WASHINGTON -- President Bush is not on the Nov. 5 ballot, but his midterm presidency is. And so he appeals to voters in House and Senate elections for "a Congress with which I can work" -- one that will deliver him deeper tax cuts and free rein to build a domestic record he can carry into his own re-election campaign.
From personally recruiting candidates to raising more than $163 million in Republican cash, the Bush-Cheney White House has taken extraordinary steps to keep GOP control of the House -- up for grabs with the swing of just seven seats -- and wrest away the Democrats' tenuous one-seat hold on the Senate.
Some races, aside from affecting the balance of power, double as grudge matches.
Bush himself courted Rep. John Thune to run for the Senate in South Dakota with hopes of defeating Democrat Sen. Tim Johnson and deflating his patron, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Playing out on Daschle's home turf, that race is seen as a battle-by-proxy between Bush and a Democratic nemesis.
In Texas, Bush aims to prove his home state appeal by helping Republican John Cornyn into the Senate seat being vacated by the GOP's Phil Gramm.
Governors' races in 36 states also offer juicy subplots. For example, Bush's younger brother, Jeb, is in an unexpectedly tight race to hold onto the governorship of Florida, a potentially colossal embarrassment to the White House. Some Democrats also would consider a Jeb Bush loss payback for the disputed 2000 presidential ballots.
"That would be a vote against a Bush, something voters nationwide would understand as not good for the president," said Kenneth Warren, professor of political science at Saint Louis University.
Echoes of 2000 also reverberate in Al Gore's Tennessee, where Bush, campaigning for Republican Van Hilleary, aims to undercut Gore in his home state for any rematch.
Republican governors can be instrumental to Bush's 2004 electoral strategy, but Capitol Hill is where his record leading into that re-election campaign will stand or fall. As such, there is plenty at stake for the man determined not to see his name beside his father's in the history of single-term presidents.
The four possible congressional outcomes and what they could mean for Bush:
With a Republican Senate and House, Bush could claim the Washington stage to himself and resurrect the legislation -- and conservative judicial nominees -- that Daschle had buried. That could mean extending last year's income- and inheritance-tax cuts indefinitely, lowering taxes on corporations and capital gains, restricting jury awards in lawsuits. Control of the Senate also would give Bush greater leeway to reshape the federal bench.
The GOP's most conservative activists could be expected to demand more from a wholly Republican Washington, but party strategist Alex Castellanos said control of both chambers probably would turn on "razor-thin, one-vote margins" that would keep House and Senate leaders from overreaching. Also, Bush would have to reach out to at least some Democrats because Senate rules can require 60 votes to get legislation and nominee confirmations approved.
Because, as Warren tells his university students, "Americans vote their wallet issues more than anything else," such a repudiation of Bush and the GOP would indicate that the president's post-Sept. 11 wartime popularity is not strong enough to overcome anxiety about the sputtering economy. After eight years out of power in the House, Democrats would reclaim chairmanships of the committees that initiate government spending and tax legislation, all but dooming Bush's economic agenda. In the Senate, a handful of Democrats interested in running for president would have a powerful platform from which to challenge Bush and force concessions on his priorities.
"A disaster for Bush," said Warren. "The Bush administration will become so weak, he will just muddle through and his 2004 election would be in jeopardy."
REPUBLICAN HOUSE, DEMOCRATIC SENATE -- THE STATUS QUO:
"By definition, we get more of the same," said Castellanos. Which means more frustration for Bush, who has seen his one new economic proposal -- guaranteed terrorism insurance for businesses -- and his idea for a Homeland Security Department stall in the Senate over traditionally Democratic concerns about lawsuit reform and workers' rights.
Daschle has already said that if Democrats retain control, he will block Bush's attempt to make his 10-year, $1.35 trillion tax cuts permanent and will, instead, try to raise the minimum wage and extend unemployment benefits.
DEMOCRATIC HOUSE, REPUBLICAN SENATE:
Such a "double flip" in control is unlikely. The practical consequences of Bush gaining Senate control would include easier confirmation of his nominees and a weakening of his strongest potential challengers in 2004, including Daschle and Sens. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina.
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