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Triage Time For Democrats

Party leaders will have to abandon some beleaguered incumbents who cannot be saved.

There is no shortage of bad news for Democrats these days. They are now widely regarded as underdogs in their quest to maintain their majority in the House, and the prospect of Republicans winning a Senate majority, though still unlikely, is quite plausible. At this point, 80 Democratic House seats are in some degree of danger. It is virtually impossible for Democrats to lose all of those races, but the chances are rising that the number will be substantially higher than the 39 seats necessary to put the GOP over the top. Republican gains of eight to 10 Senate seats are expected, and there is a 30-to-35 percent chance that control of the upper chamber will change hands this year.

The bad news is not limited to federal races. Democrats now appear likely to lose their majority among governors, and significant losses are expected all the way down to the state legislative level.


Democrats have a 26-24 advantage in governorships; Republicans are poised to gain six to eight, which would give them an advantage of 30-20 or 32-18, although a couple of independent gubernatorial candidates might win in New England. One expert on state legislative races privately put the over/under at 500 seats nationwide. In other words, Republicans are equally likely to gain more than 500 seats as they are to gain fewer. The GOP will probably also win control of many statehouse chambers, which will have an obvious impact on congressional and state legislative redistricting next year. That's a big deal.

The Democratic circular firing squad is beginning to form.

On September 13, Congress will return to town, and Democrats are sure to be in a foul mood. When members began their recess more than a month ago, some hardy optimists insisted that Democrats might retain their House majority and lose just five or six Senate seats.


The reality they'll face is that Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen and the party's congressional leaders will have to resort to triage. They will have to ascertain which beleaguered incumbents cannot be saved and which can win on their own, without party dollars. The leaders will try to save money for those Democrats who, with some help, have a reasonable chance to survive. Triage is horrible and cruel but necessary. The process will hurt feelings and end some long-standing friendships and alliances. The alternative, though, is starving those who can be saved to prop up those who probably are fated to lose.

In the Senate, the party will likewise have to write off some candidates. The nightmare for Senate Democrats is to have an endangered incumbent in California, where the Los Angeles and San Francisco media markets are bottomless pits. The fact that the open seat in Connecticut (in the New York City market) is in play must send chills down their spines.

When all is said and done, the five Democrats most likely to go down to the wire in their races are Sens. Michael Bennet (Colorado), Barbara Boxer (California), Russell Feingold (Wisconsin), Patty Murray (Washington), and Harry Reid (Nevada). Democrats would be wise, however, to also keep an eye on the open seats in Connecticut and West Virginia. The open-seat races in Delaware, Indiana, and North Dakota are uphill, as is Blanche Lincoln's re-election bid in Arkansas. The toss-up contests in Illinois and Pennsylvania aren't boding well for Democrats, either. Meanwhile, none of the toss-up races for Republican-held open seats in Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, and New Hampshire looks good for Democrats, and they may well end up empty-handed.

One can already see the Democratic circular firing squad beginning to form. Some will be aiming at the president and the White House staff; others will be gunning for the congressional leadership. Some will take potshots at people who don't deserve it: the folks at the House and Senate campaign committees, who have done a very impressive job under the worst circumstances that Democratic Party strategists have seen in generations. But as we saw with the very talented Republican committees in 2006, when the wave gets really big, there is no stopping it. It's just a matter of saving as many people as you can.


Although this year may not look exactly like 1994, the outcome could be very similar.

This article appears in the September 11, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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