House Elections Heating Up in Close Races

Melissa Block talks with Amy Walter, senior editor of the Cook Political Report, about what to expect in the upcoming House elections. Walter says that most of them are really just starting to get fully engaged, and although Republicans have gained some ground, there remains potential for Democratic gain.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Joining me now to take a step back look at the battle for control of the House is Amy Walter. She is senior editor of the independent publication The Cook Political Report and she follows the House races. Thanks for being with us.

Ms. AMY WALTER (The Cook Political Report): Glad to be here.

BLOCK: And to set this up, all 435 seats at least theoretically up for grabs this year. How many are actually up for grabs?

Ms. WALTER: That's right. Every year - we know that every two years Congress is up for grabs but we also know that the playing field is pretty small, too. So we're looking probably 40, 45 seats that are truly in play and then maybe half of those or a little more than half that would be considered true toss ups where, you know, the race could be won by either side.

BLOCK: And a month or so ago people were feeling pretty confident the Democrats could in fact take control of the House. How do things look now?

Ms. WALTER: Well, it's funny. We've been looking at the race for control of the House really from a macro perspective. Really from the political environment's sake. And so looking at things like the president's approval rating, the approval ratings of Congress, how people feel about the direction of the country, all of which were pretty bleak for Republicans and all of which lined up pretty much exactly as they looked for Democrats back in 1994. That was the last time we saw one of these wave or macro elections, where Republicans took control of Congress.

So based on that macro reality, there was a lot of assumptions then about how it was going to impact certain races. And we are also seeing its impact. That Republican candidates or incumbents were feeling in every single one of these races that the president's low approval rating numbers, the frustration about the war or the economy, the direction of the country, that was taking a toll on all of them maybe five or 10 points.

BLOCK: And these are Republicans who shouldn't have had a reason for it.

Ms. WALTER: That's right. If you were a Republican incumbent, you won your race last time, let's say, with 55 percent, suddenly you're looking at polling that shows you at 45 percent. For no reason. The races haven't even engaged yet. This really was voters who were saying I don't really like what I see. I don't really like the status quo.

Today Republicans are feeling a little bit better because they're seeing an uptick in some of these diagnostic factors, right? The president's approval rating has gone up a couple of points overall. There are people feeling just slightly better about the direction of the country. Again these are small, little incremental gains.

And the suggestion, too, is that these so-called soft Republicans are coming home. These are Republicans who have been sitting on the sidelines for most of the summer. This is where the real worry spot was for Republican strategists, who said if our people don't come out to vote and Democrats do, boy that puts a whole lot of seats in play that we hadn't even thought about. So that's where you're seeing the macro changing a little bit.

BLOCK: And then the wild card, independent voters.

Ms. WALTER: Right.

BLOCK: What are you seeing there?

Ms. WALTER: And that's where Democrats are starting to feel a little more hopeful. They say you know what? Yes, these races are starting to tighten up. Yes, the president's numbers are getting better. But that's really just because Republicans are coming home. He's not picking up new people. He's just getting the same people who've been voting for Republicans forever. And that independents are still sitting on the fence.

And when you look at the polls overall, the president certainly is not in the same place as he was two years ago or four years ago with independents. They give him, you know, an overall negative job approval rating. So I still think independent voters are really going to be crucial here.

BLOCK: Let's narrow this discussion just a little bit. And Amy, I wonder if there's a race out of these 435 that might be a bellwether of something bigger that's going on - some race that you're going to be watching especially closely to see what happens.

Ms. WALTER: Well, I'm going to be watching the Northeast especially closely. And for some time now, Democrats have been targeting these suburban areas that 10 years ago, 15 years ago were considered pretty strongly Republican. They've now been trending away from the Republican base. These are some of these districts where we are seeing Democrats put up probably their strongest challenges to three incumbents in that region.

I find it very hard to see Democrats taking the majority in Congress without picking up at least two seats in that suburban Philadelphia region, and so the Gerlach race is one that I'm watching. There's Bucks County, which is Mike Fitzpatrick, a freshman Republican, and then the one that's getting a whole lot of attention is Curt Weldon, who's out in Delaware County. He's a long-term incumbent running against a retired three star vice admiral named Joe Sestak.

So these are the races I think that are emblematic of the kinds of places where Democrats really need to make some gains, where they're hoping that the overall frustration factor - where you have more Democrats than Republicans, you have people who are used to voting for Democrats - are going to stop splitting their tickets, right? They've been - for the last few years they've been voting for Democrat for president then voting for a Republican for Congress. Democrats are hoping this is the year they can sever that affiliation.

BLOCK: That's Amy Walter, senior editor of the Cook Political Report, and there's more mid-term election analysis at our Web site, NPR.org.

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