The vote is all about Bush, and the Republicans are worried

But the prospect of a Democratic Congress won't make much difference to Canada

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The Gazette, Monday, November 6, 2006

Usually when the president of the United States visits a town, the arrival of Air Force One is a huge local story. But the New York Times reported that news of George W. Bush impending arrival in Billings, Montana last week played below the fold in the local paper, beneath the story of another arrival - a local sailor coming back from Iraq in a coffin.

That's how much trouble the Republicans are in heading into tomorrow's mid-term congressional elections. That Bush would even be campaigning in Montana, normally a reliable Red state, is indicative of the Republicans' troubles. That he would be campaigning for a three-term senator, Conrad Burns, who would normally be a lock for re-election, shows the Republicans in imminent danger of losing control of both houses of Congress.

They have controlled both the House of Representatives and the Senate since the 1994 mid-terms brought the Republican Revolution, and put Newt Gingrich into the speaker's chair. The Republicans wrested control of the House from the Democrats for the first time since the 1950s and have controlled both the House and the Senate ever since.

Is this election a referendum on Bush, and his conduct of the war in Iraq? McGill University's Gil Troy, a historian and author, cautions that it's the media that attempt "to nationalize" mid-term elections because it makes a more compelling story line. Most House elections are determined by pork - the number of bridges built by the incumbent. Normally, about 95 per cent of incumbents seeking re-election to the 435-seat House are successful. It's even more unusual for incumbents to be defeated in the Senate, where one third of the 100 seats are in play every two years.

But this off-year election is different. There's the intensifying insurgency in Iraq. There's the fallout from Hurricane Katrina. Competence is a core Republican attribute, and the Bush administration has mismanaged both files. Then there are the Republican scandals in the House, from the disgrace of the former majority leader, Tom DeLay, to the explosive matter of former congressman Mark Foley hitting on page boys in the House.

Currently, the GOP has 232 seats in the House, so a loss of 15 seats would be enough to swing control to the Democrats. In the Senate, the Republicans hold 55 seats, and a loss of five would cost them a majority, leaving Vice-President Dick Cheney as the tiebreaker in his role as the presiding officer of the Senate

Chuck Cook, editor of the respected Cook Political Report, has predicted a "Category 5 hurricane" will hit the Republicans. "We are looking at the prospect of GOP losses in at least 20 to 35 seats, possibly more," Cook wrote in a posting to his website last week, "and at least four in the Senate, with five or six more likely."

Cook was not alone last week in predicting the Democrats likely to win both Houses. But predictions of Democratic sweeps are always a risky business, because they are, after all, the Democrats.

John Kerry made a very bad joke when he told a student audience in California: "You know education. If you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well, and if you don't you get stuck in Iraq." It was supposed to be reference to the "intellectually lazy" Bush getting the U.S. stuck in a bad place, ending, "just ask President Bush." It came out instead as an insult to U.S. soldiers as a bunch of dummies. Then it took Kerry nearly three days to apologize, reminding people all over again why he was such a bad candidate for president.

No doubt Karl Rove, known as Bush's brain, couldn't believe his luck. Troy - author of the outstanding Ronald Reagan biography, Morning in America - was in Washington last week and found the Republicans surprisingly upbeat. It's true, as Troy notes, the GOP has deeper pockets for a late television blitz, and a better ground game with a more motivated voter base.

What does the prospect of a Democratic Congress mean for Canada-U.S. relations? This is not a hot topic in Washington. But it probably doesn't make much difference. If anything, Democrats such as Hillary Clinton, who will be re-elected to the senate from New York, tend to be more protectionist on trade. But all politics being local, whoever wins the Montana senate seat would have a Montana view of bilateral issues such as softwood lumber and mad cow disease.

But it matters to Bush, because this is his last campaign, and it's largely about him, even if his name isn't on the ballot.

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