Political winds shift to Democrats

The political winds have shifted to the Democrats’ backs over the last month.

President Obama is in better shape at the prospect of a prolonged GOP primary battle between former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Mitt Romney. Democrats in the House have been buoyed by a series of court decisions on redistricting and Senate Democrats have recently landed potentially strong recruits in conservative-leaning states.

Democrats on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue have seized on the payroll tax extension, which has divided the GOP.


Voter angst at Washington is extremely high, though it is unclear which party will feel the most of the public’s wrath next November.

The political atmosphere is clearly volatile. A couple months ago, Republicans were optimistic that they had a good chance of running the White House and both chambers of Congress in January, 2013. But since then, that optimism has waned.

“Democrats definitely have had a better time recently than they had had earlier in the year,” said Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College. “Whether this is the beginning of springtime or it’s just Indian summer remains to be seen.”

Republicans on Capitol Hill prefer Romney over Gingrich, with many of them saying a Gingrich nomination would jeopardize the chances the GOP will keep the House and win the Senate.

Battle for the White House

Weeks ago, it seemed likely that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) would stroll to the nomination and be able to save his resources for the general election against President Obama. Now he is in a dogfight with Gingrich, trailing the Georgia Republican in most of the early-voting states by double digits.

“[Gingrich] says outrageous things that come from nowhere and he has the tendency to say them at the exact time to undermine the conservative agenda,” former Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.), who is backing Romney, said in a conference call Thursday. “If the nominee is Newt Gingrich, the election is going to be about the Republican nominee, which is exactly what President Obama and the Democrats want.”

Gingrich’s campaign says the criticism shows that Romney is panicking, and getting desperate.

Romney’s supporters are not the only ones worried about Gingrich. “The people who’ve worked with him the most are the ones who are least likely to support him, and that says something,” said one Republican congressman who has not endorsed a candidate.

Even if Romney wins the nomination, he is unlikely to get the quick primary knockout that would allow him to turn his attention (and money) back to Obama.

The longer the primary drags out, the more opportunities there are for the eventual nominee to be forced to the right to win the nomination or to make an error that could come back to haunt him in the general election.

But some note that the marathon 2008 primary between Obama and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClintons, Stacey Abrams meeting Texas Democrats Biden says Russia spreading misinformation ahead of 2022 elections Highest-ranking GOP assemblyman in WI against another audit of 2020 vote MORE did not hurt Obama against Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMeghan McCain to produce 'Don't Sweat the Small Stuff' Lifetime movie starring Heather Locklear An August ultimatum: No recess until redistricting reform is done Meghan McCain on Pelosi, McCarthy fight: 'I think they're all bad' MORE (R-Ariz.).

Obama’s approval ratings are not good, but they have been slowly on the rise. In sharp contrast to this summer, Obama and Democrats on Capitol Hill are, by and large, on the same page.

The nation’s unemployment rate just dropped to 8.6 percent, the lowest since early 2009. The economy is still a huge problem for Obama though his chances improve if he can make a persuasive argument that the economy is on the mend.

Battle for the House

The fight over the payroll tax increase has unified Democrats and split Republicans, some of whom remain opposed to any extension.

House Republican leaders did not introduce a bill on the matter until late Friday after their members had left town. 

A Republican lawmaker told The Hill that Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerGOP up in arms over Cheney, Kinzinger Freedom Caucus presses McCarthy to force vote to oust Pelosi Stripping opportunity from DC's children MORE (R-Ohio) is worried that the tax holiday issue, if left unresolved, could jeopardize the GOP’s majority.

Conservative activist Grover Norquist has said the only way Republicans lose the House is if they raise taxes.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is making automated phone calls in the districts of vulnerable Republicans blasting them for inaction on the payroll tax holiday.

“House Republicans went home this weekend to put their feet up on the coffee table, but what they’re really doing is kicking the middle class in the stomach with a $1,000 tax increase on 160 million Americans,” said DCCC Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.).


The good news for Democrats is that they have the high ground on the tax issue. The bad news for Democrats, at least from a political standpoint, is that if there is a bipartisan deal, few voters will remember this clash come next November.

House Democrats have also benefited from new court-drawn maps in Texas and Colorado that will likely put more seats in play for them. 

Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.), the National Republican Congressional Committee’s redistricting chairman, admitted he was “a little bit surprised at the districts the court did draw” in Texas, and predicted that redistricting will be a wash for Republicans, when months ago it appeared they would benefit greatly.

It is still unlikely that Democrats can net the 25 seats necessary to win back the House, but they are in better shape than they were earlier this fall.

Battle for the Senate

The payroll tax cut extension is helping Senate Democrats as well, though the 2012 map presents major challenges to their chances of retaining the majority.

Democrats hold a 53-47 majority, but are defending 23 seats next year while Republicans are only defending 10.

In a recent interview with The Hill, Sen. Charles SchumerChuck SchumerSenate infrastructure talks spill over into rare Sunday session Senate holds sleepy Saturday session as negotiators finalize infrastructure deal An August ultimatum: No recess until redistricting reform is done MORE (D-N.Y.) cited the tax holiday and said Democrats will likely hold their majority and may even pick up seats.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden sets new vaccine mandate as COVID-19 cases surge Democrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire MORE’s (R-Ky.) compromise proposal on the payroll tax issue went down in flames, with more than half of his Republican colleagues voting against him.

Democrats have had some recent recruiting successes in the Senate, convincing former North Dakota Attorney General Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampJoe Manchin's secret Supreme Court battle could wreak havoc with Biden's 2020 agenda Effective and profitable climate solutions are within the nation's farms and forests MORE to run and former Surgeon General Richard Carmona to enter the race in Arizona.

Republicans aren’t as enthusiastic about their candidates to challenge vulnerable Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). The National Republican Senatorial Committee is trying to woo Nebraska Gov. Dave Heinemann (R) into the race, indicating they feel the three Republicans already running aren’t up to snuff. While Nelson has yet to announce whether he’ll run or not, his opponents’ apparent weaknesses may convince him it’s worth staying in the race.

Bob Cusack contributed to this article.