How grim is the current political landscape for Congressional Democrats? The Massachusetts Senate seat of the late liberal icon Ted Kennedy is up for grabs in a special election next week, and the race is so close it’s not out of the question that a Republican could win. When the mid-term elections come up in November, 36 seats in the Senate and all 435 in the House will be on the ballot. The question is, how many will the Democrats lose? Between high unemployment and frustration with the government, the tide has turned against President Barack Obama’s party. When he was inaugurated one year ago, a generic Democratic House candidate enjoyed a seven-point advantage over the Republican. A poll this month showed support for Democrats has declined eight points since then, while Republican support is up nine.
Grassroots conservatives are energized, while liberal Democrats tell pollsters Obama is not listening to them. Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, warned in a speech on Jan. 11 that Democrats could face an epic 1994-style route if they continue to alienate their base (the union is fighting an administration-backed proposed tax on generous union health care plans). Several Senate and House Democrats are retiring, and one, Alabama congressman Parker Griffith, crossed the aisle last month, blaming Obama’s push for health care reform. “Democrats are the ones who are accountable for running government right now and the public is not happy with their ability to get things done—whether it’s solving health care or airport security,” says Michael Dimock, associate director of the Pew Research Center for People and the Press.
In the Senate, it looks almost certain that the Democrats’ 60-vote filibuster-proof majority will be gone, constricting their ability to pass legislation in the second half of Obama’s term. Republicans have a chance to pick up Senate seats in Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, where incumbent Arlen Specter had switched from the GOP. Even Senate majority leader Harry Reid, who has spearheaded the Obama health care reform in the Senate, could lose his Nevada seat. Nerves were further set on edge this month when two embattled Democratic senators decided to bow out. North Dakota is losing Byron Dorgan, who announced he will retire rather than seek re-election; his seat is expected to be ripe for the picking by the state’s Republican governor, John Hoeven. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, chairman of the Senate banking committee, under fire for sweetheart mortgage deals and coziness with Wall Street, is also retiring. But in this case it’s a relief to the Democrats—the state’s popular attorney general, a Democrat, has a better chance of winning.
Despite their doldrums, Democrats are likely to cling to their majorities. To control the House, Republicans would need to win 40 additional seats; to control the Senate, they would need 11. For now, most analysts predict 20 to 30 GOP pickups in the House, and a handful in the Senate. Of course, the election is still 10 months away—a few lifetimes in politics. But choices made today will shape it. “Now is when decisions are being made. Strong challengers are choosing to enter races and strong incumbents are deciding to retire,” says Dimock. And, perhaps most importantly in high-priced U.S. politics, he notes, “Donors are making decisions about financing.”