As the political environment for Democrats has turned ugly, it is widely assumed the party will sustain losses in next year's midterm elections. The operative question is: How bad will those losses be?
With a little over 13 months to go, that's impossible to know. Democrats desperately hope the next year will provide them with opportunities to reverse the tide and minimize losses, possibly by picking up GOP-held House and Senate seats to offset losses elsewhere. But they also fear the 13 months might give matters a chance to snowball and get worse. If Democrats go 0-2 in this year's gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, that will only dampen party morale more.
The post-World War II average for first-term presidents is a midterm loss of 16 House seats. In the Senate, interestingly, the norm is a wash.
But with Democrats having picked up 54 House seats from the GOP in the last two elections -- elections with near-perfect conditions for Democratic candidates in virtually every state -- and holding 84 seats in districts carried by either former President George W. Bush in 2004 or Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., last year -- including 48 won by both -- the number of seats at risk exceeds their 39-seat majority.
How many House Democrats, who might or might not have even thought about retiring, are now wondering whether this job is worth the abuse?
In trying to figure out what might happen in the House, the two things to watch over the next couple of months are Democratic retirements and GOP recruiting.
On the latter, sagging Democratic numbers should be the best recruiter Republicans have had in years. But perhaps the only thing that could turn what otherwise might be a bad election night for Democrats next year into a horrible night and cost them their majority is a bunch of retirements in difficult districts.
Keep in mind that in 1994 -- the last horrific election for Democrats -- 22 of Democrats' 52 net losses were in open seats. It's highly unlikely that 40 or more House Democratic incumbents will be unseated, but if there are a slew of retirements in pivotal districts, just 20 or 25 incumbent casualties -- eminently possible -- combined with tough open seat losses could turn over the majority.
In difficult years, open seats are the hardest for a party to hold. Absent an incumbent with any personal reservoir of goodwill, parties are left with candidates who are less defined and more vulnerable to political tides, waves and undertows.
Today Democrats have only seven open seats -- none are pure retirements, all have been created by bids for other office -- of which only three look vulnerable.
And up until now, there didn't seem to be much of a prospect of many Democratic retirements. After all, they just got back the majority in January 2007 and finally have a Democrat in the White House, not a Republican who could veto proposals they hold near and dear.
But for a lot of Democratic members -- at least those from marginal and difficult districts, particularly those in the South and Border South, those with plenty of small-town and rural constituents, and those in districts won by McCain or Bush -- this is not the cruise they signed up for.
Some veteran members say the environment is worse than what they experienced in 1994. While some of it is driven by voter animosity in such districts toward President Obama, more of it seems to be focused against the Democratic Congress. These members have found themselves part of a congressional majority that has become radioactive, something their Republican colleagues can speak to from recent memory.
Members in difficult districts are usually better off when the White House is in the hands of the opposition party and/or their party is the minority in Congress. In those situations, those members only have to account for themselves, their own actions and voting records. But when their party is in the majority and has the White House, they are often held responsible for the party's perceived sins, and they become a target for voter venting.
So the question is how many House Democrats, who might or might not have even thought about retiring, are now wondering whether this job is worth the abuse they get from constituents back home and from liberals back in Washington?
I teased one Blue Dog the other day, asking him if the $174,000 congressional salary was worth it. He laughed and said, "Trust me, we don't do this for the money."
The thing that is so odd this time is that when majorities have seemed comparably endangered, it wasn't so much a year out as in the last nine months before the election. It wasn't clear to me that the GOP was likely to lose its majority in 2006 until the first week of August of that year. Before Election Day 1994, it was never clear the Democratic majority would collapse. The Republican tidal wave looked enormous, but it was impossible to calibrate just how high it was and how deep it would go.
In the end, the GOP picked up 52 seats, a dozen more than necessary to turn the House over. Does more time make things better or worse for Democrats? We'll see.