- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Following major setbacks in 2008, the national political landscape for Republicans has improved so dramatically in recent months that election analysts say the only remaining question is how deep the Democrats’ losses will be in the 2010 congressional midterm races.

President Obama’s approval rating has fallen to 51 percent in the Gallup tracking survey. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that voters were nearly evenly divided on which party should control Congress, with Democrats edging Republicans by just three points, down from a seven-point lead in July, and election analysts have moved nearly two dozen Democratic House seats into “competitive” rating columns benefiting the Republican Party.

“The president’s standing has weakened; Democrats are on the defensive on the economy, spending and health care; and key midterm voting groups — including seniors and independents — are moving away from the Democrats and toward the GOP,” veteran elections analyst Stuart Rothenberg told his newsletter subscribers last week in his latest survey of House races for 2010.

“We’ve moved a number of races, but it’s still early, and we expect many more races to develop that are not now on our chart. Eventually, this should put more Democratic seats at risk,” Mr. Rothenberg said.

Longtime elections handicapper Charlie Cook agrees that the national political movement has turned decidedly away from the Democrats at this point in the two-year election cycle.

“As the political environment for Democrats has turned ugly, it is widely assumed the party will sustain losses in next year’s midterm elections. The operative question is: How bad will those losses be?” he said in a recent analysis for Congress Daily.

Historically, the party that wins the White House loses House seats in the new president’s first midterm elections, a trend that has been broken just twice since the 1930s (under Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934 and George W. Bush in 2002). The post-World War II average losses in a president’s first term is 16 House seats, but Mr. Cook says “the number of seats now at risk exceeds [the Democrats’] majority.”

Democrats hold a 256-177 edge in the House, with two vacancies, meaning Republicans would have to score a net gain of 40 seats to reclaim the majority lost in 2006.

With little more than 13 months remaining before next year’s elections, Democrats are hoping the economy will turn around sooner than expected, unemployment will recede more quickly than current projections and the White House will score a major political victory by passing a health care reform bill before the end of the year.

“But they also fear the 13 months might give matters a chance to snowball and get worse. If Democrats go 0-2 in this year’s gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, that will only dampen party morale more,” Mr. Cook warned.

Mr. Rothenberg’s analysis of all 435 House seats puts 48 of them in play, 31 held by Democrats and 17 held by Republicans. Since his last race-by-race rating, he has shifted 22 Democratic-held seats into competitive categories from “tossups” to “leaning Republican” — all of them “benefiting Republicans,” he said.

As of now, “Republicans could gain anywhere from only a handful of seats to a couple of dozen or more, depending on how things develop over the next year,” he said, adding that “the National Republican Congressional Committee’s 2006 and 2008 nightmare is over.”

David Wasserman, the House elections analyst at the Cook Political Report, said Democrats “have 25 to 30 seats that are truly vulnerable, with another 40 seats where there’s a chance of a competitive race. Republicans have between 10 to 15 vulnerable seats.”

“If the election were held today, Republicans could pick up 10 to 25 House seats,” Mr. Wasserman said.

Meantime, the Democrats’ prospects in the Senate appear to have softened, although the real vulnerabilities lie not in 2010, but beyond.

“While the Democrats’ majority status next year is not in doubt, their 60-seat majority is in grave danger, and the odds of their maintaining control after the 2012 and 2014 elections are increasingly remote,” Mr. Cook wrote in a recent Congress Daily analysis.

With Republicans hit by seven retirements this year, most forecasters saw Democrats picking up a handful of additional seats next year. But Republican prospects have improved in open races in Ohio, Missouri, New Hampshire and Florida, and several incumbent Democrats appear to be running into trouble, including Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas.

“Basically, there is a real chance that Democrats won’t be able to flip any GOP Senate seats. This is not, repeat not, to say that Democrats can’t pick up any Republican seats, but their chances certainly aren’t what they used to be,” Mr. Cook wrote last week.

Democratic campaign officials acknowledge that their party was badly beaten up by Republicans in the health care battle during the August recess, when protesters opposing Mr. Obama’s health care plan packed town-hall meetings and threw Democrats on the defensive.

“To be honest, we needed to be more aggressive in August. We saw Republicans led by extremists in their party mobilize and make a lot of noises, and there is no question that some momentum was lost at this period of time,” said New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

But Mr. Menendez thinks that, while “the Republicans have adopted a strategy that buys them momentum in the short term, it makes them really vulnerable in the long term. Instead of contributing to the solutions of problems they helped create, they have been the party of no, the party of obstacles and obfuscation.”

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