These are tortuous days for Democrats. Unlike 1994, when ignorance was bliss and no one on either side appreciated the magnitude of the pending storm, Democrats can see what's coming. They know that what happened 16 years ago could happen again. Yet every few days, some poll or development gives them a bit of hope -- until other polls or more-persuasive evidence comes along to dash their optimism.
For every step forward in states such as California and Washington, where chances for Senate Democrats Barbara Boxer and Patty Murray are looking better, there is a step or two backward, such as in Connecticut and West Virginia, where open Senate seats that were once thought to be safe for Democrats now look more like 50-50 propositions.
Republicans have plausible shots to win a dozen Senate seats held by Democrats; they need 10 for a majority. A gain of seven looks like a sure thing; eight or nine is most likely; but 10 seats is definitely possible with their improved prospects in Connecticut and West Virginia, even with the GOP implosion in Delaware. Although GOP challengers Carly Fiorina in California and Dino Rossi in Washington are hardly out of the running, their odds look worse than they did just a few weeks ago. Maybe this tidal wave gets as far as the Rockies but not necessarily all the way to the Pacific Coast.
The odds are good and improving that Republicans won't lose a single one of their Senate seats. We've been watching the open-seat races in Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, and New Hampshire most closely, and each one is tilting toward the GOP. Every week, Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., looks more and more like a long shot. His prospects are still better than his Arkansas colleague Blanche Lincoln's but much worse than those of the other Democratic senators up for re-election.
Just because the dynamics and circumstances behind this election are not the same as 1994 does not mean that the outcome won't be the same.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's chances appear to be 50-50 in Nevada, but compared with where he was four or five months ago, that's real progress. His GOP rival, Sharron Angle, is no longer digging herself into a hole, but the tea party candidate and the "none of the above" option on the ballot will siphon off at least a piece of the anti-Reid vote. In Colorado, appointed Sen. Michael Bennet is running a few points behind GOP challenger Ken Buck, but Buck's unimpressive campaign is helping the Democrat. If Buck ends up winning, he will owe it more to the wave than to astute strategy and execution. In Pennsylvania, the race isn't over but the GOP candidate, former Rep. Pat Toomey, is putting some daylight between himself and Rep. Joe Sestak, the Democratic nominee.
In the House, it still looks like a very solid bet that Republicans will get the 39-seat net gain they need to capture the majority. I've decided not to play the guess-how-much-the-watermelon-weighs game; this one looks well over 39 to me, but I'll let other people toss around big numbers. Thirty-nine is what's important; betting on more than that is just picking a number out of the sky. The toss-up column in The Cook Political Report lists a lot of Democratic incumbents who are well behind in the polls. The newsletter rarely puts unindicted incumbents in any worse category, so the toss-up column is the political equivalent of the intensive-care unit in a hospital. Most Democratic incumbents in that category probably won't survive.
Just as sobering for Democrats are the state races. It is a good wager that Republicans will pick up at least six governorships, and the over/under on state legislative seats nationwide is a net GOP gain of about 500 seats. Veteran political journalist Lou Jacobson estimates that Republicans will net between four and 12 state Senate chambers and gain at least six and possibly as many as 15 state House chambers. Whether the GOP gains are on the low or high end of those ranges is incredibly important because states will redraw their congressional and state legislative districts next year. Democrats are feeling the impact of the undertow as far down the ballot as you can get.
Just because the dynamics and circumstances behind this election are not the same as 1994 does not mean that the outcome won't be the same. More than a few longtime observers who saw 1994 up close and personal are watching now. They will tell you that this one is every bit as bad for the Democrats, and quite possibly worse.
This article appears in the October 9, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.