WASHINGTON – Buoyed by the prospect of strong gains in Texas, a financial advantage and a relative shortage of competitive seats, Republicans are strongly positioned to hold control of the House in 2004, according to strategists in both parties.
At the same time, Democrats point to their recent capture of a Kentucky seat, as well as national polls showing voter pessimism about the future as evidence of steadily improving prospects.
More than seven months before the election, as few as three dozen of the 435 House seats appear competitive, based on candidate recruitment, fund raising and historical voting trends. That number is likely to change as parties choose candidates in primaries, and the presidential race shapes the national political terrain.
"They don't have the candidates," said New York Rep. Thomas Reynolds (search), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, arguing that Democrats have failed to recruit top-tier contenders in target districts in North Carolina, Alabama, New Hampshire and elsewhere.
Republicans command a 228-205 majority in the current House, with one Democratic-leaning independent and one vacancy. Democrats must gain 12 seats to end a decade of Republican rule.
In addition, Reynolds noted that numerous first-term GOP lawmakers — traditionally targeted for defeat — have amassed huge war chests to help ward off challenges.
"I'm amazed that they could even come out with this stuff," he said disparagingly of Democratic predictions of victory.
But Rep. Bob Matsui (search), the California Democrat who heads his party's campaign committee, projects optimism. "We have laid the groundwork for victory and we will be successful in our campaign for a new majority," he wrote in a recent memo.
Peter Cari (search), the committee's political director, cited a significant "base anger," meaning that even in GOP-leaning districts, there are enough Democratic voters angry at Bush to tip the balance in congressional races.
Democrats won a GOP seat in Kentucky last month after spending more than $1 million, part of it designed to turn out anti-Bush voters in large numbers. They hope to double their gains in a June 1 special election in South Dakota.
Despite predictions of victory, a half-dozen Democratic strategists, all with significant experience in congressional races, said in interviews that the GOP is likely to retain control.
"Taking the House back is not realistic," said one, who, refused to speak except on condition of anonymity.
Financially, Republicans hold an advantage. The NRCC had more than $11 million in the bank at the end of February, compared with less than $7 million for the Democratic committee.
Additionally, 30 GOP challengers had war chests totaling $100,000 or more at the end of last year, compared to nine Democrats.
For now, Democrats appear to have more opportunities for gains than Republicans in two key target groups, open seats and those held by first-term lawmakers.
But that doesn't take Texas into account.
A redistricting plan that Republicans pushed through the Legislature prompted one Democrat, Rep. Ralph Hall (search), to switch parties. A second, Rep. Jim Turner (search), is retiring rather than run in a new district drawn for him.
In a year with President Bush at the top of the ticket, six Democratic incumbents are running in difficult new districts under a plan masterminded by the House Majority Leader, Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas.
By contrast, Democratic hopes for creating more competitive seats were hampered two years ago by a series of bipartisan redistricting plans after the 2000 census that made hundreds of districts safe.
California, with 53 seats, has no competitive races yet. New York, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin appear unlikely to have more than two or three contested seats out of 89 combined. At least three of the states will be presidential battlegrounds.
Democrats eye seats held by retiring Republican Reps. Scott McInnis in Colorado; Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania; W.J. Tauzin in Louisiana; and Jennifer Dunn and George Nethercutt in Washington. Bush won three of the five districts in 2000, and Democrats failed to persuade their preferred challenger to enter the race in a fourth.
The best GOP opportunity to pick up an open seat is in Kentucky, where Rep. Ken Lucas is retiring. Republicans also harbor hopes for the Louisiana seat being vacated by Rep. Chris John.
Strategists in both parties agree that first-term GOP incumbents likely to face the toughest challenges are Reps. Rick Renzi of Arizona; Max Burns of Georgia and Bob Beauprez of Colorado, who won the country's closest race in 2002.
But Democrats failed to recruit their preferred candidates against several other potential freshman targets, including Reps. Tim Murphy and Jim Gerlach in Pennsylvania; Mike Rogers in Alabama; Chris Chocola in Indiana. Another target, Georgia Rep. Phil Gingrey, had roughly $1 million in the bank at the beginning of the year.
Democrats pledge fresh efforts at perennial targets in Connecticut, Kentucky and New Mexico, and talk about expanding the election map to include districts in New Jersey, Missouri and even solidly Republican Nebraska.
Republicans, too, hope to expand their target list, aiming at a relatively small group of Democratic incumbents outside Texas. High on the list is Utah Rep. Jim Matheson, who won narrowly in 2002 in the district that gave Bush his best showing outside Texas in 2000.