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Midterm elections: not all bad news for Democrats

Midterm elections are historically difficult for the president's party. With the economy in trouble, this year will likely be no different for Democrats – but it might not be as bad as it could be.

By Staff writer / July 30, 2010

‘Tea party’ members Joe Lorenz (l.) and his wife, Terry, (c.) protest outside a Democratic fundraiser in Jamestown, R.I., attended by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Stew Milne/AP

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Washington

If the midterm elections were held today, the Republicans would have a decent shot at taking over the House of Representatives, Democrats themselves admit.

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But the elections are not today. They're on Nov. 2. In politics, that three-month span is a lifetime. So what can the parties, the candidates, and other political actors do to bend the outcome? Both a lot and nothing at all. For Democrats, the good news is that they currently hold a big House majority – 256 to 178, with one vacancy. The Republicans would need a net gain of 39 seats to take control, well above average midterm losses for the president's party.

The bad news for Democrats is that the vast majority of the 70 seats deemed "in play" by nonpartisan campaign handicappers are Democrat-held. Just the kind of political tsunami required to knock the Democrats out of power is forming, and at this point, there's virtually no doubt that they will lose a significant number of House seats. Unemployment remains stubbornly high, President Obama's job approval rating has sunk to the mid-40s, and his agenda has whipped up a fierce conservative backlash.

"The political climate is set, and it's gone for the Democrats," says a Democratic strategist.

Some Democratic seats are already a lost cause. But there are ways some endangered Democrats can save themselves. If a candidate has a voting record that jibes with his or her district, runs great ads, raises enough money to be competitive, and goes after the Republican effectively, then he or she may have a fighting chance. Ditto if a "tea party"-backed candidate runs as an independent and splits the conservative vote. Unlike in the run-up to the midterms of 1994 – the last time the Democrats got swept out of congressional power – the Democrats this time are well aware of what might happen.

One freshman Democrat who seems well positioned to keep his seat against all odds is Rep. Walt Minnick of Idaho. He represents a conservative district, and he has voted against the Democratic agenda most of the time, earning him the endorsement of the Tea Party Express (which he later rejected, following its recent racism controversy). Congressman Minnick also has flush campaign coffers, unlike his Republican opponent, who is not a GOP establishment favorite.

Another first-term Democrat who might survive November is Rep. Bobby Bright of Alabama. He, too, has a conservative voting record – he voted against the stimulus, the energy bill, and health-care reform – and has fundraised well.

In contrast, see Rep. Betsy Markey (D) of Colorado, who defeated the polarizing Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R) in 2008. Hers is still a Republican district, won by GOP presidential nominee John McCain, and Ms. Markey has supported the Democratic agenda. She also faces a tough Republican opponent, state Rep. Cory Gardner, seen by the state GOP as a rising star.

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