WASHINGTON — Whoever wins the presidency this November, it's all but a slam dunk they'll be working with a Democratic Congress. And it probably will be a stronger Democratic majority with more votes than it has today.
Even normally optimistic Republicans conceded in recent days that the landscape is stacked against them after losing their third special House of Representatives election in a row, all in what had been safe Republican districts.
"A large segment of the American public doesn't have confidence in the Republican Party," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the party's chief political operative for House races.
"It should be a really good Democratic year in both chambers," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report. He's one of the three most authoritative nonpartisan voices on congressional races, along with Charles Cook of the Cook Political Report and Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
They all predict that Democrats will add to their majorities in the House by six to 20 seats and in the Senate by two to five seats.
They add that the swing could be larger, but none expect the Democrats to gain enough to be able to push legislation past a Republican filibuster in the Senate or a presidential veto in either chamber.
It's also possible that some of the Democratic gains could come with the election of moderate to conservative candidates — as happened on Tuesday in Mississippi. That would mean that a Democratic president — Illinois Sen. Barack Obama or New York Sen. Hillary Clinton — might have a hard time getting even a Democratic Congress to approve all of their proposals on such issues as health care and taxes.
"Obama can propose new programs by the dozen, but odds are the Congress won't go along with most of them," said Sabato. "There will be enough moderates in both the House and Senate to force a new president to compromise."
The prospects would be worse for Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican candidate.
"If it's McCain," Sabato said, "he would find his domestic policies dead on arrival. His only real influence with Congress would be in the foreign sphere."
Why the likely Democratic gains?
A confluence of forces is coming together that includes an unpopular Republican president, an unpopular war, a widespread sense that the country's on the wrong track and rising costs for food, gasoline and health care. Though Democrats have shared power since they took over Congress in the 2006 election, they have yet to share much of the blame.
"The political environment is such that voters remain pessimistic about the direction of the country and the Republican Party in general," said Cole, who serves as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Another reason is mechanical: The Republicans have more seats to defend and less money to do it.
In the Senate, where about a third of the seats are up every two years, Republicans have to defend 23 seats and Democrats only 12.
In the House, where all 435 seats are up every two years, more Republicans have decided to retire since losing majority control two years ago. Their party now has to defend more than two dozen open seats.
Republicans also have far less money, a reversal of fortune from earlier eras. As of this week, the two Republican campaign committees for House and Senate races had raised $108 million for this two-year cycle and had $24.5 million in cash left unspent.
By comparison, the two Democratic campaign committees had raised $160 million and still had $82 million in cash on hand.
"We've never seen a situation where, as a party, Democrats simply had more money and could stretch Republicans thin," said Cook. The Democrats, he said, can force the Republicans to spend money defending otherwise safe seats and bleed them dry.
The chief political operative for House Democrats, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., warned against expecting too much, noting that it's rare for a party to gain seats the election after a big tidal-wave election like the 30-seat pickup the Democrats enjoyed in 2006.
In fact, a party hasn't followed double-digit gains with another gain since the 1970s: The Democrats gained 43 seats in 1974 and a single seat in 1976; the Republicans gained 11 seats in 1978 and 33 more in 1980.
It's still early. Many House and Senate candidates won't be selected until primaries this summer, and most voters don't tune into congressional campaigns until much later.
Republicans hope they can still fine-tune their message — national security, low taxes, smaller federal government, energy independence — to regain their footing.
But their stronger hope might lie in McCain, an ironic fate given that many conservative Republicans don't like him.
Yet it's precisely his willingness to break with them on so many occasions that might make him the perfect leader now. Recent polls show McCain neck and neck in fall match-ups with either Democrat — but show congressional Republicans trailing well behind congressional Democrats.
"McCain will be a tremendous asset," said Cole. "He's running better than the party."
Still, it's a steep climb for the Republicans to even hold their current status in the House and Senate.
The Democrats now rule the House by a margin of 236-199. They need to gain 51 more seats to have enough to pass laws over a president's veto.
They hold the Senate by 51-49, a figure that includes two independents who vote with the Democrats. They need to gain nine more seats to have enough to pass legislation over a Republican filibuster, and 16 more to have a veto-proof majority.
The early outlook, according to the experts:
SENATE SEATS TO WATCH
Republican seats in play:
ALASKA: Held by Republican Sen. Ted Stevens. Stevens remains an icon in Alaska politics, but his son has been caught up in a scandal, and Democrats wonder whether Stevens, 85 in November, might opt to retire before the Aug. 26 primary. The likely Democratic challenger is Mark Begich, the mayor of Anchorage.
COLORADO: Open seat being vacated by the retirement of Sen. Wayne Allard. The Democrat is Rep. Mark Udall, heir to a famous family name in Western politics, who's benefiting from a strong Democratic tailwind in the state. His party's captured the governor's office, the state legislature and the other U.S. Senate seat. The Republican is former Rep. Bob Schaffer.
MINNESOTA: The incumbent is Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, who could benefit from an energized base if John McCain picks Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty as his running mate. The Democrat is likely to be former comedian Al Franken.
NEW HAMPSHIRE: The incumbent is Republican Sen. John Sununu, who faces a repeat challenge from former Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen. Sununu won a close election in 2002 that featured dirty tricks by the Republicans, who jammed Democratic Party phones on Election Day.
NEW MEXICO: Open seat being vacated by retirement of Republican Sen. Pete Domenici. The state's trended toward the Democrats on the local level, holding the governor's office and other Senate seat by comfortable margins. The Democrat likely will be Rep. Tom Udall, heir to the same influential family name as his first cousin Mark in Colorado. The Republicans haven't picked a candidate — Reps. Steve Pearce and Heather Wilson are competing in the June 3 primary.
VIRGINIA: Open seat, vacated by the retirement of Republican Sen. John Warner. Democrat Mark Warner, no relation, is a popular former governor who's favored to take the seat. The Republican candidate is likely to be former Gov. Jim Gilmore.
DEMOCRATIC SEAT IN PLAY
LOUISIANA: The incumbent is Sen. Mary Landrieu, who faces what even her party expects to be a "long and tough race," according to The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's analysis. A key factor is the exodus of people from the state — many of them Democrats — since Hurricane Katrina. One sign of trouble: The Republicans recently won the governor's office. The likely Republican challenger is state Treasurer John Kennedy.
ON THE WEB
More from Cook.
More from Rothenberg.
More from Sabato.