- The Washington Times - Monday, October 12, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

As soon as Republican Rep. Michael N. Castle announced last week that he was running for Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s open Senate seat, election analysts rated the contest a tossup favoring the Republican Party.

Mr. Biden’s seat had been rated safely Democratic by all the forecasters.

However, the nine-term congressman and former two-term Delaware governor, who has never lost an election (winning vote totals in the 60 percent to 70 percent range) changed all that with his entry into the race. The Democrats were in danger of losing yet another Senate seat in 2010.

Veteran election handicapper Stu Rothenberg immediately moved the race from Safe for Democrats to Lean Takeover for the GOP. The Cook Political Report’s senior analyst, Jennifer Duffy, said it becomes “the fourth Democratic-held seat that is too close to call, further leveling the Senate playing field for national Republicans.”

It was the latest piece of good news for Republicans. who, after nearly nine months of the Obama presidency, have seen the American political landscape change dramatically in their favor.

At least a half dozen Democratic Senate seats are vulnerable, two dozen Democratic House seats have been given “competitive” ratings favoring the Republican Party, contributions are pouring into Republican campaign committees, and generic ballot preference polls have virtually erased the Democrats’ once-sizable lead.

“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,” Mr. Rothenberg told his newsletter subscribers last month.

Mr. Castle’s candidacy was another recruiting home run for Texas Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee, who has turned his party’s bleak midterm prospects into what could be a gain or two.

In Democratic-leaning New Hampshire, polls show former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, a political newcomer, is leading Democrat Rep. Paul W. Hodes by seven points.

Among the Democrats’ troubles elsewhere: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is running behind his Republican opponents in Nevada, as is Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who trails all four of her Republican challengers. Even Mr. Obama’s old Senate seat is at risk in heavily Democratic Illinois, where Republican Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, in a show of strength, has raised more than $1.6 million in the third quarter in a race in which his opponents have ethical problems in a state marred by widespread corruption.

In Colorado, Sen. Michael Bennet, a political neophyte, faces a divisive Democratic primary that could open up this seat to a Republican takeover, while Sen. Christopher J. Dodd is struggling in heavily Democratic Connecticut and conservative Republican Pat Toomey has been leading Democratic convert Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania.

“While the Democrats’ majority status next year is not in doubt, their 60-seat [Senate] majority is in grave danger and the odds of their maintaining control after the 2012 and 2014 elections are increasingly remote,” writes veteran election forecaster Charlie Cook in Congress Daily.

As for the House, the only question is how deep the Democrats’ losses will be next year for their 39-seat majority. “If the election were held today, Republicans could pick up 10 to 25 House seats,” Cook elections analyst David Wasserman told me.

The latest polls tell why Democrats are in so much trouble so early in the midterm election cycle.

Nearly one year before the 2010 elections, a Gallup poll of registered voters finds that the two parties are virtually tied in the congressional ballot preference: Democrats at 46 percent to 44 percent for Republicans. That’s down from a six-point Democratic lead in July.

Gallup says the Republicans’ relatively stronger position “stems from the support of political independents, who now favor Republican over Democratic candidates by 45 percent to 36 percent.”

The Rasmussen poll had the Republicans leading by 43 percent to 39 percent.

Democrats know they’re in trouble and aren’t coy about saying so. “We have a tough fight ahead. History is against us - only three times since the Civil War has the party holding the White House gained seats in midterm elections,” said New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, who chairs the Democrats’ Senate campaign committee, in a recent fundraising letter pleading for funds.

Moreover, it’s likely to get worse for Democrats as they struggle to pass their unpopular health care plan with provisions angering seniors, who would see Medicare cuts; governors fearing Medicaid mandates they cannot fund; and middle-class people, who would be hit by the bill’s taxes, penalties, fines, higher premiums and mandates to buy insurance they can’t afford.

And that could mean even more Democratic losses next year.

“We’ve moved a number of House races [into columns benefiting the Republican Party], but it’s still early, and we expect more races to develop that are not now on our chart. Eventually, this should put more Democratic seats at risk,” Mr. Rothenberg predicts.

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent of The Washington Times.

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