Democratic Rep. Jim Marshall, left, shakes hands with Republican challenger… (Rich Addicks, Associated…)
Reporting from Washington — Fueled by a surge of outside money, Republicans have begun gunning for Democratic House seats once considered safe and beyond GOP reach — a drive that threatens to reshape the electoral map and raises the specter of a historic rout in the midterm election two weeks away.
Advocacy groups such as American Crossroads and the American Action Network said last week that they were funneling more than $50 million into House races to back Republican candidates, on top of the more than $50 million already spent by the GOP's House campaign arm.
At the same time, even some Republican House challengers trailing in their races raised more than $1 million in the last three months, suggesting they may be able to close the gap in the coming weeks.
Some Democrats now fear an onslaught in which the party loses more than 50 seats in the House, with a Republican takeover of the Senate remaining a possibility as well. The last such electoral shock wave struck in 1994, when the GOP took 54 House seats and eight in the Senate. It was dubbed the "Republican Revolution."
But across the country, campaigns remain fluid, if not volatile, and Republican leads have narrowed in some races. Democrats have said for months that 2010 would not be another 1994. And experts maintain that the most likely scenario has Republicans picking up close to the 39 seats they need to control the House, but falling short of the 10 needed to take the Senate.
Still, the prospect of more has party insiders tantalized. "The question is how good it is going to be," said Ron Kaufman, a longtime GOP advisor and fundraiser in Washington. "Neither side is taking anything for granted. But the intensity obviously is on our side."
Part of the emerging Republican strategy is to sink money into an ever-increasing number of races to force the Democratic Party to spend defensively. GOP activists hope to prevent Democrats from using all of the party's resources to defend its more vulnerable House members.
Democrats employed the same gambit in 2006 and 2008, when electoral momentum swung their way.
"They're trying to get as many races onto the playing field as possible to take advantage of what might happen on Nov. 2 — so that there are just too many fires to put out for Democrats," said Nathan Gonzales, a political analyst for the Rothenberg Political Report. "The Democrats have a lot of money. But there just isn't enough to go around."
It has forced the Democrats to make some hard choices. In the last week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said it was withdrawing financial support from some endangered first-term incumbents, such as Rep. Steve Driehaus of Ohio and Kathy Dahlkemper of Pennsylvania, so it could spend the money elsewhere.
The party was, in effect, writing them off.
Driehaus responded by creating a defiant Internet ad asking for donations that would "send a message to the DCCC and all Americans that when we voted for change in 2008, we meant it."
As the Democrats were pooling their resources, the GOP was broadening its offensive, dumping cash into races in Wisconsin, Ohio and Tennessee that were once considered long shots for Republicans.
Outside GOP-allied groups did the same, going after incumbents in seemingly safe districts in southern Minnesota, suburban Denver, rural Virginia and elsewhere.
Republicans are hoping to make inroads in the Northeast, particularly in New York state — where strategists believe the GOP can win three or four seats — as well as in suburbs across the nation that had been trending Democratic.
A poll of the nation's suburbs released last week gave the GOP some reason for optimism. It showed independents breaking toward the GOP, while suburban minorities who voted for Democrats in 2008 appeared to be dispirited and unmotivated.
"The tsunami scenario is looking more and more likely," said Lawrence Levy, executive director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, which conducted the poll.
Some Democratic titans in the House, such as Reps. Barney Frank of Massachusetts and James L. Oberstar of Minnesota, were said to be in trouble, but campaigns for both men dismissed that as speculation.
"The reality on the ground is inconsistent with what I consider pundit gossip," said John Schadl, a spokesman for Oberstar, the chairman of the House Transportation Committee.
A National Public Radio survey last week showed that in key battleground House districts, the GOP lead had fallen from 8 points to 3 points since June.
"We're not going to lose 50 seats," insisted a Democratic strategist in Washington close to the House defensive effort. "That's out of the question."
Democrats contend that keeping their House majority, even by a seat, would constitute a victory of sorts. But even that would mean a loss of almost 40 seats, the lion's share of the gains the party has made since it came back into power in 2006.