Dems press reset button on Senate

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) Chairman Robert Menendez (N.J.) acknowledged his party has lost momentum in the last two months but cautioned that Democrats are in position to take advantage of a critical GOP mistake.

“To be honest, we needed to be more aggressive in August,” Menendez said, following a month in which Republicans seized the initiative on healthcare. “There’s no question that some momentum was lost during that period of time.”

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But Menendez also contends that next fall his party will be able to take advantage of a recovered economy — an event Republicans are banking on not happening.

Pointing to economic indicators that some say show early signs of a recovery, Menendez argued that Democrats who helped pass the stimulus act earlier this year will be in position to claim credit when unemployment rates start dropping.

“We’re nowhere near where we need to be, but we already see the indicators that move us in the right direction. Does anyone think that a year from now, 14 months from now, that we will not be in better shape than we are today?” he asked.

Menendez cited a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in which 47 percent of voters predicted the economy will get better in the next year, while just one in five said the economy will get worse. The remaining 30 percent predicted the economy would remain the same.

“Republicans will have done absolutely nothing to have put us in that better shape. I think that’s a huge consequence for them,” Menendez said. “That’s a Republican strategy that is shortsighted.”

Unlike Republicans, who offered early warnings of a difficult national environment, Menendez and congressional Democrats have staked their fortunes to that of the economy and the healthcare debate, arguing that once concrete benchmarks are met, their party will reap the benefit.

“I believe that the Republicans have adopted a strategy that buys them momentum in the short term but that makes them really vulnerable in the long term and will handcuff them in the long run,” Menendez said. “In essence, Republicans have forfeited the two biggest issues that the country is looking for leadership on to Democrats, and that is the economy and healthcare. And that is a very dangerous position for them.”

Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), said Democrats have turned a “deaf ear” to the American public and will continue to suffer for it.

“When you have an agenda centered around higher taxes, a record level of spending, involuntary investments in car companies, government healthcare proposals and a cap-and-trade scheme that will raise energy prices, it’s not hard to see why the Democrats find themselves in this predicament,” Walsh said.

Menendez acknowledged “red flags” for Democrats, including polls that show favorability ratings for the party dropping to levels on par with Republicans, as well as voters who still believe the country is headed on the wrong track.

Recent polls have shown that the gap between a generic Democrat and a generic Republican has grown much closer after Democrats enjoyed wide advantages before the 2006 and 2008 elections.
 

In individual races, too, the GOP has scored several recent breaks. Some polls show Republican candidates ahead or tied in Democratic-held states like Nevada, Colorado, Connecticut and Arkansas. Gov. Charlie Crist (R) is the overwhelming favorite in Florida, and the GOP still has strong chances in Illinois and Delaware, two Democratic-held open seats.

The DSCC chairman offered little insight into individual races, including saying that he didn’t think Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is in trouble despite trailing no-name candidates in early polling.

He said comparisons to then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s (D-S.D.) 2004 loss don’t hold water.

“Harry Reid is not Tom Daschle, and Nevada is not South Dakota,” Menendez said.

He also appeared to acknowledge that an open seat in Florida isn’t a target when he said Republicans have “six open seats — four in which we have candidates we think can win up and running.”

The odd man out in that comment is almost undoubtedly Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.), who faces a steep uphill battle against Crist but is raising good money. DSCC spokesman Eric Schultz said Menendez misspoke and meant to say “five.”

Democratic chances in Republican-held open seats could run into roadblocks if competitive primaries cost the eventual nominees significant portions of their bank accounts. Democrats face tough primaries in Kentucky and Ohio, two states where Republicans are retiring, though Menendez hinted that some of those primaries “may dissipate.”

The landscape has changed so dramatically that some political prognosticators, who once suggested Democrats would bolster their 60-seat caucus after the 2010 elections, are now saying it is Republicans who would stand to gain if Election Day were just around the corner.

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But to Menendez, the fact that Election Day is still more than 13 months away is a saving grace. That amount of time, he said, is “an eternity,” and any prediction about the outcome next November would be “pretty premature.”

Meanwhile, with control of the White House and both houses of Congress, Democrats lack the common enemy that drove them to victories in each of the last two cycles. Menendez and other Democrats, though, have had no problem returning to that same, well-tested boogeyman they used so effectively in 2006 and 2008.

“That’s part of our challenge, reminding the electorate that, you know, having the worst economy since the Great Depression is largely, after eight years of Republican policies led by President Bush and emboldened and facilitated by Republicans in Congress, is what we are suffering through today,” Menendez said.