This is a hard election to analyze because of the myriad cross-currents running through the political landscape.
The Republicans are faced with the historical difficulties of a 2nd administration off-year midterm, Iraq, small government-libertarians upset with spending, unrest over the inaction on illegal immigration and just a general feeling of fatigue with the current politics.
Democrats have to deal with the growing empowerment of the far left in their party, no plan or program of any substance (unlike the GOP in '94), and most importantly a perception that they simply do not have the will or the inclination to fight the war against Islamic terrorism.
Where does that leave us with less than 45 days until the election?
There is no question that the press, pundits and analysts over hyped the Democratic position this spring and summer that the Republicans were doomed and are now beginning to dial back some of their predictions that a Democratic House is all but a done deal.
President Bush and the GOP have had a good run starting with the Democratic Party's rejection of Joe Lieberman on Aug. 8, the busted airline terror plot days later, the Jimmy Carter-appointed judge rejection of spying on Al Qaeda, the five year anniversary of 9/11 and the most recent debate on interrogating terrorists.
The renewed focus on terrorism and national security has boosted President Bush's job approval back over 40 percent and closed the Republicans deficit in the generic ballot to single digits after trailing all year by more than 10 points. But the renewed focus on national security should not have been a surprise. Bush and the GOP ran on terror and national security in 2002 and 2004. And in a much publicized speech earlier this year, presidential adviser Karl Rove told the world they were going to run on it again in 2006.
Unlike 2004, however, President Bush is not on the ballot and there are many reasons why we can anticipate 2006 will be unlike 2002. The two most important differences between 2002 and 2006 is the freshness of 9/11 in people's minds and the difference between the build-up and anticipation of a coming war as opposed to year three of a long and difficult war that hasn't gone exactly as planned.
One of the least commented on factors influencing the election this year is what I call the "fading of the 9/11 effect." Ironically, the success we have had in preventing another terrorist attack in the last five years has bred a feeling of complacency among voters and many politicians.
Politically, what this means is President Bush and Republicans are not going to get the same mileage out of the terrorism and national security issue as they did in 2002 and 2004. This is offset some by the Democrats' continued movement away from the center and towards the anti-war left, but as a whole this is a political development that will hurt the GOP this fall.
Democrats have rolled the dice and are hoping that these general macro trends will allow them to win without offering a real definite plan or vision of their own. This is in many ways the playbook they ran in 2004, thinking in the spring and summer that the country had rejected Bush and all they had to do was present an acceptable alternative in John Kerry. They are using the same game plan today, though from a much stronger macro political position and without Bush at the top of the ticket. However, because they aren't running on much more than "we're against Bush," they are vulnerable to a strong Republican counterattack. Which is why this election is so difficult to predict.
While the Democrats' strategy presents an opportunity to Republicans, the GOP has to be getting concerned by the state polling in close Senate races across the nation. For while the national numbers have improved for the GOP over the last month, on balance the state polling has not.
Looking at the RCP Averages in the contested Senate races, the Democrats are poised to pick up seats in Pennsylvania, Montana, Ohio and Rhode Island, while the Republicans look likely to win in New Jersey. That gives the Democrats a three-seat pick up with the need to pick up another three seats to win control. The problem for the GOP is Tennessee and Virginia have moved into toss up status, along with Missouri. The Democrats' odds of capturing the Senate have actually improved the last two months at the same time their national numbers vis-à-vis the Republicans have declined.
The better analogy politically for 2006 may be 1986 when the Democrats picked up eight Senate seats and only five House seats. Because of Reagan's landslide in 1980 there were many weak GOP incumbents in 1986 that were taken out. Today Republicans have less of an issue in that regard as their 1994 weak incumbents were taken out in 2000 (Grams, Abraham, Ashcroft, Gordon, and Roth). The point of the '86 analogy is not that the Democrats are going to take over the Senate, but rather that because of the inability to gerrymander states, Democrats might be headed for better success in the Senate than the House.
There is a reason 99 percent of incumbents win re-election in the House and right now even with the Democrats looking strong in the Senate they are only poised to pick up around 10 seats in the House. With the economy humming at 3 percent-plus growth, unemployment below 5 percent, the Dow near all-time highs and gas prices back below $2.50, these are not exactly economic conditions associated with a "throw the bums out" type of election.
The biggest point to emphasize is the election dynamic is still quite fluid and the way the last month and half plays out can and will have a significant effect. Because Democrats have chosen to run out the clock (so to speak), Republicans have an opportunity to close and pull out many of these close races. In the Senate, Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia are all states they can easily win, and with a little momentum they could also pull out wins in Ohio, Montana, Rhode Island and even Maryland. It is still quite possible that the Democrats wake up November 8th wondering where it all went wrong.
The current RCP Averages in the Senate call for a Dem pick-up of four seats which would leave them short of the six they need, and I suspect they would fall short in the House as well, picking up something like nine-12 seats. While this may be the most likely scenario today, both sides have reason to believe they may do considerably better in November, and what happens between now and Election Day will not be irrelevant to the final outcome.