As we approach President Barack Obama’s first midterm elections, the question regarding the outcome is not whether Democrats will lose seats in the House and Senate, but how many they will lose. Patrick Ruffini, a well-known political operative and blogger, declared earlier this year that House losses for the Democrats would reach 70 seats or more, surpassing the 54 they lost in the landmark Republican wave election of 1994 and nearly doubling the 39 seats the GOP needs to wrest control of the House from the Democrats. And Fox News contributor and former Clintonite Dick Morris has claimed for months that Republicans would take not just the House, but the Senate also.
Are these bold statements just sensationalism and wishful thinking, or are there valid reasons for reaching such conclusions? Even a cursory perusal of the current political landscape and recent electoral history reveals indications that Democrats need worry about November. But if we take a deeper look, a picture of a potentially massive superstorm on the horizon begins to form.
Let’s start with some structural obstacles Democrats face heading toward Election Day 2010.
The president’s party generally loses seats in midterm elections.
From Harry Truman’s first midterms through George W. Bush’s first, the party in the White House lost an average of 24 seats in the House and just over 2 seats in the Senate. So history says an immediate disadvantage confronted Democrats right out of the gate.
Democrats have gained substantial seats in recent blue wave elections.
Ironically, Democratic successes in the elections of 2006 and 2008, ushered in by a strong political wind at their back, are making this year especially difficult now that the winds are blowing in the opposite direction. Many of the 55 net House seats won since 2004 would be difficult for Democrats to hold in any year. With a strong Republican wind blowing, holding many of them this year will be next to impossible.
Beyond structural disadvantages, there are many signs that the electorate is eager to issue an emphatic rejection of Democratic leadership and their policies on Election Day.
Voters who plan to vote Republican are far more enthusiastic.
One of the well-publicized aspects of Election 2010 has been the tremendous enthusiasm shift among the electorate. It is hard to overstate the importance of voter enthusiasm, and Republicans are clearly reaping a substantial advantage in this area. Polling results aside, one need look no further than the open primaries held last week in Missouri and Michigan to see the difference it can make in the voting booth.
Both states conduct open primaries which allow folks to vote in either party primary. In Michigan, a reliably blue state, voters chose the Republican primary by a 2-1 margin! Missourians did the same by 65% to 35%. This kind of partisan lean foretells hefty Republican margins all over in November.
Generic congressional polling has moved significantly toward the GOP.
Experts agree that a Democratic advantage of 2 points or so in these surveys represents an even playing field in congressional elections. In 2006 and 2008, Democrats parlayed double-digit leads in this important metric to large House gains. This year, we are seeing a much different sentiment rising. Pollster.com publishes a cumulative average based on many generic congressional polls At last count, the GOP leads 46.0% to 40.7%, and the margin is growing. That’s a 15-point turnaround from just two years ago. To put this transformation in perspective, if we transposed a 15-point shift to all House election results in 2008, that alone would bring a GOP House majority within reach.
But that’s only part of the generic poll story. Exacerbating the problem for Democrats is the fact that polls measuring “likely voters” give the GOP an even larger advantage. In truth, getting an accurate turnout model in these polls is guesswork at best, a fact that may mask greater Republican gains than the rosiest outlooks project.
Polls hint that even normally safe Democratic incumbents are vulnerable.
Surprise upsets are an important aspect of any election where one party scores historic gains in Washington. Iowa CD-2 in 2006 is a perfect example of such an upset. Throughout the election season that year, this district wasn’t on anyone’s hotly contested short list. Yet when the dust settled, Republican Jim Leach was no longer a congressman. Fast-forward to this summer. House polls released over the last several weeks show several Democratic incumbents, who have won re-election by large margins in the past, facing challenges that may send them packing come January.
Bob Etheridge (D-NC 2) was just two points ahead of little known Republican nominee Renee Ellmers before the incumbent’s Washington sidewalk misstep was caught on YouTube. Polls taken since give Ellmers a small lead. This is a congressman who has enjoyed 58-67% support from his district each of the previous six elections.
Other similar examples abound. Incumbents in Illinois CD-11 and 17, North Dakota CD-AL, South Dakota CD-AL and Ohio CD-13, to name a few, all won comfortably in 2008. All are struggling in the polls this year. It is possible none will survive. And with so many Democratic incumbents performing poorly among the handful of polls that have been publicly released, one has to wonder how many more unpolled races fall in the same category.
On the Senate side, a prime example of how the Republican tide may effect elections there can be found in Wisconsin. Entrenched Democratic Senator Russ Feingold should have been given a free re-election pass when former Governor Tommy Thompson declined to challenge him. That is not the case, however, and Feingold now finds himself in a true toss-up against political novice Ron Johnson. Moreover, incumbent senators in California (Boxer) and Washington (Murray) are also in toss-up struggles in these two Democratic strongholds.
Finally, the issues that drive news cycles continue to fuel the Republican wave.
In Missouri’s primary last week, the Show-Me State had the opportunity to show us all how they feel about ObamaCare. Seventy-one percent came down against it. For Democrats in Congress who voted for the bill, that result has to be a chilling omen. It also demonstrates how badly Democratic leadership’s ongoing attempts to paint ObamaCare in a positive light are missing their mark with the American people.
But ObamaCare is just one, albeit large, issue stoking voter angst against Democrats and their liberal policies. Consider New York City’s approval for a mosque to be built near Ground Zero and Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision to overturn Proposition 8, a ballot initiative which added a traditional marriage amendment to California’s constitution. Consider further a growing circle of scandals involving Democrats headlined by Congressman Charles Rangel’s alleged misdeeds. Through a steady stream of current events like these, voters are regularly reminded how far from their ideals Democrats in power have steered the national agenda. November 2 will be their chance to say enough is enough, and they look poised to say it loudly and clearly.
Political winds have a way of abating quickly or even making U-turns without warning, and we still have nearly three months for the electorate’s mood to shift and reduce Democratic losses on Capitol Hill. However, taking all these signs at face value, it is hard to avoid coming away with the impression that we are in the midst of an historic election season — one that could make Ruffini and Morris appear prophetic.