The image that keeps coming to mind for me these days is of a bucking bronco. In 2006, congressional Republicans found themselves on the back of an untamed horse, trying unsuccessfully to hold on for dear life. This time, it's the Democrats' turn. Although the ride will probably be bruising for Senate Democrats, they seem very likely to keep their majority in November. House Democrats are in a much more vulnerable position and could well get kicked in the teeth.
With the party in charge of both chambers of Congress now feeling as if it's astride a wild beast, this is a good time for the rest of us to wean ourselves from the term "control." Even when Senate Democrats had 60 seats, they were hardly in control. Likewise, on tough votes, the House Democratic leadership has had to work each issue sufficiently hard that "control" would seem to be an exaggeration.
Nevertheless, the party is doing its utmost to hang on to its majorities. After Election Day, Senate Democrats will probably find their ranks diminished. They are likely to lose four to six seats, leaving them with 53 to 55 seats.
Bigger challenges for Senate Democrats will come in 2012, when they have to defend 23 seats (compared with the Republicans' nine), and 2014, when they have 20 seats up for grabs (compared with 13 for the GOP). Also in the 2012 and 2014 cycles, the swing Senate seats that Democrats seized in the wave elections of 2006 and 2008 will once again be on the line. In the past two cycles, Senate Democrats caught every break in the world (and did a pretty outstanding job of campaigning) and gained 14 seats. (That total doesn't include picking up the seat of Arlen Specter, who switched to the Democratic Party last year.)
All this reminds me of a great line that is attributed to then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan. Commenting on the enormously vulnerable class of freshman GOP senators who had been elected in 1980 and had to face voters again in 1986, Dole quipped, "If we had known we were going to win control of the Senate, we'd have run better candidates." The downside of every wave election is that the victorious party has to defend a set of fairly weak incumbents six years down the road.
As for the chances that Democrats will lose their majority in the House, congressional election analysts are divided. Those who primarily focus on the micro-political, Tip O'Neill "all politics is local" form of analysis are forecasting that Democrats will lose at least 25 seats but not the 39 that would put the majority into GOP hands. Analysts favoring a macro approach see things a bit differently. The Gallup Organization's statistical model is the best example of this view. Gallup's model extrapolates the national generic congressional ballot test results into a two-party national popular vote and then into seats. In recent weeks, the Gallup generic ballot test among registered voters has fluctuated between finding Democrats ahead by 1 point and finding Republicans up by 6. Among "likely" midterm election voters, the outcome would no doubt be much more to the Republicans' liking and point to GOP gains in excess of 40 seats.
The Cook Political Report's current projection of a 30-to-40-seat loss for Democrats is based on a hybrid approach. We start with the micro, race-by-race analysis, which points to about a 30-seat loss. When we add in macro analysis, the Democrats' net-loss figure jumps to 40. My gut tells me that Democrats will end up losing a few more than 40.
So far this year, the results of the generic ballot test and of voter ID surveys are far different from what they were two and four years ago. Many fewer people now identify as Democrats. The economy is clearly taking its toll on the party in power. The potential offset is that Democrats seem to have a clear mechanical and organizational edge over Republicans in House races: The GOP may leave on the table some House seats it could have won on November 2.
The big question mark at the moment is the size of the gap between the Republicans' potential House gains and what they will ultimately be able to achieve.
This article appears in the June 12, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.
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