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More Political Races Become Tossups

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

WASHINGTON -- For months now, Democratic prospects in the midterm elections have been sinking faster than the latest plunge in the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

But the Democrats' political illness grew even worse in the past week, if that's possible, as President Obama's disapproval polls fell into the low 40s and the economy showed further signs of weakening, raising fears of a double-dip recession.

With the Obama economy sharply braking to a snail's pace 2.4 percent growth rate, the Fed predicting slower growth in the months to come, new jobless claims signaling higher unemployment, and home repossessions up 9 percent last month, the chances of the Democrats holding onto any majority in Congress appear dimmer than ever.

Now, it is not only vulnerable Democrats running in swing states who are endangered but entrenched liberal lawmakers in heavily Democratic states who are struggling against political newcomers and neophyte challengers.

Exhibit A is Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, a liberal big-spender who was considered a safe bet to win re-election a few months ago. No longer.

Four weeks ago, Cook Political Report elections analyst Jennifer Duffy moved Feingold from the Solid Democratic column to Lean Democratic. More recently, she put the Senate race into the "tossup" column.

Two factors led the respected elections tracker to her decision. Combined voter surveys showed the race tied at 43 percent, according to the trend line. And Feingold's challenger, low-key businessman Ron Johnson, running as an outsider who has created jobs in real life, isn't a career politician. Duffy says that "his profile as a successful businessman who is involved in his local community coupled with his own frustration with what he sees going on in Washington and his willingness to put his life on hold in an effort to change it has resonated with voters. There is a sincerity about him that is likely to appeal to voters."

But it is clear that right now the mood of Wisconsin's voters has turned decidedly against Feingold, who voted for the wasteful $800 billion stimulus bill and the unpopular healthcare-reform law. He has been unable to draw more than 46 percent support in any poll.

Or take a look at the rapidly changing mood in Ohio, a state that shifted strongly into the Democratic column over the last decade, but is now turning sharply in the GOP's direction after years of suffering one of the worst economies in the country. The unemployment rate is 10.5 percent, with no rebound in sight.

In the race for governor, Republican John Kasich -- running on fixing the economy -- now leads Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland by 48 percent to 39 percent among likely voters.

In the open Senate race, former Rep. Rob Portman, the former U.S. trade chief and budget director, leads Democrat Lee Fisher 43 percent to 36 percent among likely voters, according to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll.

Or take a look at Democrat-heavy Connecticut, where Democratic state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, a career politician, should be a shoo-in. But former World Wrestling Entertainment executive Linda McMahon has put this race in play, as a result of nearly 9 percent jobless rate and revelations that Blumenthal has repeatedly lied about serving in the Vietnam War.

Blumenthal began the race with a huge 30-point lead, but the latest Quinnipiac Poll shows his lead dropping toward the single digits. Notably, the poll also shows that among independents, the largest bloc of voters in the state, McMahon now leads by 46 percent to 44 percent.

Other once safely held Democratic Senate seats are in jeopardy in Washington state, where Sen. Patty Murray is struggling, and in California where Sen. Barbara Boxer is in the political fight of her life against former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina.

Both these Democratic seats, plus Feingold's in Wisconsin, were not regarded as endangered a few months ago, but now they are seen as potential GOP pickups. "Adding Wisconsin to the tossup list brings the number of Democratic-held seats that are tossups or lean in Republicans' favor to 11, one more than the Republicans would need to capture a (Senate) majority," Duffy writes in a recent Cook analysis.

The jobless economy's weakness is going to be the driving force in this election along with Obama's impotence to effectively deal with it. The latest Gallup Poll shows his economic-approval ratings now at a dismal 38 percent. Worse, a deeper feeling of pessimism permeates the electorate. This week's Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows that "nearly two-thirds of Americans believe the economy has yet to hit bottom."

Increasingly, polls show that voters think the Republicans -- with their emphasis on lower taxes, tax incentives for increased business investment and less government spending -- have better ideas than the Democrats.

With Obama and his party planning to sharply raise taxes at the end of his year on upper incomes, small businesses, investors, capital gains and retirees who depend on dividends for income, it's easy to see why the voters are preparing to toss the Democrats out of office in November.

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