Stakes Set High for This Year’s Election Season

WASHINGTON – Two months ago, it would have been foolhardy to get righteous about Democratic prospects for winning back majority control of Congress, which went over to the Republican Party after the 1994 midterm elections.

But since the “Ports of Dubai” brouhaha in February threatened the GOP franchise on national security as an election issue, the wheels have come off the re-election express for incumbent Republicans. The traditional stewards of fiscal responsibility have spent the nation into a deep hole of debt (the federal deficit is $760 billion, the national debt $1.1 trillion), while also failing to pass a budget; the “culture of corruption” label applied by Democrats continues to stick as one Republican name after another is drawn into the most serious federal criminal investigations; the war in Iraq grinds on with its headline catastrophes and back-page progress reports; while already high gas prices, always a bellwether of discontent with the party in power, have surpassed the $3 dollar per gallon threshold in advance of the family vacation season.

It would still be rash to predict a Democratic restoration on Nov. 7. That would take a gain of 16 seats in the 435-member House, along with another six or seven (depending on how an Independent candidate fares in Vermont) in the Senate. The many advantages enjoyed by incumbents in any election make turnover of that magnitude unlikely.

But challengers too have an advantage in that they aren’t tainted by the worst excesses of the incumbent regime. If pre-November indictments come down against Republicans, in everything from the Jack Abramoff bribery scandal to the exposure of a CIA undercover agent to the prostitution ring alleged in the downfall of convicted former GOP congressman Randall “Duke” Cunningham, those excesses could converge in an electoral “perfect storm” against incumbent Republicans.

Early warnings are already showing up. Poll numbers are notoriously fickle. But for months they’ve shown Republican President George W. Bush and Congress in heavy disfavor with the public, and now they show public dissatisfaction with overall conditions. A variety of sources report that challengers have begun to raise more campaign money than incumbents in recent months.

The stakes are high enough to worry about. With majority control of the Senate and House comes a host of privileges that shape the legislative landscape like nothing else in American politics. Members of the majority party chair the committees where the work is done on Capitol Hill. With the committee chairs rests the critical decisions of which bills will get a first hearing and which will come to a committee vote.