Democratic incumbents face the most threatening political environment since the Republican landslide of 1994 -- and they know it.
The trends are all moving in the wrong direction. Voters are shifting to the right; white antipathy to the President has intensified; the popular consensus backing Obama and his agenda has collapsed in less than a year; and a growing number of center-conservative House Democrats are jumping ship. It's not that voters are suddenly becoming big fans of the Republican Party -- its poll numbers are falling just as rapidly as the Democrats' -- but political scientists and strategists from across the spectrum agree that simply by virtue of being the opposition, the GOP is positioned to make large gains on November 2. There's even an outside chance they'll wrest back control of the House.
Most recently, the failed Christmas day bombing by an alleged Al Qaeda operative of a flight to Detroit has spurred Republicans to revive the national security fears that served them so well in the 2002 and 2004 elections.
"If the election were held today, we'd lose the House," says Democratic campaign consultant Tom King, a view shared, off the record, by a number of his colleagues.
So what should Democratic candidates do to survive 2010? A strong consensus has emerged among Democratic operatives, based on a strategy developed under the guidance of pollster Geoff Garin. Garin declined to be interviewed for this story, but other party strategists say the most crucial order of business in each contest is to prevent Republican challengers from turning the race into a referendum on the Democratic candidate, the Democratic Party, President Obama, or all three. Rather, they say, Democrats need to turn the public's attention to the failings of the Republican candidate and the national GOP.
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake says that as soon as her clients know who their opponents will be, her advice is "to get them [the Republican candidates] defined." Democratic candidates, Lake and others say, should pre-empt Republicans seeking to present a positive image to the public. Among the techniques to achieve this goal are floating negative stories in the press, taking full advantage of sympathetic bloggers to create a hostile portrait of the GOP opponent, and actively using "less visible" means of communication such as phone banks, direct mail, and canvassers.
In this atmosphere, consultants say the key advice for Democratic incumbents is: "Don't get on the defensive, don't allow [the Republican] to define you." Along similar lines, Joe Trippi, who has managed a host of campaigns, including overseeing Howard Dean's 2004 presidential bid, says that any incumbent facing a challenger emerging from the Sarah Palin, Tea Party wing of the GOP "should make sure that's known right away, before they get up populist steam."
Another Democratic consultant with clients running in House, Senate and gubernatorial races, speaking on background, says "basically it comes down to one thing. You've got to kick the shit out of somebody."
The burden for a Democratic incumbent is to "make it a 'choice' not a 'retention' election. The voters need to be thinking a whole lot about the other guy, not about you," this consultant says. Party operatives agree that an election conducted on disputes over the deficit, health care legislation, the stimulus, the bank bailout, and/or climate change will work to the disadvantage of Democrats.
Unemployment will inevitably be a major factor in the November election but Democratic strategists also stress that independents angry about government spending may be the key swing voters in some districts. As a result, when Congress returns later this month, Democrats in battleground districts will face intense cross-pressures over proposals to expand federal job creation programs. Consultants break it down this way: in districts with unemployment rates exceeding the 10 percent national average, active support of federal spending to create jobs is a plus; conversely, in many competitive districts with lower unemployment, particularly those south of the Mason Dixon line where conservative-leaning independents are deeply concerned about the growing deficit, it's a minus.
"This is not an easy question, and you have to look at it district by district," one consultant noted. Reappropriating some of the money roughly $200 billion still available for bank bailouts in TARP funds -- and putting it toward public works, teachers' pay, and pumping up police forces -- could buy those skittish Dems some cover. By comparison, voting for extending unemployment coverage and COBRA health care subsidies -- widely recognized as essential for those now out of work -- is a no-brainer.
Concerns about red ink also make claiming credit for bringing federal money home -- traditionally, one of the great benefits of incumbency -- a little trickier than usual. "Be project-specific," advises King. "Cite the number of jobs created, the problems fixed. If the money went to repair a bridge, point out how past traffic jams have been eliminated, that commuters get to the job half an hour faster. Be concrete."
John Lapp, who was the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2006, argues that in making a case for re-election, an incumbent should put the real names and faces of individual district residents in ads to make indisputable claims that government programs are working in behalf of constituents. Testimonials from actual voters who are benefitting from a congressman's intervention -- in obtaining a visa for an international adoption or resolving a dispute with Medicare or Social Security -- can take the wind out the sails of ideological attacks from Republican adversaries.
King says that many voters have forgotten that Democrats got them a tax cut in 2009, and need to be reminded of that. And because there is a widespread belief that the vote on the bank bailout, TARP, was the "single worst vote that anybody made," any incumbent who voted against TARP should make sure voters know about it. As for those who voted for TARP, there is a rough consensus that the best strategy is to call attention to votes or policy stances that show antipathy toward Wall Street and a willingness to break with the Obama administration on occasion.
Republicans, for their part, believe most of these efforts will prove futile and that Democrats running in 2010 will be unable to disengage from the national party in what both side agree is a powerfully anti-Democratic environment. "Good luck," says GOP pollster Whit Ayres. "The election already is nationalized."
Political scientists are generally predicting that the Democratic majority will survive in both houses, although with the margin of control dropping substantially. In the Senate, that means the Democratic caucus would no longer be able to defeat Republican filibusters, even when it sticks together.
Democrats currently control the House by a 257-178 margin. "I'd say a loss of 20-30 seats, but not yet in the high 30s to make change of control a probable outcome," says University of Wisconsin political scientist Charles Franklin, who bases his prediction on historical precedents. "Presidential support needs to be in the low 40s to predict a very large loss of seats, based on post WWII data. Also, the GDP [Gross Domestic Product] per capita should be in decline or very small gains. At the latest revision of 2.2% in the third quarter, we are low but not as low as in worst midterms for parties."
The economy remains the crucial unknown: "If GDP grows at a three percent or so rate through the election, I think approval will turn up into the 50s, and that probably leads to Republican gains of 15 to 20 seats, which historically wouldn't be bad for the Democrats," Franklin says. If GDP begins to decline, "then approval will fall more and Democrats could be looking at 30-plus lost seats -- still a stretch for Republicans to gain control, but not out of reach."
The polls, however, are sending powerful signals to Democrats. "What's really exceptional at this stage of Obama's presidency is the extent to which the public has moved in a conservative direction on a range of issues," says Andy Kohut, president of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
The ideological shift to the right is readily visible in poll results on a whole gamut of issues from declining support for the government safety net, climate control, health care reform, abortion rights, and gun control, combined with what Kohut describes as "a lack of passion among Democrats -- and liberals in particular."
In an analysis of George Washington University's December 2009 Battleground Poll,
Lake wrote: "The gap in enthusiasm between the two parties at this early stage is the most striking dynamic framing the 2010 cycle. Just under two-thirds (64%) of Democrats say they are 'extremely likely' to vote in the upcoming elections, compared to 77% of Republicans and independents....The political environment for Democrats running in 2010 is becoming increasingly more treacherous. For the first time in several years, the generic Republican leads the generic Democrat in the Congressional horse race."
There are, however, a number of factors that suggest 2010 will be quite different from the Democratic rout of 1994 -- the so-called Gingrich Revolution. "First, 1994 was the culmination of the South moving into the Republican column; there's no equivalent regional shift trending against Democrats in this cycle. Second, the GOP brand is still in terrible shape relative to 1993-1994," says Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at the University of Michigan.
One key Democratic strategist playing a central role in the preparations for 2010 -- who asked to remain anonymous -- makes the case that that the political environment has deteriorated with such extraordinary rapidity over the past eight to nine months that it is impossible to predict with any certainty what will happen in November. Last May, this strategist says, he and others thought Democrats could actually pick up as many as two seats in the Senate and keep House losses to the low teens. Now, he notes, Democrats appear almost certain to lose three or four Senate seats, with the possibility of losing as many as six. In his view, if House losses are kept to 20 or so seats, that would be a major victory.
One of the major distinctions between the political situation now and the parallel situation in the year before the 1994 Republican overthrow is that this time Democrats will not go into the election unprepared for potential disaster. "There are several differences with 1993," says the University of Virginia's Larry Sabato. "First, Democrats then didn't believe it was possible for them to lose the House; now they know better and are more cautious." In addition, he says, there have been fewer retirements this year; the Democratic base after Obama's 53 percent win is stronger than it was when Clinton only won a 43 percent plurality in 1992; and the public image of the GOP was much better in the early 1990s than it is now.
Republicans, needless to say, have their own spin: Ayres, the GOP pollster, claims that this round Republicans have it easy: "Democrats are doing such a wonderful job of flying a suicide mission, we are not going to have do to a hell of a lot. . . . They are spending like they have no concept of where money comes from, how you produce it, or if there is any limit on it. People are scared."
Some Democratic strategists are indeed fearful. "I hate to say it, but he's right," said one, after hearing Ayres' comments. "That is just what we have to be worried about."
But Trippi contends that in this bleak-for-Democrats setting, 2010 losses may not be as devastating as some expect because Republican incumbents could also lose in droves. "This could turn out to be the most scorching anti-incumbent year we have ever seen," Trippi says -- in which case the Democratic gains in Republican seats could make up for some, but not all, of the Democratic losses.