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Spooked Dems await their fate

The Hill

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Republican momentum is spooking a growing number of Democratic incumbents wary of becoming surprise casualties on Election Day.

Although House Democrats have long expected to lose seats next Tuesday, President Obama’s low approval ratings — combined with widespread jitters over the economy, foreign conflicts and the threat of Ebola  have darkened their outlook in a number of battleground districts down the final stretch.

{mosads}The late-cycle shift has led election experts to predict larger GOP gains than they’d forecast earlier in the month; left a number of sitting Democrats fighting for their political lives in the face of forces outside their control; and forced Democratic leaders to shuffle campaign funds away from some challengers in order to protect increasingly vulnerable incumbents.

Indeed, in recent days the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has spent money for the first time this cycle on a handful of incumbents who find themselves in far tougher spots than they were just a few weeks ago.

“The momentum is clearly with Republicans, and House Democrats are bracing for the possibility that Election Night could be uglier than they originally thought,” David Wasserman, an analyst for the Cook Political Report, an online election forecaster, wrote on Wednesday. “The DCCC has been forced to shift more and more resources to playing defense in Democratic-leaning districts, and several seats that looked in good shape a few months ago are now looking more precarious.”

The chief beneficiary of that shift has been Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), a freshman who received $360,000 from the party this week for new television ads, according to a DCCC aide. On Thursday, his campaign began airing a radio ad featuring President Obama in an effort to turn out African-American and base voters. 

Rep. Lois Capps is another Democrat in a tightening race. The DCCC recently spent $99,000 to boost the nine-term Californian with fresh radio spots.

Both lawmakers have been targeted by Republicans all cycle long — a dynamic the Democrats are emphasizing this week.

“We always knew this was going to be a tough race,” Capps spokesman Christopher Meagher said in an email. He cited the low voter turnout that typically accompanies midterm elections as a leading reason the race is so tight. 

Still, the first-time money infusion from the DCCC coming so close to the election has highlighted the difficult conditions the Democrats face heading into Tuesday’s midterms.

“It’s true that the climate has deteriorated,” admitted one Democratic strategist. “These were districts that were always going to be competitive, but the climate got worse.”

Democratic campaign operatives are quick to acknowledge the fierce headwinds, but insist the new moves come as no surprise in the midterm cycle of a lame-duck president. 

“There’s no question it’s a tough environment for Democrats but we always knew that would be the case,” DCCC spokesman Josh Schwerin said Thursday in an email. He emphasized that even the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents have a fair shot at winning reelection — a sharp contrast from the last midterm cycle, in 2010, when many members were written off long before the polls opened. 

Both Capps and Horsford are still more likely than not to hold on, but some of their colleagues may not be as lucky. Even though many have been in competitive contests the whole time, Democratic strategists privately admit that Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick (Ariz.), Ami Bera (Calif.), Rick Nolan (Minn.), Bill Enyart (Ill.), Nick Rahall (W.Va.) and Joe Garcia (Fla.) could all very well lose. The prospects of Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) have gotten worse too, and once hopeful pickup opportunities in New Jersey, Virginia and Pennsylvania are off the table. 

More bad news arrived for the Democrats Wednesday, when Cook analysts downgraded the odds for three New York Democrats — Reps. Tim Bishop, Sean Patrick Maloney and Dan Maffei — from the “lean Democratic” to the “toss up” category. 

GOP operatives, perhaps still stung by an unexpected eight-seat pickup by Democrats in 2012, have downplayed expectations for Tuesday, arguing that they’d be “ecstatic” with an eight- or nine-seat gain, in the words of one strategist.

Still, some haven’t resisted the opportunity to bash Democrats for what they say is a tough political environment of their own making.

“Someone should have told these Democrats that being lazy, entitled and out-of-touch is never a good election year strategy,” Daniel Scarpinato, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), said Thursday in an email.

Whatever the cause, outside campaign experts have seen a distinct shift in favor of the Republicans down the homestretch. 

The Cook Political Report had last week predicted GOP gains between four and 10 seats. On Wednesday, the group updated its forecast to say double-digit gains are “now possible.”

The Rothenberg Political Report, another nonpartisan election handicapper, also predicted a more favorable climate for Republicans this week. Of the 24 most competitive races updated by the group Wednesday, 17 shifted in favor of the Republicans, and only seven in favor of the Democrats. 

“The president’s approval rating plays a very big role,” said the Democratic strategist. “So you’re seeing districts around the country where nothing’s changed except the president’s standing in the last couple weeks, and they’ve dropped because of it.”

Tags Ami Bera Ann Kirkpatrick Joe Garcia Nick Rahall Tim Bishop
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