WASHINGTON — After a decade in the political wilderness, Democrats are beginning to predict confidently if quietly that they will win control of the House in next week’s elections, and possibly emerge with a relatively robust majority.
The optimism coincides with a Republican retreat Tuesday in three costly, highly competitive races in Pennsylvania, Colorado and Ohio, as well as polls showing continued public dissatisfaction with President Bush and the war in Iraq.
In addition, fundraising is running significantly stronger than two years ago, $104.5 million through Oct. 18. That represents an increase of more than 30 percent, and has allowed Democrats to launch late-campaign television advertising in several districts in recent days in an attempt to maximize their gains on Election Day.
Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster, said in an interview there has never been an election in which a president’s approval rating was below 40 percent “and his party has not lost the 15 seats” that Democrats need to gain control this year. Bush’s approval ratings hover in the mid- to high-30s.
Despite the developments, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader, and Rep. Rahm Emanuel the head of the campaign committee, have told aides to avoid predictions of victory before the votes are counted.
“Anybody who’s been involved in politics for the past 10 years can tell you that a week out you’ve still got a long week ahead of you,” said Bill Burton of the Democratic campaign committee. “And we are absolutely not taking anything for granted.”
Republicans, too, say that with a week of campaigning to go, Democrats are ill-advised to celebrate. They note than an extraordinary number of races remain very close, and that their GOP get-out-the-vote operation will help pull enough of their candidates to victory to preserve their majority.
Eager to persuade conservatives to vote, President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Republican leaders attack Democrats steadily as favoring a policy of retreat in Iraq and higher taxes at home.
The White House and several Republican lawmakers criticized Sen. John Kerry during the day for saying that young men and women unable to navigate the country’s education system “get stuck in Iraq.”
In remarks prepared for delivery in Georgia, Bush called the statement by his 2004 Democratic presidential rival “insulting and shameful,” and called on him to apologize. Kerry lashed out at the president’s men and said: “I apologize to no one for my criticism of the president and of his broken policy.”
Democrats must gain six seats to win control of the Senate next week, but the House is viewed as more within reach.
Karin Johanson, executive director of the campaign committee, told one group last week that Democrats felt confident they had locked up 10 of the 15 seats they need to prevail, according to participants in the meeting who spoke on condition of anonymity.
But other officials and strategists with long experience in congressional campaigns have turned far more bullish about Democratic chances, and party strategists say no more than two of the party’s incumbents who are seeking new terms are in jeopardy of defeat.
In an interview, Mellman said he wasn’t counting victories before they occurred. At the same time, he said polls consistently show Democrats with such a large lead on hypothetical ballot tests that they are “outside the realm of historical experience.”
“I think if the election were held today we would win,” said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist who retains close ties with party aides and lawmakers from his days as top aide to Rep. Dick Gephardt, the former House democratic leader.
Recalling disappointments from 1996 and 2000, Elmendorf said, “people are very cautious because we’ve been up this hill before.” He added, “the thing that gives people on our side the most confidence is all our friends on the other (Republican) side think they’re going to lose.”
Erik Smith, a consultant for Chris Murphy, a House candidate in Connecticut, said, “every day the Democrats’ chances of taking the House seem to improve. More races become competitive and races that had been competitive are opening up a little bit.”
Strategists involved in key races express even stronger confidence as long as they are free to speak on condition of anonymity. One recently put the party’s chances of victory at “100 percent,” while another said the only remaining question is the size of the Democratic majority in the Congress that convenes in January.
Mellman said academic models predict Democratic gains of between 14 and 32 seats. Elmendorf said a majority of 15 to 20 seats is possible, indicating gains of 30 to 35 seats on Election Day. Others predicted gains in the same range.
One of the most reliable indicators of competitive seats is party-financed television commercials or other political activity designed to augment a candidate’s effort.
By that standard, more than 50 Republican-held seats are competitive, and Democrats have made six-figure investments in television advertisements in many of them. Republicans have done likewise.
Republicans pulled back in three such races during the day, including Rep. Curt Weldon’s re-election bid in Pennsylvania and open seats held by Rep. Bob Beauprez, running for governor of Colorado, and Bob Ney of Ohio, who recently pleaded guilty to corruption charges.
In recent days, Democrats have moved into districts long viewed as untouchable. They launched advertisements in a western district in Nebraska; for an Idaho seat; and as a challenge to Rep. Jim Ryun in Republican-heavy Kansas.
At the same time, the overall political environment coupled with the prospect of Democratic landslide victories in New York by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and gubernatorial contender Eliot Spitzer has prompted House Democrats to spend heavily in several districts.
Reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show that as of Monday night, the Democratic campaign committee has spent significant amounts on television advertising on five of the state’s nine seats currently in Republican hands.