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The presidential primaries have diverted attention from down-the-ballot House and Senate races, yet political observers say Congress could be where the Democrats win their most significant victories in November.

While polls show Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama running neck and neck for the presidency, the Democrats appear poised to significantly expand their congressional majorities. A couple of factors are tilting key races their way.

First, the faltering economy, gas prices, and the ongoing war in Afghanistan and Iraq seem to be higher priorities for voters than social issues. Second, in regions where social issues still count with voters, Democrats are once again nominating faith-friendly social moderates in some conservative congressional districts, a strategy they employed with some success in 2006.

So long as the strategy works, Democratic leadership will continue to recruit candidates from the conservative wing of their party, said Amy Black, associate professor of political science at Wheaton College. This year, pro-life Democrats have already won special elections in Louisiana and Mississippi.

"The special elections in Louisiana and Mississippi show that traditional GOP voters are prepared to switch parties for Democrats who run as social conservatives," said Mark Silk, founding director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life.

Republicans were already in trouble before the special elections. More than 20 Republican members of Congress have retired since 2006, some hastened, perhaps, by the party's loss of majority status. Senate Republicans are defending 23 seats compared to just 12 for the Democrats. In addition, the Democrats have lost none of their incumbent senators.

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August 2008

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