WASHINGTON -- House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey's late decision not to seek re-election in November sent shock waves through the Democratic leadership here. If any Democrat was assured re-election, the venerable Wisconsin liberal would be at the top of the list. But in a year of the angry voter and a growing list of vulnerable incumbents, the once-untouchable Obey was in danger of being swept out of office by a Republican tidal wave.
Obey, still as feisty and combative as ever at 71, has won 25 straight elections to the House in his 7th Congressional District. But the district has split almost evenly in past presidential elections and the powerful committee baron who shaped the $800-billion stimulus bill faced a younger, more aggressive Republican challenger who has put the seat on the Democrats' endangered list.
Obey is not alone. Republicans have targeted two other veteran Democratic bulls for defeat: House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton of Missouri and Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt of South Carolina. Republican insiders tell me that they are broadening their target list to include other Democrats who were once considered safe but whom polls now show to be in trouble.
Obey's decision could trigger other House Democratic departures in the weeks to come. He is the 17th Democrat who is leaving at the end of this year. Until relatively recently, election trackers were putting the GOP's House gains at around 30 seats, 10 shy of taking over the chamber. But now some think a gain of around 40 seats is no longer unthinkable.
Obey insisted he could win re-election, but some think that is just so much bravado. He "thinks the Democrats will lose the House and he doesn't want to go back into the minority. I wonder how many of his colleagues are having similar thoughts right now," wrote The Weekly Standard's John McCormack. Time magazine's Jay Newton-Small is calling this "a troubling sign for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for whom retention of the House grows more difficult with each retirement."
From the beginning of this election cycle, when the party in power historically loses seats in Congress, the Democrats have been in a downward slide. One after another, top office holders have rejected White House pleas to run in key races, concluding that the mood of the voters in the age of Obama has turned strongly against their party. Two off-year gubernatorial Republican victories in Virginia and heavily Democratic New Jersey, followed by the GOP's takeover of Edward Kennedy's seat in Massachusetts, were a warm-up for this year's midterms, when Democrats are expected to lose at least six governorships and easily half a dozen seats in the Senate.
Senate election polls showed Republican challengers leading in Senate contests in Illinois, Delaware, New Hampshire, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Arkansas and Colorado. And Democratic incumbents were struggling in California and Washington state.
The depth of the Democrats' troubles is especially visible in the battle for retiring Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh's seat. Democratic Rep. Brad Ellsworth's support "remains stuck in the low 30s," according to the latest Rasmussen poll. Former Sen. Dan Coats, who won the GOP primary Tuesday, is drawing 54 percent support, up five points from last month.
Driving Democratic headwinds in Indiana and elsewhere, besides economic woes, is Barack Obama's unpopular health care law. The Rasmussen poll of likely Indiana voters finds 65 percent favor repealing the new law that Ellsworth supported. A mere 29 percent oppose repeal.
At the same time, dangerously low Democratic turnout in three statewide primaries in Ohio, Indiana and North Carolina points to a gigantic problem for Democrats in the fall. Democratic turnout fell sharply in Tuesday's contests, an alarming signal that has shaken party strategists here as they struggle to find ways to reenergize their party's base. The dismal turnout numbers are further evidence "that their voters lack enthusiasm ahead of midterm elections," NationalJournal.com's Hotline OnCall political blog reported last week.
Polls show voters planning to vote Republican are much more intense in their views than Democrats. Midterm elections traditionally draw lower turnout than presidential-year elections, and that will be the case this time, too. This is why Democrats and the White House are suddenly turning up the heat on an immigration-reform bill in hopes that it will re-energize minority voters, especially the large Hispanic vote, and boost party turnout. But this defensive political ploy is too clever by half. Anger over a weak, jobless recovery, an unpopular government takeover of the nation's health care system, a monstrous debt that will grow by $1.6 trillion this year alone, and rising taxes are spawning an anti-incumbent wave that now threatens to effectively topple Democratic control of Congress.