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.

Stew Milne/AP
‘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.
Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
House minority leader John Boehner, speaking at a recent Monitor Breakfast

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

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.

But in the end, there are no sure things, especially three months out.

"We're in such a volatile environment, where you'll have Democratic incumbents run perfect campaigns and lose," says Nathan Gonzales, an analyst for the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "You'll also have Democratic incumbents run flawed campaigns and win. There are larger forces at play."

White House political strategists seem to be preparing the way for big Democratic losses in November, suggesting that it's up to the candidates themselves to save their own skins. In a July 11 appearance on "Meet the Press," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs enraged the House leadership when he echoed the inside-the-Beltway consensus that enough House seats are in play for the Republicans to win control. Then, he said, "This will depend on strong campaigns by Democrats."

Some analysts interpreted that last bit to mean that the White House is already absolving itself of responsibility for big Democratic losses. But it may be that this was another Gibbs statement of the obvious, that the national environment is set, and that endangered Democrats will have to do their best to overcome that.

In an interesting twist, House Democrats are in better shape financially than House Republicans. Both parties' campaign committees raised $9 million in June, but the Democrats have twice as much cash on hand – $34 million versus the Republicans' $17 million. Still, Republicans are confident they will have enough money to compete effectively, since money follows momentum. It's also a rule of thumb that in "wave" elections money is less important than in more neutral years.

Some Republicans worry that they've peaked too soon, after more than a year of tea party rallies, town-hall meetings, and big, unsuccessful legislative battles. But the prospect of a GOP congressional takeover is likely to keep the fire going all the way to November.

"You can't rev the engine too long without some burnout," writes conservative analyst Jim Geraghty at National Review Online. "I expect that the grass roots are trying to enjoy their summer, and that attention and activism will [be] back up at health-care-fight levels by mid-September."

At a Monitor luncheon with reporters July 21, House minority leader John Boehner (R) of Ohio called a GOP House takeover "an uphill climb, but it's doable."

"From where I sit, I think the election's going to be a referendum on the job-­killing policies that are coming out of this administration and my colleagues across the aisle," said Congressman Boehner. "We've got great candidates," he added.

Democrats have tried to frame the election as a choice between the past and the future, or as Mr. Obama put it, between "the policies that got us into this mess and my policies that are getting us out of this mess." So far, though, most Americans don't think Obama's policies are working. The Democrats are also trying to energize the first-time voters from 2008 – particularly the young and minorities – who helped propel Obama into office. But without Obama on the ballot, that may be tough.

On the Senate side, Republicans are expected to pick up seats, but prospects for a takeover are dimmer than in the House. With a 59-to-41 Democratic majority, the Republicans need a net gain of 10 seats to take control, and there's a smaller margin for error than in the House.

Twelve Democratic-held seats are considered vulnerable – including a few that are already effectively gone, such as North Dakota. There, popular Gov. John Hoeven (R) has a prohibitive lead in his campaign to replace retiring Sen. Byron Dorgan (D). But the Republicans have their own collection of vulnerable Senate seats, including Florida, Kentucky, and Missouri.

The irony of the tea party movement is that while it has helped put wind in the sails of Republican candidates across the country, it also has created opportunities for Democrats in a handful of key Senate races.

Democratic majority leader Harry Reid's days as a senator from Nevada would almost surely be numbered if not for the tea party insurgency that gave ultraconservative Sharron Angle the Republican nomination. Democrats may take effective control of the Republican-held seat in Florida if Gov. Charlie Crist wins that race and ends up caucusing, as rumored, with the Democrats. Governor Crist was forced out of the Republican Party by the tea party-backed Marco Rubio, and is running for the Senate as an independent.

In Pennsylvania, Sen. Arlen Specter switched from Republican to Democrat last year, because of a tough challenge from his right by former Rep. Pat Toomey. Now, Mr. Toomey faces a tight race against Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak in the general election. If Senator Specter (who lost his Democratic primary to Congressman Sestak) had remained a Republican, he might have had an easier time holding onto the seat for the GOP than Toomey will.


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