Memo to Dems: A Miserable November Looms

| Wed Aug. 18, 2010 5:55 AM EDT

No one expects the Democrats to do well in November's midterm congressional elections. But the prospect of a crushing defeat at the polls is looking increasingly likely. When should Dems start panicking? How about now? While Robert Gibbs gets in fights with Nancy Pelosi and the "professional left," the administration fires—and re-hires—Shirley Sherrod, and the entire country obsesses over the "Ground Zero mosque" nonsense, time is running out for the Dems to do something—anything!—to keep the coming GOP wave at bay.

President Obama will spend most of this week traveling around the country to raise money for Democratic candidates. It's the best he can do, but it isn't much: Obama's approval ratings are no longer in positive territory, and many Dem candidates aren't sure if they even want to campaign with him. And while a poll last week showed the Republican Party with some of its lowest ratings ever, indicators for the Democrats haven't improved at all.

The reason for all this, of course, is the economy, which is still sputtering. New jobless claims hit their highest mark since February last week, and private-sector hiring, while positive, has not been enough to offset the combination of population growth and public-sector job losses driven by deepening state fiscal crises. Rising energy costs are so far fending off the spectre of deflation, but they aren't really a good sign for consumers (or the Democrats' electoral prospects).

The president's party is putting some hope in the idea that tea party candidates will prove too radical for voters, allowing vulnerable Dems to survive tough challenges. But as Dave Weigel points out, the Democrats nominated several candidates in 2006 that the establishment considered "too liberal" to win. But in a Dem year, they won anyway. If the same pattern holds in reverse, it's likely that tea party candidates won't hurt Republicans nearly as much as Democrats believe they will. 

In January, I wrote that "the 2010 midterms are looking really bad for Democrats." My analysis at the time suggested that "Democrats could lose six or so Senate seats (and Lieberman might switch) and 20 to 30 in the House." The Dems' outlook seems much worse now than it did in January. Most political observers wouldn't be particularly surprised to see the GOP take the House (they currently hold 178 seats; they need to win 40 more to gain control). In the Senate, the Dems face more competitive races than it appeared the would earlier this year. A few things seem nearly certain right now: GOP Gov. John Hoeven will win in North Dakota and Rep. John Boozman (R) will beat Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) in Arkansas. That's two GOP pickups right there. Indiana and Delaware also look nearly clinched for the Republicans. The only Senate Dem whose situation seems to have improved since January is majority leader Harry Reid, though tea partier Sharron Angle could still beat him.

There are plenty of other places where Dems would win in a normal year, but may not pull it out given the tough economy. Senate seats in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Colorado could easily go Republican. And since January, Sens. Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Patty Murray (Wash.), and Russ Feingold (Wisc.) have discovered they are a lot more vulnerable than previously thought. Even Richard Blumenthal in Connecticut could be beatable—a new Rasmussen poll puts him up just seven points on multi-millionaire Republican candidate Linda McMahon. That's twelve senate seats up for grabs right there—and I haven't mentioned the special election in West Virginia, where polling guru Nate Silver gives the GOP a small chance of picking up the late Sen. Robert Byrd's seat. And there's still the (likely, in my mind) possibility that Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) may switch to the GOP in order to bolster his 2012 re-election chances. 

Sure, the Dems might pick up some seats. Independent candidate Charlie Crist could win in Florida and caucus with the blue team. The races in Ohio, Missouri, and Kentucky are far from over. But the Dems in each of those races are underdogs—and the chances of pickups in North Carolina and New Hampshire look even slimmer, given the polling. In 2006 and 2008, not a single Senate seat switched from Dem to GOP. Barring an October surprise, it's not inconceivable that the GOP could come close to running the table themselves. Are we looking at Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell? If so, Obama beware.

If the GOP does win back control of Congress, expect a contentious two years. Everything about the Republicans' conduct since Obama's election (and during the Clinton years) suggests that they will spend most of their time making life hard for him and trying to make sure he loses in 2012.

How do Democrats avoid that fate? It'll be tough: even if they could pass measures to boost the economy (and they can't, because they'd be blocked by a GOP filibuster), the measures probably wouldn't help in time for Election Day. Perhaps their best hope is action by the Federal Reserve. But Obama has failed to get his nominees to the Fed board of governors confirmed, and the board is currently dominated by conservative inflation hawks (and run by Ben Bernanke, a conservative Republican).

As for those liberals who are celebrating the coming Dem apocalypse, hoping that it will get rid of the "difficult" Dems: watch out. Sure, John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) may survive the wave. But what about the Senate? What about Boxer, Murray, and Feingold? Can progressives really afford to lose them? Probably not. But progressives are going to have to start resigning themselves to what seems like the inevitable. November is coming, and it's gonna be miserable. Get ready.

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