Does the Democrats' enactment of health care reform legislation mark the beginning of the party's turnaround, or the coming of an electoral apocalypse for it? Perhaps neither: It's rarely wise to bet that any single event more than seven months before an election will have a huge influence on its outcome. What's more, the next few weeks are a critical transition period in the 2010 cycle. Neither party should be under the illusion that it has time to waste savoring or ruing the events of the past month.
Until now, Democratic retirements and Republican recruitment have been the key factors to watch in trying to gauge the likelihood of a GOP takeover of the House. Now that many filing deadlines have passed and others are quickly approaching, the topography of the playing field is much clearer than it was six months ago. At least a dozen Democratic seats are vulnerable because of incumbents' impending departures. That number is by no means catastrophic for the party, but it does provide the GOP with a foundation on which to build pickup opportunities. And because of the overall political environment, the efforts of the National Republican Congressional Committee, and the behind-the-scenes work of such party tacticians as Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the GOP could end up fielding its best crop of House candidates in decades.
As Republican primary fields tack far to the right, how will independent voters react?
Now, however, we are entering a new phase in the 2010 campaign: The center of attention over the spring and summer will be independent voters and party primaries, especially those on the Republican side.
President Obama and congressional Democrats have been so focused on issues other than job creation that many voters have come to think that they are not doing enough to turn the economy around. Independents, who tended to vote like Democrats in 2006 and 2008, have begun behaving more and more like Republicans, surveys show. But some Democratic pollsters say they were starting to see independents' movement toward the GOP beginning to slow even before the health care overhaul was enacted. A new Democracy Corps memo by Stan Greenberg and James Carville observed that in a national survey of likely voters, "independent voters who did not approve of Democratic governance over the past year seemed to be reassessing their feelings" toward the GOP. The memo stressed that "this pullback is very specific to the Republicans and does not represent any gain for Democrats."
It's not hard to see how Republicans could stall their progress toward winning back independents. Among GOP challengers in competitive primaries, pledges to repeal the new health care law are ubiquitous. After all, in this climate, could a Republican who refuses to take that stand hope to attract a GOP base that feels under siege? But as Republican primary fields tack far to the right, how will independent voters, who have grown impatient with Democrats' handling of the economy, react? The fact that the health care bill lost popularity as time ticked away last fall suggested that voters were not only skeptical about an overhaul but also upset that Democrats were spending so much time on it. And now, all of a sudden, it's the "repeal and replace" Republicans who risk being seen as the ones dwelling obsessively on health care.
To win races this fall, Republican hopefuls don't need to convince independents that Democrats are drunk on power or brazenly thwarting the will of the people. They only need to convince them that shared power and "checks and balances" are good things -- that Democrats have gotten some of what they wanted but that fresh GOP voices could hold the president's party accountable. In 2006, Democrats reversed their fortunes in part by learning to keep their message simple. That's something the GOP could profit from doing this time around.
Even if independents do pull back somewhat from Republicans, Democrats' problems won't disappear. Independents are just part of the equation. The GOP base is incredibly fired up. The Democratic base isn't as demoralized as it would have been if health care reform hadn't been enacted, but a stroke of Obama's bill-signing pen can't eliminate the yawning gap in partisan enthusiasm that is creating so many GOP pickup opportunities. For the time being, the health care bill's enactment is much more likely to slow Republicans' momentum than to reverse it. Will that change of pace be enough to enable House Democrats to hold on to their majority? Spring and summer will yield important clues.
David Wasserman, House editor of The Cook Political Report, contributed to this column.
This article appears in the April 3, 2010, edition of National Journal.