House reversals have Democrats hoping for a big majority

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WASHINGTON – Baseball’s folding Phillies of 1964, Union forces at the Civil War battle of Bull Run, Neville Chamberlain’s place in history after the British prime minister’s “peace in our time” moment on the eve of World War II, Custer closing in on a quiet Indian camp along the Little Bighorn ... one can ponder these storied collapses and still feel the need of some extra capacity for astonishment at the Republican fall from public favor since Sept. 29, when “Foley’s follies” sealed the fate of the current 109th Congress as the most corrupt in American history.

Former Florida Rep. Mark Foley resigned from the House of Representatives when his sexually charged e-mails to underage male pages in Washington became public knowledge, exposing what some would call a cavalier attitude among Republican leadership toward the welfare of the young people in their care. Arizonan Jim Kolbe may wish he had retired before word got out of his alleged camping trip with pages; certainly the Republican Party must, for the Kolbe allegations consolidated a view among many citizens that “the peoples’ House” wasn’t safe for children on the GOP watch.

But there was more. Congressional investigations into the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and the related guilty plea of a Republican congressman, Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, have kept the GOP joined at the hip with political corruption. The latest case is that of Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., under investigation for influence peddling.

At the same time, war news from Iraq has gone from bad to worse, compromising the conventional Republican edge in matters of national security.

Times are so bad for Republicans that even falling gas prices and a robust national economy haven’t brought likely voters into the fold … not so far, at least.

Wise heads and experienced hands alike are warning that in the two weeks before the Nov. 7 midterm elections, the national focus could change a couple of times over.

But the impression grows that it won’t change for the better as far as Republicans are concerned. Consider the progression. With every last one of 435 seats up for election in the House, in mid-September it looked as if Democrats might just be able to win enough of some 20 competitive races to reach their magic number of 15 – the number of incumbent Republicans they must defeat to gain a slim majority in the House. With majority control would come, among other things, all-important committee chairmanships, and with them the authority to move laws Democrats favor while discouraging Republican-sponsored initiatives.

Three and four weeks further on, however, the number of House seats estimated to be at risk for Republicans has swelled to 25, then 35 or 40, and now as many as 52 to 60. Once confident of hanging onto enough competitive seats to maintain a majority, Republicans now concede they could lose 30 or more.

Suddenly then, a slim majority in the House isn’t ambitious enough for Democrats. A slim majority provides the advantages of majority control, committee chairmanships included; but it almost never permits a party to enact its own agenda. The holy grail of politics is a governing majority – enough votes to survive a few defections, to introduce bills and enact them without heavy amendment, to move for a menu of parliamentary proceedings and proceed with them.

Top Democrats now believe a governing majority is within reach in the House. That would take a gain of 40 or more seats, once an unthinkable number. But as these words are written, top-echelon Democrats are debating whether to plow millions of dollars into close races in hopes of running the table.

In a handful of states once thought to be safe for Republican incumbents, multiple House races are trending Democratic – Idaho, Indiana, New York, Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado. In Pennsylvania and Ohio, races thought to be close appear to be settling into the Democratic column. Especially in the swing state of all so-called swing states, Ohio, the most recent poll numbers show a dramatic downturn in support for Republicans.

In several Indian-populous districts, specific races could still go either way. In Arizona’s 5th, Rep. J.D. Hayworth, a tribal ally of long standing, is vulnerable because of the ongoing Abramoff investigations; but the district has been designed (“gerrymandered” by the GOP) for a pronounced Republican majority in registered voters, and opponent Harry Mitchell, as the former mayor of Tempe, Ariz., will need to reach voters throughout the Valley of the Sun if he hopes to oust Hayworth. In California’s 11th district, Rep. Richard Pombo, chairman of the House Resources Committee, is running strong against Democrat Jerry McNerney despite Pombo’s dalliance with Abramoff donations. In New Mexico, Republican Rep. Heather Wilson isn’t expected to hold her seat against Democratic challenger Patricia Madrid, but then she wasn’t supposed to win a first term in the heavily Indian and Hispanic 1st district.

In South Dakota, polls show Rep. Stephanie Herseth, the Democratic incumbent, with a commanding lead over Republican challenger Bruce Whalen.