Democrats may gain 20 U.S. House seats |

Democrats may gain 20 U.S. House seats

WASHINGTON ” Democrats are positioned to make big gains in the House in next week’s elections, adding 20 or more seats to their majority.

Republican candidates face a toxic mix of antipathy for President Bush, a sour economy, a huge financial disadvantage and a formidable Democratic campaign organization powered by presidential nominee Barack Obama. Few in their ranks feel safe and a rush of GOP retirements is further feeding what is emerging as a Democratic wave.

With Obama leading Republican rival John McCain in key battleground states, the House GOP is in crisis-control mode.

“We have an uphill fight. We haven’t caught very many breaks,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the head of the Republican House campaign committee. “This is about getting the army across the river to the high ground on the other side.”

Cole said the fate of Republican candidates is tied closely to McCain’s, for good or ill. And while the campaign committee chief said McCain’s bid had picked up momentum in its last days, he acknowledged it would take an improbable turnabout for the Republican to capture the White House and help limit GOP losses in Congress.

“We’re hoping for a McCain upset, and certainly hoping we benefit from that,” Cole said.

Still, strategists in both parties predicted privately that Democrats would pick up anywhere from 20 to more than 35 seats ” the first time in more than 50 years that a party rode waves to bigger congressional margins two elections in a row. Democrats won 30 seats and control of the House in 2006, leaving them with a 235-199 majority, with one vacancy.

All 435 seats are up for grabs.

“Things are looking very good” for Democrats, said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the head of the party campaign committee. “We are going to break the historical curse and pick up a significant number of seats.”

He declined to predict how large a majority Democrats would win, but said there were at least 15 to 20 Republican seats that were dead-even races that could go either way.

That’s a less pessimistic scenario for Republicans than even some top GOP officials sketch out. They are bracing for the loss of at least 15 seats, and view more than 20 others as in serious jeopardy. They spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid publicly writing off Republican candidates in the crucial last days of the race.

The GOP lawmakers seen as most in danger of losing their seats include Alaska’s Rep. Don Young, Rep. Marilyn Musgrave of Colorado, Rep. Tom Feeney of Florida, Rep. Robin Hayes of North Carolina and Michigan Reps. Tim Walberg and Joe Knollenberg.

Rep. Lee Terry of Nebraska, once considered a safe bet for re-election, is also in major trouble in a state Obama is actively contesting.

Party strategists expect to lose several GOP-held seats left open by Republican retirements or departures, including in Arizona, Illinois, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia, and two each in New Mexico and New York.

Another roughly 25 Republican seats are seen as possible losses, from Connecticut to Arizona.

“When the environment is this bad,” said one GOP strategist tracking the contests, “you don’t want this many races that could go either way.”

Democrats aren’t expecting a clean sweep, however. They concede that Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-Fla., who is under investigation by the FBI and a House panel after admitting to two adulterous affairs, is all but certain to lose his re-election race. The other Democrats in greatest danger of losing are Reps. Paul E. Kanjorksi in Pennsylvania and Nick Lampson in Texas.

Democratic Reps. Nancy Boyda of Kansas and Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire also are at risk. And in a late surprise for Democrats, one of their most powerful members, Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, is scrambling to hold off his GOP challenger after the 34-year House veteran called his district south of Pittsburgh “racist.”

“The Democrats have the advantage and the momentum, but I’m not quite convinced they’re going to pull off the kind of victory they’ve been crowing about,” Cole said.

He said Republican candidates have been having some success playing on public doubts about an all-Democratic government.

“There is clearly genuine concern in the country about unfettered Democratic control of the Senate and the House and the presidency combined,” Cole said.

But Democrats ” who came out of the 2006 contests girding for potentially huge losses this year ” have key financial and organizational advantages that are helping their candidates keep the upper hand.

“Democrats are in the mode of having money to throw at the problem late in the game. For Republicans, it’s a zero-sum game: If you’re going to put resources in somewhere, you have to take it out of someplace else,” said Jim Bonham, a Democratic strategist who headed the party’s House campaign arm from 2002-2005.

One week out from Election Day, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had spent about $65 million in 76 congressional districts. The National Republican Congressional Committee had spent $24 million in 73 district, according to data compiled by the Federal Election Commission.

Democrats had spent $1 million or more in 33 districts, while Republicans had poured that much into just four races.

Democrats also are benefiting from the legacy of a protracted party primary.

“You have all of these Democrats who got excited and energized in the primaries who wanted to keep going, so they’re now turning to down-ballot races as an outlet,” Bonham said.

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