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Midterms: A Tough Test for Congress

Polls show most Americans are unhappy with President Bush and even less happy with Congress. Will next month's midterm elections produce a big shake-up in Washington?

By Patricia Smith

To some extent, the person many voters will be casting their ballots for or against on November 7 is not even running for office.

"This election is a referendum on the President and his party, as midterms often are," says Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center.

With President Bush's approval rating at 37 percent and the public's approval of Congress even lower, Democrats see an opportunity to retake control of at least one house of Congress. One third of the Senate and all 435 members of the House of Representatives are up for election. Of those, about 40 races in the House and 10 in the Senate are considered close.

A recent New York Times/CBS poll found that just 25 percent of respondents approve of the way Congress is doing its job. By broad margins, respondents said that members of Congress did not understand the needs and problems of average Americans.

"Every indication is that there should be a significant swing in the number of seats held by the Republicans," says Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution.

But for Democrats to retake the majority in the House or Senate, they would have to win nearly every race that is close. And that's a tall order.

Looking to 1994

Historically, the party in the White House almost always loses seats in midterm elections. This year, both parties are studying the 1994 midterms, when Republicans captured 52 seats to win control of both houses of Congress.

The situation then was very much like the one the parties find themselves in this fall: The voters were unhappy with President Clinton (a Democrat), deeply dissatisfied with a Democratic-controlled Congress, and worried about the nation's direction. That year, Republicans won enough seats to take control in both the House, which had been under Democratic control for 40 years, and the Senate.

But that kind of massive change is unlikely this year. In 1994, there were more than 100 House seats in competitive races, compared with 40 this year.

(Critics say that state legislatures, which are generally responsible for periodically redrawing congressional districts to take account of population changes, are using new, more-sophisticated techniques to make seats safer for incumbents. This is sometimes referred to as gerrymandering.)

The Issues Are . . .

Aside from President Bush himself, the key issues this year are:

According to recent polls, Americans consider the war in Iraq the most important issue facing the country, and they are very uneasy about the way the Bush administration is handling it. Iraq has been a key issue in many races, but particularly in the close Virginia Senate race between Democrat James Webb and the Republican incumbent George Allen. Webb, a former Marine and Secretary of the Navy, was an early opponent of the war, while Allen continues to support the Bush administration's handling of the war.

National Security
Traditionally, this has been an area where voters are more inclined to trust Republicans. But as both parties try to position themselves as tough on terrorism, polls show that the Republican advantage may be wearing off.

Illegal immigration is a particularly resonant issue in the Southwest border states. So far at least, the House and the Senate have failed to agree on an approach to immigration reform. The House has focused on tightening borders, including construction of a 700-mile fence along the border with Mexico, while the Senate has emphasized creating pathways to citizenship for illegal immigrants already here.

It's hard to tell how the economy will affect the election. By most measures—including employment, inflation, and the stock market—the economy is quite strong, and gas prices, though still high, have dropped significantly from the $3 range earlier this year. But polls show that Americans remain uneasy about job security and their economic prospects. The last three elections—both presidential and midterm—have been polarizing, brutally fought, and extremely close, notes David Greenberg who teaches history at Rutgers University in New Jersey. If there is one safe bet for 2006, it's that next month's elections will be all of those things as well.