The terms "gruesome" and "psychologically devastating" come to mind when thinking about the political developments over the last six weeks for Democrats.
Last week was a particularly bad one by any standard. In a matter of a few hours last Tuesday, Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter unexpectedly announced their decisions not to seek re-election, and Michigan Lt. Gov. John Cherry, the all-but-certain Democratic pick for governor, apparently decided his party's nomination wasn't worth having.
So this weekend's news about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's relapse of foot-in-mouth disease was just a cruel ending to an awful week.
Last month, Reps. Dennis Moore of Kansas, Brian Baird of Washington, and Bart Gordon and John Tanner of Tennessee, all in tough districts, announced they would not seek re-election. And to top it off, freshman Rep. Parker Griffith of Alabama defected to the GOP.
The emphasis is on the psychological trauma because on a race-by-race basis, each of these developments isn't as clean or binary as many assume. It is not necessarily a case where each seat that was Democratic will be Republican after November.
• In North Dakota, GOP Gov. John Hoeven was thought to be edging closer to challenging Dorgan. But it was not a sure thing, and if the two had faced off, it was sure to be a barn-burner. Hoeven formally entered the race Monday, and the seat is now almost sure to go Republican.
• In Colorado, Ritter had gotten off to a rough start and faced an uphill race, but he might have survived. If Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper runs, he has a shot at holding on to the seat for Democrats.
• In Michigan, it can certainly be argued that it was unlikely Democrats would hold on to the governorship whether Cherry ran or not.
• As for the four retiring House Democrats, it's pretty unlikely that all four would have lost, but also unlikely they all would have won. And several knowledgeable Alabama political insiders have argued to me that Griffith is more likely to survive a general election than to hold on in a GOP primary given the votes he did throw the Democratic leadership. Maybe. To be sure, Republicans may well pick up most of these seats, but they would have won some of them even without these developments.
• In what might be Democrats' only break in the last month and a half, the retirement announcement of Sen. Christopher Dodd was actually more in the good-news-masked-as-bad-news category. His political situation in Connecticut had deteriorated to the point that he was almost unelectable, but his retirement fueled the broader narrative of Democrats heading for the hills.
The sum of the events is more damaging for Democrats than adding up each one individually. It's the collective traumatic impact of these seven Democratic setbacks that causes the most damage, potentially moving other incumbents to decide to retire, undermining recruiting and chilling party fundraising, which until now has gone quite well.
The House isn't yet at a tipping point. At this stage, a 20-30-seat loss for Democrats seems most likely. It would certainly be a major loss and more than the average for first-term, midterm elections, but short of the 40-seat loss that would shift control of the House. The Democratic cushion in the House is thinner than it was six weeks ago and nothing like it was six months ago. There are still 48 more state filing deadlines to go -- Texas and Illinois have passed -- and thus the possibility of new retirements and more potentially strong GOP challengers to come.
The Democrats' 60-40 edge in the Senate -- not counting the vice president's ability to break ties -- makes it almost impossible for that chamber to switch, but a four-to-six-seat Democratic loss seems most likely.
The most endangered, after Dorgan's open seat in North Dakota, are the open seats in Delaware and Illinois, followed by Reid; Michael Bennet, D-Colo.; Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.; and Arlen Specter, D-Pa.
Add in Dodd's open seat and that of Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and that puts a total of nine seats in play.
How endangered the Connecticut seat will be depends upon how state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal fares and who emerges from the GOP primary. Blumenthal begins as the frontrunner, but then again, having never faced a tough general election nor addressed federal issues, that might not hold up. Former Rep. Rob Simmons is generally perceived as the more formidable rival on the Republican side, though wrestling impresario Linda McMahon could spend a virtually unlimited amount of money.
Boxer's vulnerability depends more on whether former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina turns out to be a sure-footed challenger. There's no question that if Fiorina chooses to outspend Boxer, it wouldn't be hard.
So that makes seven very competitive Democratic seats in danger, with two more that are on the cusp. While there are four GOP open seats that are competitive, in this political climate, Democrats would be hard-pressed to pick off one from Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire or Ohio.
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