Democrats lose foot­ing for gains in Novem­ber races

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By S.A. Miller and Sean Lengell

“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.

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