2010 may be the new 1994

It won’t be 1994 all over again, but 2010 could be just as bad. Sure, the economy could improve by then, though any significant employment boost is highly unlikely. The Obama administration will spread some stimulus money around next year in key battleground states. Republicans have no positive message and no Contract With America to run on. Finally, Democrats, as of yet, aren’t facing retirements in their ranks.

But that is where the good news ends for Democrats. The party in power, this time managing a struggling economy, two wars and the likely emergence of a nuclear Iran, historically faces losses in any midterm election. And the current forecast promises quite a storm. The House vote on cap-and-trade has already proven toxic for vulnerable Democrats, and a party that has seen a steep drop in donations from business knows that passing any serious financial regulation will further choke off a key source of cash. Meanwhile, an energized GOP is raising both money and doubts that the Democrats’ policies will ever pay down deficits and debt or create jobs. Under the gun to pass healthcare reform, the party can count on being punished for failing to do so, but not reaping much benefit for pushing reform over the finish line. With an overhaul not set to take effect until 2013, it will remain an unknown quantity, and therefore a GOP target, frightening the very voters Democrats need to keep on board: seniors, independents and women.

Seniors currently represent the biggest threat to the Democratic majority. Traditionally they are the most loyal voters — two-thirds of voters 65 and older came to the polls in 2006.

This year, after voting largely for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008, seniors became the fiercest opponents of healthcare reform. Young voters and African-American voters, who turned out in droves in 2008, will be no match for the senior vote next fall.

If independents, who now give the GOP the advantage in the generic ballot, stay home or vote Republican, then Democrats must count on a disappointed base to turn out instead.

From anti-war liberals to Latinos who see immigration reform going nowhere in Congress and unions who have seen card-check legislation pushed aside, the left is becoming dispirited. And healthcare reform without a public option will add fuel to their fire.

By many indications, Democrats have likely reached their high-water mark with their current majorities in Congress. Losing seats in the House and in the Senate, losing the ability to block filibusters, will make passing their bills increasingly difficult. In addition, the stretch from 2010 to 2012 promises to be a time of partisan contraction, or political moderation, as President Barack Obama moves toward a reelection campaign in 2012. Even if Obama wins, Republicans will likely be well-positioned for more gains that year, and in 2014 you can expect the retirement of many old bulls — possibly including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — who will have reached a certain age and will be expecting the return of the GOP to power in that midterm election. Indeed, 2014 could be a slaughter.

What does this mean for Democrats? That it is later than they think, because the opportunity to pass huge bills could disappear with subsequent elections. Healthcare reform, cap-and-trade, financial-services regulation — all the politically contentious, risky legislation on the agenda — the time to move them could be now or never.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.