Congressional Election Races Tighten

The presidential race may be grabbing most of the headlines, but there are congressional elections this November, too. The Democrats in Congress were hoping to end up with an upper hand, but some of them are seeing their re-election races tighten.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

People concerned about who controls Congress also have to think about New Hampshire. And for more this morning, we're joined by NPR news analyst Cokie Roberts, who's with us every Monday. Good morning, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Monday wouldn't be complete without you.

ROBERTS: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: And New Hampshire, we should mention, is a state with a very vulnerable Senate Republican.

ROBERTS: That's right. John Sununu, he's got a challenge from former Governor Jean Shaheen, and most political analysts give this race a toss-up status. And that's true for several of the Republican incumbents in the Senate. Norm Coleman in Minnesota is being challenged by comedian Al Franken for the Democrats. And Oregon Senator Gordon Smith is a toss-up, the open Republican seat in Colorado.

I mean, Republicans have been looking at a very daunting November in both houses of Congress. But it's interesting, Steve. It's looking a little closer than it had been before the conventions. The Gallup poll had Democrats running an advantage nationally in Congress of about 15 points, and that's dropped. That's dropped down to only 4 points Democratic national advantage.

INSKEEP: What's causing that?

ROBERTS: Well, I think part of what's causing that is, of course, the bad economy and the fact that most Americans think the country is off on the wrong track. But it's also the political campaign. You know, you run against Washington enough - and both presidential candidates are running hard against Washington - it starts to work. It becomes an anti-incumbent campaign, not just an anti-Republican Party campaign.

INSKEEP: There must be nobody in charge in Washington, considering who's running against those guys.

ROBERTS: That's it, that's it. The only person who ran successfully, though, you know, against Washington a second time around was Ronald Reagan. But the congressional approval rating in one poll is down to 9 percent. John McCain jokes that that's paid staff and close relatives.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Well, does that mean that Democrats don't increase their margins in Congress, as has been expected? Does it even mean Democrats could lose something?

ROBERT: No, they are likely to increase their margins. Everything is working for them. There are many more open Republican seats than Democratic seats. And of the 29 open Republican seats in the House, at least 16 of them are vulnerable. The money is there. Hillary Rodham Clinton is out campaigning like crazy for these Democratic candidates. And now, their primaries are over. You know, they were still into primaries until last week. The only one left is in Louisiana. It was postponed because of Hurricane Gustav. So Democrats are likely to do quite well, but not maybe as well as they had anticipated, because everybody is furious at Washington, and the presidential campaigns are out there saying Washington is evil.

INSKEEP: Thanks very much. That's NPR's Cokie Roberts, who joins us every Monday morning.

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Correction Sept. 15, 2008

In the interview, we mistakenly said that the only primary election remaining was in Louisiana. There are actually three more primaries — in Massachusetts, Hawaii and Louisiana.

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