With a largely forgettable State of the Union behind him, President Bush and congressional Republicans are looking ahead anxiously to the fall elections.
Democratic strategists—and even some Republican ones—speculate that up to 50 House seats might be in play this year. The Democrats need to pick up 15 seats to win back the House.
The biggest issues in November are likely to be things beyond the control of either party—the economy; events in Iraq, Iran, and Palestine; and Mother Nature.
Chuck Todd, editor of the insider online newsletter the Hotline, thinks two of the biggest variables will be whether Israel attacks Iran to disable its nuclear ambitions, as it attacked Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981, and what hurricanes hit where, when, and how hard during the fall season. With Katrina response likely to be a focal point of campaigns throughout the Southeast, the Bush administration’s ability to handle another hurricane season will be a big test.
Related to both of these issues—Middle East stability and Gulf Coast energy—are gas prices. Both sides are watching prices at the pump. Noticeable increases could cause enough pain and anger to cause voters to sweep the governing party from power. Political analyst Charlie Cook thinks an increase of 20 to 30 cents a gallon before November could cause problems for Republicans.
Observers are also watching what Todd calls the “slow ooze” of Iraq; the war’s impact grows each week. It’s no coincidence that Democrats are turning to Iraq veterans—at least ten of them—as congressional candidates in 2006.
Another variable: Retirements on both sides of the aisle might spike if tough lobbying-reform legislation passes and slows the revolving door between Capitol Hill and K Street. If a lot of members decide this is their last year to get out and cash in, they might leap.
The irony is that many Hill observers think the corruption scandal that has engulfed Tom DeLay, Randy “Duke” Cunningham, and Jack Abramoff might not end up having the legs that Democrats hope: Voters seem to be blaming Congress in general for the problem. Explains Virginia congressman Tom Davis, “It’s a pox on all our houses.”