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Can the Democrats Take Congress? Should They?

These days, Democrats are giddy about their chances to re-take one or both houses of Congress.

Cool-headed analyst Charlie Cook has been saying: "Not So Fast." At first blush, the "macro" conditions, as Cook describes them, seem to favor the Democrats. Cook is referring to the generic "right track/wrong track" and presidential job performance polls that we see almost every week. For instance, in the spring 1994, the year of the political tsunami that swept the Democrats out of power in Congress, 47% of Americans said the country was on the wrong track vs. 33% on the right track, a 14% gap. This year, according to one poll, the gap is 36% (26% "right track" vs. 62% "wrong track").

But ironically, while people seem overwhelmingly to favor Democrats in a "generic ballot," when voters get into the booth they tend to re-elect incumbents. One must also bear in mind that the quirks of our system give less populous states disproportionate representation in Congress, and Republicans are lucky enough to control many of those states.

When you look at the "micro" conditions (as Cook puts it), Republicans look like they’re still in pretty good shape. To seize control of the Senate, Democrats need a net gain of six seats. Cook identifies six races in which the Republicans are somewhat vulnerable, but Democrats would need to run the table while losing none of the seats they already control. While theoretically possible, it seems unlikely.

Democrats’ chances in the House are a bit better, since all 435 seats are up for re-election, but Cook concludes that only 36 are "truly in play." The Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats, but as Cook observes:

Meanwhile, despite their herculean efforts, Democratic recruiters have enticed few first-tier challengers into running this year. Instead, the party has an abundance of second- and third-tier candidates who could never prevail on their own and would need a hurricane-force wind at their backs to cross the finish line first.

Without another scandal or a few more serious gaffes by President Bush, it looks like the Republicans will hold onto at least one house of Congress, and probably both, although the Democrats appear certain to narrow the GOP majority.

Although no Democrat will publicly admit this, it is actually to the Democrats’ benefit if they just narrowly fail to re-take Congress this year. Without a friendly ally in the White House, there isn’t much that a Democratic majority in Congress could do. The most likely outcome is two years of gridlock, and in 2008 both parties would be able to blame the other for the lack of progress.

In contrast, if the Republicans hold Congress through the remainder of the Bush presidency, in 2008 the Democrats will have a clear shot at retaking Washington, with Republicans being held clearly accountable for the current state of things.

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