Riding high a year ago, Democrats now fear disaster ahead

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 6, 2010 

WASHINGTON — What a difference a year makes.

Last January, Democrats were streaming into Washington eager to celebrate not just the inauguration of Barack Obama as president, but also their party's ascendancy from coast to coast.

They'd gained ground in once-Republican turf such as the Mountain West and the Border South, added to their majorities in Congress and topped it all by seizing the presidency. "Yes, we can," a triumphant Obama trumpeted, and the country seemed to cheer in agreement.

Now, the country seems to be yelling back, "No, you can't," and putting the Democrats on the defensive heading into next fall's elections, when the entire House of Representatives, 37 seats in the Senate and 39 governor's offices are up for election.

The president's poll numbers have dropped. The party's top domestic agenda item, health care, is unpopular. Its candidates lost key statewide races in New Jersey and Virginia in November, and now high-profile Democrats such as Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter and Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd say they'll retire rather than risk losing next fall.

Whether it's caused by a backlash against the Democratic agenda or the natural swing of the pendulum against the party that's in power at a time of economic struggle, the result is the same: trouble for the Democrats.

"The fact that we're seeing Democrats bailing, in an election year, suggests maybe it's a tide that's turning," said Gary Rose, a professor of politics at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. "People are starting to feel promises were not fulfilled. Expectations were high, but what have we really seen?"

Clifford Young, a pollster for Ipsos Public Affairs, sees a normal turn against the party in power, saying the Democrats overstated the significance of the 2008 election results.

"It was basically an election for change, so it favored the party out of power," Young said. "But it didn't say anything about a major shift in values. We didn't see a huge shift in values that would favor the Democrats in the long term."

Either way, the Democratic Party's push to build a durable political majority is stalling.

That's evident in national polls, such as a recent Gallup survey that found an average of 49 percent of Americans calling themselves Democrats last year, the first time in four years that the party has dropped below the majority level. That was still better than the Republicans, but the Democratic edge was shrinking, not growing.

It's also clear in battleground states.

Colorado, for example, was one of the states that Democrats highlighted as proof that they were gaining support in swing states, as well as in regions such as the Mountain West, that once were friendlier to Republicans. The Democratic National Committee held its 2008 convention in Denver to showcase the successes.

Ritter stumbled in office, however, and voters have turned on other Democrats and him. Polls also suggest that Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., is at risk of losing his bid for re-election.

One reason, Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli said, is that voters are weary of the recession and blame the party in power. Another is that they don't like the Democratic proposals to overhaul health care, a plan that he said had energized Republicans and turned off independent voters.

"The collapse of Colorado ... demonstrates the immense shift that has taken place over the last year in the fortunes of national Democrats and the impact it's had on this swing state," Ciruli said.

Colorado isn't the only place in which Democrats have lost support among independents.

In Virginia, where Democrats won both U.S. Senate seats in recent years and then took the state in the presidential race for the first time since 1964, they'll have to watch from the bleachers when Republican Bob McDonnell is inaugurated Jan. 16.

He won the seat in November in large part because independent voters turned against the Democrats, who'd held the governor's office for two terms. Republicans also took back the governor's office in New Jersey.

If health care hurt Democrats in Colorado, it also could damage several Democratic senators elsewhere.

In at least seven states in which Democratic senators now hold seats, opponents of the Democratic health care proposals tend to outnumber supporters.

In North Dakota, where Sen. Byron Dorgan shocked supporters Tuesday by announcing that he wouldn't seek re-election, one poll found the state's likely voters opposing the health care proposal by 2-1 — and Dorgan trailing Republican Gov. John Hoeven by 22 percentage points.

In Arkansas, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., is facing a difficult re-election campaign and reluctantly became the last, crucial vote needed to allow senators to continue the health care debate this fall.

"Arkansans are not yet sold on the need for health care reform," warned Janine Parry, the director of the Arkansas Poll. While uninsured people are interested in the issue, she said, "The rest of us, apparently, are afraid of losing what we've got."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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