Election night could provide a quick White House winner, or a flood of mail-in ballots and social division could delay results for weeks
Rob Port is a grown man, but the North Dakotan wants to "hide under the bed and cry" when he thinks of one thing: the Democratic Party overseeing national security and what Port calls "a battle against Islamic fascism."
That fear alone will be enough to drive Port to the polls to vote Republican in this fall's mid-term elections. But his vote for the GOP won't be a full vote of confidence in the party he usually supports. "I'm not exactly happy with Republicans," Port told WORLD, "but with Democrats it would be even worse."
Port, 26, chronicles his mixed feelings about Republicans and his fear of a Democratic takeover in Congress on his political blog Say Anything (sayanythingblog.com). He especially commiserates with Republicans who are disgruntled over the party's drift from fiscal conservatism: "A lot of the problem with the GOP is that they've lost their commitment to small government."
Beefed-up federal entitlement programs and swelling government waste anger Port, and he laments that some of the worst pork-barrel spenders in Congress are Republicans. (Citizens Against Government Waste identified $29 billion in pork-barrel spending for the fiscal year 2006, and Alaska's Republican Senator Ted Stevens topped the report's list for pork-barrel spending per capita.) "Republicans shouldn't just be Republicans," Port says. "They should be conservative."
Another concern: how Republicans are handling issues like immigration and ethics. But all his angst won't keep him from supporting the party come November. He doesn't like Democrats' stance on pro-life issues, and he doesn't like their stance on the war, which he thinks is essential to national security. "It's absolutely vital," he says, "and I don't think Democrats have the will to finish it out."
Port understands why some Republicans say they'll send the GOP a message this fall by not voting, even if it means the party loses power. But with Democrats in charge, he insists, the alternative would be worse. "It would be nice to be able to send Republicans a wake-up call," he says, "but how long will we have to live with the consequences of it?"
Port, of course, is far from the only disgruntled voter heading into the mid-term election season. A Sept. 12 Gallup poll reported President Bush's approval rating at 39 percent, and Congress' overall approval rating at 29 percent. Just 32 percent of those polled said they are satisfied with the way things are going in the country.
In a recent Pew Research Center poll gauging voter enthusiasm, some 46 percent of Democrats surveyed said they were more enthusiastic than normal about voting. Only 30 percent of Republicans answered the same question the same way.
Statistics like those have led scores of pundits to predict a Democratic takeover of at least one house of Congress this fall after a decade of Republican control. In order to pull that off, Democrats would have to take six seats in the Senate and 15 seats in the House of Representatives. A Senate takeover seems unlikely, but Democrats are eyeing possibilities in Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. Even if Democrats take seats in all those states, they still must also grab a victory in at least one Republican stronghold while defending their own incumbents in other states.
Democratic prospects are more promising in the House, where all 435 seats are up for grabs and they need only to gain 15. The party is likely to pick up seats in Arizona, Colorado, and Iowa. It could take seats in Connecticut and Pennsylvania as well. Republicans in Ohio and Indiana, usually GOP strongholds, are also preparing for possible upsets, with the unpopularity of Republican governors in both states pulling the party down.
Though plenty of red flags are flapping before Republicans, a Gallup poll in late August found the GOP edging closer to Democrats in voter preferences for congressional elections. Pollsters asked voters: "If the election were being held today, which party's candidate would you vote for in your congressional district? In late June, Democrats held a 54 percent to 38 percent lead over Republicans. But by the end of last month, the Democrats' edge had narrowed to a slim 47 percent to 45 percent.
Conflicting polls and voter indecision make the mid-term elections too close to call for now, according to Michael Franc, vice president of government relations at the Heritage Foundation. "It's too early," he says. "An awful lot can still happen in either direction."
One thing is sure to happen over the next six weeks: Both parties will start rolling out millions of dollars worth of campaign ads. "Eighty percent of the money that's going to be spent in campaigns hasn't been spent yet," says Franc. Many voters won't make up their minds until the last 30 days before the elections, he adds.
In the meantime, the GOP is organizing massive get-out-the-vote efforts to reach disgruntled or apathetic Republicans who may be planning not to vote at all. The party is also warding off criticism from conservatives who say Republicans have mismanaged Congress and deserve to lose control.
Other Republicans are focusing on what they say is a better way out of GOP woes: Fix the problems in the party. To that end, Club for Growth, a conservative political action committee, has raised big bucks for conservative candidates in primary races across the country. The group helped conservative Tim Walberg easily defeat moderate Republican Representative Joe Schwarz in Michigan's August primary.
The organization had hoped for similar success this month in Rhode Island, where it poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into Steve Laffey's high-profile Republican primary bid against incumbent Senator Lincoln Chafee, the most liberal Republican in the Senate. Laffey campaigned on lower taxes, smaller government, and fiscal responsibility.
Chafee is an outspoken critic of the president and the only GOP senator who voted against the war in Iraq. He also voted against Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, opposed tax cuts and the partial-birth abortion ban, and recently helped force a delay on the confirmation of John Bolton to continue as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Chafee did not vote for George W. Bush's reelection in 2004-instead writing in the name of the elder George Bush.
Still, Chafee basked in the full support of the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), winning the primary against Laffey by 9 percentage points. NRSC spent more than $1 million to campaign against Laffey in the state, and first lady Laura Bush made a gushing plug for the senator.
The GOP says it's critical for the party to hang onto the Rhode Island seat, a slot Democrats see as critical to their own bid to win the Senate. NRSC spokesman Dan Ronayne said Laffey had little chance of winning against Democratic opponent Sheldon Whitehouse in the fall, but Chafee has a better chance to hold onto the seat. The NRSC announced before the primary that if Laffey won, the committee wouldn't support his campaign in the general election.
Ronayne rebuffed criticism that Chafee is too liberal for the GOP and that the NRSC's approach to the race was too pragmatic. Ronayne said that Chafee is "certainly an independent voice" but pointed out that the senator voted with Republicans in favor of class action and bankruptcy reforms, and for the nomination of Chief Justice John Roberts. He also said that if Chafee loses this fall, he'll be replaced by a Democrat "more liberal than Ted Kennedy."
The Heritage Foundation's Franc says there's another major reason the GOP wants to keep Chafee in his seat even if he continues to vote against Republicans: His help in maintaining a Senate majority will help Republicans maintain control of Senate leadership. "Many have said that the most important vote a congressman casts is his vote for House leaders, and he can do whatever he wants for the next two years," says Franc.
Tom McClusky, vice president for government affairs at the Family Research Council (FRC), says that line of reasoning is part of a larger problem in the Republican Party: "Here they support a guy who's not even loyal to the party. . . . It's like they're saying: 'We'll do anything to win.'"
McClusky says there is "a lack of principle" among Republicans on the national level, and the GOP should move away from the "big tent" strategy that includes too many conflicting ideals. "The only thing you find under a big tent is a circus," he says.
While McClusky acknowledges that conservative angst over the Republican Party is high this year, the FRC is busy telling its conservative Christian supporters that it's still important to vote. The group is producing voter guides and organizing voter registration rallies and has planned a "Values Voter Summit" in late September with big-name speakers like Ann Coulter, Newt Gingrich, and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
McClusky tells apathetic voters that there are more good conservatives on state levels, and Christians shouldn't see voting as "a choice between the lesser of two evils. . . . If they do see it that way, they need to get more involved."
Getting more involved means more than just showing up at the polls in November, he says. It also means following legislators' decisions all year long and "holding them accountable to represent their constituents."
For now, FRC is busy reminding voters what's at stake in this fall's elections: The party that controls Congress come January will control debate over issues like parental notification laws for teens seeking abortions, the internet gambling bill, judicial appointments, and embryonic stem-cell research. McClusky says Christians should seriously consider which legislators they want shaping those decisions.
Social issues aren't the only high stakes in this year's elections, and the White House is busy making national security the centerpiece of its message running up to Election Day. The administration touted several high-profile accomplishments in recent weeks, like the foiling of a terror plot in Britain. Republicans have pointed out that investigators foiled the plot using surveillance methods Democrats oppose.
The president also sought to turn a political liability into an asset by acknowledging that the CIA runs secret prisons for terrorists overseas. He said these "helped us take potential mass murderers off the streets before they were able to kill." The CIA turned over 14 suspects to the Department of Defense at Guantanamo Bay, including the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks and the architects of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole and the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
On the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Bush spent the day with families of some of the nearly 3,000 victims who died in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. Later that evening he told Americans that staying the course in Iraq is key to dismantling terror networks itching to attack the United States again: "Whatever mistakes have been made in Iraq, the worst mistake would be to think that if we pulled out, the terrorists would leave us alone." That's a message Republicans hope will resonate all the way to November.
Senate races to watch
Incumbent: Republican Sen. Jim Talent
Opponent: Democratic State Auditor Claire McCaskill
Conservative incumbent meets liberal in a state where raising minimum wage and expanding stem-cell research should draw Democrats to the polls. Polls show Talent with a slight edge in one of closest races in the nation.
Incumbent: Republican Sen. Conrad Burns
Opponent: Democratic State Sen. John Tester
Democratic challenger wants to make race a referendum on Burns, but faces a conservative-minded electorate. No clear favorite.
Incumbent: Republican Sen. Mike DeWine
Opponent: Democratic Congressman Sherrod Brown
Incumbent faces formidable challenge in a state more hostile to the GOP than in 2004 when Bush edged a win. Disgraced Rep. Bob Ney's (R) connection to Jack Abramoff has hurt the party, and polls show Brown leading.
Incumbent: Republican Sen. Rick Santorum
Opponent: State Treasurer Bob Casey
Pro-life incumbent trails pro-life Democrat.
Incumbent: Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee
Opponent: Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse
Ultra-liberal Republican versus liberal Democrat may turn on who best outruns war in Iraq.
House races to watch
Arizona District 8, Open Seat
Conservative Randy Graf (R) vs. moderate Gabrielle Giffords (D) in a swing district that borders Mexico. Immigration policy is central issue.
Colorado District 7, Open Seat
Conservative Rick O'Donnell (R) vs. moderate Ed Perlmutter (D) in a race centering on immigration policy. (O'Donnell doesn't want path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, Perlmutter does.)
Iowa District 1, Open Seat
Republican Mike Whalen vs. Democrat Bruce Braley in a district nearly evenly split between parties.
Ohio District 15
Incumbent Rep. Deborah Pryce (R), a member of House Leadership, vs. Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy (D). Pryce's close connections with national GOP may make race a referendum on Bush in a district he won by just 2,000 votes.
Indiana District 8
Conservative incumbent Rep. John Hostettler (R) vs. conservative Brad Ellsworth (D). Fundraising is key-Ellsworth has raised three times more than the incumbent.