WASHINGTON (AP) -- A rush of Republican retirements has positioned Democrats to pick up 20 or more seats in the House and transform what might otherwise be a march to modest gains on Election Day into a wave to a lopsided majority.
Across the country, GOP departures - many in districts the party has controlled for decades - have made an extraordinarily grim election year even tougher for Republicans.
If Democrats can capture a substantial number of the GOP's 29 so-called open seats, they will have a stronger hand in the new Congress at moving an agenda that includes raising taxes on the wealthy and cutting them for the middle class, steering more federal benefits to low-income families and expanding health care coverage.
They also might solidify what could be a long-lasting House majority by gaining footholds in areas that have been off-limits to Democrats for a decade or longer. Democrats now enjoy a 235-199 majority in the House, with one vacancy. While no one envisions them building that to a veto-proof 270-seat majority this election, the closer they approach it the better chances their agenda will have, even should Republican John McCain win the White House.
Richard Liebo of Bloomington, Minn., is the kind of voter they're looking to. Liebo, a self-described independent who doesn't much like what he calls the "far-right" drift of the GOP, over the past two decades has voted to return Republican Rep. Jim Ramstad to the House from Minnesota's 3rd District. He viewed his nine-term congressman as a "middle-of-the-roader" who worked "for everyone's benefit" in his suburban territory west of the Minneapolis-St. Paul.
But with Ramstad retiring, Liebo, 78, says this year is different. He's now leaning toward supporting the Democrat, Ashwin Madia, to succeed him.
"These open seats are the critical battleground," Ohio political scientist John C. Green said. They are, he added, "the difference between (Democrats) having a modest success and a great success."
Republicans are defending nearly five times the number of open seats than Democrats are protecting. These seats generally are considered much more vulnerable to takeover by the other party than those where incumbents are seeking re-election, because the candidates lack the powers of a sitting lawmaker, such as name recognition, money, and the kind of reputation and rapport with voters that Liebo described with Ramstad.
"It's where 75 percent of congressmen come from," said Ronald Keith Gaddie, a University of Oklahoma political scientist who has written a book on the trend. "There's only a 25 percent chance you bump off an incumbent," Gaddie said, so retirements and other departures are the ripest opportunities to flip seats from one party's column to another's.
This year two-thirds of the up-for-grabs GOP seats are at least somewhat competitive. Democrats hold solid advantages in six of them - in Arizona, Illinois, New York, Ohio and Virginia. Another 13 - in Alabama, California, Louisiana, Maryland, Ramstad's in Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, Ohio and Wyoming - are toss-ups that could go either way on Election Day.
By contrast, just two of Democrats' six open seats are considered competitive, and only one of them, in Alabama, is considered a toss-up.
Democrats are dumping huge amounts of money and time into the up-for-grabs districts. They've poured $1.7 million - one of their biggest investments anywhere - into the open race to succeed retiring Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz. Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick appears to have the advantage in the race over Republican Sydney Hay.
Elsewhere, from Ohio to New York, Democrats are leading GOP candidates in open contests.
Republicans, meanwhile, badly trailing Democrats in the race for campaign cash, have been hard-pressed to promote their candidates for open seats. The House GOP campaign arm isn't even spending in 10 of the most competitive open contests, instead devoting most of its money to defending vulnerable incumbents in an effort to limit losses on Election Day.
It has scaled back ads in Ramstad's district and pulled out completely from New Mexico's Albuquerque-area 1st District, where Republican Darren White, a county sheriff, faces Democratic City Councilor Martin Heinrich in the race to succeed Rep. Heather Wilson, who lost the GOP primary to run for the Senate.
It's a truism in politics that voters hate Congress but love their congressman. When that congressman leaves and voters are choosing between two unfamiliar candidates, general impressions of the two parties take over, analysts say. That's bad news for Republicans this year, when President Bush's low approval ratings and GOP presidential nominee John McCain's poor performance in key states make it difficult for a little-known Republican to gain a foothold.
It's especially challenging in swing districts where a veteran Republican congressman could command large re-election margins, but a GOP unknown may have trouble distinguishing himself.
For example, retiring Rep. Jim Saxton drew large majorities in New Jersey's Pine Barrens region, winning 58 percent of the vote in 2006 in a district Bush carried with only 51 percent.
Democrats' House campaign committee, which has spent $1.2 million in the race, is now airing TV ads tagging Saxton's would-be GOP successor, Medford Mayor Chris Myers, as a supporter of Bush's "failed economic policies," and ridiculing him for saying the economy is "basically strong" - an echo of a much-maligned McCain comment.
National Republicans are spending less than one-third as much to air spots that accuse the Democrat, state Sen. John Adler, of being corrupt. They cite grants Adler got from a fund controlled by his party's leaders in Trenton, attacked by Republicans as a "slush fund."
In the Minnesota race, Democrat Madia "seems to be more liberal than the other one," Liebo said, referring to Erik Paulsen, the Republican candidate. Liebo also said he identifies with Madia more because both are former Marines. But more than anything, Liebo can't wait for a clean break from Bush and his policies. "I just want all those bad people to go away," he says.
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