; and zero points for uncompetitive contests. Intangible factors were considered as well, and as a result a point was added or subtracted here and there. Based on this scale, each state was resized to reflect its actual significance in the 2006 elections.

As you can see smaller states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut and Rhode Island are expanded quite a bit, while larger states like California, Texas, Wyoming and the Dakotas are greatly contracted. With control of both chambers of Congress not guaranteed for either party, any competitive race will get significant attention. However, the 2006 Midterm Map can guide you to where much of the action is.

For a larger, PDF version of the 2006 Midterm Map of America, click here.

Senate, House and Governor Race Analysis Updates

The Crystal Ball has updated individual race analysis for the following contests:

The Crystal Ball would also like to introduce our 2006 fall interns, who are contributing to updates during this election season: Alexander Covington – Mid-Atlantic Regional Correspondent, Erin Levin – Southern Regional Correspondent, Meredith Ramsey – Midwestern Regional Correspondent, Brenan Richards – Pacific Regional Correspondent and Clare Seekins – Northeastern Regional Correspondent