For both parties, 2008 seems a lifetime away
It was fewer than two years ago that voters swept Barack Obama into the White House, bolstering Democratic majorities in the House and Senate and setting off a flurry of predictions about the demise of the Republican Party.
But with the 2010 elections fewer than three months away, all signs point to voters preparing for a dramatic course correction that will produce large Republican gains and is almost certain to produce arguments about what the results say about the president's fate in 2012.
National polls are consistent in showing an electorate that is dissatisfied with the direction of the country, unimpressed with the president's job performance, disapproving of the job Congress is doing and calling for change.
Although voters have confidence in neither of the two political parties, they appear to be inclined to cast their votes for GOP candidates in the fall. The Gallup poll, for example, has found more voters saying that they plan to vote Republican than Democrat for Congress, a dramatic reversal from sentiment before the 2006 and 2008 elections, when voters told the polling organization that they intended to vote for Democratic congressional candidates.
Part of the Democrats' problem is that they hold so many seats after winning a total of 51 seats in the past two elections. Forty-eight districts won by John McCain in the 2008 presidential race are currently represented by Democratic House members, making them obvious targets in a midterm election when voters may send a message of dissatisfaction about the president and the Democrat-controlled Congress.
Democrats argue that they were all but certain to lose seats in the midterm election, because the president's party usually loses a considerable number of seats. But a year ago, nobody thought that control of the House was in doubt, and Democratic problems have grown as the public changed its focus from President George W. Bush's performance to the state of the nation under Obama.
Democratic legislative efforts, some of them successful and some of them not, energized conservatives, providing them with a broader narrative about government spending, the federal budget deficit and government control. But it is the economy, and particularly the weak jobs outlook, that has damaged Democratic electoral prospects so seriously.
Republicans need to gain 39 seats in November to take back control of the House of Representatives. A year ago, that seemed unlikely, but now control of the House is very much up for grabs. More than 70 Democratic House seats are at risk, while only a handful of GOP-held districts are in any danger.
Polling conducted in individual competitive House races shows the same thing over and over: Democratic incumbents are under-performing even against unknown Republican challengers. This is particularly true in Republican and swing districts where the Democrat supported the economic stimulus, health care reform and the climate bill, which included the so-called cap-and-trade provision.
Even veteran Democrats who have been in Congress for years and have survived difficult environments -- such as House Budget Chairman John Spratt of South Carolina, Ways and Means member Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota and Appropriations subcommittee Chairman Chet Edwards of Texas -- now find themselves fighting for their political lives.
At this point, Republicans appear likely to gain at least 25 seats in the House, with possible gains reaching well into the 40s, or even above, if the GOP political wave reaches tsunami size.
In the Senate, where Republicans have only 41 seats and need to add 10 for a majority, substantial GOP gains are also likely. At least 11 Democratic-held seats are at risk, but a handful of Republican-held seats, all of them open because of retirements, are also competitive.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has benefited from the stumbles of his GOP challenger, Sharron Angle, but that race is still a tossup. And in Florida, Independent candidate Charlie Crist continues to hold a narrow lead over Republican nominee Marco Rubio. But in most of the other competitive Senate contests, Republicans seem to have some momentum.
Republicans seem assured of gaining four or five Senate seats at a minimum, with gains of five to eight seats more likely. In a huge wave, double-digit gains are not impossible.
Of course, Democrats have more than two months to try to limit the damage, and they will use their resources to try to change the election from being a referendum on President Obama and the Democratic Congress to being a choice between Democrats who are tackling tough issues and making progress and a Republican Party that wants to return to the Bush years.
Unfortunately for the president's party, voters understand Democrats didn't create the economic mess, but they aren't confident that the White House and Democratic congressional leaders have the right solutions.
On the campaign trail, Democrats are trying to improve their prospects by investing in an effort to turn out voters in November who voted for Obama but don't normally vote in midterm elections.
Two months is indeed an eternity in politics, and we all have learned to expect the unexpected. But the current landscape is terrible for Democrats, and the only question is the size of their losses.
Stuart Rothenberg is editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter that reports on and handicaps Congressional elections.