Republicans admit they have a tough fight on their hands to win the Nov. 7 election, and while polls appear to back that up, they nonetheless remain upbeat about the party's chances.
"It is a Republican Congress we will have after the midterm elections," Rep. Tom Reynolds, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Wednesday.
With less than three weeks to Election Day, the message from the White House is one of optimism. President Bush has expressed a fair degree of certainty — at least publicly — that Republicans will hold both the House and the Senate.
Asked by FOX News' Bill O'Reilly whether the loss of congressional control will impact how he leads, Bush called the question faulty.
"I don't buy into that premise, for starters," Bush said. "That's kind of a trick question, because the minute I start answering your question, then the word is, well, Bush anticipates losing.
"I don't anticipate losing. I anticipate a tough fight. ... I really believe we're going to hold both" congressional chambers, he said.
Democrats, however, are looking at polling numbers, and starting to feel the wind at their backs. Democrats need six seats to gain control in the Senate and 15 to win the House.
"We are in a position today where the field is actually growing, as we are just under three weeks out from the election, growing in terms of the number of competitive races," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., appearing with Reynolds at the National Press Club.
Voters "understand more clearly than in elections past the Republicans have a monopoly on power in Washington," Van Hollen said. "They're the ones in charge. They've got the White House. They've got the Senate. They've got the House. So to the extent people want to hold a group of individuals accountable and responsible for what they don't like about where this country is going, this election is their opportunity to do it."
A FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll taken Oct. 10-11 shows that of the 900 likely voters surveyed, 50 percent said if the election were held that day, they would vote for the Democratic candidate in their congressional district, while 41 percent would vote for the Republican. Most Democrats and Republicans surveyed said they would support their party’s candidates, but independents were more likely to vote for the Democratic candidate by a 48 to 33 spread.
An Associated Press/Ipsos Public Affairs poll taken Oct. 2-4 asked registered voters if they would vote for the Democratic or Republican candidate in their congressional district. Supporting or leaning Democratic represented 53 percent of respondents, compared to 38 percent of respondents going for Republicans.
Republicans say the numbers don't take into account events on the ground in each local district.
"These aren't national elections. And, all these polls that you see are national polls, and what we have 435 individual elections with members talking about local issues," House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, told FOX News.
"We are dealing with fierce contests fought by local personalities on local pocketbook issues," Reynolds said.
Democrats are closely watching Senate races in Tennessee, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Montana and Missouri, where Republican seats may turn over. Republican Sen. George Allen's Virginia Senate seat has become a major focus of Democrats. Republicans would like to deny Senate Democrats re-election in New Jersey and Michigan, and hang on to what they have.
The most dire predictions suggest Republicans could lose as many as 41 House seats on Election Day. That would be a switch from 2002, when the president's party picked up seats, one of only four times in the last 36 midterm elections that has happened.
"It's always tough when you're in the midterm of your second presidential term in office. Historically, those are the most difficult elections for the incumbents in the White House," Vice President Dick Cheney told radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh on Tuesday.
Campaign watcher Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, who runs the Crystal Ball tip sheet, projects a Democratic pick-up of 18-22 seats in the House, with Democrats winning a majority of somewhere between 221 and 225 seats. Control of Congress is attained at 218 seats. Sabato lists 26 Republican seats as a toss-up or leaning Democrat, while no Democratic seats are listed as toss-ups or leaning Republican.
At the Rothenberg Political Report, editor Stuart Rothenberg predicts a Democratic pick-up in the House of 18-25 seats. He lists 14 Republican toss-up seats and nine Republican seats tilting or leaning Democratic and one, retiring Rep. Jim Kolbe's seat, as favorable for the Democrat. He lists three Democratic seats as possible toss-ups but leaning Democratic.
"All of our numbers look pretty bad. And there's no question that there's a jet stream in our face," Boehner said. "But at the end of the day what we have to do is turn Republican voters out to vote."
Republicans say they are not about to concede, and are counting in part on positive economic news to help the party in power. The consumer price index dipped a half percent in September, gas prices have come down and the Dow index broke 12,000 on Wednesday morning, driven by robust economic numbers.
But the war in Iraq continues to nag at voters, and the number of U.S. forces killed this month — 10 reported casualties on Tuesday — illustrates the escalating problems the administration is encountering in trying to quell growing sectarian violence. Broad majorities in most polls say the United States is headed in the wrong direction.
"Special-interest influence, secret legislating, lobbyist gifts and revolving doors have compromised the integrity of the Congress, and the American people are paying the price. Republicans have not only failed to respond, they now say they are committed to maintaining the status quo," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement.
Still, Bush senior adviser Karl Rove is sharing the president's public optimism, predicting to Washington Times reporters and editors that Republicans will hold onto the House and Senate, and will only be impacted minimally by the Mark Foley scandal. The former Republican lawmaker left Congress in disgrace on Sept. 29 after news broke that he had "overly friendly" e-mail exchanges with a former teenage congressional page.
"I'm confident we're going to keep the Senate; I'm confident we're going to keep the House. The Foley matter has impact in some limited districts, but the research we have shows that people are differentiating between a vote for their congressman and a member from Florida," Rove said.
According to the FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll, only 11 percent of voters say the congressional page scandal will be extremely important to their vote, though nearly half say the scandal is part of a larger pattern of Washington abuse of power rather than an isolated incident.
Despite the public face, not everyone at the White House is swimming in the president's optimism. Cheney said he's confident about keeping the Senate but still uncertain about the House.
"I think we'll hold the Senate and I also think we got a good shot at holding the House," the vice president said.
Elsewhere, The White House Bulletin reports that Republican insiders are circulating internal polls that paint a gloomy electoral outlook for GOP candidates in next month's elections. The dark clouds followed a memo written by Republican pollster David Winston, who found that the party identification spread from people being polled shows a much higher rate of self-identified Democrats over recent years.
While Democrats have held a slight advantage in party identification in six of the last seven elections, it has never been by more than 4 percentage points, and 2002 is the only year in which Republicans held an advantage — by two points. But in recent surveys done by seven different polling organizations in early October, the Democratic advantage in the sample was never less than 5 points.
Political operatives are blaming the shift on a natural tendency for voters to gravitate away from a party that has been in power over an extended period of time. Republicans have controlled the House since 1995.
"It is certainly not out of the realm of possibility that this year's election could fall outside of historical results, but any survey that does should acknowledge that the data presented are based on a foundation that reflects a structural shift in the way the electorate identifies itself with a party," Winston told Republicans, according to the Bulletin.
But Reynolds said the GOP has three advantages going for it — more money, a highly developed get-out-the-vote operation and a better message.
Boehner said it will all come down to Election Day.
"We do a much better job of turning our people out to vote. We've got better technology, more volunteers, a better ground game. I saw things in the '04 election when President Bush won that I thought that Republicans were genetically incapable of doing," he said.
FOX News' Greg Kelly and Carl Cameron and The Associated Press contributed to this report.