US Congress likely to remain split
This article first appeared in The Straits Times on Sept 26, 2012.
WASHINGTON - Gazing into the crystal ball last December, top Republican strategist Karl Rove boldly predicted that his party would make a clean sweep at this year's election, capturing not just the White House but majority control of the two legislative chambers as well.
Such high hopes, however, have dimmed considerably in recent months.
While the presidential race between Democratic incumbent Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney remains volatile, analysts say the legislative contests are at a relative standstill and could emerge from the November vote with little change to the overall balance of power in Congress.
The Republicans currently control the 435-member House of Representatives, the lower chamber, with a 25-seat majority.
The Democrats, together with two independent lawmakers, have a slim 53-vote majority in the 100-member Senate, the upper chamber.
Projections by experts at the Public Policy Institute of California and the University of Virginia suggest that the Democrats could regain one to four House seats in November.
This is nowhere near the 25 seats they need to regain control of the lower chamber, and represents a mere fraction of the historic 63 seats they lost in the 2010 mid-term election.
Meanwhile, the Republicans' plan to gain four to six more seats in the Senate has been unsettled by a series of self-inflicted wounds and the stronger-than-expected resiliency of the Democratic incumbents.
In Missouri, for instance, vulnerable Democratic senator Claire McCaskill was thrown a major lifeline after her Republican rival Todd Akin sparked a national uproar last month with his comments about "legitimate rape".
The incumbent Democratic senators in Ohio and Florida have also been able to maintain their lead in the polls despite an onslaught of negative ads by their Republican rivals and well-funded outside groups.
As a result, the Senate could end up with a 50-50 split, or with the Democrats continuing to cling to their slim majority.
Either way, the United States looks likely to continue its struggle with divided government.
"It is going to be tough for Mr Romney or Mr Obama to try to govern next year," said Mr Kyle Kondit, a political analyst with the University of Virginia's Centre for Politics.
"Clearly both parties would like unified control of both houses, but that looks unlikely at this point."
Indeed, the signs are that the upcoming legislative election would be the first in six years that would not be a "wave election" - that is, one where a large number of seats changes hands between the two parties.
In the 2006 and 2008 elections, the Democrats stormed back to power in Congress on the back of intense public unhappiness with the Iraq war and the tanking economy.
In 2010, it was the Republicans' turn as they tapped into conservative anger with Mr Obama to help them win control of the House and sharply reduce the Democratic majority in the Senate.
But this time round, there does not appear to be a major national issue that would similarly galvanise either party's supporters, said Dr Eric McGhee, a political scientist with the Public Policy Institute of California.
"There is a 'status quo' national picture," he added.
"And under those circumstances, it is really, really hard to knock off the incumbents."
The analysts do acknowledge, however, that there are several factors whose influences on the election are still not entirely clear, or are hard to measure at this point.
The first is the unprecedented amount of money being marshalled by outside groups, the so-called SuperPACs, to help their preferred candidates win the election.
So far, the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on attack ads do not seem to have affected the presidential campaign or prominent Senate races by much.
But that level of financial firepower could potentially make a huge difference in the outcome of House races in smaller districts.
The second unpredictable factor is the "coat-tail effect" - that is, how much Mr Obama or Mr Romney would help down-ballot candidates in their own party win.
In states like Virginia and Ohio, winning presidential nominees have been known to help sweep in legislative candidates who might otherwise have lost a tight race.
Mr Obama has seen his own political fortunes improve in recent weeks, with a barrage of polls showing him pulling slightly ahead of Mr Romney.
But it is unclear whether that would rub off on House or Senatorial candidates this year, given the high unemployment and anaemic economic recovery.
On the Republican front, the outlook is just as murky.
In fact, a number of legislative candidates seem more concerned that Mr Romney - given his recent missteps and gaffes like the one characterising half the country as freeloaders - might hurt rather than help their campaigns.
Sounding a pessimistic note, Mr William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, warned in his blog on Monday that the Republicans should worry about potentially losing their grip on the House if current polls are right that Mr Obama is on track to win the election.
He added, in jest: "If I may once again quote the prophet Aladdin: 'Abu, this is no time to panic... Start panicking!'"