The conventional wisdom is that the Republicans have locked up the House of Representatives by canny and undemocratic gerrymandering of the district lines. But a close examination of the 2004 election returns indicates that GOP control of the House could well be in jeopardy.
In 2004, Americans voted for Republicans over Democrats for the House by 59 million to 56 million - a Republican advantage of three percentage points. The result was a body with 234 Republicans and 201 Democrats. But current polls indicate a decisive generic preference for Democrats for Congress. Fox News polling in May, for example, showed an eight-point Democratic edge in congressional balloting. If the Democrats can maintain anything approaching that margin, they may well retake control of the House.
And there are plenty of vulnerable Republican seats for the taking. Seven House Republicans who won with less than 60 percent of the vote in 2004 are retiring. These open seats are very likely targets for a Democratic takeover. (Only one similarly situated Democrat is leaving the House). Among Republicans seeking re-election, 16 won last time with less than 55 percent of the vote; another 31 pulled 55 percent to 60 percent. A strong Democratic trend could wipe out many of these Republican legislators.
The Senate (which is based on state lines and so can't be gerrymandered) presents another bright picture for the Democrats. They need a gain of six seats to control the body, and are within striking distance of five incumbent Republicans - Mike DeWine (Ohio), Jim Talent (Mo.), Lincoln Chaffee (R.I.), Conrad Burns (Mont.) and Rick Santorum (Pa.). Only one Democratic incumbent, Maria Cantwell of Washington state, is in any kind of difficulty. With a sharp Democratic trend, she's likely to pull through, while the five endangered GOP incumbents lose. In New Jersey, appointed Sen. Bob Menendez looks likely to hold the seat vacated by new Gov. Jon Corzine.
The sixth Democratic gain in the Senate would likely be the Tennessee seat that Majority Leader Bill Frist is vacating. Rep. Harold Ford, the Democratic candidate for the seat, is running even or ahead of both of his likely GOP opponents in the most recent polls.
Why are the Republicans running so poorly?
Iraq and gas prices are a big part of the story. President Bush's dismal approval ratings have a lot to do with it. But the larger reason is that the Republican Congress has acquired a reputation for corruption that hobbles GOP efforts to remain in control.
With Republicans in total control of the levers of power in Washington, the Fox News poll reflects that voters feel the GOP is the more corrupt party by 2:1. Given the chance, doubtless the Democrats would even the score with their share of scandals, but the fact remains that absolute power has given the Republican Party a reputation for corruption.
And then there is the fact that the Republicans have no agenda. What would they pass in the next two years that they have not passed in the previous six? What legislative initiative will emerge from renewed GOP control of Congress? One would be hard pressed to name any.
The Republican Party passed the Patriot Act, the tax cuts of 2001 and the No Child Left Behind Act, a monumental education reform. But after these labors, the GOP majority rested - and has done almost nothing since.
There is no Republican initiative on health care, pension security, global climate change, gas prices or any of the issues most Americans care about. The GOP simply has no agenda. Even immigration reform has been crippled by party bickering.
And the Republican prospects, as a result, are not too bright.