The Republican Wave is Building

September 7th, 2010

With Labor Day being the traditional kickoff for election season, the prognosticators are out with their projections for the midterm elections. Two weeks ago, I linked to an interview with election expert Charlie Cook, this week Larry Sabato updated his Crystal Ball projections and Nate Silver has also recently updated his Senate Rankings. No one has any good news for the Democrats.

Both Cook and Sabato are predicting a Democratic takeover of the House this year. Silver has the Republicans picking up 6 to 7 seats in the Senate, but many have predicted that the losses could be greater and that the Senate is now in play.

While a complete analysis of why the Democrats are in such dire straits is beyond the scope of this post, here are the broad strokes and narratives I see. Let’s start with the structural issues: the party of the president almost invariably loses seats in the midterm elections and in bad economic times, voters tend to punish the incumbent party. Given that times are bad and Democrats are the incumbents, this isn’t good news for them. Also, somewhat ironically, the Democrats are a victim of the success that they had in the 2006 and 2008 elections: 53 out  of 253 Democratically held seats are in districts where Republicans were holding those seats five years ago. 48 Democratic representatives are running in districts that voted for John McCain (all but one of which voted for George Bush in 2004 as well). In addition, midterm election voters tend to be older, whiter and more Republican (none of which helps the Democrats).

Add to this mix a strong effort on the part of Democrats to push through their agenda, an agonizing long year in which coverage of the suasage making and payoff of every special interest that was involved in order to pass Health Care Reform was on full display while the country desperately wanted the Congress to focus on job creation, an economy that has stopped the bleeding but shows scant signs of creating enough jobs to make a dent in the unemployment numbers, the resurgence of the Republican right and the resulting  gap in enthusiasm that poll after poll has shown significantly favors the Republicans and you have a recipe for disaster.

Republicans need to pickup 39 net seats for a majority and Cook predicts a net gain of 35 to 45 seats by Republicans, “with the odds of an outcome larger than that range greater than the odds of a lesser outcome.” His more recent comments indicate that the results could be significantly worse. Larry Sabato is predicting a 47 seat pickup.

With 435 House seats, it’s difficult to do a detailed analysis, but a look at the Senate forecasts gives a picture of where the country is right now. In what was once considered a prime opportunity for the Democrats in Pennsylvania, former Admiral and Congressman Joe Sestak has been running consistently behind financier and former Congressman Pat Toomey. As Al Hunt points out, while Specter was defending his country in the Iraq war, Toomey was selling derivatives, the complex instruments most responsible for the financial crash. Still, Toomey has led Sestak by a margin of over 5 points since mid-July and Nate Silver now rates this seat at an 88% chance that Toomey prevails.

In Colorado, similar dynamics are at play. When Tea Party candidate Ken Buck won the Republican primary, many people believed that he would be the next Sharron Angle, giving appointed Senator Michael Bennett a much better chance at the seat. Silver now ranks this seat at a 77% chance of Republican takeover.

In New Hampshire and Ohio, just a few months ago considered opportunities for Democrats to pick off Republican seats, Silver now rates the races  at 23% and 18% chances of Democratic pickups, respectively. Even Nevada is ranked by Silver as a 59% chance of an Angle win (which seems generous to Angle given the ability of Nevada voters to choose “None of the Above” for the seat).

As Al Hunt notes, the Democrats’ Senate firewall consists of the generally reliable Democratic states of California, Washington and Wisconsin, that are in play this year. Increasingly, it looks like the outcomes in these three states may determine whether the Democrats retain control of the Senate or whether we will be looking at Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Cook has commented that everything would have to go the Democrats way in order for the Republicans to gain 10 seats, but this has not been uncommon during wave elections. Also, if the Republicans come within a one vote margin, keep an eye on Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson (who generally votes like a Republican anyway) and Joe Lieberman (who has historically delighted in sticking his finger in the eye of other Democrats). If either of these guys decide to switch parties after a tight margin, they could hand the Republicans the Senate.  

Ironically, although recent polls have shown the Republicans holding an unprecedented 10% lead in the generic polling for Congress, those same polls consistently show that the Republican party is less trusted than the Democratic party. Charlie Cook puts it well when he explains that it is possible for the Republicans to be winning even though they are not as trusted because the election “isn’t about them.” It’s about the Democrats. 

My take on the mood of the country is that many of the American people have seen what one party rule by the Democrats looks like and they’ve rejected it. Although they don’t like the Republicans any more than the Democrats, they figure, with Obama having veto power, the Republicans won’t be able to screw things up as badly as they might be able to with a Republican president. Given the level of disgust they have, they’re willing to take a chance.

This week the Democrats New York Times detailed Democratic plans to concentrate money in about two dozen vulnerable Democratic sates and let the remaining Democrats fend for themselves, effectively trying to create a firewall that would allow them to narrowly maintain power. Expect to see similar attempts in the California, Wisconsin, Washington and possibly Illinois Senate seats.

Certainly it’s possible for the Democrats fortunes to change in the next few months, but it’s hard to see what the catalyst for that change would be. The debate over the Bush Tax Cuts should be illuminating, but it’s hard to see it as a game changer. Campaigns generally help to focus people’s attention, clarify their viewpoints and make them remember why they voted for someone in the first place, but if the public has already written the Democrats off, then changing their minds will be a tall order.

This could get ugly.

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