Democrats not guaranteed total sweep of congress

With the midterm elections less than a week away, many races look a little tighter than they did to most of the pundits a few weeks ago, when forecasts of potential upsets by Democrats in the House and Senate were as common as campaign promises.

Tom DeLay’s old seat in Texas now looks winnable by the GOP, even though his name is still on the ballot, and voters have to write in Shelley Sekula-Gibbs to elect a Republican. Republican Rep. Tom Reynolds, who looked vulnerable just after the Foley page-boy scandal broke, has recovered ground.

Republican senatorial candidates have rebounded in Virginia and Tennessee and maybe in Missouri and Montana. President Bush’s approval ratings have notched up a few points in some polls.

This tightening is hardly unusual. Early polls tend to catch the deeply committed on both sides. Many voters do not start paying much attention until just about now, and it is often those who don’t make up their minds until the last minute who hold the balance.

With most observers expecting Republicans to lose seats in the House and Senate, President Bush has begun a counterattack. Because of the unpopularity of the war in Iraq there are places where the president has been reluctant to appear in public (rather than at invitation-only fund-raising events, where he still shines) because protests might overshadow his message. But in many congressional districts he is still popular and welcome.

Thus Republican Rep. John Hostetler, in Indiana’s 8th District, has let it be known that he has declined help from the White House. But in Rep. Mike Sodrel’s adjoining, more rural 9th District, the president was enthusiastically received Saturday. President Bush has traveled to Georgia and Texas, seeking to motivate the Republican faithful, and will hit Nevada and Montana.

Although many Republicans say in private (and a few in public) that they expect to lose next Tuesday, the president and his chief political adviser, Karl Rove, remain outwardly confident that the Republicans will maintain their majorities in both houses.

Perhaps this is because whatever the generic “do you prefer a Democrat or a Republican” polls say, each congressional district is a discrete race that is often decided by the personality, visibility, incumbency power or popularity of the candidates rather than by larger national issues like the war in Iraq, the president’s approval rating or Social Security.

It is tempting to see this election as a referendum on the war in Iraq, and it still could turn out that way. Polls show that some 60 percent of the American people now view the invasion of Iraq as a mistake. Whether that will translate into votes for Democrats is another question. The Democrats have nothing resembling a unified position on Iraq. If the Democrats do take the House, moreover, they will not be in a position to do much more than snipe at the White House, although a round of investigations could be debilitating.