Democrats face increasingly uphill battle in 2010

The divisive healthcare debate and sliding poll numbers for President Barack Obama are creating an even more difficult political environment for Democrats in 2010.

Democrats can’t ride Obama’s coattails as they did in 2008, when a strong turnout among young and minority voters helped them increase their House and Senate majorities.

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They also can’t run against former President George W. Bush, whose unpopular policies were key to their winning control of both chambers in 2006.

Instead, they’ll face what is expected to be an older and whiter demographic in 2010, which would hurt Democrats in the best of circumstances. President Obama won more than 90 percent of the black vote in 2008, and he won 66 percent of the 18-to-29-year-old voting category. In contrast, he lost voters 65 years old and older, taking only 45 percent of the vote.

Just as important is that Democrats are losing the messaging war with Republicans on healthcare, according to David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. It predicted this week that Democrats could lose at least 20 seats in the House in 2010.

“I think Democrats have lost their ability to control voters’ perception of the national debate on this issue,” Wasserman said of the fiery healthcare debate.

Republicans, he said, have succeeded in moving the debate to issues about spending and deficits. They’ve tied misgivings about bailouts and government spending to the healthcare bill, and voters are feeling sticker shock, he said.

It doesn’t hurt that the voters feeling that sticker shock the most are older Americans, who could make up a larger proportion of the electorate in 2010 than they did in 2008.

In the Senate, Democrats also are suddenly facing a tougher climate. Nate Silver of the FiveThirtyEight.com website wrote this week that Democrats are more likely to lose than gain seats in the upper chamber, despite Republican retirements in Ohio and Missouri, where Democrats have a chance to win open seats.

Democrats say the predictions are exaggerated. While they have long expected a tough election in 2010, they say Republicans have not been capitalizing on opportunities and haven't positioned themselves as a credible alternative.

"When you go district-by-district, Democrats are doing well," said Jennifer Crider, political director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Each of the Democrats' vulnerable "Frontline" members, she said, has more money in the bank than their challengers. And Republicans have had high-profile recruiting losses, such as former Rep. Robin Hayes's decision not to challenge the Democrat who beat him in 2008, Rep. Larry Kissell (D-N.C.).

And the healthcare debate can improve for Democrats once the House and Senate pass bills and Obama starts setting the tone, she said.

“If Republicans continue to advocate for nothing, there's a price to pay,” she said.

Still, Wasserman mentioned a number of districts across the country where Democrats could have trouble based on demographics alone.

He points to Rep. Tom Perriello in Virginia, who won election in 2008 with 50 percent of the vote and was helped by a large turnout by black voters, and young voters from the University of Virginia. In Ohio, Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy won with 46 percent of the vote and was boosted by turnout from Ohio State students.

African-American turnout also helped Reps. Bobby Bright and Parker Griffith win in Alabama. Bright won 50.3 percent of the vote, while Griffith won 52 percent. A large Hispanic vote helped Rep. Harry Teague to victory in New Mexico, Wasserman said.

Republicans see a shift their way in the national mood on healthcare and spending.

“Democrats have lost the month of August and with it public opinion," said Ken Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee. "They are a party in retreat.”

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Republicans have started to tie vulnerable Democrats to Obama. Ads link Reps. Michael Arcuri (D-N.Y.) and Zack Space (D-Ohio) to the “Obama-Pelosi healthcare experiment.”

Anger about spending and healthcare has helped the GOP recruit challengers for Democrats who hadn't faced serious challenges in years.

For example, Republicans note that in Nevada, businessman John Guedry announced this week that he will challenge Democratic Rep. Dina Titus.

Democrats believe whatever momentum they have lost can be made up if Obama signs a healthcare bill and the economy is on the upswing in the fall of 2010. Conversely, they acknowledge failure to pass a healthcare bill will diminish their prospects.

“If it passes, our chances are better,” said a Democratic leadership aide. “If not, they're worse.”

And vulnerable Democrats in conservative districts have been preparing themselves for a fierce challenges, the aide said. For example, they've highlighted their independence by taking stances against leadership on key votes.

“This is prognosticators trying to pay the bills,” said a Democratic leadership aide. “We've been preparing our guys to compete in a difficult climate.”