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House Overview: Money Can’t Fix What’s Broken for Democrats

After two consecutive change elections in which Democrats won more than 50 seats and took control of the House, we’re headed for another one. But this time, the change voters seek will be away from Democrats, not toward them. A majority of voters believe the country is headed off on the wrong track and are prepared to take their anger out on the party in power.

Everyone sees this coming, and Democrats say they’re prepared to withstand the worst of it. They are resigned to the fact that they will suffer significant losses in the House in this fall’s midterm elections, but they can’t envision specific Members not coming back for the 112th Congress.

It is perhaps a sign of their overarching strategy to keep the races individualized, but even as Democratic strategists, pollsters and consultants agree that their party is likely to lose at least two dozen seats, they have trouble identifying the losers. It’s difficult for Democrats to visualize a well-aware, hardworking, fundraising Member of Congress not being rewarded with another term.

“Everybody thinks the flood is coming, but they think they’re smart enough that it won’t get them,” one Democratic consultant cautioned.

Democrats are going to use their considerable financial advantage to frame this election as a choice between two candidates in each race, not a clash of party philosophies. From there, the goal is to attack GOP candidates across the country and make them unacceptable alternatives.

“I have my toughest time against a generic Republican who isn’t well-known,” Texas Rep. Chet Edwards said. “I have my toughest time against a generic Republican. … By the end of this race, Bill Flores will not be a generic Republican.”

Democrats want to fight a series of local races. They want voters to think about Bobby Bright as the nonpartisan mayor of Montgomery, not the Congressman from Alabama’s 2nd district. They want voters to examine Idaho Rep. Walt Minnick’s record of voting against the stimulus, against cap-and-trade and against health care reform, even though he’s from the same Democratic Party that passed all three bills.

Democrats Have the Money

Not only are most Democratic incumbents well-stocked with campaign cash, but the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee held a cash advantage of $26 million to $10 million over the National Republican Congressional Committee through March.

That number will change after spending in the Hawaii and Pennsylvania special elections is taken into account, but the fundamental Democratic advantage will remain. In 2008, the DCCC outspent the NRCC $75 million to $21 million in independent expenditures and picked up another 20 seats.

But Democrats can’t let their cash advantage and optimism about one-on-one matchups cloud the view of reality. “There is a fundamental arrogance permeating the consulting community and the party,” according to one Democratic consultant who has been on both sides of a wave election.

Democrats are doing very well in all of the factors they can control, but they may still be overwhelmed by the political climate. In short, they may have a problem that money can’t fix.

It’s unclear how the Democratic spending advantage plays out when the trends are working against them. Over the past four years, voters tuned out Republican attacks while giving Democrats the benefit of the doubt. But Democrats run the risk of having their attacks fall flat this year because voters see them as flawed messengers. Unemployment still hovers near 10 percent, and while President Barack Obama remains popular, party strategists aren’t sure how much of his personal appeal will translate to other Democratic candidates when his name isn’t on the ballot.

Even more troubling for Democrats is the emerging problem of independents. From the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections late last year to the Senate special election in Massachusetts in January, independents are acting and voting like Republicans after ignoring the GOP over the past two election cycles.

1994 Replay? More Like 2006

Arguments abound over whether 2010 is going to be another 1994, when an electoral tsunami swept Republicans into the majority. There are plenty of differences between the two cycles, but the truth is, Republicans don’t need this year to be that big. Republicans gained 52 House seats in 1994, but they will need to net only 39 seats this fall, assuming the polls are right and they take over Hawaii’s 1st district in the special election later this week.

The best comparison is to the election four years ago. This year is looking like 2006 in reverse. Democratic incumbents are losing to — or being held to considerably less than 50 percent against — virtually unknown GOP challengers in ballot tests. And like 2006, the battle for the House is being played out almost entirely on one side of the field. According to the Rothenberg Political Report, 68 Democratic House seats are in play compared with only 11 seats held by Republicans.

In the final ratings before the 2006 elections, 57 Republican-held seats were in play compared with only five Democratic seats. No Democratic incumbent lost that cycle, and the Democratic Party picked up 30 seats.

This year, Democrats recruited good challengers in states such as Washington, Ohio and Pennsylvania, but the climate that has developed this cycle is against them.

Despite the rhetoric about this becoming an anti-incumbent election that threatens both parties, Democratic incumbents are going to bear significantly more losses. Louisiana Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao is likely to lose re-election, but only a handful of his GOP colleagues are at risk of joining him in forced retirement.

In comparison, dozens of Democratic incumbents are vulnerable. Even though they won’t be caught off-guard, that doesn’t guarantee re-election.

Voting Records and Open Seats

Candidates who were fresh-faced Democratic challengers two and four years ago are now incumbents with voting records. Republicans are examining those records for votes in favor of the stimulus bill, cap-and-trade and health care, as well as their percentage of support for Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) pet issues. Even if Democratic Members vote against one, some or all of the bills, Republicans will try to paint them with the broader brush.

The even bigger challenge for Democrats might be open seats.

In rare instances such as Rep. David Obey’s retirement in Wisconsin’s 7th and Rep. Alan Mollohan’s primary loss in West Virginia’s 1st, an open seat may increase Democratic chances of holding the seat. But in many other cases, the lack of an incumbent makes the road more difficult.

The number of retirements for each party isn’t as important as the competitiveness of the seat being vacated. Republicans have three open seats in play in Delaware, Illinois and Florida, while Democrats have at least 17.

Republicans want this election to be a national referendum on the direction of the country and the party that controls it. They don’t have to do anything to create that dynamic, but they have to position their candidates to take advantage of it.

It’s up to Democrats to localize their races and hope visible improvements in the economy and unemployment rates give them more credibility with voters.

One of the key emerging discrepancies is not how people will vote in November but who is going to show up at all. There appears to be very different views on how many 2008 Obama surge voters, including young people and African-Americans, are going to come out in 2010. Democratic success will be tied to their ability to get out the vote once again. Republicans expect the midterm electorate to be older and whiter.

If they want to get back to the majority, Republicans can’t settle for picking off a seat or two here and there. They need to win multiple seats in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, where they’ve been decimated over the past four years.

At this point, Republicans appear poised to gain two or three dozen seats but fall short of the majority. But with a volatile electorate and economic uncertainty, any predictions within a few seats of what they need should make the House in play.

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