Lawmakers return to Washington this week after a month-long recess to focus on an agenda that includes increases in spending for defense and homeland security.
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The House and Senate return from a five-week August recess, during which many members campaigned for reelection, and with no less than majority control of Congress in play, perhaps for the first time in 12 years. Members will be more than anxious to leave Washington in a month or so to campaign full-time, right up to Election Day, November 7.
Here first to handicap each party's chances in the upcoming midterm elections are Stuart Rothenberg — he's editor of The Rothenberg Political Report — and Amy Walter. She's the senior editor of The Cook Political Report.
Stu and Amy, thanks very much.
Stu, to you first. Democrats need to pick up what? Republicans need to pick up 15 seats in the House, six in the Senate, in order to win control. What are their chances?
STUART ROTHENBERG, Editor, The Rothenberg Political Report:
Well, yes, Democrats have to pick up those significant numbers.
Right now, I think the Democrats' chances are pretty good in the House, not quite as good in the Senate. We have a long way to go. But, right now, in the House, I think there are enough seats in play. The poll numbers, local and national, suggest something has happened. And I think the Democrats have a decent chance.
Why do you think that?
Well, it's a combination of the national stuff. There is a national wave going on, in terms of Bush job approval, congressional job approval, and the poll question, "Is the country headed in the right direction or off on the wrong track?"
All, when you add those together, there's a desire for change out there. The public is dissatisfied with the direction of the country, with the president's performance. So, that creates an environment, a landscape that's good for the Democrats.
They have recruited enough candidates. There are not a lot of districts in play, Judy, but there are probably enough decent candidates to take advantage of their environment.
And when Amy and I scope around, when we smell around, to try to find what the poll numbers are in individual districts, it's very clear that Democratic numbers are unusually good for this point in the cycle, and Republican incumbents have mediocre poll numbers.
Amy, you're forecasting a good season for the Democrats. What has changed in the last two years, since the last congressional election?
AMY WALTER, Senior Editor, The Cook Political Report:
Well, Stu pointed to it. It's the environment that has changed the most dramatically.
I mean, if you go back two years ago, or let's go back to the last midterm election, when the president was sitting at 60 percent approval rating, you ask the question about who do you trust better on the issue of terrorism, Republicans had something like a 30-point advantage on that. Even in 2004, what you knew was that, while the president's approval rating wasn't as strong, he still had a great support among his base.
And, even as he was losing independents, it was only by one vote. And when Stu and I are looking at these polls, what we're seeing is now that not only are Democrats more motivated — and that's a real problem — than Republicans — and, if you ask the question about how motivated today are you to go out and vote in November, Democrats, certainly much more so than Republicans.
And then you look at independents, who were breaking evenly two years ago. Today, they're breaking dramatically for the Democrat. The one question now is — you know, there are a bunch of folks right now sitting in undecided.
I think those voters are the ones that both sides are going after — Democrats going after them, as Stu was saying, with the sort of time-for-change message. What Republicans are going to try to do is to say, you know what? You may be undecided right now. They're not going to try to sell them on the Republican, as much as trying to undercut the Democrat.
But what's at the core of this unhappiness on the part of voters?
I think a sense that the country is not headed in the right direction. And, for some people, it may be the war in Iraq. For other people, it might be administration's response to Katrina. For other people, it's high gas prices.
But there's a mood, Judy. Elections are often by the status quo, keep the guys who are there, they're doing an OK job, vs. change. And, at the moment, for a variety of reasons — different people may have different reasons, but they're all saying, we need some new decision-makers, some new leaders.