The 2006 elections: Do Democrats need a "wave"?

Early predictions say the Democrats will pick up seats in both houses, but probably not enough to take control from the GOP.

Published February 7, 2006 8:51PM (EST)

It's a long way to November, but two of the most frequently quoted prognosticators are beginning to do the odds on how the parties will fare in the congressional elections then.

Larry Sabato dusted off his crystal ball the other day and predicted that Democrats will gain some seats in the Senate but probably not enough to take control from the Republicans. Now Charlie Cook is out with a spreadsheet that offers a similar prediction for the House of Representatives.

Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, says it will be a "surprise" if Democrats don't pick up seats in the Senate this year. "After all," he says, "this is the fabled sixth-year election of the Bush presidency ... and President Bush has been in deep trouble on a host of subjects, from Iraq to Katrina to scandal." Sabato believes that Democrats are "a good bet to pick up two or three seats net." They need a net gain of six seats to take over the chamber. Can they do it? Yes, Sabato says, but only if "almost everything" falls in their direction.

On the House side, Cook says that the possibility of a Democratic takeover is "very real" but still less than 50-50. Cook and his colleague Amy Walter assign probability numbers to all of the House races and enter those into an Excel spreadsheet. Then they calculate an overall projection for the partisan makeup of the next Congress. "The current model predicts a net Democratic gain of 10 seats," Cook says. "When we factor in a four-seat margin of error, the model projects that, as of today, under current conditions, and without speculating about what the national political environment may do between now and November, Democrats will make a net gain of six to 14 seats." Democrats need 15 seats to gain control of the House; "with a bit of luck," Cook says, they could get there.

Both Sabato and Cook say Democrats hoping to take control of either house will need the same kind of voter "wave" that cost them control in 1994. "Rough surf won't do the trick," Sabato says, "and at least at the start of 2006, November looks to be full of white caps but no Maui-style waves for the party out of power."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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