Just six months ago, 2010 was looking like another slaughter of Republican Senate candidates. But with the fickle nature of the American voting public- strike that, the American poll-responding public- everything is looking a lot more dire for Democrats nationally.
Back in January, even Democrats who would logically have made prime targets for the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee were looking pretty solid. In fact, only two Democrats even made the tossup list: Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut, and Senator Roland Burris of Illinois. With Burris, most analysts agreed that his being out of the race would push the Land of Lincoln considerably back toward the blue. Today, at least three more Democrat-held seats are at least conceivably on the ropes, in addition to Connecticut and Illinois: Nevada, Delaware, and Colorado. There is some argument to be made that New York and Pennsylvania could be added to the list as well.
This brings us to reason number one.
#1 - The Generic Ballot Test
Despite all the town hall tantrums and tea party paroxysms, Americans still say they prefer Democrats to Republicans in Congress, in some cases by very large margins. The latest generic ballot test (simply asking respondents whether they prefer a Democrat or Republican in Congress) poll from Franklin and Marshall College released on September 24 has Democrats ahead by a whopping 13 points, 43%-30%. That's disastrous for a party looking to score a watershed year after suffering two of their own in 2006 and 2008.
The generic ballot test results suggest that general voter displeasure isn't necessarily aimed at Democrats, though they take the brunt of the it as the majority party. Rather, voters seem to be most dissatisfied with incumbents in general. Congress's approval rating stands at a dismal 22% according to a September 20th poll from NBC/Wall Street Journal. To have Congress that unpopular and the minority party trailing so badly in the generic ballot test suggests that voting anger isn't tied to party ID, but rather that it's fluctuating with current events. Which brings us to reason number two.
#2 - Frontloaded Reform
Make no mistake: when the White House decided to tackle health care reform, it was well aware of just how unpopular the proposal would be, regardless of its form. The failure of the last effort in 1993 is all-too clear.
But by essentially frontloading reform all in the first year of the Obama presidency, the White House has put some of the largest political issues as far from Election Day as possible. The American news cycle has an incredible way of moving on in the hunt for the newest story. The stimulus package- which was the subject of tea parties and Rick Santelli-outbursts back in February are old news.
There's nothing quite as incendiary as health care reform (perhaps with the exception of immigration, which the White House is reevaluating in terms of its legislative calendar), to the point that many have considered it an essential third rail. The furor that is fueling talk of Republican resurgence will have gone stale, allowing Democrats to focus on more poltically popular reform (i.e., anti-pollution measures, increasing funding for schools, etc.).
#3 - Open Seat Races
All six retirements in the Senate this year have come from Republicans: Missouri, Ohio, New Hampshire, Kentucky, Kansas, and Florida. Open-seat race prospects are almost invariably more favorable to the challenging party than incumbent races. Democrats outright lead in two of those races (Missouri and Ohio), and are competitive in two more (New Hampshire and Kentucky).
On the other hand, Republicans are competitive in a number of open special election races, like the one for President Obama's Illinois seat and Vice President Biden's Delaware seat. But both of those are traditionally blue states, which leads us point number 4.
#4 - Democrats's Prospects Are in Swing States, Republicans in Blue States
Look at the seats Republicans are hoping to swipe from the other side: Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, New York, Nevada, and Colorado. All six were won by President Obama in 2008. 11 of the 12 Senators representing those states are Democrats, as are the majority of Representatives in those states. That's a lot of red for Democrats to run through.
Now look at where Democrats are hoping to gain: Missouri, Ohio, Kentucky, Florida, Louisiana, and possibly North Carolina. Obama won three of those (OH, FL, NC), and very narrowly lost a fourth (MO).
The point is this: without the current Republican anger streak, the GOP is fighting an uphill battle just about everywhere. Democrats, on the other hand, are fighting considerably more winnable battles.
#5 - The Economy
There is nothing better for a party's electoral than getting results. And there's no more poignant example of that for voters than a stronger economy.
Just last week, JP Morgan Chase released a poll showing that 80% of US small businesses see the economy improving, with four of five reporting that they're pursuing a moderate or aggressive growth strategy. Industrial output shot up by more than expected for the second straight quarter. And for the first time more than a year, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke gave Congress a positive economic outlook in his periodic report.
If the jobless rate begins to improve, Democrats will essentially be on the road to validation in some of their most controversial moves, including the landmark stimulus bill. Former President Bill Clinton predicted that by next year, the economy will be in a much better position, far more quickly than anyone could have imagined. After all, it took eight years to get here, and as little as 12 months for the new Administration to lead the way out of a very dark hole. Moreover, if reform succeeds at driving down the cost of health care, businesses will suddenly find themselves with more liquidity, adding to the overall prosperity of Main Street businesses.
#6 - The Big Guy
Even with all the strife, President Obama's job approval rating stands at 56% according to the latest CBS/New York Times poll, or roughly 3% higher than the percentage he won when he defeated John McCain in the 2008 race for the White House. In fact, in all of the Democrats' woes over the late summer, Obama's job approval numbers never dropped below 50%. Nor did his favorability ratings, which now stand at 54%.
The GOP simply doesn't have that kind of uniting, popular figurehead at the helm of the party. With Obama, Democrats have perhaps the best spokesman they can possibly have. And if, as reason number 4 suggests, economic conditions continue to improve, expect those numbers for Obama to go up with them...and for Congressional Democrats to ride the coattails of his popularity.