Democrats lose footing for gains in November races
“Saturday Night Live” veteran Al Franken should have had an easier run for U.S. Senate in Minnesota against an embattled Republican incumbent but is being dogged by $70,000 in unpaid taxes and is slipping in the polls — just one of the topsy-turvy races clouding Democrats’ expectations of big gains in November.
The Franken tax flap, a bruising Democratic primary in Oregon and signs of trouble for the Democratic incumbent in New Jersey have Senate Republicans thinking they might salvage a bad election year from a potentially terrible one.
Republicans face no easier task in the House, and have little chance of wresting control of the chamber from Democrats in November. Yet a few vulnerable Democratic seats give Republicans hope of chipping away at the majority’s 235-199 advantage.
The unexpected twist is welcome for Republicans, who are grappling with economic woes that voters typically blame on the president’s party, continued dissatis- faction with the Iraq war and a huge fundraising disadvantage.
“This year for us is going to be about defense,” said Rebecca Fisher, spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), which is guarding six vacant seats and lags its Democratic counterpart in fundraising by a 2-1 margin.
“But what we’ve seen in the last few months is a lot of change in these races, even races we were very nervous about,” she said. “As worried as we were about a significant number of seats in the beginning, that is beginning to change.”
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner called the November elections “a battle Republicans can win.”
“America is a center-right country, and middle-class families and small businesses have no interest in Democrats’ agenda of higher taxes, ever-higher gas prices, more wasteful spending, governmentrun health care that will drive up costs and weak national security,” the Ohio Republican said two weeks ago.
The party still faces an uphill battle to save Sen. John E. Sununu against Jeanne Shaheen, a three- time governor in New Hampshire. The state took a dramatic turn toward Democrats in 2006.
Democrats also are poised to capture the open seats of retiring Republican Sens. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico and John W. Warner of Virginia.
Republican strategists say privately that the party likely will lose all three seats but defeat Sen. Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, one of the most vulnerable Democrats on the map. The net gain of two seats would boost the chamber’s Democratic majority from 49, with two Democrat-leaning independents, to 51 plus two.
Reps. Steve Pearce and Heather A. Wilson of New Mexico are fighting furiously for the Senate Republican nomination while Rep. Tom Udall, a Democrat, builds a sturdy lead for the general election. Mr. Udall topped Mr. Pearce 54 percent to 40 percent and Mrs. Wilson 56 percent to 36 percent in a recent Rasmussen Reports survey.
In Virginia, a state ripe to turn from red to blue, former Gov. Mark Warner is favored to pick up the Senate seat for the Democrats against likely Republican rival James S. Gilmore III, also a former governor.
Mr. Gilmore trails in fundraising and must fend off a challenge from the right by Delegate Robert G. Marshall of Prince William County at the state Republican Party convention May 31.
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Matt Miller said Mr. Warner’s high approval rating coupled with Mr. Gilmore’s unpopularity upon leaving office in 2002 create a recipe for success.
“You put those two together and it’s not surprising that Warner is in a commanding position,” he said.
In Minnesota, Mr. Franken looked strong against Sen. Norm Coleman, one of the Republican Party’s most vulnerable incumbents.
Minnesota is trending Democratic, and both President Bush and the Iraq war are wildly unpopular in the state. Minnesota voters elected Democrat Amy Klobuchar to an open U.S. Senate seat in 2006 by a 20-point margin.
Mr. Franken, roiled for more than a month by questions about his personal finances, announced April 29 that he owed about $70,000 in unpaid taxes in at least 17 states where he performed between 2003 and 2007. He blamed bad accounting and said he over- paid taxes by that much in Minnesota and New York.
Critics smelled a cover-up and dubbed the comedian a “scofflaw” and a “tax deadbeat.”
A Rasmussen Reports poll shows Mr. Coleman captured 50 percent of surveyed voters for the first time and opened a seven-point lead over Mr. Franken. The incumbent had a thin lead, 48 percent to 46 percent, in March and Mr. Franken enjoyed a three-point lead in February.
In the House, at least 25 Republicans and about a half-dozen Democrats are retiring. Many political analysts, noting a huge fundraising advantage for Democrats, say it could take more than one election cycle for Republicans to seriously pose a challenge for the chamber’s majority.
Many of the retirements are in safe Republican districts, and the party is aggressively targeting the 21 freshmen Democrats who hold seats in districts carried by Mr. Bush in 2004 but which turned with the Democratic tide in 2006.
“With John McCain squaring off against a polarizing liberal candidate, the playing field for House Republicans expands,” Mr. Boehner said.