WASHINGTON – Democrats running the House of Representatives had their chance to lead and squandered it, say Republicans determined to put a bright face on seemingly dim hopes for a return to a GOP majority in 2008.
But while some Republicans want to call the '08 election forecast "a mixed bag," others said the GOP's disadvantages are high. Not only is public opinion still cool towards Republicans, but the terrain favors Democrats too. So far, 17 House Republicans have announced their retirements at the end of this term compared to five Democrats who are stepping down or running for higher office next year.
"There really isn't much of an advantage for Republicans there," said Steve Farnsworth, assistant professor of political science at Mary Washington University in Virginia.
Republican supporters looking for a comeback said a number of districts lost in the 2006 midterm election can be retaken with the right focus and resources. Many of the Democrats targeted are key freshmen who Republicans said won their seats in a "perfect storm" of conditions that won't hold the same relevance in the next election.
Among the Democratic lawmakers in GOP sights are:
— Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Texas, who lost his seat in 2005 after a Republican-engineered redistricting in Texas but won it back last year when the chief conductor of that redistricting, then-GOP Majority Leader Tom DeLay, announced he would not be running again for office amid political scandal;
— Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-Fla., who won his seat last year after GOP Rep.Mark Foley resigned following reports of inappropriate e-mails sent to underage House pages during Foley's tenure on Capitol Hill. Foley's departure was too late to get the Republican candidate's name on the ballot and Mahoney sailed through the election, winning in a district that is heavily Republican and went for President Bush by 52 percent in 2004;
— Rep. Chris Carney, D-Pa., another Democratic winner in a Republican-leaning district amid scandal. A lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve, Carney won his seat after long-time incumbent Don Sherwood's popularity plummeted following news he not only had an extramarital affair but had been accused of beating the woman.
— Rep. Gerald McNerney, D-Calif., who managed to wrestle this heavily GOP district in suburban northern California from incumbent GOP Rep. Richard Pombo, who many believed was punished by the voters for his ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Republicans are fully aware of the need for change across the country and are telling candidates in key districts to bash Washington if necessary, said one party insider.
"We're encouraging our candidates not only to run against Washington but also against us (Republicans)," the GOPer admitted.
Republicans are also heavily recruiting millionaires in an effort to make up for the huge fundraising gap with Democrats, according to reports. "We have to get creative," said the party operative.
One indicator of the challenges ahead is current fundraising numbers. The National Republican Campaign Committee has $2.5 million on hand compared to $29 million at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The Republican National Committee has more money than the Democratic National Committee, however. And despite his low approval ratings, President Bush continues to be a big fundraising draw for Republican candidates.
Though most of his events are closed to the public, and he is making fewer appearances with candidates, reports indicate that the president has helped to raise $63.5 million for the GOP this year compared with $62.4 million at the same point in 2005.
Meanwhile, Democrats said they have 29 "front line" incumbents they are defending vigorously and have been recruiting for possible takeovers in places like Illinois, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Florida. They insist their recruiting has been going smoothly and fundraising is a serious business.
"When I think our Republican colleagues thought we would be playing defense going into these next elections, in fact, we've been very much on offense. We're not just consolidating our gains. We've put more than 40 Republican seats in play," DCCC chairman Chris Van Hollen told "FOX News Sunday."
Republican sources on Capitol Hill know they are at a disadvantage when it comes to fundraising. But they plan to capitalize on a growing perception — at least in opinion polls — that Democrats aren't living up to their promises of 2006 to gain a toehold next November.
For example, Republicans emphasize Democrats’ failure to pass key spending bills and override recent presidential vetoes on the Children's Health Insurance Program reauthorization and the Labor, Health, Human Services and Education appropriations bill, which Bush and congressional Republicans opposed on grounds they expand government spending and contained too many earmarks.
"They have proposed big taxes, big spending, have failed to support our troops in the war, are undermining our intelligence collection efforts, have shut the Republicans out of any meaningful discussions to move the country ahead as they had promised to do during the campaign, and have demonstrated an utter lack of fiscal responsibility by recommending $205 billion in additional spending over the next four years and two of the biggest tax increases in American history," said former Bush strategist Karl Rove, who appeared with Van Hollen.
Republicans say they plan to portray themselves as united and fiscally responsible, while Democrats are not only irresponsible but incapable of mustering enough support to pass the legislation they promised during the 2006 campaign.
"Republicans need to keep putting the pressure on Democrats," said one former party aide who is now working on Capitol Hill. So far, Republicans have done a good job at exposing Democrats, discrediting them and driving their negatives through the roof, he said.
"The flip side is come Election Day, we had better offer a better alternative. You can’t build credibility overnight," the aide added.
Republicans are also hoping to take advantage of recent opinion polls that find support for Congress plummeting among Americans. According to a FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll taken in late September, only 24 percent of respondents approve of the job Congress is doing.
More recently, a November Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 65 percent of Americans disapprove of Congress, five points higher than last year at the same time and six points higher than 2005.
"I think with the record low approval ratings, Democrats are going to have a much more difficult time making the case that they are the party of change. They have forfeited that mantle," claimed Ken Spain, spokesman for the NRCC. "You only get one chance to make an impression and that window of opportunity has already closed. They went from being the answer to the problem to being part of the problem."
But a closer look at these polls finds Republicans have nothing to crow about yet. In that same Washington Post poll, when the question was broken down into parties, 63 percent said they disapproved of Republicans in Congress compared to 58 percent who said they were unhappy with Democrats.
Moreover, respondents said Democrats were in a better position than Republicans, 50 percent to 34 percent, to handle the war in Iraq. As a whole, 56 percent of Americans said they had an unfavorable view of the Republican Party, the highest levels since 1998, when Bill Clinton was president and the Republican House was engaged in trying to impeach him. Comparably, 45 percent said they had a negative view of Democrats, up from 41 percent last year.
Nathan Gonzales, analyst for the Rothenberg Political Report, said negative numbers for Democrats don’t necessarily translate into more votes for Republicans. Many Democrats have expressed frustration with their party in Congress because they haven’t fought Bush and Republicans enough.
"(Those voters) aren’t going to support Republicans in 2008," said Gonzales, who is monitoring the House and Senate races for the Report's tip sheet.
Farnsworth said Bush's lagging approval numbers are still dragging the GOP down ahead of the next election. "The unpopularity of Bush is an anchor that drove down candidates in 2007 and can drive down candidates in 2008," he said.
"This election is going to be about change and which party is best able to move the country away from the disastrous Bush agenda," said Doug Thornell, director of communications for the DCCC. "The Republican Party is incapable of being agents of change given their legacy of support for George Bush, 12 years of incompetence and completely ignoring the problems facing the middle class."
Meanwhile, both parties are looking toward the presidential nomination process to gauge how much the top of their tickets will help them come next fall. Political analysts agree that whoever is leading the party out of what is becoming an historic primary season will have a big impact on the down-ticket races.
"Overall, I think the biggest role it will play is it will bring voters to the polls who likely only come out during presidential elections," said Costas Panagopoulos, a Fordham University political science professor. "It's not unusual for turnout to be 20 to 30 points higher than in off-years. Voting behavior in the congressional race just may be influenced by the presidential race."
Panagopoulos added that it is not entirely clear which party will benefit from the emerging issues in the upcoming campaign — immigration, national security, the economy, even Iraq.
"It all depends on who has a more compelling story to tell. That remains to be seen."