A fast-growing anti-Republican wave threatens to significantly shrink the party's ranks in Congress, as Democratic challengers make headway against once safe incumbents including the Senate's minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Nearly a dozen Senate Republicans - many considered safe for re-election just weeks ago - are now in locked in tight races with Democrats. Analysts and operatives agree that such a change could put Democrats within reach of a filibuster-proof, 60-vote majority.
Democrats also are poised to make significant gains in the House, where they now have a 36-seat majority in the 435-member chamber. Analysts are predicting that Republicans could lose as many as 30 additional seats, which is nearly double recent expectations for net losses.
The faltering economy is the primary reason for this switch in political forecast. "Republicans don't have a lot of credibility on the economy anymore. We know the party's brand is damaged," said veteran campaign analyst Jennifer E. Duffy, who tracks Senate races at the Cook Political Report. "The economy is an issue where Republicans had the advantage, but they lost that franchise."
A CBS News/New York Times survey taken Oct. 10-13 showed 89 percent of Americans said the country had "pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track." That number was up eight percentage points from mid-September and 14 percentage points from January.
In addition to the economy's troubles, Republican candidates have been hurt by President Bush's dismal job approval ratings - now the lowest in modern U.S. history. The latest USA Today/Gallup Poll showed Mr. Bush's job approval score sinking to 25 percent, with 71 percent of Americans disapproving of his performance in office - up from 64 percent in early September.
Congressional election analysts have sharply raised their forecasts of the number of likely Republican losses in the Senate, adding Mr. McConnell and Sens. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina and Norm Coleman of Minnesota to the list of those primed for defeat.
"My range of likely Democratic pickups now is six to eight, but I don't dismiss the possibility of nine," said Miss Duffy of the Cook Political Report. With that number of pickups, Democrats would gain a 60-vote majority, enough to shut down Republican-led filibusters that often have succeeded in blocking Democratic measures.
The Democrats presently hold a narrow 51-49 majority in the Senate, with two independents voting with them to keep them in control of the chamber. The House has 235 Democrats and 199 Republicans, along with one vacancy.
Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, and Miss Duffy said congressional Republicans will be hit by a tidal of voter anger over the slumping economy, slashed home values, rising unemployment, tightened credit and shaken public confidence in the nation's banks and other financial institutions.
Democrats are trying to link incumbent Republicans to Mr. Bush and the Wall Street crisis. One such effort is being mounted in Kentucky. There, Bruce Lunsford, a wealthy businessman, is challenging Mr. McConnell.
"The financial meltdown is the direct result of eight years of Bush-McConnell economics," Lunsford spokesman Cary Stemle said. "McConnell's fingerprints are all over this crisis."
Mr. McConnell had double-digit poll leads until September, when his support began to slip. A Mason-Dixon poll conducted in late September showed Mr. McConnell leading by one percentage point - 45 percent to 44 percent.
In the wake of the race's recent competitiveness, the DSCC last Wednesday began running television advertisements in Kentucky for the first time this year on behalf of Mr. Lunsford.
The DSCC declined to say how much it was spending on the ads, but a top national Republican aide said the ad buy so far was worth at least $500,000.
"We thought all along that McConnell was potentially vulnerable," said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Matthew Miller. "Every time we talked to people in Kentucky they told us that McConnell was viewed as a very divisive, partisan figure. And in addition to that, tied far to closely to Bush."
Mr. McConnell's campaign, however, says it's own internal polling shows the incumbent with a comfortable nine-percentage-point lead.
"Contrary to the breathless claims of [DSCC Chairman Charles E.] Schumer, there isn't a reputable pollster or pundit inside Kentucky or out who doesn't recognize that Senator McConnell is in very strong position for re-election," said McConnell campaign spokesman Josh Holmes.
Democratic challengers across the nation are hitting Republicans who supported the Bush administration's $700 billion rescue plan for the financial industry.
Sen. Gordon H. Smith, Oregon Republican, supported the bailout, providing campaign fodder for Democratic challenger Jeff Merkley, who said Mr. Smith "did the easy thing and opted to bailout his buddies on Wall Street."
In Georgia, Democrat Jim Martin, who is challenging first-term Republican incumbent Mr. Chambliss, saw his poll soar immediately after Mr. Chambliss voted for the bailout bill earlier this month.
"The onset [of Mr. Chambliss' decline it the polls] seems to be Chambliss' vote for the bailout package," University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock. "That's when things started to fall apart for him."
The Rothenberg Political Report, which in late September placed Mr. Chambliss in its "currently safe" category, now has handicapped the race as "narrow advantage for incumbent party." A poll last week by the Atlanta-based InsiderAdvantage polling firm had Mr. Chambliss in a dead heat with Mr. Martin, 45 percent to 45 percent.
Democrats also are mounting an aggressive voter registration campaign in Georgia. The effort expected to boost the state's black voter turnout, which was about 25 percent in the 2004 elections.
"With an Obama candidacy and Democrats doing a far better job than they've ever done in the get-out-the-vote effort, I wouldn't be surprised if the black vote got up to 30 percent of the total," Mr. Bullock said. "If indeed it does that, then this race is even tighter than the polls suggest, and Martin might be even slightly ahead."
Mrs. Dole had healthy single-digit leads in North Carolina against Democratic state Sen. Kay Hagan in polls through midsummer. But by early October, Mrs. Hagan was leading in most polls, including a Rasmussen Reports poll from last week showing her leading Mrs. Dole 49 percent to 44 percent.
Three open Senate seats long held by Republicans in New Mexico and Virginia and Colorado are considered likely Democratic takeovers. Rep. Tom Udall, a Democrat, has consistently led his Republican opponent, Rep. Steve Pearce, by double-digit margins in New Mexico, while his cousin, Rep. Mark Udall, a Democrat, is predicted to beat former Rep. Bob Schaffer, Colorado Republican.
In Virginia, former Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, is predicted to win in a landslide over former Gov. Jim Gilmore, a Republican.
Sens. Ted Stevens of Alaska and John E. Sununu of New Hampshire, Republican incumbents, also have trailed Democratic challengers for months and are predicted to lose.