This year is no different.

While the race between President George Bush and de-facto Democratic nominee John Kerry has attracted the lion's share of media coverage, the upcoming congressional elections are receiving scant attention.

Democrats are attempting to win back control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, something most political experts say is a long shot.

If Republicans can maintain a majority in both bodies, they will continue to exert enormous influence over a range of issues, most notably the national budget.

Republicans hold the edge in the House by a 228-206 margin and few experts in Washington give the Democrats much of a chance of overcoming that lead.

Tough contests

"Conventional wisdom among people outside of the Democratic group is that it would be extremely difficult to win back the House," said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, a biweekly newsletter that analyses elections.

Indeed, the Republican establishment appears confident of victory.

President Bush is leading the
Republican charge

"Democrats don't have the candidates, they don’t have the money," said a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Democrats point to 1994, when Republicans seized control of the House in a dramatic fashion by gaining more than 50 seats, far more than Democrats would need to win this year.

"That is kind of how Democrats are trying to frame this situation," Gonzales said, adding that it is highly unlikely that Democrats could pull off a similar feat.

Since 2000, the process of redistricting (restructuring voting districts to reflect changes in the census report) has put Republicans in a position to pick up House seats in districts that once were Democratic, experts said.

Better prospects

Consequently, most analysts said Democrats have a better chance at taking back the Senate, in which Republicans hold a slim 51-49 lead.

"Their chances in the Senate are clearly better than in the House," said Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington thinktank.

There are 34 Senate races this year, 19 involve seats held by Democrats and 15 by Republicans. Democratic strategists are looking at competitive races in Illinois, Oklahoma, Alaska, Pennsylvania and Colorado as their best chance to snatch seats currently in the hands of Republicans.

John Kerry is to take on Bush in
November's presidential vote
 

Colorado Senator Benjamin Nighthorse Campbell, a Republican, recently announced his retirement, and Gonzales said the state is trending Democratic.

"Colorado is the most recent piece of good news for the Democrats, a seat that they really didn't expect to be in play," he said.

Democrats believe they can take back the Senate because of "the momentum that the Senate map has taken in the past month", a Democratic strategist said. However, they must defend five Senate seats in southern states where incumbents have chosen not to run for re-election.

Southern states 

Seats in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana will likely be competitive races and the Democratic party has been losing ground in the south in recent years.

If certain cultural wedge issues, such as gay marriage, become the focus of attention at the national level, Democrats could lose support in these five southern states filled with socially conservative voters, Gonzales said.

"Part of the problem for the Democrats, and why they haven't been doing so well in the south, is that there are a lot of conservative Democrats who aren't lining up with the Democrats on these social issues," he said.

Yet, Cara Morris, a spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said the signs look positive for Democrats in all of the aforementioned southern states, except for Georgia.

"We are actually ahead in the polls in four of them," Morris said.

Economic priorities

To a certain extent, the presidential election will cast a shadow over the congressional elections.

"The presidential race is going to set the tone and the issues for the 2004 congressional election," Gonzales said.

"The presidential race is going to set the tone and the issues for the 2004 congressional election"

Nathan Gonzales,
political editor,
Rothenberg Political Report

Most experts agree that the race for the White House will centre on the issue of jobs and the economy. The same is also true for the House and Senate races.

"The economy is going to be what voters look at first," Gonzales said.

Unlike the presidential election, analysts said, foreign policy issues such as the war in Iraq and the "war on terrorism" probably will not be a major factor in the battle for Congress.

"Certainly domestic issues tend to be more persuasive in House and Senate races," Ornstein said.

Particularly in the Senate, where Republicans hold a narrow two-seat majority, the outcomes of a few key races could be crucial in determining what legislation is passed in the near future, said Charles Jones, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution.

The most likely scenario, he said, would be a virtual wash in which one party picks up a seat or two, but not enough to alter dramatically the political landscape on Capitol Hill.

"I think however it turns out, we are talking about the continuation of real tough partisanship that is a result of these thin margins," Jones said.