Prevailing electoral winds augur big Democratic gains in Congress

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON - Every so often, luck and circumstance give birth to an accidental congressman or senator, a politician who lands in Washington mainly by being in the right place at the right time.

Once in a very long while, those accidents come in droves.

That's what happened when Ronald Reagan's 1980 landslide helped turn a six-pack of Republican nonentities into U.S. senators. None ever won a Senate election again, and their now-forgotten names (Jim Abdnor, Mark Andrews, Jeremiah Denton, John East, Paula Hawkins, Mack Mattingly) are just the answer to a trivia question. But while in office, the one-term wonders helped Reagan engineer big changes in the federal government.

Today, a similar trend may be on the horizon. This time it's Democratic candidates who have the good fortune to be running with a strong wind at their back.

Even before the financial crisis became the overwhelming factor in the election, a top aide to John McCain was calling 2008 the worst environment in decades for Republican candidates. When times are bad, voters punish the party that holds the White House, and Barack Obama isn't the only Democrat who could benefit.

As the financial markets tanked, strategists in both parties were scrambling to revise upward their estimates of Democratic gains and Republican losses in next month's Senate and House contests.

"The floor is dropping," Republican analyst Ed Rollins said the other day, envisioning a blowout election that could cost Republicans 10 Senate seats and 25 in the House. His forecast is roughly in line with estimates by others who specialize in congressional races.

If the returns match the predictions, the impact could be profound.

It "will give Barack everything he needs to basically move an agenda," Rollins, who worked in the Reagan White House, said on CNN.

Democrats already control the Congress, but the Senate is almost evenly divided. And when it comes to legislative majorities, size does matter, especially in the Senate.

It takes a "super majority" of 60 senators, out of 100, to keep the minority from bottling up legislation. If Democrats pick up nine Republican seats and don't lose any, it will the first time since Jimmy Carter was president that one party had 60 senators.

With "sixty votes, they can control everything," Republican Rep. Tom Davis, one of his party's top campaign strategists, told a National Press Club audience the other day.

New York Sen. Charles Schumer, who heads the Democratic campaign committee, say his party's prospects "are better than they were two weeks ago." Seats that seemed out of reach are suddenly in play, as the election increasingly becomes a "referendum on economic change."

At least a dozen Republican Senate seats are at risk, including those of Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina. The Democratic Party is also taking a look at upset opportunities in states such as Georgia, where freshman Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who unseated Democrat Max Cleland in one of 2002's ugliest contests, may be in trouble.

Democrats from coast to coast are tying Republican senators to their party's unpopular president and to the recent $700 billion bailout measure approved by Congress.

In Oregon, a photo of President Bush and Sen. Gordon H. Smith is prominently featured in a new Democratic commercial that attacks the incumbent for giving a "blank check" to Wall Street. In New Hampshire, Bush's face morphs into that of Republican Sen. John Sununu, who is accused, in the Democratic campaign committee's latest negative ad, of wanting to privatize Social Security.

For Democrats to rack up big gains, analysts say, demoralized Republican voters would have to stay home and the newly registered and energized Democrats recruited by Obama's campaign would need to turn out in record numbers.

In addition to psychological factors generated by a faltering economy and talk of another depression, Democrats have another advantage: campaign money. According to Federal Election Commission statistics, the national Democratic Party has outspent the Republicans by better than 10-to-1 in House races.

Republicans "pay a price for that," said Davis, who formerly headed the Republican House campaign committee. "The mold has hardened in some of these districts, and maybe our candidates can't come back."

According to the latest race-by-race analysis by Congressional Quarterly, a total of 100 House seats (out of 435) are in play, with Republicans defending nearly two seats for every Democratic seat that may be at risk.

The only Maryland contest on the list is the Eastern Shore seat being vacated by Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, who lost to state Sen. Andy Harris in the primary and has endorsed Democratic nominee Frank Kratovil Jr. It would take a Democratic landslide to flip the district, which also contains Republican suburbs around Baltimore and Annapolis, but those upsets can happen in change elections.

Veteran Democratic consultant Alan Secrest said voters nationwide are becoming so restive that even Democratic incumbents are seeing their poll numbers slip.

"This doesn't change the overall picture, which envisions Democratic gains, but it does mean that incumbents need to be focused and disciplined down the stretch," he said.

At the same time, he warned, "there's a fair amount of overconfidence among Democrats, in part because of Obamamania among the party faithful."

With McCain on the ropes and a growing number of his party's candidates in danger, Republicans would be overjoyed to have an overconfidence problem.

"The only good news," said longtime Republican strategist Tom Rath of New Hampshire, "is the calendar. We're not holding the election now."

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