Election 2010: How bad is it for Democrats?

As the November midterm election approaches, it seems to be dire straits for Democrats. Obama and other party leaders will have to energize their base in order to turn it around.

Richard Dickin/The Tri-City Herald/AP
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash, greets supporters during a general election kick-off rally in Kennewick, Wash. Murray, a three-term incumbent, faces a tough challenge from former state senator Dino Rossi, who's leading in some polls.

A consensus is building that Democrats’ chances of holding on to both houses of Congress – certainly with anything like the majorities they have today – are fast fading.

News story and polling headlines this past week paint a grim picture for Democratic lawmakers and therefore for President Obama:

“Americans Most Likely to Favor GOP Newcomers for Congress” … “Dems in power could be in peril, poll says” … “Fewer Young Voters See Themselves as Democrats” … “Dangerous Numbers for House Democrats” … “Republicans Hold Wide Lead in Key Voter Turnout Measure” … “Generic Ballot Continues to Suggest Major Losses for Dems” … “Democrats Plan Political Triage to Retain House”

Undoubtedly, there will be twists and turns (and probably some surprises) between now and when voters go to the polls Nov. 2. Eight weeks can be a political lifetime.

Plus, the “tea party” movement – showing extraordinary muscle in some recent Republican primaries – could be as much of a problem for the establishment GOP as it is for Democrats. And as John Dickerson at Slate points out, “The advantage for Democrats is that they have the better organization.”

Organizing for America, the Obama campaign operation, has been up and running for more than three years,” he writes. “Some of the volunteers have been knocking on the same doors since Obama was just a freshman senator from Illinois running for president.”

Postpartisan? Forget it.

Obama himself has largely shucked his “postpartisan” ideal, and you can expect some sharp rhetorical elbows thrown at Republicans when he addresses a Labor Day rally in Milwaukee on Monday. That’s likely to escalate in coming weeks as Obama – and first lady Michelle Obama – go stumping for Democrats.

"They've forgotten I politick pretty good,” he told a crowd in Austin, Texas, last month.

Still, it’s an uphill battle for Obama and his party. Some of the evidence:

In a new survey released Friday, a USA Today/Gallup poll shows voters more likely to pick a generic Republican over a Democrat for Congress by 53-40 percent, particularly if that candidate is a newcomer. “It appears that the best type of candidate to be this fall is a Republican challenger,” writes Gallup analyst Jeffrey Jones.

In another sign of danger ahead for Democrats, Gallup reports that minorities and young voters – a solid part of Obama’s base in 2008 – are unlikely to turn out in large numbers come November.

“In contrast to 2008, when whites and blacks were about equally likely to say they were giving ‘quite a lot of’ or ‘some’ thought to the presidential election, whites are much more likely than blacks to be thinking about the 2010 elections: 42 percent vs. 25 percent, a gap exceeding those from recent midterm elections,” according to Gallup’s Lydia Saad. “As a result, and because of the extraordinarily keen interest in the elections that conservative Republicans currently display, Republicans overall currently enjoy a 54 percent to 30 percent lead over Democrats in ‘thought given to the election’.”

Professional political prognosticators are weighing in along the same lines.

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, sees it this way:

“Conditions have deteriorated badly for Democrats over the summer. The economy appears rotten, with little chance of a substantial comeback by November 2nd. Unemployment is very high, income growth sluggish, and public confidence quite low. The Democrats’ self-proclaimed ‘Recovery Summer’ has become a term of derision, and to most voters – fair or not – it seems that President Obama has over-promised and under-delivered.”

Could the GOP take over the House?

At the moment, Sabato predicts, “Republicans have a good chance to win the House by picking up as many as 47 seats, net.” In the Senate, he writes on his web site, “Republicans have an outside shot at winning full control (+10), but are more likely to end up with +8 (or maybe +9, at which point it will be interesting to see how senators such as Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and others react).”

Charlie Cook doesn’t go quite that far. His latest outlook is for Republicans to gain 35 seats in the House (four fewer than they’d need to take control) with a net GOP gain in the Senate of 7-9 seats.

“The odds still favor Democrats holding their majority, but that is no longer given,” Cook wrote in the National Journal on Saturday. And with a campaign war chest that needs to be doled out most effectively, Democrats are going to have to make some tough choices – maybe abandoning some of their most vulnerable incumbents.

“With this many races in play, Democrats may have to perform triage and focus their resources on those that remain winnable,” Cook writes. “That means giving up on the rest.”

Dire straits for Democrats, in other words. For as David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report writes, “This is an environment in which any Democratic laxity or misstep can prove fatal and even underfunded or flawed Republicans can be highly competitive.”

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