By Alexander Bolton - 04/06/10 10:02 AM EDT
Democrats feel they have grabbed
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
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.
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
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
Clinton saw Democrats lose 52 House seats and eight Senate seats in
President Ronald Reagan’s (R) party
lost 26 House seats in 1982, although it picked up a seat in the
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
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
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.
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
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
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
Democrats captured Congress in 2006 by
claiming that a “culture of corruption” had flourished under
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
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
When he accepted the Democratic
in August 2008, Obama pledged to fix the “broken politics of
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
to lose unemployment insurance this week because of failure to reach
compromise on a one-week extension.
Democratic strategists note that
aren’t faring any better than Democrats in generic public opinion
surveys. But they admit the national mood is more of a problem for
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
Smith contrasted this year to 2006, which
he called an anti-Republican year, and 1994, which he called an
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
“It will be a hard sell to folks who
don’t have jobs that the economy is getting better,” he said.