- The Washington Times - Monday, January 11, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Senate Democrats were stunned by the two back-to-back retirements in their ranks last week that foreshadow more election losses to come, perhaps as many as four to five more.

Democratic insiders knew their muscular 60-vote Senate majority was not going to survive the midterm elections at a time when the landscape has dramatically changed to the Republicans’ advantage. But they didn’t think they would begin to see the shrinkage take place this early in the year, handing the GOP two early strategic victories before stepping on the battlefields.

Sens. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota were both marked for defeat and their retirements open up two seats that are now likely to fall into GOP hands.

Mr. Dodd was brought down by a sweetheart home mortgage deal from Countryside that he could not overcome, with his support dropping to 40 percent or lower against a strong Republican field. Mr. Dorgan faced the possibility of running against popular Republican Gov. John Hoeven, who is running nearly 20 points ahead of him in the polls.

Insiders tell me they may not be the only Senate Democrats who have been contemplating retirement instead of running in a rough environment worsened by the recession and high unemployment and growing public opposition to the Democrats’ government takeover of the health care system.

How rough can it get? Start with Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada who is for all intents and purposes a goner in a state where the unemployment rate is 12.3 percent and there is strong opposition to Mr. Reid’s health care bill - two potent issues that are driving the GOP’s resurgence.

Besides these three seats, polls show Republicans leading in five more races in the largely blue states of Ohio, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Delaware, where Vice President Joseph Biden’s former Senate seat is in danger of falling to the Republicans. Right now, Mr. Biden’s open seat is listed by most election handicappers as “leaning Republican.”

A further sign of how the political landscape has turned against the Democrats can be seen in deep blue Illinois, where President Obama’s Senate seat is clearly up for grabs after a wave of Democratic pay-to-play corruption scandals and a nearly 11 percent unemployment rate.

A four-to-five seat pickup for the Republicans in November would mean the end of Mr. Obama’s agenda for the rest of his term. His cap-and-tax climate change energy plan was deadlocked in the Senate anyway, even with 60 votes, as I reported it would be last year. But additional Republican gains that now seem in the cards would put any action even further out of reach for the White House on a wide range of unfinished business.

Meantime, the House outlook for 2010 looks even gloomier for the Pelosi Democrats and Mr. Obama. Right now there are at least 47 Democratic seats in play versus only 14 Republican seats, according to election forecaster Stuart Rothenberg’s latest race-by-race analysis.

“Substantial Republican gains now look almost inevitable,” Mr. Rothenberg reported last month in his Rothenberg Political Report. “While Democratic control of the House is not yet at risk, losses of 15-20 seats are likely, and that target range could well grow with additional Democratic retirements and voter anger.”

Polls show there is plenty of voter anger that is likely to grow angrier as voters learn more about the unpopular consequences of the health care bill that is being taped together behind closed doors by Democratic leaders - and if unemployment remains in the 9-10 percent range for the rest of this year, as the Federal Reserve and other top economists are now forecasting.

There is one more strategic political front that bears close watching: the nation’s governorships. Election forecasters now predict Republicans will hold a majority of them after November.

Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. of Colorado announced last week that he would not be seeking a second term, opening up an opportunity for a Republican pickup in a swing state. Mr. Ritter has long been trailing his Republican challenger, former Rep. Scott McInnis. He joins several other Democratic governors in GOP-leaning red states who have been term limited, opening up further opportunities to expand the Republican Party’s governorships this year after winning state houses in Virginia and New Jersey in 2009.

Thus, the midterm elections - when the party in power historically loses seats in Congress - is shaping up as a very bleak year for the Democrats.

The high energy levels that drove their party to victory in 2008 will not be there this year. Mr. Obama is not on the ballot. The Democrats’ left-wing base is angry that their party leaders have ditched a strong public option in the health care bill and have expanded the war in Afghanistan.

“Obviously, if that tension grows during 2010, it could have a significant impact on Democratic midterm turnout,” Mr. Rothenberg points out.

The American electorate took a sharp left turn in 2008, but now appears to be swinging back toward the right.

Donald Lambro is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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