Democrats in for a Licking

The only question is how painful it will be.

A little more than a week before the Nov. 2 election, Republicans seem certain to make big gains everywhere. They’re set to win control of the House, netting 40-50 seats and perhaps as many as 60. They need only 39 to have a majority and oust Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California.

They will pick up at least six seats in the Senate, probably more, putting them just shy of the majority they want. If Democratic turnout is depressed nationally and in key races, the GOP could take control of the Senate, too.

They’ll also win several more governorships and make significant headway in state legislatures.

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In the final lap, Republicans retain the advantage in fundraising, enthusiasm and voter motivation. Jobs and economic anxiety have put Washington and the Obama administration on notice. Democrats aren’t in despair, but they are dispirited. The youth vote, for instance, which helped propel President Obama to the White House, will be largely absent next month. Independents and moderates lean away from Democrats. There’s no “October surprise” to change the election dynamic against Democrats. Early voting is well under way in many states. The die is nearly cast.

To be sure, there are still some unknowns. Democrats have closed the enthusiasm gap somewhat, and polling shows many of the races getting tighter. But the GOP edge in money will pay for more ads and bankroll a drive to get their voters to the polls.

GOP House gains will come in nearly all regions. Freshman Democrats are most vulnerable, especially centrists in conservative swing districts who rode Obama’s coattails in 2008. But a few longtime veterans are also at risk -- Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt of South Carolina; Ike Skelton of Missouri, head of the armed services panel and Paul Kanjorski, a 26-year veteran from Pennsylvania who chairs an influential banking panel.

In the Senate races, Republicans will probably hold their open seats in Florida, Ohio, New Hampshire and Missouri. Tea Party favorite Rand Paul, R, could be upset in the open Kentucky race, where independents could lean to Democrat Jack Conway.

The GOP looks certain to pick up Democratic seats in North Dakota, Arkansas and Indiana. And -- if they have a strong final finish -- they may knock off Democrats in Washington, California, Colorado, Nevada, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Illinois and Pennsylvania. Democrats have an edge in two other seats they’re defending: a slight one in Connecticut and a large advantage in Delaware.

The Republican wins will complicate the lame-duck session of Congress. The GOP will balk at any major Democratic initiatives, though some bills demand action. These include a huge spending bill to keep government agencies operating, a revival of tax breaks that have expired and yet another short-term fix for the alternative minimum tax, which would otherwise catch millions of middle-class taxpayers in its snare this year. Congress will also take up the Bush tax cuts, probably extending them a year or two, until it can decide what to do with Obama’s plan to make high earners pay more.

Expect GOP leaders to have their hands full getting their members to agree next year. They’ll celebrate their victories as a mandate for a big new direction, but it’s unclear how successful Republicans leaders truly will or can be or if they overreach.

Newly empowered conservatives won’t be in a mood to compromise, not with their own party establishment and especially not with Obama and the Democrats. They’ll feel they were elected to slash spending, cut government and repeal the health care law. And GOP moderates will be careful about crossing conservatives at the outset, lest they become targets in 2012.

Similarly, Democrats will feel pressure from the left, making it equally hard for them to tack to the political center. It’s a prescription for congressional gridlock. And it’ll only get worse as the 2012 presidential election draws closer.

Richard Sammon
Senior Associate Editor, The Kiplinger Letter