Two months before Election Day, finding a pessimistic Republican strategist is about as tough as spotting a five-legged unicorn on your local interstate. 2010 started on an ominous note for the Democrats when Republican Scott Brown captured the late Ted Kennedy's Massachusetts Senate seat in a special election, and every dynamic that led to Brown's upset has survived or accelerated from late winter into spring, through the summer and now into the cusp of autumn. Republicans are either going to have a fantastic Nov. 2 or a revolutionary one.
At stake is majority control of the House of Representatives (barring some unexpected turn, almost certainly going to the Republicans); control of the Senate (as of now, quite possibly going to the GOP on a state-by-state basis, and a near certainty if there is an electoral tidal wave); some of the biggest and most politically important gubernatorial slots; and a passel of state legislative seats and down-ballot races that don't get much attention but could be part of yet another major realignment of the balance of power between America's two major political parties.
Candidates, parties and allied interest groups have engaged in an unusually heavy flurry of summer communication with voters. The overflow of political money, the high stakes and, particularly for Democrats, an imperative to define the opposition's candidates for the voters before they define themselves have led to a message bombardment during barbeque and beach time. Labor Day, the traditional kickoff of the election home stretch, marked an even greater escalation by both sides in advertising and other forms of voter outreach. No matter where you live in the U.S., for the next 60 days expect to see and hear a lot of advertising about politics.
Democrats have twin problems from coast to coast that tilt the playing field sharply against them. First, voter concerns about jobs, the economy, government spending and deficits dwarf every other issue. Even with Obama's announcements this week proposing new infrastructure policy and business tax credits, the President's party has done little since Brown's victory to improve its standing on those priorities. House and Senate Democrats have wasted the year futilely trying to sell their past accomplishments, and the President has been distracted by the BP oil spill, the war in Afghanistan and negotiations on the Middle East. Second, anti-Obama anger over his record on economic issues will spur Republicans and unaligned voters to the polls to send a message to the majority party, while Democrats, including the young and first-time voters who propelled Barack Obama to the White House just two years ago, have little enthusiasm for casting ballots this time around.
So far, at least, Democrats have offered no compelling case on the economy, either to energize their base or take the edge off the Republican assertion that voters need to send a message to Obama and check his big-spending ways. Polls show that the Republican argument is connecting with likely voters even more than with citizens overall.
Many months of mostly negative economic news, particularly on unemployment, have left the Democrats unable to build a happy-days-are-here-again platform. Democratic legislative achievements, like health care, are being used against the President's party, and few Democratic candidates are touting their role in these bittersweet victories. Road tests of a variety of alternative messages ("It's George Bush's fault," "Republican control of Congress would make things even worse," "Republicans have blocked progress in Washington," "Republicans want to take away your Social Security," "Republicans are wacky extremists") have had a very limited effect so far. In fact, every bit of national and race-by-race polling data suggests extensive deterioration of the Democrats' position as the year has gone on. One sign of the Democrats weakness on the economic battlefield: the looming fight over whether to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, once seen by strategists in the White House and on Capitol Hill as a huge opportunity for their party, is now a face-off Republicans are hotly anticipating.
Democratic-held Senate seats that seemed fully safe in January (such as those in the states of Washington and Wisconsin) are now very much in play. Additional Democratic House incumbents that used to be secure are now suddenly imperiled in red states such as Georgia and Arizona but also in blue states including Connecticut, Illinois and California. And Republicans are in a strong position to end up with a string of governorships from Pennsylvania westward to the ultimate American battleground states including Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin and maybe Minnesota; wins in these states could have a hefty impact on 2012.
History is no help for the President's party either. Two precedents stand out in stark relief. First, with almost no exceptions, the party that controls the White House loses seats, often in substantial numbers, in the midterm elections. Second, when the House switches from one party to the other, the Senate follows the same pattern, even in years like this one, in which the House seems a far more likely bet to flip.
Without any intervening events, Republicans are in a position to ride a huge wave to a net pickup of as many as 60 House seats Democrats now hold, more than enough to take back the majority. And there are enough vulnerable Democratic-held Senate seats for Republicans to ride the wave to the 10-seat pickup they need to control both chambers of Congress.
Many of the advantages Democrats claim to have in these final two months are illusory. It is true that in numerous cases their candidates and party committees have superior financial resources. But the gap is closing as widespread news-media coverage of the possible GOP takeover is influencing donor choices. Also, conservative outside groups will make up some of the difference in candidate and committee resources. And, most of all, until and unless Democrats come up with some ideas that trump or dull the Republican mantra ("Obama, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi tax and spend too much") all the campaign money in the world can't overcome their fundamental quandary. Labor unions are gearing up to help the Democrats, but they too will have the same message challenge. Sophisticated digital methods to reach Obama's core supporters from 2008 also lack a rousing argument.
And Obama himself has yet to show that he can tip the balance toward his party's candidates. Republican strategists claim, this time with more calm than bravado, that they would welcome the President to campaign in September and October in every competitive race in the country. While Obama might still inspire some voters (especially liberals, minorities and young people), nearly every contest is largely turning out to be a referendum on his Administration; the thumbs-down energy of the Brown upset has maintained its force all year. Increasingly, Democratic candidates are shying away from appearing with the President in public. There is no indication the Republicans are peaking too early, and they continue to demonstrate, nationally and in individual races, calculated discipline in focusing almost exclusively on the economy. They have successfully avoided dividing their coalition, distracting the news media or diluting their campaign message with talk about social issues or other peripheral concerns.
To be sure, there are some remaining acts to play out. Democrats now have new economic policies to flaunt. The President is traveling this week to key political states and holding a Friday press conference, where he will command the stage and can brandish his masterful charisma, intellect and endurance. Some of the anti-Establishment Republican nominees in important races might eventually be disqualified in the minds of voters as unacceptable alternatives. And the country is mere days away from the biannual craze of media speculation about various potential game-changing "October surprises."
In the end, Democrats could temper major losses by winning a handful of symbolically and substantively important signature races, such as the gubernatorial contests in Ohio, California and Florida. But to paraphrase Churchill, it's clear that 2010 is going to be a whopper of a Republican year. All that's left is to determine just how cataclysmic it will be.