For better or worse, politics, like life, is rarely simple or one-dimensional. Generally, there are competing dynamics, ones that most would agree are relatively important, and others whose importance is highly debatable. Certainly, this 2010 midterm election is no exception. While there are many reasons why Democrats might have a bad year, there are several potential offsetting factors that could limit just how awful it will be for the party.
History is pretty clear. In midterm races, a newly elected, first-term president's party has suffered an average loss of 16 seats in the House, 5.5 governorships, and, interestingly, just a wash -- actually a loss of four-tenths of a seat -- in the Senate.
The big problem for Democrats is their unusually high level of exposure. They picked up 54 net House seats from the GOP in 2006 and 2008, and six governorships in 2006, when this current crop of governorships was last up for election. Given this, it is rather likely that Democrats would suffer losses no less than the average, and probably greater than the average.
The midterm election might not be the Category 4 or 5 hurricane Republicans fervently hope for.
We must also throw the economy into the mix. While we may well be coming out of a deep recession, unemployment is still going up, having just crossed the psychologically devastating double-digit mark to 10.2 percent for October.
Indeed, many forecasts are calling for unemployment to remain above 10 percent for the next 12 months. That is unprecedented in the postwar period, with 1982 the only year since the end of World War II in which unemployment has been above 8 percent in the two months before an election.
Finally, throw in some of the less-tangible factors. Independent voters, who cast their ballots by an 18-point margin for Democrats in 2006 and by an 8-point margin for President Obama in 2008, are moving away from the party.
This move is not just in the odd-year elections, but in other measurements, such as the generic congressional ballot and their assessment of Obama and his policies.
In particular, they are critical of the Democratic Congress. Youth and minority voters, who proved to be so vital for Democrats in the 2008 elections, are not likely to turn out in similar rates in 2010. Similarly, the intensity and enthusiasm of Democrats in general is down, while Republicans and conservatives are energized to a degree not seen in many years.
While all these factors point to a tough election next year for Democrats, other dynamics could limit the swing toward the GOP.
As much as Republicans would like to think 2010 will be 1994 revisited, there are some very different circumstances. First, though President George H.W. Bush had lost re-election two years earlier, it was a personal loss more than a party loss, as the GOP brand in 1993 and 1994 was in reasonably good shape.
Today, that Republican Party brand is badly damaged. The period of 2001-2008 was not good for the GOP on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Scandals, exploding deficits, obsession with Terri Schiavo and social issues, and a very unpopular war all conspired to send the unfavorable ratings for the GOP soaring. And unlike 1994, there is no clear leader like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and no clear and appealing positive message.
A second challenge for the GOP is that some hard-line conservatives have undertaken efforts to purge those with insufficiently pure ideologies, dividing a party that needs to be united.
The 1994 election was about chasing after Democrats, not purifying the GOP. In some cases next year, like in Florida, it might not make a huge difference to GOP chances whether a moderate like Gov. Charlie Crist or a more conservative candidate like former state House Speaker Marco Rubio wins the Senate nomination.
But in New Hampshire, dumping a more moderate candidate like former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte for a far more extreme candidate like Ovide Lamontagne could make the difference on whether the GOP can hold on to the seat of retiring Sen. Judd Gregg.
Whether the Republican Party is able to repair or at least finesse its way around its damaged image and whether it squanders its energies and resources chasing heretics rather than beating Democrats is important to watch.
The final variable in the House will be whether Democrats can keep their retirements in tough districts down. So far, there are very few problematic Democratic open seats. The difference between a bad night for Democrats, a loss of 15-25 seats, and a horrible night, losing 30 or more seats, is if they have a number of retirements in tough districts.
Keep in mind that 40 percent of the 52 House seats Democrats lost in 1994 were open. As it stands, there seems to be little chance that 30 to 35 or more Democratic incumbents will lose next year. It would take a dozen or more retirements from marginal districts for the party to lose the majority. So far that has not happened.
There is little that is straightforward about this election. Democrats certainly have the most challenges, but there are enough potentially offsetting factors that this might not be the Category 4 or 5 hurricane Republicans fervently hope for.
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