If a flood of House seats now held by Democrats switches to Republicans in 2010, it will not be because of a seismic change in the country’s ideology.
Many House sophomores and freshmen (those who won in 2006 and 2008) are conservative Democrats who appealed to traditional but disgruntled Republican voters in districts that lean Republican.
Some of these same districts went for Republican John McCain over Democrat Barack Obama last year’s presidential election.
Political landscaper Charlie Cook sucked the oxygen out of the room for Democrats at August’s Netroots convention in Pittsburgh when he said the climate for Democrats has slipped completely out of control.
The problem is their victorious slogan in two consecutive national elections: “Change.” It sounded good in the last years of the Bush presidency, but there has been just too much of it.
The leap Democrats have taken since January – including government bailouts, stimulus packages and an unclear military strategy – have left voters exhausted and skeptical of the party they overwhelmingly supported at the polls.
Right now, Republicans are tied or leading in generic-ballot polls, something that numbers-crunchers haven’t seen since 2005. Republicans also have more enthusiasm, with most polls showing them to possess stronger opinions on policy issues than Democrats.
It all means that GOP congressional candidates may do very well in 2010.
Democrats had phenomenal cycles in ’06 and ’08, picking off a bunch of seats they frankly had no business winning, such as those of congressmen Parker Griffith and Bobby Bright in Alabama.
“Those will be very difficult seats to hold onto,” concedes one Beltway Democratic strategist.
Historically, a president's party loses a significant number of House seats in a midterm election.
“There are, of course, important mid-term years that resulted in much-larger-than-normal turnover,” says Mark Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University. As examples, he points to post-Watergate 1974, 1994’s GOP revolution, and the 2006 Democratic takeover.
“So much rides … on the health-care-reform debate,” Rozell predicts. “If Obama gets a health care bill out, even a substantially compromised one, he moves on to other issues, and we don't have anything like a repeat of 1994.”
Yet if President Obama loses the battle completely, it is hard to imagine how he takes control of the agenda and the national debate in any other policy arena before the mid-terms.
Some interesting congressional races that tell you what kind of year both parties have had:
· Ohio’s District 1 – This district contains all of Cincinnati and borders Kentucky and Indiana. Rep. Steve Driehaus, a Democrat, and former Rep. Steve Chabot, a Republican, will go back at it for this Republican-leaning seat. Chabot wasn’t a flawed incumbent; he was swept out in the 2008 wave. But Driehaus has done a good job early in his term. This one goes down to the wire and will be a bellwether.
· Colorado’s District 4 – Democrat Betsy Markey holds this seat; while she is politically talented and very good at raising money, it is a Republican district. If the GOP can’t knock her off, then strong Democrats elsewhere are likely to weather the mid-term storm – and the Democrats’ gold strike in the Rocky Mountain West wasn’t just a flash in the pan.
· Illinois’ District 10 – Rep. Mark Kirk, a Republican, is stepping aside to run for the U.S. Senate. This is a swing seat, a true toss-up, with good candidates on both sides. If a GOP wave hits, then Republicans should win it. Yet look for Democrats to be victorious here (and maybe, too, in Pennsylvania’s District 6, where GOP Rep. Jim Gerlach is stepping aside to seek his party’s gubernatorial nomination), thus reducing their net losses.
· California’s District 3 – A Sacramento seat held by Republican Dan Lungren, this is one of the few where Democrats have an opportunity with good candidates running in the party’s primary. Look for Dems to play hard here to offset losses elsewhere.
· New Hampshire’s Districts 1 and 2 – Look for Republicans to start a comeback in the Northeast by winning one of these seats; both are likely to be toss-ups. After all, New Hampshire is the friendliest of New England states to a Republican gain.
Next June the odds-makers will have a much better sense of Democrats’ likely losses. Until then, all we really know is that more Democrats than Republicans are vulnerable.
Some 30 Democrats – compared to 17 Republicans – are in "toss-up" or "leaning" districts, according to today’s polls.
“If the Republicans recruit well and those challengers raise money, you could even see Democratic incumbents like Rep. Perriello (Virginia’s District 5) and Rep. Altmire (Pennsylvania’s District 4) lose,” says Villanova University political scientist Lara Brown.
Much, of course, depends on whether Obama's opponents stay activated.
Their energy level is quite high right now – and defeating him on his major policy initiative will embolden them.