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GOP poised for comeback in midterm elections

Republicans could have a big year, but they need to win 40 House and 11 Senate seats to regain control of Congress. That's a tall order.

January 01, 2010|By Mark Z. Barabak
  • Sens. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, left, and Harry Reid of Nevada are among the Democrats who face challenging reelection votes this year.
Sens. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, left, and Harry Reid of Nevada are… (Matthew Cavanaugh / European…)

Reporting from Roswell, N.M. — After losing the White House and nearly 70 congressional seats in the last two elections, Republicans are poised for a strong comeback in 2010, with significant gains likely in the House and a good chance of boosting their numbers in the Senate and statehouses across the country.

The results could hamper President Obama's legislative efforts as he prepares to seek reelection and reshape the political landscape for a decade beyond, as lawmakers redraw congressional and state political boundaries to reflect the next census.

All 435 House seats, 36 in the Senate and the governorships of 37 states will be on the ballot in November. Democrats are favored to retain the Massachusetts seat of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in a special election Jan. 19.

Some of the Democrats' most prominent figures, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, are in serious danger as they seek reelection. Both would probably lose if elections were held today.

"It all adds up to a pretty bad year for the party in power," said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "How bad? I'm not sure we know yet."

However, for all Republicans stand to gain, the party still has problems. Polls show that many voters, though unhappy with Democrats, are even less enamored of the GOP.

Steve Pearce, a former three-term Republican congressman, criticizes both parties as he campaigns for his old House seat in New Mexico, saying the explosion in spending under President George W. Bush has only gotten worse under Obama. "Both parties tend to get there and forget who they were and begin to talk differently than they do here," Pearce recently told a gathering of the Chaves County Republican Women in Roswell.

One big question is whether the GOP can capitalize on the free-floating hostility embodied by the anti-incumbent "tea party" movement to seize back control of Congress, four years after Democrats won power. Republicans need to win 40 House seats and 11 in the Senate -- which, for now, seems unlikely.

But plenty can change by November. Last spring, Democrats seemed well positioned to add Senate seats. Today, a Republican gain appears more probable, costing Democrats their 60-vote supermajority and ability to stop GOP filibusters -- though that could change again.

Democrats are counting on final passage of sweeping healthcare legislation, which appears on track for early this year, a stronger economy and rising employment to boost the party's prospects. In several Republican primaries -- for Texas governor and Senate races in California, Florida, Utah and other states -- unstinting conservatives are pitted against more moderate candidates who believe the party must hew closer to the center. A similar fight in November cost the GOP a once-solid New York congressional seat.

Obama was elected with the strongest showing by a Democratic presidential candidate in more than 30 years, thanks largely to a plunging economy and unhappiness with Bush. There was talk of a long-term realignment after decades of conservative ascendance. But after battles over healthcare, a climate-change bill and hundreds of billions in spending to spur the economy, it is Democrats who face a backlash and Republicans who are campaigning on a promise of change.

The shift is evident here in southern New Mexico, where freshman Harry Teague -- the first Democrat to represent the region since 1980 -- is trying to fend off Pearce, who ran unsuccessfully for Senate in 2008. The race is expected to be one of the hardest-fought in the country; Republicans targeted Teague the minute he was elected.

Campaigning for the open seat, the Democrat used every chance to link his GOP rival to Bush. Now it is Teague who has to defend the president, his vote for Obama's economic stimulus bill and, especially, his support for legislation to fight global warming, which could have a serious effect on New Mexico's oil and gas industry.

"Now it's not just casting a vote against a politically unpopular president," said Ken Spain, a Republican Party spokesman. "Now you have to take a stand on some things. This is a district where the Obama-Pelosi agenda is vastly unpopular."

That remains to be seen. Las Cruces, with nearly 100,000 residents, is the biggest city in the district and a Democratic stronghold where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco would feel comfortable.

Teague also boasts of bringing home federal dollars, including stimulus funds to help build an algae-based fuel refinery in the southwest corner of the state. The money, Teague said, will create hundreds of jobs in hard-pressed rural communities.

But many of the challenges facing Democrats nationwide -- including a likely drop in turnout among supporters and frustration within the party base -- are playing out here amid the desert and scrubland sprawling from Texas to Arizona.

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