Final forecasts for Tuesday: GOP wave is still building

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 29, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Some angry and some anxious, American voters head into the final hours of a bitter campaign for control of the Congress poised to throw Democrats out of power in at least part of the Capitol and slam the brakes on President Barack Obama's agenda.

The wave building against the Democrats doesn't automatically mean a mandate for Republicans. Coming just four years after voters threw the Republicans out of control of Congress, and two years after throwing them out of the White House, this year's expected turn against the Democrats suggests a country looking for a government more responsive to its desires and anxieties and quick to punish any party that doesn't deliver fast enough.

Democrats are bracing to lose control of the House of Representatives. Top independent analysts this week issued their final forecasts, predicting that the Democrats will lose between 48 and 65 House seats, with an outside chance of losses up to 70, well more than the 39 that would drive them from power.

They're more confident they'll hold onto nominal control of the Senate. Top analysts said the Democrats likely would lose six to nine seats, short of the 10 seats that would end their majority. The independent analysts cautioned, however, that the figure could go higher: Since 1930, every time voters have thrown one party out of control of the House, they've done the same thing in the Senate.

The wholesale rejection of Democrats likely will sweep through state capitals as well, where Democrats now control 26 governor's offices and Republicans hold 24. The forecasts: Democrats will lose six to nine.

Voting — already underway in many states — wraps up Tuesday night. Voters will elect all 435 members of the House of Representatives, 37 senators and governors in 37 states.

Despite polls showing Democrats closing the gap in some states, the forces dominating public attitudes over the last two years have shown little change — primarily a frustratingly slow recovery from a deep recession.

"We've had $4 billion spent, half a million TV ads, hundreds of debates," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "But the fundamentals of this election were in place by mid-summer and there was almost nothing the Democrats could do to change those fundamentals."

Obama barnstormed the country into the final weekend trying to save Democratic seats, hitting Virginia, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Illinois and Ohio.

Money poured into the campaign as well, as much as $800 million in the final days alone, driving the total near $4 billion and financing an unprecedented torrent of TV ads.

Emotions ran high. In Kentucky, a supporter of Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul recently stomped on a liberal activist's head. In Alaska, aides to Republican Senate candidate Joe Miller handcuffed a reporter who tried to ask the candidate a question.

"This election is kind of a therapeutic outburst," said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University.

"People are dissatisfied with the direction of the country, and they're taking it out on the people in power," said Nathan Gonzales, the political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

There's little doubt that there's a backlash against the Democrats — conservatives angry at soaring federal spending and debt, and liberals disappointed the party didn't go farther on issues such as health care, regulation of Wall Street or climate change.

It isn't, however, a clear mandate for any Republican agenda.

House Republicans laid out a platform calling for spending cuts, but declined to endorse more aggressive specifics, such as overhauling entitlement spending, a touchstone for many tea party conservatives.

Moreover, Americans are more closely divided than pundits let on.

A McClatchy-Marist poll this week, for example, showed that 37 percent of likely voters said Obama has a better plan for the country, 31 percent said the Republicans do, and 27 percent said neither.

The survey also showed that likely voters, by a margin of 68 percent to 27 percent, want congressional Republicans to work with Obama.

"People aren't voting for solutions," added Gonzales at the Rothenberg Report. "They're voicing their dissatisfaction."

The final forecasts:

In the House, Rothenberg predicted Republican gains of 55-65 seats, with an outside chance of gains up to 70 seats; Sabato predicted 55, and Charles Cook of the Cook Political Report predicted 48-60.

In the Senate, Rothenberg predicted GOP gains of six to eight, Sabato predicted eight, and Cook predicted six to eight.

Among governors, Sabato predicted Republican gains of eight to nine, and Cook predicted six to eight.

A key dynamic is the fact that Democrats gained House seats in the past two elections, many in conservative districts. While Democrats interpreted the gains as an embrace of the party and its ideas, they just as likely were a rejection of Republicans.

Now, many of those incumbent Democrats are vulnerable to charges that they're out of step with their more conservative districts.

Most of the 54 or so members of the House Democrats' centrist Blue Dog Coalition are in trouble.

"They're going to be decimated," Gonzales said.

Freshmen are the most vulnerable — Tom Perriello in Virginia, Bobby Bright in Alabama, and others. Even some veterans could fall, polls suggest, such as Gene Taylor in Mississippi and Jim Marshall in Georgia.

Some of the more influential Blue Dogs are in trouble, including South Dakota's Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, Indiana's Baron Hill and North Carolina's Heath Shuler.

What's hurting moderates: Votes for Obama's economic stimulus (although quite a few of them opposed it) and more significantly, the health care overhaul.

"That was a defining vote for a lot of Democratic incumbents," said Republican strategist Neil Newhouse. "It epitomized big, wasteful government spending."

It also was a vivid reminder that even though most centrist Democrats kept their distance from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and in many cases voted against health care and the cap-and-trade bill, their ties to the party hurt them badly.

"The message from voters in the South is that the Democratic Party is way too far to the left. The Democrats lost a lot of conservatives in the 1980s, and now they're on the verge of losing white moderates," said Merle Black, a Southern politics expert at Emory University in Atlanta.

It's not just new members, though.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate majority leader, is in danger of being defeated by Republican Sharron Angle, a tea party favorite.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is in a close contest with Republican Dino Rossi.

Other senior Democrats fighting to hold their seats include Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., the chairman of the House Budget Committee; Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa., a 26-year veteran; and Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, a 20-year veteran and the chairman of an appropriations subcommittee.

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