Can the democrats figure out a way to capitalize on growing public discontent over the Iraq war, sky-high gas prices, and the record-low approval ratings for President Bush and the GOP Congress? With the 2006 midterm elections some 16 months away, Republicans have a huge money edge and gerry-mandered House districts that make Democratic chances of recapturing Capitol Hill remote at best.
But as GOP woes deepen by the month, Dems such as Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois are trying to put the party in a position to pounce. Job One: Recruit candidates who can take advantage of any political openings. The Democrats are 15 seats short of a House majority, and Emanuel's mission is to make significant progress in 2006 and finish the job in '08, when, according to the game plan, the country will be tired of Bushism, war, and $60-per-barrel oil. But if approval ratings of the Republican Congress remain in the 33% range and Bush hovers around 45%, Dems could pull "an inside straight" and take the House next year, says Charlie Cook, editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "The situation is pretty ugly for Republicans."
Whether that happens or not, Democrats seem likely to make gains. Emanuel's three-pronged strategy:
Replace Kerry Republicans. Democrats are focusing on 18 House districts captured by 2004 Presidential nominee John Kerry but currently represented by a Republican. Top targets include Rob Simmons and Christopher Shays of Connecticut and suburban Philadelphians Jim Gerlach and Michael G. Fitzpatrick.
Claim the open seats. Republican retirees will give Dems some of their best chances in '06. Among them: the Democratic-leaning seats now held by GOP gubernatorial aspirants Jim Nussle of Iowa and Bob Beauprez of Colorado. If the Democratic tide remains strong, the historically Republican districts of Henry Hyde in suburban Chicago and SEC Chairman-designate Christopher Cox in greater Los Angeles could be in play.
Find the comeback kids. In some competitive districts, Emanuel is urging former House members to mount comeback bids. Among them: Tom DeLay challenger Nick Lampson in Texas and ex-Indiana Representative Baron Hill. "To bump off an incumbent you need somebody with clout and connections," says University of Virginia government professor Larry J. Sabato. "Who better than somebody who has won?" Dems are also trying to enlist outsiders with recognizable names. Atop the list: Coleen M. Rowley, former FBI whistle-blower, in Minnesota.
GOP pollster William D. McInturff acknowledges that Congress hasn't been this unpopular since the 1994 Republican takeover. He feels it's too early to panic but says the party should be concerned if the political environment doesn't improve by next summer.
Meantime, Emanuel's recruits are planning to portray House Republicans as a pack of corrupt, extremist plutocrats out of touch with average Americans. Creating a positive image for themselves is trickier. "Democrats are perceived to have no core set of convictions," says party pollster Stanley B. Greenberg. He and other Dems concede that their current strategic opening has more to do with Republican weakness than a surge for their side. But if Emanuel's strong recruiting continues -- and Republicans remain in the trough -- 2006 could end up a surprisingly good year for the long-bedraggled Dems.
The desperation bid to restore foreign aid slashed by the House has led to some odd political bedfellows. Leading the charge in the Senate are liberal Dem Patrick Leahy (Vt.) and conservative Republican Rick Santorum (Pa.). They're joined by the U.S. Global Leadership Campaign, an unlikely coalition of business groups and left-leaning nonprofits. Members range from Africare to Verizon (VZ). The nonprofits want to aid the poor; companies want to improve security and judiciaries so they can do more business in poor countries. The group and its Capitol Hill allies will try to reverse a June 28 House vote slashing President Bush's $22.8 billion foreign operations budget by $2.6 billion. They are getting behind the Senate number, which is expected to be $1.6 billion higher.
Neocons tried to torpedo President Bush's first choice to fill the U.S. ambassadorship to the European Union. But it looks like his pick -- family pal C. Boyden Gray -- will get the last laugh. Neocons went after Gray for his close association with Bush 41 National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, who has criticized U.S. policy in Iraq. But the well-connected Gray says he's been slogging through all the grueling financial paperwork and expects his nomination to be announced any day. "I'm committed," he said. "I'd be surprised after all I went through if they offered it to someone else." Gray offers still further evidence that he'll get the nod: After a meeting at the White House, he says Karl Rove bid him adieu with a chirpy "Goodbye, Mr. Ambassador."