Parties Adopt Different Strategies to 2006 Elections

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Republican Tom Reynolds of New York and Democrat Rahm Emanuel of Illinois talk about political strategy in the 2006 election season. Both men are in charge of Congressional House races. Democrats are hoping to tie the election to President Bush's poor poll numbers, while the GOP is looking to win on local issues.


This year's elections may depend in part on the strategies followed by two members of Congress: one Republican and one Democrat, each coordinating an effort to control the House.

NPR's Juan Williams spoke to them both.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Republicans have math on their side when it comes to retaining control of the House. The Democrats need to win 15 seats held by Republicans to take the majority.

That may not be as easy as it sounds. The map of congressional districts is drawn to protect incumbents; so only about 30 of 435 seats in the Congress are considered up for grabs.

However, Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic congressional campaign committee, and a congressman from Illinois, says incumbency is a disadvantage in this election.

Representative RAHM EMANUEL (Democrat, Illinois): Our view is this is election about change versus the status quo. The Republicans have said we've done what we've done for the last six years, give us another two years to do more of the same. That's all they're saying. And we're telling you, it's time for a whole new direction and new set of priorities that put the government back working for the American people rather than the other way around.

WILLIAMS: The Democratic strategy is to nationalize the Congressional races this year. They want every local congressional contest to be a referendum on President Bush, his handling of the war in Iraq, the economy, and the federal government's response to hurricane Katrina. Rahm Emanuel:

Representative EMANUEL: You have members of Congress who have literally rubber-stamped this president's policy, run as the mid wife and, literally, the co-equal partner to the president's policy that got you here. Now, they can, they couldn't identify George Bush in a line-up.

WILLIAMS: Emanuel argues that the president's low approval ratings, as well as low ratings for a Congress controlled by the GOP, make this mid-term election one ripe for big change.

Representative TOM REYNOLDS (Republican, New York; Chairman, National Republican Congressional Committee): America loves their Congressmen.

WILLIAMS: That's Republican Tom Reynolds, a Congressman from New York who heads the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Representative REYNOLDS: The polls I've seen--62, 58, 57--shows that there's not this anti-incumbent mood that some are trying to spin that are out there. There just isn't.

WILLIAMS: Democrats may want to nationalize the campaigns, but the Republican strategy is to run hard on local issues in every race.

Representative REYNOLDS: I have promised my conference you can expect that we will execute a local, from the ground up, races in each of the congressional districts in the country.

WILLIAMS: Now you can imagine the Democrats for their part are gonna say we want to nationalize this election. We want to talk about the war in Iraq. We want to talk about President Bush. We want to talk about even security issues like the port issue.

Representative REYNOLDS: I'm used to guys throwing stuff on the wall and see what sticks. They're doing that now to find out, is there anything that will stick.

WILLIAMS: The Republicans may be able to succeed with a local strategy because Democrats have been unable to come up with a coherent national message. They've talked about a range of issues from Iraq to a quote "culture of corruption" to Katrina and the economy. Rahm Emanuel:

Representative EMANUEL: For a lot of Americans, the economy is actually working against them and they see the government is actually stacking the deck against them.

WILLIAMS: But the Republicans can say the economy is growing; it's actually growing at a very healthy rate.

Representative EMANUEL: I hope they continue to try to tell America (unintelligible) it's goin' great, but the American people are tellin' them it isn't. Your pension's more vulnerable, your co-pay is larger, your premiums are now $3600 more than 3-4 years ago.

WILLIAMS: The model for turning local congressional elections into a national referendum was 1994. The Republicans unveiled their contract with America and took control of the House. Reynolds says the circumstances this year are different from '94.

Representative REYNOLDS: What you saw there was more seats in play and the seats that were in play were largely Democratic seats that fell to, uh, Republicans--and let's take a look at where. The South had tremendous impact of a transformation of, uh, where we are. When you look at the state of Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, those have had significant Republicans that are now strongholds.

WILLIAMS: But the Democrats think this year there are more Congressional districts in play than the Republicans may admit. They are looking at Northeastern and Midwestern districts with Republican members of Congress, where Al Gore and John Kerry did well in the last two presidential elections. And there's another wild card for both parties: incumbents who are retiring.

Republican Tom Reynolds:

Representative REYNOLDS: My mantra is I don't want you to retire. I want you to stay. Most of you worked your whole life to be in the majority. If you've been here awhile, stay and enjoy it. Do I accept there's gonna be retirement, sure.

WILLIAMS: And just this week, Reynolds lost a sure winner when Representative Bill Thomas, a powerful Congressman from California with 28 years in the House, announced his retirement. Juan Williams, NPR News, Washington.

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