Can the Democrats Take the House?

I talked to a Republican Congressman a few weeks ago who expressed concern that the party could lose the House of Representatives in 2006. Current polling is pretty bad; the current Real Clear Politics average approval rating for Congress is only 33%. And it’s been a while since there was any news that could be considered helpful to Republican Congressional candidates.
This morning’s Washington Times discusses the Democrats’ chances:

House Republicans have taken some hits but should still be able to win a majority in 2006 because there just aren’t enough opportunities for Democrats, Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, the man charged with House Republicans’ campaign operation, said yesterday.
Mr. Reynolds dismissed polls that show poor ratings for the Republican-controlled Congress, saying while overall impressions are bad, voters still like their own local representative.
Democrats said their own polling finds different results. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) said polls showing high dissatisfaction with Republicans in general have translated into a lack of support for individual members of Congress.
Democrats would have to win 15 seats to gain control.
Politicians and observers are wondering whether 2006 could be a repeat of 1994, when Republicans captured a majority for the first time in four decades. But Mr. Reynolds said there aren’t enough races to do that. He said in 1994 there were 106 races that were considered competitive by pundits. This year, political race-watcher Charlie Cook says there are just 27, and race-watcher Stuart Rothenberg says there are 37.

That’s the conventional wisdom: the parties have redistricted themselves into so many safe seats that there aren’t enough close ones for power to shift much in the near term. It’s also true that while the current approval rating for Congress is low, it is better than it was in 1994; I’m going from memory here, but I’m pretty sure I saw approval scores as low as 14% prior to the 1994 election.
Still, I’m worried about the party’s prospects next year. Assessments of how many seats are at risk depend largely on assumptions about turnout, and there are several reasons why Republican turnout could be low next year. The party’s base is very unhappy about two issues: illegal immigration and spending. The first has been true for a while; the second has come to a head in the wake of Congress’s shoveling of money at the Gulf states after Hurricane Katrina. Unless Republican Congressmen demonstrate to both their constitutents and their financial backers that they are making a serious and reasonably successful effort to restrain hurricane relief so that it doesn’t turn into the biggest pork extravaganza in history, and also balance as much hurricane spending as possible with cuts in other programs, I think the base’s frustration may well result in unexpectedly low turnout, with 1994-like results.
The main cause for optimism is that Republicans get to run against Democrats. I’m glad to see that the Democrats are still pinning their hopes on their silly “culture of corruption” theme. Even in politics, a strategy has to be built on at least a kernel of reality, and the “corruption” theme has none. By next fall, with Tom DeLay laughing at Ronnie Earle from his restored position as Majority Leader, and Bill Frist having been cleared by the SEC, the Democrats will be looking for a new catch-phrase. Let’s hope it’s too late by then.

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