WASHINGTON – Republicans appear to be in jeopardy of losing their grip on Congress in November.
With less than four months to the midterm elections, the latest Associated Press-Ipsos poll found that Americans by an almost 3-to-1 margin hold the GOP-controlled Congress in low regard and profess a desire to see Democrats wrest control after a dozen years of Republican rule.
Further complicating the GOP’s challenge is a solid percentage of liberals, moderates and even conservatives who say they’ll vote Democratic. The party out of power also holds the edge among persuadable voters, a prospect that doesn’t bode well for the Republicans.
The election ultimately will be decided in 435 House districts and 33 Senate contests, in which incumbents typically hold the upper hand. But the survey underscored the difficulty Republicans face in trying to persuade a skeptical public to return them to Washington.
The AP-Ipsos poll of 1,000 adults conducted Monday through Wednesday found that President Bush has stopped his political free fall, with his approval rating of 36 percent basically unchanged from last month. Bush received slightly higher marks for his handling of the Iraq war and the fight against terrorism, weeks after his surprise trip to Baghdad and the killing of Iraqi terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a U.S. airstrike last month.
But a Democratic takeover of either the House or Senate would be problematic for the president, leaving both his agenda for the last two years in office and the chairmanship of investigative committees in the hands of the opposition party. To seize control of Congress, the Democrats must gain 15 House seats and six Senate seats.
The AP-Ipsos survey asked 789 registered voters if the election for the House were held today, would they vote for the Democratic or Republican candidate in their district. Democrats were favored 51 percent to 40 percent.
Not surprisingly, 81 percent of self-described liberals said they would vote for the Democrat. Among moderates, though, 56 percent backed a Democrat in their district and almost a quarter of conservatives – 24 percent – said they would vote Democratic.
Democrats also held the advantage among persuadable voters – those who are undecided or wouldn’t say whom they prefer. A total of 51 percent said they were leaning Democrat, while 41 percent were leaning Republican.
“We still have wind in our face. It’s a midterm election in the president’s second term,” said Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Today is a little bit better in the atmospherics of Washington than it was maybe a month ago.”
The president’s party historically has lost seats in the sixth year of his service. Franklin D. Roosevelt lost 72 House seats in 1938; Dwight D. Eisenhower 48 in 1958. The exception was Bill Clinton in 1998.
By another comparison, polls in 1994 – when a Republican tidal wave swept Democrats from power – showed the two parties were in a dead heat in July on the question of whom voters preferred in their district.
“It comes down to a fairly simple question: Can Democrats nationalize all the elections? If Republicans prevent that, they have a shot. If they don’t, they lose,” said Doug Gross, the GOP gubernatorial candidate in Iowa in 2002 and the state finance director for the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign.
Overall, only 27 percent approved of the way Congress is doing its job. Lawmakers get favorable marks from 36 percent of conservatives, 28 percent of moderates and 17 percent of liberals.
Some criticism of Congress has focused on whether it can control spending, especially with lawmakers tucking in special projects for their home districts. Other complaints have been directed at the GOP for emphasizing cultural issues that energize the party’s base such as banning gay marriage over other legislation.
One bright spot for the GOP is that Republicans hold an advantage over Democrats on issues such as foreign policy and fighting terrorism – 43 percent to 33 percent – and a smaller edge on handling Iraq – 36 percent to 32 percent.
The poll of adults had a margin of error of 3 percentage points and the survey of registered voters had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.