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Expectations Game Under Way

As Congress prepared for its final week of work before the 2004 elections, both parties began the delicate work of setting expectations in the battle for the House.

Republicans continued to express confidence in their chances of enlarging the current 12-seat majority, while Democrats maintained that a House majority is within reach despite a seeming lack of opportunities.

Both sides concede that there are between 30 and 40 races that will be seriously contested, a number that is likely to decrease in the coming month.

“The odds only get better for us to keep the House,” National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), who has studiously avoided making predictions on specific seat pickups throughout the cycle, said Monday.

He also touted the possibility that House GOPers could lose not a single incumbent in the November election, an amazing prospect, Reynolds maintained, given that the freshman class is the second largest since 1994.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) painted a very different picture, citing polling done for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that had 14 Republican incumbents under the crucial 50 percent mark.

“We need to win 12, I want to win 20,” said Pelosi. “If the election were held today, we would win.”

While Pelosi repeatedly insisted that House Democrats are “narrow-casting” their messages to fit each targeted district, she also called the upcoming election a “referendum on what [Republicans] did not do” in the two years since they took control of all three levels of the federal government.

Last month’s unveiling of the “New Partnership for America,” a broad outline of Democratic policy priorities, seemed to be aimed at capitalizing on any favorable political wind on Election Day, much as Republicans’ “Contract with America” was widely credited with delivering them the House majority in 1994.

Pelosi said the new Democratic platform provides a “positive drumbeat” for Democratic candidates nationwide, while on a district-by-district level “we are making our own environment.”

For his part, Reynolds said that his committee has always operated under the assumption that the presidential race would be close and provide no boost to their chances.

“This is not going to be a coattail race,” Reynolds said.

Without a last-minute wind at Democrats’ backs, retaking the House majority seems like a long shot.

Since 1994, when Republicans took over 52 seats to win the majority, neither side has picked up double-digit seats in a single election.

In 1996, Democrats beat 17 Republican incumbents but picked up just eight seats. Two years later, Democrats picked up another five seats.

The 2000 cycle saw Democrats at their most optimistic since their 1994 losses, but despite needing only six seats to take the majority they came up well short, gaining just one.

Last cycle, Republicans unexpectedly picked up six seats, bringing their majority to 12.

With the 2001 redistricting process largely protecting incumbents on both sides of the aisle, the chance for major gains by either side has grown even less likely.

Almost no incumbents outside of Texas appear in danger of losing.

Rep. Max Burns (Ga.) is the most vulnerable Republican incumbent, but national strategists believe they are as well positioned as possible in the Democratic-leaning 12th district and retain a real possibility of winning the race.

Other endangered incumbents such as Reps. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) and Bob Beauprez (R-Colo.), both of whom were elected to a first term by narrow margins in 2002, appear to be gaining strength against their Democratic foes.

Democratic incumbent-retention problems begin and end in Texas, where Reps. Max Sandlin, Nick Lampson, Chet Edwards, Charlie Stenholm and Martin Frost all face serious challenges following the re-redistricting done by Texas state legislators in 2003.

The NRCC is running television ads paid for by independent expenditures against Sandlin and Lampson.

The committee is also on television against Democratic incumbents in South Dakota’s at-large seat, New York’s 1st district and Utah’s 2nd.

Of the other 12 districts where the NRCC is currently running ads, four are in support of Republican incumbents and the remaining eight are open seats.

The DCCC is on television in six districts.

Neither side would offer specific predictions about how they would fare on Nov. 2, perhaps mindful of the example set by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in 1998.

Heading into that election, Gingrich was repeatedly quoted as saying Republicans could pick up 20 or more seats.

Following their five-seat loss, Gingrich resigned as Speaker and left Congress. NRCC Chairman John Linder (Ga.) sought a second term in that post but was soundly defeated by Rep. Tom Davis (Va.).

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