Republican wave building toward November's elections

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 6, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Two years into the age of Obama, America may be about to change course.

The hope and optimism that President Barack Obama stoked into Democratic control of Washington two years ago has faded. Instead, voters are anxious about the economy. They're worried about jobs and paychecks. Many complain about soaring federal debt.

They give poor grades to Obama, and even worse ratings to Congress. Voters get their say Nov. 2, when they elect all 435 members of the House of Representatives, 37 members of the Senate and governors in 37 states.

By every reckoning, it appears likely that voters will punish the Democrats. In fact, a tidal wave of anger and anxiety may be building that could sweep the Democrats out of power in both houses of Congress and send a defiant new Republican majority to Capitol Hill to battle the president for the final two years of his term.

Obama will try to stem the tide, starting with a Labor Day address to union workers in Milwaukee. His team says it's not over yet.

"These things can be less predictable than folks in this town would like to think," Obama political adviser David Axelrod cautioned in an interview.

Perhaps, but the forces aligned against the president are growing more powerful by the week.

"There's no way he can turn a wave back like Moses. Not going to happen," said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "Republicans are dramatically gaining in all categories."

Sabato said the Republicans were likely to win control of the House, had an outside chance at winning the Senate and would end the day with control of a majority of governors' offices.

Other leading analysts agree.

"Unless the trajectory changes, Nov. 2 is going to be a nasty day and nasty night for Democrats," added Stuart Rothenberg, the editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "Republicans have a better than even chance of taking the House. The Senate is harder, but in play. Whatever the numbers, the outcome is going to be a very one-sided election where Republicans make major gains."

At stake:

THE HOUSE.

All 435 seats are up for election, but most are safely in the hands of one party or the other. Still, 76 are in play and could change hands, 68 of them now held by Democrats, according to Charles Cook, the editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Rothenberg said that 88 were in play, 76 now held by Democrats.

Democrats will surrender control if they lose 39 House seats.

Sabato projects that the Democrats will lose 47 House seats. Rothenberg said that as of now it looked as if they'd lose up to 47 or 48 seats, but he added that "the 52-seat swing of 1994 is not out of the question." He plans a new forecast in about a week.

THE SENATE.

Of 100 Senate seats, 37 are up for election, 19 now held by Democrats and 18 by Republicans.

The Democrats will give up control if they lose 10 seats. (Note that every time a party has lost the House since World War II, it's also lost the Senate.)

Forecast: Sabato and Rothenberg say the Democrats will lose eight to nine seats.

GOVERNORS.

Thirty-seven states elect governors this fall, 19 of them seats now held by Democrats and 18 by Republicans.

Democrats now have a 26-24 edge in state governors, but Sabato says they're likely to lose eight. That would leave Republicans controlling a majority of the governors' offices, just as the states start drawing new maps for U.S. House districts, a once-a-decade event that can give the states' dominant parties an advantage in some House races.

It's normal, of course, for a new president's party to lose seats in Congress in his first midterm election. In the past century, only Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934 and George W. Bush in 2002 saw their parties' ranks in Congress expand in their first midterm elections.

Presidential parties suffer in initial midterm elections especially when the economy's bad, the president has poor approval ratings, or both. Ronald Reagan had an approval rating of 43 percent in the fall of 1982 and the nation was in recession; Republicans lost 26 seats in the House. Bill Clinton had an approval rating of 46 percent in the fall of 1994 and the nation was locked in what was called "a jobless recovery;" Democrats lost 52 House seats that year.

Obama's approval rating is in the mid-40s, according to the Gallup Poll, as the nation endures another jobless recovery, so Democrats are bracing for bad news.

They'd hoped for better at this stage. Just months ago, Democrats talked up their expectations for a "recovery summer," when they could tout the benefits of their $814 billion economic stimulus, but instead the economy limped through the summer.

Analysts predicted a few months ago that the Democrats would lose seats in Congress, but not control of either house. The University of Virginia's Center for Politics, for example, said in the spring that the Democrats probably would lose 32 House seats, which would hurt but still leave them in control.

This week, the center changed its forecast, saying the Democrats are likely to lose 47 seats.

"The recovery summer didn't happen," Sabato said. "Democrats really believed the economy would improve given time. A lot of people were withholding judgment waiting to see if the Democrats could produce, and they haven't."

"These attitudes toward the economy were steadily improving in April and May," Axelrod said. "The Greek fiscal crisis happened, the stock market took a tumble, businesses retrenched and that affected attitudes. There are events within our control and events that are not in our control."

Rothenberg reads the bottom line this way: "Democrats can point to all their accomplishments. They can say they passed a stimulus. They can say they saved the auto industry and the banking system. The American public is in a bad mood and will give them little or no credit, because on the most salient issue of all, jobs, things have not gotten better."

That fuels an enthusiasm gap: Conservatives are eager to vote against the Democrats, while many liberals are disillusioned with Obama, and some Democratic-leaning independents will stay home.

While a majority of independents have turned against the Democrats, they're not the same crowd as the independents who voted two years ago.

"The independents voting this year are very different than the independents that voted in 2008," Sabato said. "The independents who voted in 2008 split narrowly for the Democrats. They wanted change. Who's dropping out? Minorities, young people and more Democratically inclined independents."

Axelrod agreed.

"A lot of the people who came out and voted in 2008 for the president aren't accustomed to voting in midterms and don't necessarily see the stake without him on the ballot," Axelrod said. "They need to see there is a cost to not participating. He can deliver that message and I think he can help turn them out."

Starting with his Labor Day appearance, Obama will make the case for his agenda, and he's said that he'll roll out new proposals heading into the fall.

"We're constantly looking for ways to fine-tune the strategy," Axelrod said. "We'll continue to do that. We're not going to lurch around according to a political calendar. If there are things we can do, we will propose them and we will do them."

The White House also hopes that general election voters will balk at some of the tea party conservatives nominated by Republicans in states such as Alaska, Kentucky and Nevada. "That's going to be a factor," Axelrod said.

Perhaps, but Rothenberg said it wouldn't help Democrats much.

"We're talking about the margins. If the tea party is too extreme, Republicans may win only 45 House seats instead of 47 or 48. They may win only seven Senate seats instead of eight or nine.

"It's all about mood," he added. "For the Democrats to minimize losses, the public would have to be more hopeful, upbeat and grateful. There's nothing on the horizon now that suggests that will happen."

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