Washington Matters


Republicans Feel Election Momentum

Richard Sammon

Dodd, Dorgan retirements underscore Democrats' anxiety



Democrats are bracing for possibly large election losses in November that could threaten their majority and derail their agenda. It’s too early to suggest a Republican rout is in store, but it’s no longer out of the question.

The retirement announcements of two veteran Democratic senators, Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Appropriations Committee member Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, are the latest warning flags in a year that may not bode well for majority party incumbents. Democrats should be able to hold Connecticut – in fact they may have a much stronger candidate in state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal -- but Republicans have a huge opportunity to pick up a seat in North Dakota.

Jobs, the economy, the big federal budget deficit and possibly concerns about terrorism will dominate the election atmosphere, and may provide the momentum for a larger turnout than usual in midterm elections. That would help Republicans, especially if independents and moderates start leaning against incumbents..

The jobless economic recovery may last for several months or longer into President Obama’s second year, and the midterms will be in part a referendum on his stewardship of the economy, the effectiveness of industry bailouts, the long housing foreclosure crisis, tight bank credit, small business anxieties, health care and more. Progress in Afghanistan will be hard to deliver in short order, and the troop surge will take months, all the while dividing parts of the Democratic base. Being in the minority party will prove an asset. Republicans won’t be held accountable for the still fragile economic state of the country or for the foreign policy challenges and setbacks of the president. That responsibility now falls completely to Democrats.

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Dodd’s decision to not run in what would have been a very hard reelection effort will have one immediate effect on Democrats agenda. It makes compromise with more business friendly Republicans on financial reform a greater possibility. Without an election looming, Dodd may drop the more populist stance he has been taking in an effort to win voter support back home. Republicans will be able to gain more support from business by claiming they forced the Democrats’ hand.

Republicans are sure to pick up seats in the House, probably 20 to 30. The GOP needs a net gain of 41 seats to win back the majority. That’s not out entirely out of reach, but it would require most everything turning in their favor. The GOP would need to create a couple of dozen more truly competitive races than seem to be in the works now. If Democrats can limit the number of highly competitive races to about three dozen and hold the line on additional retirements, they should be able to keep their majority, even if it ends up being slim. Democrats should also have a decent funding advantage over Republicans in general.

But even if Republicans come up short in their bid to win back the majority, they’re bound to make solid headway. They’ll have more leverage in a House that Democrats now largely run at their own will. They’ll be better able to apply the brakes on a Democratic agenda, especially with the help of conservative Blue Dog Democrats breaking ranks and voting with the GOP on major bills and amendments.

Count on GOP gains also in the Senate, the chamber most vital to Obama’s entire legislative agenda because of the nature of its procedures and rules. The net loss of even one vote – a near certainty -- will deny Democrats their current filibuster proof-majority when they vote en bloc on legislation that Republicans oppose. Democrats currently have 60 seats, including two independents who caucus with the party.

Dodd had been considered the most vulnerable Democrat before announcing his retirement. That distinction now may well go to Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who has a history of narrow election wins and who is seen as highly partisan in his role as a party leader, especially in the health care debate. Also facing tight races are Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Michael Bennet of Colorado. Two other Democratic seats, both of them open due to pending retirements, could be vulnerable, one in Illinois and one in Delaware.

One bright spot for Democrats in the Senate is the fact that several Republicans are retiring, creating open seat races that typically are often be more competitive. Four such races for seats currently held by Republicans in Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire and Ohio look as though they will be highly competitive come November. Also a worry for Republicans are the internal divisions over how far to go in insisting on conservative candidates.

GOP gains will temper Democratic policy ambitions, making passage of largely partisan legislation, such as climate cap and trade and immigration reform, even tougher for Democrats and Obama, who will hesitate about huge and complicated new efforts after so much political fuel has been spent on health care legislation. Also, the health care debate will be long from over, even if legislation is enacted. The fruits of the Democratic-backed compromise legislation are a long ways from being seen, and the cost of implementation will be high. The GOP will use the health bill to rally support and raise funds for the elections.




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