With less than two weeks until Election Day, Democrats are hoping that the cavalry will ride in to save the day. There is no sign of the cavalry, though, and it still looks as if Democrats are in for a defeat of 1994 proportions. With liberalized early- and absentee-voting laws, people are already casting ballots in half the states, and any late-breaking developments will have less of an impact than they might have had in previous elections.
Democrats are arguing that the enthusiasm gap between the parties won’t matter greatly, because if people vote, they vote. Although this may be partly true, an energized party will turn out voters in higher proportion than a demoralized party will. Furthermore, independents now make up almost 40 percent of the electorate and, unlike 2006 and 2008, they are siding decisively with the GOP this year.
Republicans seem certain to make big gains in the Senate. They will most likely win eight or nine seats, but a low of seven or a high of 10 is also possible. Whatever way you cut it, the Senate will be pretty evenly divided next year; neither party will have anything resembling control of the chamber. If the GOP picks up eight or nine seats, expect all eyes to be on independent Democrat Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and moderately conservative Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska. A switch by either could tip the Senate into Republican hands.
For Republicans to score a net gain of 10, they would need to hold all 18 seats they now control; that is not a foregone conclusion because the open seat in Kentucky remains competitive. The GOP will pick up the open Democratic seats in North Dakota and Indiana, and the seat in Arkansas where Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln continues to trail GOP Rep. John Boozman by double digits. The GOP is also poised to defeat Sen. Russell Feingold in Wisconsin.
With these four wins, Republicans would then need to pick off six of the seven remaining competitive Democratic-held seats: Sens. Barbara Boxer in California, Michael Bennet in Colorado, Harry Reid in Nevada, and Patty Murray in Washington; and the open seats in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. That’s a very tall order and would require a wave of huge proportions. The contests in Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia are all statistically tied; Boxer and Murray are slightly ahead of their GOP challengers.
If Republicans lose Kentucky, they would need to pick up all seven competitive Democratic seats. That isn’t impossible, just extremely unlikely.
At this point, a Republican takeover of the House seems set in stone. A Democratic hold would amount to one of the greatest comebacks in political history. It looks as if we’ll see gains in the low to mid-50s, with numbers in the 40s or 60s possible but less likely. Democrats have stabilized their fall in more-upscale and inner-suburban districts, which should help them avoid titanic losses in the 60s or 70s that seemed possible just a month or two ago. But the turnaround needed to maintain their majority or even the losses in the low 40s hasn’t happened.
At this point, a Republican takeover of the House seems set in stone.
For most of the year, House Democratic strategists have plotted a very narrow path to retaining their majority. It was essentially a three-pronged approach: Pick up four or five Republican-held districts, hold half of their own 16 competitive open districts, and keep GOP defeats of Democratic incumbents under 35—for a total GOP net gain under the 39 needed to turn the House. Today, two of the Democrats’ three prongs look considerably bent.
Democrats may indeed pick off four GOP seats: Their candidates are clearly favored to win those of GOP Reps. Michael Castle in Delaware and Joseph Cao in Louisiana, narrowly favored in the race for the seat of Mark Kirk in Illinois, and perhaps very narrowly favored in the contest for the seat of Charles Djou in Hawaii. But the party’s predicament in its own open seats has deteriorated to the point that Democrats are favorites in only one race (Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District); even money, at best, in five others; and at a clear disadvantage in nine.
Democrats’ biggest problem, however, is their incumbents. At this point, more than 50 House Democrats have trailed their GOP challengers in at least one semi-reputable public or private survey. The list includes some very unexpected districts where the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee must now begrudgingly spend precious resources, including those of Reps. Raul Grijalva in Arizona, Jim Costa in California, Dave Loebsack in Iowa, and Charlie Wilson in Ohio. And for every one of these, the DCCC has cut off spending for another two or three lost causes.
Obviously, voting depends on human behavior, and whenever humans make decisions, surprises can occur. Some Democrats who now seem hopeless will survive, and some of those expected to win will lose. But the general contours and dimensions of
this election are not likely to change much. It still looks like a very, very big wave for
This article appears in the October 20, 2010, edition of National Journal Magazine.