Five stumbling blocks that could wipe out many Democrats

Democrats feel they have grabbed political momentum, but the party still faces several dangers that could wipe it out in November.

Democratic strategists and independent political experts identify roughly five stumbling blocks that the party must overcome to avert big losses: history, jobs and the economy, an apathetic base, ethics and anti-Washington sentiment.

Almost every Democratic strategist acknowledges the party will lose seats in Congress this fall. The question is whether the loss will be moderate or severe, or even enough to give Republicans control of the House.

History

Since 1932, the president’s party has gained seats in the Senate and House only twice in midterm elections: in 1934, during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first term, when Democrats picked up nine Senate seats and nine House seats; and 2002, during George W. Bush’s first term, when Republicans captured two Senate seats and eight House seats.

In 1998, at the height of impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton, Democrats picked up five House seats and the Senate ratios didn’t change.

The president’s party has seen some spectacular wipeouts in the first midterm election of a new administration. Clinton saw Democrats lose 52 House seats and eight Senate seats in 1994.

President Ronald Reagan’s (R) party lost 26 House seats in 1982, although it picked up a seat in the Senate.

Over the past 19 midterm elections, the president’s party has lost an average of 25.8 seats in the House and 3.4 seats in the Senate.

Obama’s job approval is not significantly higher than his predecessors’. A recent Gallup poll showed the president with a 48 percent approval rating.

Clinton had a 48 percent rating and Reagan had a 42 percent rating shortly before the first midterm elections of their presidencies.

Jobs and the economy

“Jobs, jobs, jobs and jobs,” said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane when asked about the five biggest political dangers facing Democrats this year. “You could say jobs five times and that’s really it.”

Lehane, who worked for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, said Democrats need to convince voters they are fighting as hard as possible to create jobs and show results.

“There has to be a singular focus and a plan to deal with job growth,” he said. “There’s enormous anxiety in the country and it all comes back to concern about our economy and jobs.”

Lehane said that the economy doesn’t need to show “significant job growth” but that people “need to think we’re on the right track.”

The economy added 162,000 jobs in March, of which 48,000 were temporary workers hired by the Census Bureau. Private economists such as Mark Zandi predict job growth could slow later this year when the bureau terminates those positions.

Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who worked on Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) 2004 presidential campaign, said the economy would need to create about 125,000 a month in the run-up to the election.

Other Democratic strategists have said any positive growth would be enough to show progress to voters. They say candidates can make a strong case by comparing even modest growth to the months in late 2008 and early 2009, when the economy was losing more than 650,000 jobs a month.

The apathetic liberal base

Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, notes that many liberal Democrats are disillusioned by Obama’s policy positions.

“There’s a question of how fired up the base is,” said Baker. “A lot of people of the Democratic base have issues with the president on a number of things.”

Environmentalists, such as leaders of the Sierra Club, are not happy with Obama’s proposal to open millions of acres off the mid- and south-Atlantic coasts to oil and gas drilling.

Hispanic voters have pushed for action on immigration reform, but there has been little progress made.

Gay-rights advocates have clashed with the administration over the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that prohibits gays from serving openly in the military.

Liberal pacifists have expressed dismay over Obama’s decision to boost troop levels in Afghanistan.

“The one part of the base that is solidly in his corner is African-Americans,” Baker said. But he noted that African-American turnout would likely be reduced in a non-presidential election year.

Democratic strategists, however, note that passage of healthcare reform has started to coalesce the base, even though the new law lacks the government-run insurance plan that many liberals wanted.

Ethics

Democrats captured Congress in 2006 by claiming that a “culture of corruption” had flourished under Republicans. They pledged to “drain the swamp” of Washington politics and were helped by the late-breaking sex scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) and House pages.

Republicans will try to play the ethics card against Democrats this year, and Exhibit A will be Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.). Rangel stepped down as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee last month after the ethics committee admonished him for taking corporate-sponsored trips to the Caribbean.

Republicans will also attack Democratic leaders’ handling of sexual harassment allegations against Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.), who resigned last month.

Republicans may also highlight ethics allegations against the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), the former chairman of the Appropriations Defense subcommittee, who was accused of steering earmarks to campaign contributors.

To pre-empt allegations of corruption in the appropriations process, House Democrats last month decided to ban earmarks to private corporations. Senate Democrats have shown little inclination to follow suit, which Craig Holman, legislative representative for Public Citizen, a left-leaning public interest group, said could turn out to be a mistake.

“That’s a big mistake,” said Holman. “Money and politics will be a big issue in 2010.”

Democrats have a powerful counterargument to make by raising the alleged misconduct of lawmakers such as Sens. John Ensign (R-Nev.) and David Vitter (R-La.).

Ensign admitted to an affair with a former aide who was married to his chief of staff. Ensign later found a job for the chief of staff and his parents paid the couple $96,000. Vitter, who is up for reelection, was connected to a prostitution ring in 2007.

Anti-Washington sentiment

When he accepted the Democratic nomination in August 2008, Obama pledged to fix the “broken politics of Washington.”

Nearly two years later, Washington has become, by most accounts, more partisan. Routine legislative measures, such as an extension of unemployment benefits and a freeze in cuts to doctors’ Medicare reimbursements, have become heavy lifts.

An estimated 200,000 Americans are expected to lose unemployment insurance this week because of failure to reach compromise on a one-week extension.

Democratic strategists note that Republicans aren’t faring any better than Democrats in generic public opinion surveys. But they admit the national mood is more of a problem for Democrats because they control more seats in Congress.

“It’s an anti-incumbent year and we have more incumbents than [Republicans] do,” said Erik Smith, who served as a senior aide to former House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt (Mo.).

Smith contrasted this year to 2006, which he called an anti-Republican year, and 1994, which he called an anti-Democratic year — two election years when control of Congress flipped.

Smith said a lot of “marginal” Democrats survived in 2006 and 2008 because those were good years for the election cycle. He said the environment is significantly different and vulnerable lawmakers’ toughest job will be convincing voters that the economy is improving.

“It will be a hard sell to folks who don’t have jobs that the economy is getting better,” he said.