Congress Ripe for a Takeover?

This is a partial transcript of "Special Report With Brit Hume" from March 13, 2006, that has been edited for clarity.

BRIT HUME, HOST: With congressional elections coming up, it would not take a switch of very many seats for the Democrats to regain control of th e House.

And look at this poll. We asked people in this recent FOX News poll whether it would be better for the country -- I think we could show this to you on a graphic -- if the Democrats win in the fall or the Republicans win? By a margin of 45 to 31 percent, people said it would be better for the Democrats to win. Nineteen percent, as you can see, didn’t have an opinion. But even that number 45 is up a little bit over February’s number. People thinking it would be better for Republicans went down the same amount.

So the question has to be asked, can the Democrats fail with public opinion this way? Well who better to ask than Michael Barone, Senior Writer of U.S. News & World Report, FOX News contributor and co-author of "The Almanac of American Politics," a man who has been in all congressional districts, all 435 in this country.

Michael, welcome.

MICHAEL BARONE, U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT: Well it’s nice to be with you, Brit, back here in the District of Columbia that’s not in any congressional district.

HUME: Right. Now given all of these races and given public sentiment as it is, how can the Democrats fail?

BARONE: Well, Brit, that question, like the so-called generic voting question that is asked: which party’s candidate would you favor for House of Representatives? That generic question has not been a good indicator of how a people actually vote.

Over the last 10 years, the Democrats have been ahead in that generic vote question something like 80 percent of the time. And during that period, they have lost five straight House elections, lost the popular vote by a majority of plurality, lost in terms of numbers of seats.

So I view those results as a little skeptical. I don’t think that they automatically transfer into votes for Democratic members in a majority of the 435 districts.

HUME: Now they only got to get 15 seats net, correct?

BARONE: Fifteen net seats.

HUME: Fifteen gain, right?

BARONE: That is correct.

HUME: Out of 435? Now how many of those 435 races are seriously contested?

BARONE: Well, if you judge by how people have voted in recent congressional elections, the answer is political analyst Charlie Cook, for example, who conducts a pretty neutral sort of thing, shows 21 now Republican-held seats as leaning Republican or a Republican toss up. He only shows 11 Democratic seats in similar jeopardy.

HUME: So he estimates about 30, mid-30, 35 seats are really seriously in play?

BARONE: Well, I think for more than 20 or so Republican seats to be in play, you have got to see a shifting of the political landscape. One of the things I’m fascinated by is that if you look at the last five elections going back to ‘96 through ‘04, the Republicans in popular vote have gotten between 49 and 51 percent; Democrats between 46 and 48.5. It’s a very narrow band. And despite poll results that you pointed to, people who have been looking at the district by district are not sure that they have seen major changes there.

Back in ‘94, I think I was the first person in the national press to write in U.S. News & World Report that the Republicans had a serious chance of winning the House then. They needed to pick up 40 seats, much more than the Democrats did this time. That prediction came in July, but it came about partly because I noticed that Republicans were -- challengers were actually leading Democratic incumbents in polls in House districts. I don’t think we have seen anything approaching that, although it’s not as late in the cycle this year as it was in 1994.

HUME: So why shouldn’t we believe then that the Democrats can’t get the mere 15? Is it because of the nature of the districts that these races are in? What is it exactly?

BARONE: Well, I think the answer is if previous voting pattern is obtained, it’s probably out of reach for them. If they are threatening in, for example, in 20 seats under that analysis, even in years that are very strong for the parties, like Republicans in ‘94, Democrats in 1974, a party only wins half of the seats where it has serious challenges, typically, and that’s in a good year. So they need really to put more than 20-some seats on the map.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel has been trying to recruit candidates in different kinds of districts, which wouldn’t be at risk for Republicans under previous political contours, but might be this year.

HUME: With a really attractive candidate?

BARONE: Yes, and I think that’s a smart thing for Emanuel...

HUME: Has he been successful?

BARONE: He has been successful in some instances. He has had -- he’s you know, failed to recruit some people in some districts, but he has had some recruiting successes in others. So he is trying to set up a situation where, if there is a tie, as Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg suggests, if the Republican support from downscale men in the deep south is declining, as Greenberg says it is, although he says that might be reversed by election day, then Democrats would have serious challengers in those seats. So I think it’s possible for the Democrats to win a majority in the House. I think it’s not likely.

One other statistic I throw in here, Brit, 15 seats, it doesn’t seem like a lot. If you go back and look at the 200-year history of the House of Representatives partisan elections, it’s not a lot. But in the last 20 years, we have only seen one year, 1994, where either party gained more than a net gain of 10 seats. That’s been the maximum gain over here since 1984.

HUME: And 10 seats would not do it?

BARONE: Ten seats would not do it. It would put the Democrats back about where they were after the 1998 election, which was very close, but as they say in politics, no cigar.

HUME: Great. Michael Barone, always good to have you. Thank you, sir.

Watch "Special Report With Brit Hume" weeknights at 6 p.m. EST.

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