TOPICS > Politics

A Nation of Races Hanging in the Balance

October 26, 2006 at 9:00 PM EDT

And now to the straight-ahead specifics of this election, the at-stake numbers, the candidates, the issues, the polls, and the voters themselves. Judy Woodruff begins.

JUDY WOODRUFF, NewsHour Special Correspondent: Jim, we’ll start with the numbers, because control of the Congress comes down to simple arithmetic. Currently, Republicans hold 230 seats in the House; Democrats 201, with one independent who caucuses with Democrats, and two of the three vacancies Republican seats. And so Democrats would need to win 15 of those Republican-held seats to become the majority party in the House.

Now, currently in the Senate, Republicans hold 55 seats; Democrats 44, again with one independent who caucuses with the Democrats. Democrats would need to win 6 Republican Senate seats to move back into the majority there.

And now to the candidates. Most of the ones we began talking with months ago still are in races that are too close to call.

As NewsHour producers and correspondents fanned out across the country in June to launch our series of midterm election reports, President Bush’s job approval rating already had dropped below 40 percent. It was a sign of trouble for campaigning Republicans in the House, especially those representing moderate districts in traditionally Democratic blue states: Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania.

We visited several key districts in suburban Philadelphia. Republican incumbents Jim Gerlach, Curt Weldon, and Michael Fitzpatrick all were trying to strike a balance between embracing the president and keeping their distance.

REP. JIM GERLACH (R), Pennsylvania: We’re not running to the president; we’re not running from the president; we’re not running with the president. We’re running for the 6th Congressional District here in southeastern Pennsylvania.

REP. MICHAEL FITZPATRICK (R), Pennsylvania: I’m with the party and the president when I think he’s right. And when I think he’s not right, then I’m voting against him.

REP. CURT WELDON (R), Pennsylvania: He is the president, and I’m going to disagree with him repeatedly, which I’ve done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the three Democratic challengers were doing their best to knock the Republicans off-balance.

JOE SESTAK (D), Pennsylvania House Candidate: Curt Weldon has voted over four out of five times with this president. He is super-glued to this president.

PATRICK MURPHY (D), Pennsylvania House Candidate: Mr. Fitzpatrick agrees basically with this president and this Republican administration.

LOIS MURPHY (D), Pennsylvania House Candidate: Jim Gerlach has been part of the problem in Washington, that he’s been voting with the administration, voting with George Bush.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We heard a similar exchange in New York’s traditionally Republican 29th District. There, first-term Congressman Randy Kuhl tried to distance himself, not so much from the president, but from his decision to go to war in Iraq.

REP. RANDY KUHL (R), New York: I wasn’t there when the authorization was given to the president to move ahead with the war. My predecessor was. I don’t know how — quite frankly, I don’t know how I would have voted.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Democrat, 24-year Navy veteran Eric Massa, has kept the race tight by trying to keep Kuhl connected to the war issue.

ERIC MASSA (D), New York House Candidate: … and standing up and saying, “Well, I didn’t vote for that,” is a fundamental running away of responsibility.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the war was a drag on Republican incumbents in three Connecticut districts. Nine-term Congressman Christopher Shays knew he might be in trouble but wouldn’t distance himself from his decision to support the war.

GWEN IFILL: Are you willing to lose your seat on this issue?

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS (R), Connecticut: Well, absolutely. I mean, I don’t want to. But if I’m put in the back bench or thrown out, I’ll know that what I was doing was fighting for something I believe in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the situation in Iraq hasn’t improved. And in the view of most Americans — many of them Republicans — it has gotten worse. Republican strategists began seeing evidence of that weeks ago.

District by district, surveys showed Republican seats in blue states — Illinois, Minnesota and Washington — were slipping into the danger zone, as were red state seats in New Mexico, North Carolina, Florida, Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana.

Indiana’s 9th District is one of three in the state Republicans are having trouble defending. Voters here sent Mike Sodrel to Congress two years ago but only by a razor-thin margin. And that’s when Republican prospects nationwide were better.

REP. MIKE SODREL (R), Indiana: I trust the voters will make the right decision in November. I think they’re just kind of starting this process right now of thinking about, “Well, is this the fault of this president or this Congress or, you know, what about my member? Is he part of the solution or part of the problem?”

JUDY WOODRUFF: Baron Hill was the incumbent Sodrel defeated two years ago and told us he believes 9th District voters are ready to make another change.

BARON HILL (D), Indiana House Candidate: I think, in the final analysis, they’re going to say, “You know, I don’t know if the Democrats can do it any better than the Republicans or not, but let’s give them a chance.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: Florida also has three House districts it could swing over to the Democrats. Clay Shaw has represented one of them for 26 years and has risen to a senior position on the Ways and Means Committee. But Shaw, too, is in a tight re-election race, which he blames in part on the Mark Foley page scandal.

REP. CLAY SHAW (R), Florida: The problem that the Foley matter has brought about is that it’s taken the good work that we’ve done, the accomplishments that we’ve done, the good news in the economy, and a lot of the progress that we’ve made in Iraq, it takes that off the front page.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But State Senator Ron Klein, Shaw’s Democratic opponent, said the congressman has to accept some of the blame for the Foley scandal.

RON KLEIN (D), Florida House Candidate: Mr. Shaw is part of the leadership. He likes to talk about that all the time. He has to bear responsibility for the fact that the Republican leadership has, in this case, may have been involved in a cover-up.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, polls showed Democrats are within reach of taking back the Senate, as well, with better than an even chance of defeating Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island, Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania, and Conrad Burns in Montana. Arizona was also one of their early targets, where border security and what to do about the country’s estimated 12 million undocumented workers has dominated the political debate.

SEN. JON KYL (R), Arizona: Immigration is the issue in Arizona. More than half of the illegal immigrants coming into the United States pass through Arizona. Some stay. And everyone here is aware of it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Two-term Republican Senator Jon Kyl staked out an enforcement-first position on the issue and made it the center point of his re-election campaign.

SEN. JON KYL: First of all, make sure that you have in place all of the things you need to secure the border, which will take time, but commit the resources necessary to it, and we haven’t done that yet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The immigration issue appears to be working for Kyl. He has maintained a steady lead in the polls throughout his re-election campaign.

Democrats believe they have a better chance in Missouri, where polls show first-term Republican Jim Talent might be out of step with the majority of his constituents on one hot-button issue: stem cell research. Talent opposes a ballot initiative to protect federally approved research from state intervention.

SEN. JIM TALENT (R), Missouri: I decided that I was going to look at this thing and make the decision that I thought was right and let the politics and the chips fall where they may.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Talent’s Democratic opponent, Claire McCaskill, believes she’ll benefit from some of the Republican support the stem cell measure is attracting.

CLAIRE MCCASKILL (D), Missouri Senate Candidate: I’ve particularly seen a lot of suburban women who feel very strongly about the stem cell issue, and that’s a really important place for us to do well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Democrats also believe they can take back one of the two Senate seats they lost in Tennessee in 1994. Will voters here choose the Democrat, Memphis Congressman Harold Ford? He would be the first black senator from the South since reconstruction.

REP. HAROLD FORD (D), Candidate for U.S. Senate: The only history we will make on November 7th is that everybody in Tennessee will have them a United States senator who will look out for them, who will stand up for them, who will love them, and who will represent them. Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Or will voters choose the Republican, former Chattanooga mayor and successful businessman Bob Corker?

BOB CORKER (R), Candidate for U.S. Senate: Look, I know I’m not as good-looking as my opponent. But when it comes to solving problems, you guys know that you can count on me to do that every single day in the United States Senate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Democrats are feeling confident about Ohio, where two-term Senator Mike DeWine is being tarred with the same brush as other problem-plagued Republicans.

SEN. MIKE DEWINE (R), Ohio: You know, we’ve had scandals in the state house in Washington or in the state house in Columbus, and that’s been a problem. The president’s popularity is certainly not what it was. The Republican governor’s popularity is not where it should be, so there are issues there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Democrat, northern Ohio Congressman Sherrod Brown, is using the scandals and the state’s sagging economy against DeWine.

GWEN IFILL: So this is a “throw the bums out” kind of year?

SHERROD BROWN (D), Ohio Senate Candidate: I think it’s a “throw the bums out” kind of year, because of the arrogance of power, because of one-party government, and because this crowd in Washington, Mike DeWine and others, and this crowd in Columbus have betrayed middle-class Ohioans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: National Republican Party officials recently denied a report that they had given up on DeWine’s campaign and had shifted money away from it. However, Republicans have moved more resources into Virginia, in an attempt to protect incumbent George Allen from a surging challenge by Democrat and former Navy Secretary Jim Webb.

They also believe they could steal a seat in New Jersey. There, polls show Republican State Senator Tom Kean, Jr., the son of the former governor, in a close race with Democratic Senator Robert Menendez. For Democrats, the loss of even one seat could put majority control of the Senate out of reach.

A look at the Senate

So heading into the final week of the campaign, which House and Senate races are still in play? For that, we turn to Stuart Rothenberg. He's editor of the Rothenberg Political Report. And Amy Walter, she's the senior editor for the Cook Political Report.

Thank you both for being here.

Stu, we finished up that piece with the Senate. Let's start with it here. Most political experts you talk to are now talking about the big three: Tennessee, Virginia, Missouri. You agree with that?

STUART ROTHENBERG, Editor, Rothenberg Political Report: Yes, I think if most political experts are saying that, they're right. The contest will really come down to those three. Of course, keep an eye on New Jersey, in case the Republicans, as you suggested, could steal a normally Democratic race.

But it looks like we just have a handful of races here. I mean, my own assessment is the Democrats are likely to pick up four seats. And the question is: Can they get to five, six or seven? And it's those three. And all three could go one way or they could go the other. It could split. It's hard to tell right now, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Quickly, how do they break down? What do you see in Tennessee, in particular, with Harold Ford?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, all these races are within the margin of error. Both sides, one day they'll have their Republican candidate up by a point, and the other day, the Democratic a point.

Tennessee is obviously a brutal race. Ford may be ahead by a point or not. The question -- I think a lot of Democrats believe he needs to be ahead by a few points in order to win this race, an African-American in a border, a southern state. He's running a terrific race, and the Republicans started slowly, but they're trying to make it more about Harold Ford now, not about Corker or about Bush.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, quickly, Missouri and Virginia?

STUART ROTHENBERG: These are Republican incumbents that are being, frankly, caught in the wave at the moment, the anti-Bush, the war in Iraq messages. It's somewhat about the candidates, but it's more about the national dynamic.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And these other states that were considered, you know, in play, consensus now Democrats in good shape in Ohio, Pennsylvania?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Yes, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island.

JUDY WOODRUFF: These are pick-ups.

STUART ROTHENBERG: You know, you hear some buzz here or then about a mini-surge in Montana. Everything that I pick up continues to be that Senator Burns is trailing. These incumbents are trailing, sometimes very seriously.

In this environment, the undecided votes are going to tend to go to the Democrats, tend to go to the change candidate. And so it's very difficult for these Republicans to come back.

And in Arizona, Jon Kyl continues to hang onto a lead, as you pointed out in the piece. If the wave is big enough, I guess Democrats have some hope there, but it's still relatively small.

Now, we're focused in on four or five races. If you're a Republican, you want to take a look at Maryland, because Michael Steele is running such a terrific race. That's understandable, but this is coming down to a handful.

A look at the House

JUDY WOODRUFF: Amy Walter, House races, all 435 seats are up. This year for a change, a larger number of them really do seem to be in play. You've divided the ones that are into three tiers. Talk about what you mean by that.

AMY WALTER, The Cook Political Report: Well, if we had talked at the beginning of the year, Stu and I would have both agreed. We'd say: Here's the problem for Democrats in trying to get to the 15 seats they need for the majority is that the playing field is just too small. There are too few seats that Democrats can go after to pick those up.

Today, it's a totally different story. We're carrying about 50 Republican seats now that we consider in play, and this tells a story, too, about what this election looks like. Only seven on the Democratic side. So it's really completely an offensive arrangement here for Democrats.

If you look at those 50 seats, I think it's easier to understand just what the number will look like on Election Day, in terms of what kind of pick-ups Democrats can expect based on how they do in these different tiers.

The first tier, there's probably a dozen or so seats that Republicans today, they're running behind their individual races, where the individual candidate or the individual situation in that district determines the situation there less than the wave. These are some districts, like Bob Ney's seat in Ohio, or Don Sherwood in Pennsylvania, who has his own scandals that he's dealing with.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Three Indiana seats.

AMY WALTER: Three seats in Indiana, yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And then the next tier, you've...

AMY WALTER: And then the next tier are those battleground districts, like you pointed out in the piece, in Pennsylvania, in Connecticut, in the suburban districts, where we always thought the race for control of the House was going to be centered in the first place.

And right now, just as Stu is pointing out in the Senate, so many of these races are now two points, three points. Very few Republican incumbents have been able to get a lead in any of these races. And I agree with him, too, that if you're in one of these districts, a district that Kerry won, for example, or maybe Bush carried by just a point or so, those undecided voters, those are not Republican-leaning voters.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And then, finally, you describe races that defy traditional political calculation.

AMY WALTER: That's right. There are a whole slew of those races in that third tier, where right now we're seeing in places like Idaho or California, where they're Republican-leaning districts, but because of individual problems in those districts of the Republican candidate or simply districts that get caught up in the wave.

Republican Money and Turnout

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask you both, today Republicans are saying, "Look, we know we're in trouble in some places. We've got more money though, and we have a better get out the vote effort." How much difference could that make?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, it certainly could make some. And Karl Rove appears to be convinced that the Republicans are going to hold the House and that this turnout mechanism is going to work.

But I was talking to a Republican consultant recently. And he was telling me he was looking at all these ads. And he says, "You know, we're struggling to put together the best ads, use the right words, the right tape, the right photographs, just put together a perfect piece. And then we looked, and the Democrats take a picture of President Bush, they mention the war in Iraq, they throw that up in the ad, and they blow us away."

It's that the message is just not carrying, and I have to wonder whether turnout enough is going to be a mechanism to overcome the mood.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Less than a minute. Amy, quickly, on election night, what are you looking at early? I mean, do you think this will break early?

AMY WALTER: This certainly could. The nice thing for those of us on the East Coast, maybe some of us who could go to sleep early -- unfortunately, we're not in that category -- you can look to the east of the Mississippi really determining what the outcome for the House will be. So what I'm looking to are places in Philadelphia and Connecticut, for example, three Republican incumbents up in Connecticut. If all three lose, that's going to tell you it's a big night for Democrats.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Stu, quickly.

STUART ROTHENBERG: I think the Missouri, Virginia and Tennessee races could be very close all the way down to the wire. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Missouri race dragging on in the wee hours of the night. The House may be determined early or we may have a good indicator. I'm not sure about the Senate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Stu Rothenberg, Amy Walter, stay with us.

Jim, back to you.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you, Judy.

Nationalizing the races

And, again, to Mark Shield and David Brooks.

Mark, is what Amy and Stu saying, that the Democrats or the situation has been successful in nationalizing these congressional races, both at the Senate and the House level?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, there's no question. And historically, in recent years anyway, the Republicans have been able to do that to their advantage. But this election is really about George Bush and Iraq, Iraq in reverse order.

I mean, Peter Hart I was talking to today, and he said, "You know, you can talk about Katrina"...

JIM LEHRER: He's a Democratic pollster.

MARK SHIELDS: Democratic pollster who's and does the Wall Street Journal-NBC poll with Bill McInturff. He said, you could talk about Katrina, and immigration, and Medicare, and, you know, other issues like that. He says those are really foothills. He said Iraq is Everest in this election, and that's what everybody is playing off of.

And the one thing that Amy said that just hit me was 50 Republican seats in play and seven. I talked to a Republican analyst who goes through it district by district, probably not as well as Amy, but said that he could not find a single district or single state in the country where a Republican challenger was leading a Democratic incumbent.

JIM LEHRER: How did you react to what Amy and Stuart said about the numbers in there, what they're looking for, and the tiers, et cetera?

DAVID BROOKS: Right, well, it is national. I've sat with many Republican candidates who were good fits for their districts, and they're just being wiped out.

But I would say there's two strains here, one in the blue states. You've got moderate Republicans with centrist voting records, and they're being destroyed. They're good for their districts, but they're just being destroyed because Bush is so unpopular in the blue states.

But then one of the things the Democrats have done in the red states --and these are the border states of the South, Virginia, Ohio, even Pennsylvania -- they've got a lot of tough populists who are not traditional liberals. They're sometimes socially quite conservative, sometimes economically very populist, anti-free trade, sometimes quite tough on immigration. So they've done a good job -- the Democrats have -- of new kind of tough economic populist in these states.