A counterrevolution?

By Stephen W. Stromberg
Published August 5, 2004 8:54PM (EDT)

Not since 1994 have the Democrats had control of the House of Representatives, and just a few months ago, it didn't look like they had a chance this election year of taking the 11 seats they need to grab control of the chamber from the GOP. But talk to Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Bob Matsui now, and you'll hear guarded optimism about the Democrats' chances in November. Over the last two months, they have closed a wide funding gap, gained in the polls and, by Matsui's calculations, Democrats only need to win a third of the 33 competitive races this time around to become the House majority party.

An article in this week's Time magazine explains:

"Instead of a perfect storm, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer believes Democrats need only 'a breeze.' That's the weather-forecast bite line Hoyer has been spreading all over Boston this week. And he spent an hour with TIME editors and correspondents explaining the new math.

"Hoyer's historical benchmark is 1994, the year Newt Gingrich and his band of GOP guerrillas stunned Democrats and captured the House. At the end of June 1994, there were 68 congressional seats around the country considered competitive -- open seats contested by first-time Republican and Democratic candidates, or seats in which a vulnerable incumbent faced a strong challenge.

"Of those competitive seats, Republicans had to win at least 38 to take the House, which they did. That meant winning one out of every 1.8 competitive races.

"How does the 1994 math look ten years later? Democrats see 33 seats across the country as competitive -- far less than the 68 in play in 1994, but then the Dems only need a net gain of 11 to win back the House. That means winning one out of every three competitive races -- easier, perhaps, than the one out of every 1.8 Gingrich's Republicans had to win in 1994.

"Money is a second indicator encouraging Hoyer's optimism. Republicans have always raised truckloads more cash than Democrats in past elections. But for April, May and June of this year, House Democrats surged and by June 30, the Democratic campaign organization for the House had $18.5 million on hand compared with $20.2 million in GOP coffers -- a far narrower Republican cash-on-hand advantage of than in the past.

"Also, the polls are looking better for Democrats. John Kerry has managed to survive the spring and summer barrage of GOP attack ads while President Bush's numbers have been sinking. But the polls to which congressional leaders in Washington pay more attention are the 'generic' ones, where voters are asked whether they'll vote for a Republican or a Democrat in congressional races.

"By early August 1994, Republicans had overtaken the Democrats in the generic polls and were leading by about two percentage points. In June and July of 2004, Democrats have had anywhere from a 6- to a 15-point advantage, depending on the poll."

The odds are still long for the Democrats because freshly gerrymandered Congressional districts across the country will favor incumbents. But it looks like the race for the House, like the race for the presidency, is going to be tight.

Stephen W. Stromberg

Stephen W. Stromberg is a former editorial fellow at Salon.

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