With just weeks left in a summer that showed far less economic recovery than Democrats had hoped for, the party is bracing for the prospect of a GOP-controlled House of Representatives next year, while Republicans set their sights on as many as 80 seats they believe will be vulnerable in November.
“I've been thinking for months the House is lost,” one top Democratic strategist told The Washington Examiner. “I don't even think it's going to be close.”
Republicans on Thursday predicted there will be competitive races in more than double the 40 districts the GOP would need to win in order to retake the majority from the Democrats.
“Every argument they have made for keeping the majority has fallen apart,” said Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who recruits GOP candidates for the party's House campaign arm. “That is why you've got panic mode inside the Democratic Party from the incumbents themselves.”
Tad Devine, a top Democratic strategist, said Democrats can maintain the majority in the House, but those in tough races will have to show constituents “that they've taken their side and they should demonstrate their independence from party leaders.”
In the House, some of the most vulnerable Democratic candidates have been trying to save their campaigns by distancing themselves from leaders like Nancy Pelosi and President Obama, whose approval ratings have sunk into the dangerously low mid-40s, in part because of the sputtering economy.
On Wednesday, Rep. Bobby Bright, D-Ala., took that distancing to extreme lengths. He told a Montgomery, Ala., audience that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., might die between now and the election after he was asked whether he would vote for her again as speaker.
And Rep. Tom Perriello, D-Va., told his constituents in South Central Virginia that he believes Obama Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner should resign, echoing comments made earlier this week by House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio.
“He has been critical of President Obama's economic team for having too narrow a focus on Wall Street and not enough attention to main street,” Perriello campaign spokeswoman Jessica Barba said, pointing out that the freshman lawmaker called for Geithner's head long before Boehner.
McCarthy told reporters Wednesday that the dire state of the economy and anger over Democratic initiatives means the electoral map “is changing by the day” and the list of competitive races has expanded to include districts once thought untouchable, such as the one held by 17-term Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., who is chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, and the seat held by three-term Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif.
But Democrats point out they currently have more money to spend on races than Republicans, which will make it easier for them to get out the Democratic vote. And they say the Tea Party has created a division within the GOP, such as in the Florida race for governor, that will make it easier to defeat Republicans in November.
University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala said the predictions for Democrats may be a little too dire. In the Granite State, Obama's most recent approval rating is 51 percent and unemployment is 5.7 precent, well below the 9.5 percent national average. Scala believes Democrats could win both congressional seats, which most pollsters have rated tossups, because New Hampshire voters are not as angry about the economy.
“In terms of the Democrats holding onto the House, that seems possible to me,” Scala said.