WASHINGTON—For five years, President Bush has defied political history.
He won the White House while losing the popular vote. He expanded his party's majority in Congress in 2002, the first president to do so in his first term since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934. He added seats again in 2004, the first to do so while winning re-election since FDR in 1936.
Now, six months before another Election Day, history appears to be catching up to Bush and his party.
Republicans are poised to lose seats in the House of Representatives and the Senate for the first time in the Bush era—as has happened to every president in his sixth year in office since the Civil War, with the sole exception of Bill Clinton in 1998.
Republicans could well lose control of the House, and if the political tide runs strong enough, possibly the Senate. If Democrats capture either chamber, Bush will lose any chance to set the nation's agenda or to block investigations that could harass him through his last two years in office.
Republicans also appear in danger of losing some of the nation's most prominent governorships, including such mega-states as California, Florida and New York.
The reasons: an unpopular war in Iraq, a Congress seen as out of touch and a president who, at least for now, has lost control of the national agenda—remember his bid to overhaul Social Security, the top goal of his second term—and has lost the approval of a majority of Americans. Even good news about the growing economy is overshadowed by anger over gasoline prices. People are sour, and the party in power is in trouble.
"This is the worst shape I've seen the Republicans in since at least 1982," said independent analyst Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, an independent newsletter. "They're running uphill."
Democrats have to gain 15 seats, net, to take control of the House from the Republicans. This week, Rothenberg increased his forecast for Republican losses in the House from a range of five to eight seats to a range of seven to 10 seats, "with a bias toward even greater Democratic gains."
"The House definitely is in play," he said.
He and other analysts also expect Republican losses in the Senate. Five Republican seats are vulnerable right now—but Democrats must gain six, net, to take control.
A critical question is whether more Republican seats will become vulnerable over the summer. Good news, from Iraq or the gas pumps, could shore them up. Bad news could push even more House and Senate seats into competitive contests, opening the way to more Democratic wins.
"The political environment couldn't be better for Democrats," said Amy Walter, an analyst for the Cook Political Report, another independent newsletter. "If the environment looks as bad in September as it does today, that puts a whole new set of districts into play."
It's still possible, of course, that Republicans will resist the tide of historic losses by the party in power, which since 1906 has lost an average of 32 House seats and five Senate seats in the sixth year of a presidency.
For one thing, many more House members today represent districts whose boundaries are drawn to protect incumbents by stacking them heavily with voters who always support one party or the other.
There aren't yet as many competitive House and Senate seats as there were in 1994, when the Democrats lost control of the Congress as Republicans gained 54 House seats. To replicate such electoral change now would take either stronger Democratic challengers to put more seats in play, or a rising wave of public anger that could carry even weak Democratic challengers into competitive campaigns.
"There are still some top Republican targets who don't have first-tier challengers, such as (Reps.) Anne Northup in Kentucky. Rick Renzi in Arizona, Jon Porter in Nevada and Mike Fitzpatrick in Pennsylvania," said Walter.
Also, Republicans raise more money. The campaign fund for House Republicans finished the quarter that ended March 31 with $24.4 million in the bank, while House Democrats had $23 million. (That $1.4 million edge is smaller, however, than the $4 million advantage that House Republicans had at this point two years ago.)
Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said all races will be decided locally, not by any national wave. But analysts Rothenberg and Walter disagree, saying this year's election is a national referendum on Bush, with the choice between change and the status quo.
"The only question for Republicans now is whether they can make the Democrat in a race so unacceptable that even voters who are disgruntled with Bush say, `No, I just can't pull the lever for the Democrat,'" Rothenberg said. "They have to rip the bark off a Democratic challenger."
Here are some races to watch:
_Ohio. Republican Sen. Mike DeWine is weakened by scandals in his state party. He faces Rep. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, in a state where Republicans are in trouble almost everywhere.
_Pennsylvania. Republican Sen. Rick Santorum faces Democrat Bob Casey Jr., the state treasurer and son of the late governor. Polls show Santorum trailing significantly. Casey is an abortion opponent who can compete for culturally conservative voters.
_New Jersey. Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez was appointed to his seat and now must defend it, and the way he got it, against Republican state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., son of the former governor.
_New Mexico, 1st District. The district in Albuquerque and its suburbs went narrowly for Democratic presidential candidates John Kerry in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000, yet have re-elected Republican Rep. Heather Wilson three times. Wilson faces her toughest challenge yet from Democrat Patricia Madrid, the state attorney general.
_Ohio, 18th District. Rep. Bob Ney is probably the most endangered Republican in the country. He was implicated in the plea deal by disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and has stepped down as chairman of the House Administration Committee. Likely to be renominated next Tuesday, he then faces a strong challenge from whoever wins the Democratic primary.
_Pennsylvania, 6th District. The suburban Philadelphia district went for Kerry and Gore by very narrow margins while sending Republican Rep. Jim Gerlach to the House. He's in a close rematch contest with Democrat Lois Murphy, who came close, 48-52 percent, in 2004.
_California. Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger seeks a full term after ousting Democrat Gray Davis in a 2003 recall. Democrats vying for their party's June 6 primary nomination include state controller Steve Westly and state treasurer Phil Angelides.
_Florida. Republican Gov. Jeb Bush is leaving office because of term limits. Democrats vying for their party's nomination include U.S. Rep. Jim Davis and state Sen. Rod Smith. Republican candidates include state Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher and Attorney General Charlie Crist. Primaries are Sept. 5.
_New York. Republican Gov. George Pataki isn't running. Democrats in a Sept. 12 primary include Attorney General Elliot Spitzer and Nassau County Executive Thomas R. Suozzi. Republican candidates include former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld.
For more analysis of this year's races, www.rothenbergpoliticalreport.blogspot.com or www.cookpolitical.com
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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