Politics & Poker: GOP Gains in ’10 Inevitable, but How Big Will They Be?

Posted October 9, 2009 at 5:38pm

On Oct. 21, the liberal think tank Third Way is sponsoring the D.C. premiere of the new documentary film “HouseQuake.—

[IMGCAP(1)]For dispirited Democrats, it couldn’t come at a better time. But it also may seem a little too much like a period piece.

Directed by Karen Price, the daughter of Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), the film is a triumphant look at the 2006 Democratic takeover of the House — and is another paean to Rahm Emanuel, whose role as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already been chronicled in the book “The Thumpin’,— by Chicago Tribune reporter Naftali Bendavid. A poster for the movie describes 2006 as “the year Democrats played to win.—

We don’t pretend to know much about the film business here at Roll Call (to come clean, I was interviewed by Karen Price when she was making the movie and I’m apparently in it, though I haven’t seen it yet). It surely takes a while for an independent documentary-maker like Price to get the funding she needs to finish her movie, which debuted two months ago at the Rhode Island International Film Festival in Providence.

But there’s a weird juxtaposition between what the film is celebrating and the political environment of today. Because the Democrats’ jubilation of election night 2006 — not to mention election night 2008 — even though it wasn’t that long ago, sure seems like ancient history now.

Watching “HouseQuake— next week may be a little like watching “The West Wing— during the Bush years. “The West Wing— celebrated and extended the Clinton era in celluloid, even as most everything the Clintonites held dear was being dismantled at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. In much the same way, it seems like a bad time for Democrats to be taking yet another victory lap when the triumphs of the past two election cycles seem in jeopardy of being reversed, their promise thoroughly unfulfilled.

We don’t know just how bad the 2010 election cycle will be for Democrats because there’s no way of predicting what the world will look like a year from now. But they undoubtedly will feel some pain. The political dynamic, and the story lines that dominate the media, are certain to change several times over the next 12 months.

Republicans will probably get a boost on Election Day this year, Nov. 3. All the polls suggest that former state Attorney General Bob McDonnell (R) is going to win the gubernatorial race in Virginia; that’s the biggest prize of the day, and it seems as if the Democrats are powerless to reverse the trend.

Winning New Jersey is possible for the GOP, but if Gov. Jon Corzine (D) ekes out a victory, he will win ugly. It’s a Democratic state, and even though Corzine has lagged in the polls until recently, there will be little for Democrats to brag about if he prevails.

The three-way special election in New York’s 23rd district is a crazy mishmash of competing forces. The National Republican Congressional Committee is still talking confidently, but a lot of GOP strategists on the ground in New York think that state Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava (R) is going to lose to attorney Bill Owens (D).

A Democratic victory in a district that Republicans have held since the Civil War could help salve the Democrats’ wounds from Virginia. But even if Owens wins, the combined percentages of Scozzafava and Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman are sure to exceed Owens’. Do Republicans take comfort from that — or will it just be the latest, most devastating example of what the fissure between moderate and conservative Republicans has wrought?

It is hard to argue that Republicans won’t pick up House and Senate seats next year, and they have several recruiting victories to boast about in the past few weeks. That hardly suggests that the GOP is poised to retake control of Congress next year, but it puts the party in a good position if a wave does develop.

“HouseQuake— devotes a lot of time to the fact that in 2006 (and this was also true in 2008), Democrats played in — and won — a lot of districts where they weren’t expected to do well. It’s fair to say that those places present Republicans with some of their best chances to chip away at the Democratic majority in 2010.

About 18 Democratic House seats appear to be in serious jeopardy right now. Another 20 become very vulnerable if an anti-Democratic wave develops. Perhaps another 10 or more could fall if it’s a really big wave. Republicans also deserve credit, for the benefits of psychological warfare if nothing else, for finding decent challengers for seemingly impenetrable Democratic committee chairmen, such as Reps. John Spratt (S.C.), Ike Skelton (Mo.) and David Obey (Wis.).

But House Democrats have a handful of real targets as well, maybe more. The two seats likeliest to flip right now are held by Republicans — three, if you include the New York special. So that puts Democrats at 260 seats before the Republicans’ prospects are even taken into account.

The Senate may be tougher for Republicans to capture. Three Democratic-held seats seem like pure tossups today, and another four seats could become vulnerable. But four GOP-held seats are tossups, and the Democrats have long-shot pickup opportunities in three additional states. And that doesn’t include Texas, where a special election may be imminent.

As we’ve seen in the past several cycles, most of the close Senate races tend to move in one direction in the final days, so Senate Republicans could make significant gains. But it’s hard to take anything to the bank at this early stage.

Analysts who see similarities between this cycle and 1994 are both right and wrong. Certainly some of the fundamentals are the same, and many of the same dangers lurk ahead for Democrats. This time, though, they’re aware of them.

Remember, the 1994 wave wasn’t really visible until a few weeks before Election Day. Chances are what trips the Democrats up in 2010 can’t even be predicted now. And chances are that if the economy is in decent shape, if unemployment drops perceptibly, the Democratic pain will be minimal.

So maybe D.C. Democrats should be forgiven for wanting to relive the glory of 2006 one more time. But if you’re rooting for them in 2010, you’re probably wishing they’d “play to win— now that they’re governing as hard as they did in the past two campaigns.