WASHINGTON—Americans have turned so sour about the state of the country and their lives that Republican strategists fear they could rise in a wave of anger and sweep Republicans out of power in Congress in next year's elections, much like they swept the Democrats out in 1994.
Voters haven't yet turned to the Democrats as a viable alternative. But their anxiety about Iraq, the economy, gasoline prices and the overall performance of their federal government has even some Republican strategists fearing the November 2006 elections.
"As angry and pissed off as we were in 1994 about politics, I think it's worse today," said Frank Luntz, a Republican strategist who helped his party capture Congress in 1994. "This House of Representatives' Republican majority is in jeopardy."
"Today," added Republican pollster Ed Goeas, "President Bush and Republicans face a political environment that, as reflected in current polling numbers, is the most negative environment of his presidency."
Beyond that, Bush and Republican lawmakers are hindered in their ability to wage a political comeback. They're torn by internal fights over Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court and soaring federal spending. And they face a litany of woes beyond their control. Among them: a criminal investigation into White House leaks of a CIA officer's name; a U.S. death toll in Iraq that passed the 2,000 mark Tuesday; and a coming surge in winter home-heating costs.
That leaves Bush in a tough spot. Any time he turns to those issues, he reminds people of things that make them nervous, not happy.
A new bipartisan poll released Tuesday underscored the problems Republicans face one year from midterm elections, when they must defend their 55-44-1 majority in the Senate and their 231-202-1 majority in the House.
The survey was conducted jointly by Goeas, who works for Republican congressional candidates, and Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. It was sponsored by George Washington University.
The poll found that 66 percent of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, while 28 percent said it was headed in the right direction.
It found 44 percent approve of the way Bush is handling his job, while 54 percent disapprove. A key reason for his low standing: 58 percent of voters said the federal government did a poor job responding to Hurricane Katrina.
Voters also gave slightly higher marks to Democrats than Republicans. Republicans in Congress won a 44 percent favorable rating, and the Republican Party overall 45 percent. Voters were 47 percent favorable to Democrats in Congress; 48 percent were favorable to the Democratic Party overall.
Voters also signaled different ideas about how to pay for rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina.
While Republicans in Congress debate how much to cut spending, 73 percent of voters said they would cut spending on highways that doesn't go directly to road work, 68 percent said they would raise taxes on those making more than $200,000 a year, and 63 percent said they would start withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq and pull all out by the end of next year.
"It is difficult to believe how much the battleground of public opinion has changed in 11 months," said F. Christopher Arterton, dean of George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. "After the 2004 election, Bush and the Republicans stood virtually unchallenged in the center of the ring. Now, they're on the ropes, from self-inflicted blows."
The National Republican Congressional Committee, the political operation for congressional Republicans, insisted Tuesday that the party is in good shape heading into the election year. It pointed to a recent Pew Research Center Poll that found 57 percent of registered voters saying they would vote for their local members of Congress. "A lot of these national polls are irrelevant," said Carl Forti, an NRCC spokesman.
Charles Cook, an authoritative independent congressional analyst, notes that fewer House members face truly competitive races than in 1994, leaving fewer targets for the opposition party to pick up. In 1994, Cook says, there were 136 competitive House races, 95 held by the Democrats. Today, after redistricting left most incumbents of both parties in safer districts, as few as 28 are competitive, 17 held by Republicans.
Republicans agree that the state of the Democrats may be their best hope.
"This does not mean that Democrats are soaring with newfound respect from the voters," Goeas said. "... They have done little to project themselves as having the solutions to the nation's problems."
But some warned against assuming that Republican majorities are safe.
"It's true there are less seats in play now," Luntz said. "So you need that much more of a wave. But in 1994, with districts gerrymandered so Republicans could not win, the anger and frustration and desire for change and fear all led to a GOP sweep. ... The conditions exist now—if the Republicans don't change—to overcome the redistricting advantage that the GOP has."
For more on the GW-Battleground Poll, go to www.gwu.edu/(TILDE)newsctr/ or www.tarrance.com or www.lspma.com
The GW-Battleground Poll archives since 1991 are available at GW's Gelman Library, www.gwu.edu/gelman
The Pew poll cited by Forti is available at www.people-press.org
(The GW poll surveyed 1,000 likely voters Oct 9-12 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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