Copyright (c) 2002 U.S. News & World Report, L.P. All rights reserved. Republished with permission.

It's just six months until election time. Who's ahead? Everyone–and no one. Democrats are poised to make gains in the races for governor, Republicans are a pretty good bet to hold on to their narrow majority in the House, and control of the Senate–well, not really control, since no one controls the Senate, but majority status in the Senate–is very much up for grabs.

Governors. When George W. Bush was sworn in as president, there were 29 Republican governors, 19 Democrats, and two independents. That edge was never going to last. Two Republicans were replaced by Democrats in 2001, in New Jersey and Virginia. This year nine Republicans (and four Democrats and one independent) are term-limited. In some states long held by Republicans, they have grown stale, tired, faction-ridden, as parties long in power usually do. And the president's party usually loses governorships, because smart, ambitious people in the out party, unable to get appointments in Washington, run for governor instead.

Democrats are now well positioned to win governorships in big states like Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. That won't make much difference in 2004 presidential politics, but it does give the out party an opportunity for innovative policymaking, an opportunity many Republicans used to political and public advantage in the 1990s. There will also be some party changes with zero presidential significance: Democrats in Kansas and Republicans in Hawaii have strong female candidates who could win, but that doesn't mean George W. Bush will lose Kansas or win Hawaii in 2004.

House. Theoretically, there are 435 races for the House; in fact, this year only about 30 will be seriously contested. This is a time of pro-incumbent feeling, and longtime incumbents have learned to keep their seats safe even in rough times; incumbent-protection redistricting deals in California, New York, Illinois, and Ohio ensure that only two or three of those states' 119 seats will be seriously contested. The Democrats need only seven seats to win the House (theoretically six, but one conservative Texas Democrat says he'll vote for Speaker Dennis Hastert if his vote makes the difference). But with only about 30 seats in play, that means Democrats will have to win almost two thirds of them to take over. Parties win only three fourths of seriously contested seats when opinion is moving strongly their way (Republicans 1994, Democrats 1974), and polls show voters divided just about evenly between the parties, as they were in House elections in 1996, 1998, and 2000. A Democratic House would be a political disaster for George W. Bush, but it looks like a disaster he won't face until a second term, if then.

Senate. The Democrats, thanks to Vermonter Jim Jeffords's May 2001 defection, have a 50-to-49 edge; a one-seat loss gives Republicans (with Dick Cheney's tiebreaker) a majority again. Currently, the four races in which the polls have been closest over time are in South Dakota, Minnesota, Missouri, and Arkansas–the first three held by Democrats, the last one by a Republican. Bush carried three of those states in 2000 and lost Minnesota by only 48 to 46 percent. Races could become close for Democratic seats in Georgia, Iowa, Montana, and New Jersey and for Republican seats in New Hampshire, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas–all states carried by Bush except Iowa, which he lost by 49 to 48 percent. The fight is on Bush terrain.

Current Majority Leader Tom Daschle has used his power to schedule business to frustrate the Bush administration on trade, taxes, the budget, and judgeships in much the same way his mentor George Mitchell used that power to frustrate Bush's father. But Mitchell had bigger majorities and a Democratic House, and Bush 41 never really challenged the Democrats for Senate control. Bush 43 has made the opposite decision. Stung by Daschle's refusal to cooperate with him as Democratic legislative leaders had in Texas, Bush 43 is raising money and campaigning for Republican Senate candidates with Clintonesque energy and verve. Daschle probably never considered proceeding any other way: This is the way it is done in Washington. But if Bush's Republicans are successful–and in my judgment they have a 50 percent chance of gaining one seat or more–then Daschle will have time to rue his strategy. It's all up to a few voters in a few states, who will make the difference, as they did in 2000.

Other articles in this series:

The Spartacus Report: Mr. Smith Is Dead—No One Stands in the Way as Congress Laces Post-September 11 Defense Bills with Pork

War profiteering: Cashing in on the post-9/11 defense build-up

The pork game: Even after 9/11, Congress's priorities are unchanged

Wages of sin: Why lawbreakers still win government contracts


US News & World Report
Cover Story 5/13/02

Sizing up the 2002 races

By Michael Barone