We are about 100 days from the mid-term elections. Conventional wisdom dictates that we will see a change in the political landscape, with the Democrats seriously in danger of losing the House of Representatives, some Senate seats (but not enough to lose control of the Senate), and a number of governorships. If you listen carefully, you can hear some champagne corks already popping in many conservative think tanks in Washington.
Many pundits are talking about a wave similar to 1994 or 2006, when Clinton and Bush lost control of Congress. Historically, the average mid-term loss has been about 28 seats for the party in the White House. Many Republican operatives, pointing to a sluggish economic recovery and a revived party base (courtesy of the Tea Party), are openly predicting a takeover of the House and praying for a long-shot seizing of the Senate. Meantime, some key Democrats, including Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, acknowledge they are in for a significant drubbing and it may range from 35 to 45 seats. Only the optimistic Vice-President Joe Biden seems to believe the Democrats will fool the pundits.
Democrats certainly seem to be suffering from an enthusiasm gap in their base, unlike their counterparts in the GOP. Liberals, or the more progressive elements of the party, have grown impatient with Obama’s style of governing. Any bounce he could have had from the stimulus package, healthcare reform, or financial regulation reform is often met by a sense that Obama has not gone far enough. Republicans have only needed to say no, and accuse the Obama White House of having a ‘creeping socialist agenda’ to excite their base.
It’s true there is a strong anti-incumbency mood coursing through the country that is being fed by high unemployment figures and the sense that Obama’s policies have not provided the necessary solutions. And while the president’s numbers are better than Reagan’s or Clinton’s at mid-term, this will not have any coattail effect in time for November. Still, these are no guarantee of a Republican wave.
It’s important to keep in mind a wave election is rarely felt three months in advance. That’s especially true if the alternative party, in this case the Republicans, are not leading in policy ideas or even in the area of governing credibility. (Voters still remember Bush!)
The Democrats are hoping for a better economic climate come November. This is highly unlikely, even if leading indicators show a real recovery is under way. Slow growth in employment will keep dampening the belief the worst days of the recession are behind us. The true ray of hope rests with a strategy targeting close races to avoid a debacle and crafting a political message that contrasts Democratic policies and legislation with the absence of a clear alternative on the other side.
Some important GOP thinkers have already pointed out that, unlike Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America of 1994, the Republicans often appear unclear about what changes they would bring. Incumbent Republicans are losing primaries to Tea Party-backed opponents; RNC chairman Michael Steele is being asked to resign by prominent Republicans like William Kristol; and the establishment by Representative Michelle Bachman of a Tea Party caucus among House Republicans seems to be chafing some key GOP congressional leaders. It all adds up to a perception there is disarray within the ranks. The Republicans may have succeeded in bringing down Obama’s approval numbers, but they do not appear united on bringing forward solutions to offset his policies or legislative achievements.
It is conceivable that Democrats, sensing the wave coming, will respond accordingly and show more discipline in an electoral campaign than they have in government. Minorities, especially Latino voters, have reason to be motivated. According to some Democratic operatives, the despictable Sherrod incident and the Arizona immigration law will go a long way to entice minority voters to vote. At this stage, it is a safe bet to predict Democratic losses in the fall. But Republicans should be careful not to count their seats before they’re won. Three months in politics is a long time, and the only bully pulpit in America remains in the hands of a Democrat.