Democrats face tough times in midterm elections

LOS ANGELES — With a little more than six months to campaign, Democrats face a substantial risk of losing the House and surrendering much of their advantage in the Senate, as Republicans capitalize on strong discontent with President Barack Obama and continued voter concern over jobs and the economy.

The trend marks an erosion for Democrats since the beginning of the year, after the retirement of several senior lawmakers and the polarizing health care debate. Even recent signs of an economic rebound — the first glimmers of job creation, the stock market surge, a big rise in consumer spending — may not help Democrats, unless it translates into a significant drop in the unemployment rate by fall.

The good news for Obama and fellow Democrats is that, unlike the Republican landslide of 1994, strategists are well aware of the peril the party faces — Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown saw to that — and have much more time to fight back.

“Democrats got a heads-up,” said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster with dozens of clients in the midterm election. “They can raise more money, do opposition research against opponents, do focus-group testing on how to beat these guys. … In 1994, they had very little notice a wave was coming.”

Democrats are doing what they can to reshape the political environment.

In recent days, Obama and congressional leaders have taken on Wall Street, practically daring Republicans to block reforms aimed at the maneuvers that almost capsized the financial system. The fraud suit against investment giant Goldman Sachs on Friday has invigorated those efforts, at a time voter anger over bailouts and the bursting of the housing bubble continues to boil.

Still, several trends are running strongly in Republicans’ favor, after two dismal elections that first cost them control of Congress, then the White House.

The party holding the White House almost always loses congressional seats at the midpoint of a president’s first term; since World War II, the average is 16 House seats. However, the losses have been much greater when a president’s approval rating is below 50 percent, where Obama has been hovering of late.

Over the last half-century, presidents with a sub-50 percent approval rating have lost an average of 41 House seats, a number that could put the GOP back in charge on at least one side of Capitol Hill.

Republicans need to win 40 House seats to reclaim the majority they lost in 2006. Democrats are braced for losses in the 20- to 25-seat range, though any number of variables — the potency of the economic recovery, a foreign policy crisis, the strength of the candidates on each side — could affect that number between now and November.

“The question is not whether we have an uphill climb,” said Maryland Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen, head of the party’s House campaign committee. “The question is the steepness of the hill.”

It appears much tougher for Republicans to win control of the Senate, where Democrats enjoy a 59-41 advantage. The GOP is expected to win, at a minimum, a handful of seats. But to take over, Republicans would need to sweep all 10 of the most competitive contests, including California, while fending off Democratic challenges in several states — Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio among them — where Republican senators are retiring.

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