In cycling, it's pretty obvious when you're being pushed along by the unseen hand of a tailwind. It's also clear, and painful, when you're laboring in a headwind; every pedal stroke is a battle. But the most difficult to figure is a crosswind. You never know when it's going to turn for or against you.
Last week's special elections in Pennsylvania and Hawaii suggest that House Democrats are going to be facing a crosswind election instead of a headwind election. To be sure, a crosswind can mask the rough headwind that may be just around the next bend. But Democrats may still be able to get enough breaks to be able to hold their majority.
In 2006, a Democrat could run as an outsider even if he or she was a banker or member of a corporate board. Try doing that today.
Democrats lost in Hawaii-01 on Saturday but succeeded in winning the expectations game. All but declaring that they'd lose, they pulled out their money a couple of weeks ago and basically dared the Republicans to win it big. In the end, Republican Charles Djou took just under 40 percent, while the two Democratic candidates split the rest of the vote. In other words, Democrats lost but still took 60 percent of the vote, making it tough for the National Republican Congressional Committee to get much of a PR bump.
What also helped Democrats win the spin war, of course, was the fact that they pulled off an 8-point victory in a much tougher district, Pennsylvania-12. A Democratic win in a district where President Obama's job approval rating is under 40 percent is both impressive and instructive. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee out-executed the NRCC in almost every aspect of the race, including polling, advertising and candidate positioning. It suggests that despite a bad political climate for the Democrats, candidates and campaigns matter.
Of course, we heard a lot of the same spin in the summer of 2006. After Republicans won a hard-fought special election in California-50, there were lots of folks (me included) who suggested that this was a sign that smart campaigns could withstand a bad environment. It didn't exactly work out that way, as even some of the smartest and strongest GOP candidates found themselves unable to survive.
So will Democrats find themselves in a similar position this fall? There's lots of evidence that suggests the answer is yes.
In May of 2006, according to polling by the Pew Foundation, 29 percent of Americans said they were satisfied with the direction of the country, while a whopping 65 percent were dissatisfied. Fast-forward to earlier this month and the Pew poll finds a similar level of pessimism, with 28 percent satisfied and 64 percent dissatisfied.
Lots of other indicators that favored the Democrats in 2006 -- leads on the congressional ballot test, among independent voters and in the level of enthusiasm among base voters -- now favor Republicans.
In other words, many of the underlying factors that signaled a big wave election in favor of Democrats in 2006 are almost identical to what we are seeing for Republicans this year.
Republicans fairly point out that what made Pennsylvania Democrat Mark Critz such a tough target -- and why their attempts to link him to Speaker Nancy Pelosi fell flat -- was the fact that he didn't have a voting record. This fall there are 40 Democrats who sit in districts with a GOP lean (defined by Charlie Cook as districts with a Partisan Voting Index of R+1) who voted for cap-and-trade, health care or both.
Unlike 2006, however, there are signs that the winds aren't blowing in just one direction.
First, there's the money factor. At the end of March 2006, the DCCC and the NRCC were evenly matched. The DCCC had $23 million in the bank, while the NRCC had $24.4 million.
By the end of March this year, however, the DCCC showed a huge advantage -- $26 million in the bank to the NRCC 's $9.93 million. There is the real possibility that outside groups, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or the newly formed American Crossroads, will help make up that shortfall (American Crossroads has pledged to raise over $50 million for GOP candidates, though it has just $1.25 million in the bank now). But timing is also critical. If Democrats can use their current cash advantage to define the GOP candidates before those candidates can define themselves, that could be the difference.
The other factor is that voter anger isn't confined to Washington. Americans are upset with almost every major institution out there. In 2006, a Democrat could run as an outsider even if he or she was a banker or member of a corporate board. Try doing that today. In Pa.-12, Democrats were able to turn "outsider" businessman Tim Burns into a corporate hack who was willing to outsource jobs to make more money for himself.
After their win in Pennsylvania, Democrats have reason to feel optimistic. But it's far too soon to tell if this is just a brief tailwind before the oncoming storm or if it's a real sign that Democrats may be able to slog their way through a 2010 crosswind and find a way to hold on to a majority -- albeit a really small one.