WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans are on offense in scores of House and Senate races as persistent economic woes and lukewarm support for President Barack Obama continue to weaken Democrats’ hold on Congress.
The president and his party are determined to minimize the losses six months before the November elections. But Democrats privately acknowledge the economy and support for Obama must improve before then to avoid the defeats that could cost them control of the House and possibly the Senate.
Primaries in Indiana, Ohio and North Carolina on Tuesday kick off an intense eight weeks of contested elections. There also are two special House elections to fill vacant Democratic-held seats in Pennsylvania and Hawaii. The outcome could be a clear indicator of the political mood.
“I need your help once more,” Obama says in a video message to backers, a plea that underscores the troubles for Democrats. “This year, the stakes are higher than ever,” the president adds, warning that Republicans would “undo all that we have accomplished.”
Although Obama isn’t on the ballot, a Democratic shellacking would be seen as a rebuke of the president’s first two years in office, much like 1994 was for President Bill Clinton when the GOP reclaimed the House and Senate.
Obama and his party must defend dozens of seats in the 80 or so House races that are competitive; they include some districts that Democrats have held for decades. The party also faces serious Senate challenges in at least nine states, including Nevada, where Majority Leader Harry Reid trails in the polls. Democratic seats in Illinois and Delaware, once held by Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, respectively, are in jeopardy, too.
While Republican prospects are looking up, infighting between moderates and angry conservatives might dash the party’s hopes. Gov. Charlie Crist’s decision to run as an independent set up a three-way Senate race in Florida that could cost the GOP the seat. A similar party battle in Kentucky, which holds its primary May 18, is creating headaches for Republicans.
At this point, analysts for both parties say Republicans probably will pick up as many as three dozen House seats, and possibly the 40 needed for control. The GOP is expected to win a few Senate seats, though the 10 necessary to take control is considered a long shot.
Democrats are hoping an electorate furious with Washington will give them credit for accomplishing big goals such as health care overhaul and possibly financial reform.
“With the battle lines already drawn for the 2010 election, voters will ultimately support candidates who are delivering results, reforming the system, bringing change to Washington, and getting things done, which is exactly what President Obama is doing,” Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, said recently.
Countered Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who leads the party’s Senate efforts: “I wouldn’t confuse action with progress. Clearly this administration is a pro-government administration. And slowly but surely, we’re starting to see the American people reject that approach. Voters are going to rise up with a vengeance and say ‘No’ to more government.”
Republicans have stood in lock-step opposition to Obama’s policies, and they hope that voters furious about increased spending and the growth of government will punish Democrats. Most Americans say the country is headed in the wrong direction and half of the nation doesn’t approve of Obama’s job performance. Approval of Democrats is even lower. Unemployment remains high and foreclosures are rampant.
Since 2010 began, Republicans have watched more Senate races than they expected become competitive.
Biden’s son Beau decided not to run in Delaware, giving Republican Mike Castle a significant upper hand. Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh decided to retire, making for yet another up-for-grabs contest. Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln drew a primary challenge from her left. The Democrat seeking to win Obama’s old seat in Illinois, Alexi Giannoulias, is enmeshed in controversy surrounding the shuttering of his family’s bank, where he once worked.
Even Sen. Barbara Boxer is struggling in California.
In the House, the GOP opportunities continue to increase. Some races in Arizona, New York and Pennsylvania suddenly look competitive. More Republicans decided to run for Congress after witnessing how friendly the environment is for the GOP, given Republican Scott Brown’s victory in a Senate race in Massachusetts.
All that has Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, the head of the House Republican’s campaign effort, gunning hard for the majority: “Anything less, I did not fulfill my mission statement.”
Despite their hurdles, Democrats see some rays of hope in the storm clouds. The economy is showing signs of improvement. Democrats passed a health care overhaul and likely will pass a bill regulating the financial industry.
Democrats lead Republicans in the campaign money hunt, which could soften the blow. Still, money isn’t everything; Democrats had a financial edge in 1994 and Republicans had one in 2006 — and those parties in power still lost control of Congress.
“Things are in fact improving and they are improving as a result of policies put in place in ’09 and that we continue to pursue. If that occurs over the next five months, six months, I think that’s going to change the perception of the public,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat.