Down to the Wire: Expect a Big Night for Democrats

November 7, 2006 · 12:16 PM EST

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With only a few hours remaining until the votes start being counted, there is little uncertainty about the fight for the House, except for questions about exactly which Republican incumbents will be lucky enough to survive.

Polls over the past few weeks have seen many Republicans who once held clear, if not overwhelming, leads scrambling to try to stay ahead. GOP strategists say that voters increasingly have been focusing on Iraq, and that the added attention has worked to the disadvantage of Republican candidates.

Republican chances for retaining the House have moved from small to smaller, and public and private polling now suggests a solid Democratic win. The majority’s losses this year will be lower than during the wave elections of 1958, 1974 and 1994, but only because of structural factors: The way districts have been drawn and the relatively small number of Republicans holding Democratic districts effectively minimize potential Democratic gains.

Having said that, this fight still is taking place almost entirely on Republican turf. With Republican House seats such as Idaho’s 1st district, Kansas’ 2nd, California’s 11th and even Wyoming’s at-large in play, it’s clear which party is on the offensive.

National polls continue to show the Democrats with an advantage on the generic ballot, though there is no agreement on its size. Is it 4 points, as the Pew Research survey found; 6 points, as The Washington Post/ABC News poll has it; or 20 points, as CNN’s poll says? Obviously, those numbers could produce dramatically different national outcomes.

Still, even the most optimistic Republican insiders I can find seem to think a loss of 18 or 19 seats is inevitable, while others counter that a loss of more than 30 is more likely. Most GOP insiders would be ecstatic if the party held its losses to two dozen or less.

Democratic gains of anywhere from 25 to as many as 40 seats are possible. Last week, I went on record saying I expected a Democratic gain of 34 to 40 seats as the most likely range. That now strikes me as a bit high, but only at the low end. So, I am adjusting my House estimate/projection slightly, to a Democratic gain of 30 to 36 seats.

Of course, even more GOP seats could fall if all of the endangered Republicans lose and we see more than a couple of surprises.

The House results are likely to wipe out many moderate Republicans, who are taking the brunt of the wave because they represent Democratic-leaning or competitive districts.

Over in the Senate, things remain far less clear. While I have been widely credited with predicting a six-seat Democrat gain (and therefore control of the Senate), what I’ve written is that Democrats will net five to seven seats. I’d now like to widen that range to four to seven seats.

According to some polls, races in Maryland, Montana and Rhode Island have tightened, making the net outcome less certain. But I’m still expecting Democrats to win Pennsylvania, Ohio, Montana and Rhode Island, and, less confidently, Virginia.

Two seats, Tennessee and Missouri, have looked tight for months, and they could go either way.
Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) has run a good race, but he isn’t facing a longtime incumbent, and he may not win the undecided voters the way other Democratic challengers will. All things being equal, that probably is enough reason to push the race to Republican Bob Corker.

But a big enough national Democratic wave across the country — or maybe more accurately, an anti-Bush, anti-Republican wave — could sweep Ford to victory. I’d consider it a mild surprise, though.

In Missouri, Sen. Jim Talent (R) is locked in a tight race against Democratic challenger Claire McCaskill, and most polling shows little daylight between the two candidates. I’ve seen polls with McCaskill ahead, and I’ve seen polls with Talent leading.

The prudent thing to do, of course, is to leave the race as a tossup, since either candidate could win. But, of course, I didn’t do that in my most recent newsletter. I pushed the race toward McCaskill, since in “wave” elections, virtually all of the close races go to the party benefiting from the wave, and this year that is the Democrats.

In reality, I won’t be surprised no matter who wins in Missouri.
GOP prospects seem to have faded significantly in New Jersey, and the better chance for a Republican upset now seems to be Maryland.

The outcome in the Senate remains cloudy, no matter how much I would like to be able to predict party control. I expect Democrats to gain at least four seats, and I’m more than a bit skeptical about the Republican “surge.”

Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.