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Democrats face uphill climb in midterm elections

The party risks losing seats and its advantage in Congress, but, strategists say, it has time to fight back.

April 20, 2010|By Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times

With just over six months to campaign, Democrats face a substantial risk of losing the House and surrendering much of their advantage in the Senate, as Republicans capitalize on strong discontent with President Obama and continued voter concern over jobs and the economy.

The trend marks an erosion for Democrats since the beginning of the year, after the retirement of several senior lawmakers and the polarizing healthcare debate. Even recent signs of an economic rebound — the first glimmers of job creation, the stock market surge, a big rise in consumer spending — may not help Democrats, unless it translates into a significant drop in the unemployment rate by fall.

The good news for Obama and fellow Democrats is that, unlike the Republican landslide of 1994, strategists are well aware of the peril the party faces — Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown saw to that — and have much more time to fight back.

"Democrats got a heads-up," said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster with dozens of clients in the midterm election. "They can raise more money, do opposition research against opponents, do focus-group testing on how to beat these guys. ... In 1994, they had very little notice a wave was coming."

Democrats are doing what they can to reshape the political environment.

In recent days, Obama and congressional leaders have taken on Wall Street, practically daring Republicans to block reforms aimed at the maneuvers that almost capsized the financial system. The fraud suit against investment giant Goldman, Sachs & Co. on Friday has invigorated those efforts, at a time voter anger over bailouts and the bursting of the housing bubble continue to boil.

Still, several trends are running strongly in Republicans' favor, after two dismal elections that first cost them control of Congress, then the White House.

The party holding the White House almost always loses congressional seats at the midpoint of a president's first term; since World War II, the average is 16 House seats. However, the losses have been much greater when a president's approval rating is below 50%, where Obama has been hovering of late.

Over the last half-century, presidents with a sub-50% approval rating have lost an average of 41 House seats, a number that could put the GOP back in charge on at least one side of Capitol Hill.

Republicans need to win 40 House seats to reclaim the majority they lost in 2006. Democrats are braced for losses in the 20 to 25 seat range, though any number of variables — the potency of the economic recovery, a foreign policy crisis, the strength of the candidates on each side — could affect that number between now and November.

"The question is not whether we have an uphill climb," said Maryland Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen, head of the party's House campaign committee. "The question is the steepness of the hill."

It appears much tougher for Republicans to win control of the Senate, where Democrats enjoy a 59-41 advantage. The GOP is expected to win, at a minimum, a handful of seats. But to take over, Republicans would need to sweep all 10 of the most competitive contests, including California, while fending off Democratic challenges in several states — Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio among them — where Republican senators are retiring.

Strategists on both sides believe races could also develop in at least two Republican-leaning states, Arizona and Kentucky, if less-centrist candidates emerge from hard-fought GOP primaries. Arizona Sen. John McCain has held a steady lead over his insurgent challenger, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, but in Kentucky the establishment favorite, Secretary of State Trey Grayson, is trailing "tea party" acolyte Rand Paul by double digits.

When it comes to winning both houses of Congress, history suggests the odds are stacked against Republicans. The last time either party won at least 10 Senate and 40 House seats in a single election was in 1958, when Democrats surged in the second midterm election under President Eisenhower.

But as analyst Rhodes Cook pointed out, this has been an era of unusual political volatility: Not since 1980 and 1982 have there been back-to-back elections with a party gaining 20 or more House seats, as Democrats managed in the last two campaigns. A third straight election with at least 20 House seats changing hands would be the first in over half a century.

"You can guess what would happen if an election were held today," Cook said. "But that might be different in a week or month."

A pair of special congressional elections next month could offer some clues for November.

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