WASHINGTON – Their control of the House in peril, Democrats are scratching to survive in races all across the country. Disgruntled voters, a sluggish economy and vanishing enthusiasm for President Barack Obama have put 75 seats or more — the vast majority held by Democrats — at risk of changing hands.
The party could become a victim of its own successes during the past two elections, when candidates were swept into power by antipathy for President George W. Bush and ardor for Obama. Now, eight weeks from Election Day, the Democrats are bracing for the virtual certainty of lost House seats and scrambling to hold back a wave that could hand the GOP the 40 it needs to command a majority
Obama, grasping for a way to turn the tide, on Wednesday plans to propose $30 billion in new investment tax breaks for businesses to go along with tens of billions in spending he called for on Labor Day to invigorate the slow recovery. But even if Congress acts on the requests — a long shot in a highly charged political season — there's little time left for Democrats to salvage their election chances.
With Obama's popularity slumping and the party demoralized, dozens of first- and second-term Democrats as well as longer-serving congressmen who haven't faced serious challenges in years are toiling to hold onto their jobs in places that tend to prefer Republicans. And polls show independent voters leaning toward the GOP.
When asked which party they want to control Congress, voters are split or leaning toward Republicans, national surveys say. Perhaps even more ominously for Democrats, voters are overwhelmingly sour about national issues, especially the economy.
More than 60 percent said the nation was in a state of decline and on the wrong track in the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, in which voters likely to turn out in November gave Republicans a gaping 9-point edge when asked which party they wanted to control Congress.
Much can change between now and Election Day, and a GOP House takeover is far from sure. The political parties, individual campaigns and outside groups that spend heavily to influence elections have scarcely begun to distribute the hundreds of millions of dollars they plan to pour into key congressional districts across the country for advertising and on-the-ground organizing that can turn out crucial voters.
And most voters have yet to focus on the contests.
Still, Republicans are confidently predicting Democrats' defeat.
"Republicans have the intensity," said Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., head recruiter for House GOP candidates. "The map is growing by the day."
Democrats acknowledge the strong headwinds but counter that, with a solid fundraising advantage over Republicans and years worth of preparation for what they always knew would be a brutal election, they can fight off the GOP onslaught.
"We've got some very, very tough political territory on an off year with a weak economy, so it's a major challenge in a difficult political environment. That said, we will retain a majority in the House," said Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the party's House campaign chief.
The current breakdown is 255 Democrats, 178 Republicans and two vacancies that appear likely to be won by the GOP.
Democratic incumbents are at risk from California to New York and particularly in the unemployment-stricken Rust Belt, where six in Pennsylvania and five in Ohio face stiff challenges. Hotly contested races are unfolding in every region, including three each in Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Indiana, and two in Alabama, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Wisconsin and Virginia.
Among the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents are freshmen Reps. Betsy Markey of Colorado, Steve Driehaus of Ohio and Tom Perriello of Virginia. They had little time to settle into elected office before casting votes for key elements of Obama's agenda that are proving controversial, including the health care law and the so-called cap-and-trade measure to curb carbon emissions. Markey and Perriello, like some four dozen other Democrats, are fighting to hold onto districts that voted for Republican presidential nominee John McCain in 2008.
At the same time, a handful of influential, senior Democrats — including Missouri's Ike Skelton, the chair of the Armed Services Committee, and South Carolinian John Spratt, the Budget chairman — are facing formidable re-election battles in a year when voter dislike of elected officials, excessive government spending and the political establishment is on the rise.
Reps. Allen Boyd of Florida and Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota — both in the House more than a decade — and Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania and Chet Edwards of Texas — veterans of 20 years or more — also face tough fights.
And Democrats are facing tight races to hang on to most of the 20 seats where the incumbent retired, left or is pursuing another office — typically the most difficult for a party to defend. Those include two each in Arkansas and Tennessee, and long-shots in Louisiana, Kansas and upstate New York, where Rep. Eric Massa resigned in March amid an investigation into whether he sexually harassed male staffers.
Most of the 23 open Republican seats are not regarded as seriously in play, although Democrats have good chances of claiming two being vacated by GOP lawmakers running for the Senate, including one in Delaware now held by Mike Castle and one in the Chicago suburbs held by Mark Kirk.
Only a few Republican incumbents are at serious risk in otherwise Democratic districts, including Joseph Cao in New Orleans and Charles Djou in Hawaii. Democrats also believe they have shots at ousting Republican Reps. Dave Reichert in Washington and Lee Terry in Nebraska.
As bad as things are for Democrats, they do lead in the money race. However, with their list of endangered incumbents expanding, they face painful choices about which races to abandon in the interest of spending where they realistically can win. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put out an urgent fundraising appeal Tuesday beseeching supporters to help raise $500,000 by Friday for an "Emergency Rapid Response" fund to pay for TV ads defending Democratic candidates.
Otherwise, Pelosi wrote, "we may not have all the resources we need for every race until November."
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party's House campaign arm, had $36 million in cash at the end of July compared to the National Republican Congressional Committee's $22 million. But the gap has been closing steadily as Election Day nears, and a handful of GOP-backed outside groups have plans to pour tens of millions into House races in the coming weeks. Unions are also planning to funnel large sums into the contests on behalf of Democrats.
Democrats have booked $49 million worth of TV advertising time in 60 congressional districts, the vast majority to protect vulnerable Democratic incumbents, while Republicans have reserved $22 million for advertising in 41 districts, all but one now held by Democrats.
"The opportunity is there," to wrest the House, said Guy Harrison, executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "We just have to execute."