A little over nine months ago I was sitting down with a prominent Democratic pollster, talking about all that had transpired over 2009 and looking ahead to the midterm election. The experienced campaign strategist was very pessimistic.
There was little he had seen that he had liked over the past year, and his hunch was that this was going to be a very ugly midterm election for his party. I asked him, "Given all of this, what are you advising your clients?"
His response was something like "I am telling them to go out and find the best opposition researcher they can afford." He went on to suggest that destroying their Republican opponents might be their only ticket back to Washington.
Looking back, that was pretty sound advice, and it's exactly what a lot of Democratic candidates have started doing.
Running against former President George W. Bush worked for the first few months of 2009 in special elections but doesn't work so well now. While voters are happy to blame him for the beginning of the recession, he no longer seems to be terribly relevant; attacking him doesn't seem to get much traction these days. Candidates have found that running on the effectiveness and success of their economic stewardship doesn't work, nor on efforts to address climate change or on the new health care law.
Since voters aren't happy at all with Washington or anything that has happened in Washington in years, Democrats don't have much to brag about. Therefore, they have to run against their challengers, just in the same way that Republicans were advised to run by their equally astute advisers in 2006.
So Democrats are now trying to portray the field of Republican challengers and open seat candidates as the most sordid group since "Gov. William J. Lepetomaine" and "Attorney General Hedley Lamarr" put together their group of ax murderers, cattle thieves, and other miscreants to go after Sheriff Bart and the idyllic town of Rock Ridge in Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles.
For those with young children, it may be a good time to make sure the Disney Channel is paid up on your cable and the DVD player is in good working order. You really don't want your kids watching commercial television these days, given the negative ads that are already running by candidates on both sides.
There is no question that Democrats have their backs to the wall. It's unprecedented to see so many incumbents running behind their challengers.
While the Cook Political Report has a general policy of not putting unindicted incumbents in categories worse than our "Toss Up" column, which is akin to the critical ward of a hospital, we are now looking at moving a dozen or so Democratic House incumbents into the Lean Republican column (Sen. Blanche Lincoln is already there).
Furthermore, only one GOP incumbent today seems to be a candidate for moving into Lean Democratic. With less than a month to go to the election, something could obviously happen that would change the trajectory of this election -- but it would have to be something pretty dramatic, and I don't see that happening.
For most of this cycle, the buzz had Republican-leaning outside groups spending their millions on Senate races and forgoing most House contests. But so far, outside spending geared toward helping GOP House candidates is far outpacing the $5.6 million the Karl Rove-advised American Crossroads has laid down in Senate races.
Frighteningly for Democrats, this past week's Federal Election Commission reports show that five GOP-affiliated outside groups have laid down a combined $17.9 million in 50 Democratic-held House seats, more than making up for the vaunted cash edge the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has enjoyed over the National Republican Congressional Committee all cycle.
For all the yearlong talk of Republicans' financial inferiority, the NRCC spent $5.9 million in September on 31 districts, outpacing their Democratic counterparts. In all of September, the DCCC spent just $4 million in 25 districts, not even close to a tenth of what the committee will eventually shell out to defend its vulnerable members.
At the outset of October, the two biggest fears among rank-and-file House Democrats are that Republican outside groups are finally for real and set to deluge the airwaves, and that the DCCC squandered its September opportunity to preemptively discredit GOP challengers.
While Democrats start airing blistering attack ads with just several days left before early voting starts in most states, some will be wondering whether it's already too late. For Democrats who haven't taken advantage of September to build leads by defining their GOP opponents, cutting through the clutter of outside-group spending in October might prove next to impossible.
In the Senate, there are 16 seats that could change hands: four held by Republicans and 12 by Democrats.
At this point, it is a decent bet that Republicans will hold all four of their own and win well over half of the Democratic seats. To capture a majority, with a 10-seat net gain needed (and not taking into account any party switching), Republicans would need to win 14 out of 16 races, a pretty tall order.
That's why the odds still favor Democrats holding onto the Senate by a seat or two, although it is unlikely that it will be by more than that. But if we wake up on November 3, or some other day in the event of recounts, and the GOP has picked up a majority, don't be stunned.
There is no reason to believe that this election won't be as massive as the 1994 tsunami. The dynamics are somewhat different but the magnitude certainly looks comparable. Things could change, but it would take a very big change.
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