Here comes the GOP

If current trends continue, Baltimore-born Nancy Pelosi will soon become the first female former speaker of the House. Congressman Steny Hoyer of Maryland would be demoted to minority leader, or worse. And Republicans might even seize control of the U.S. Senate, along with the U.S. House of Representatives.

Change is coming to Washington. For the third national election in a row, voters are ready to punish those in charge for the way things have been going in the country. That much is clear. All that remains to be determined, heading into the fall campaign, is the precise size and shape of the Republican rebound.

In 2006 and 2008, the Democrats successfully exploited voter anger at Republican President George W. Bush. As a result, they took control of both houses of Congress and the White House, prompting overheated talk about a new age of American leadership. Now, with the pendulum swinging back, the future of that new era is in serious jeopardy. Things are headed the Republican way, perhaps with a vengeance. Or as Dick Cheney would say — big time.

Some usually reliable indicators suggest 2010 could be an even better year for Republicans than 1994. That was the election that cost Democrats their majorities in both houses of Congress and put Newt Gingrich in the House speaker's chair. A recent national opinion survey by the Gallup organization, which has been tracking congressional voting preference since 1942, gave Republicans their largest advantage ever in that measure.

The shifting national picture could be a sign that change is coming to Annapolis, too. Many Marylanders still remember what happened locally in 1994. Ellen Sauerbrey, the Republican nominee for governor, came within a whisker of getting elected. This autumn, the Republicans are going to be fielding a proven winner, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., at the top of the state ticket. The former governor might well be in the right place at the right time, though Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley will prove a far more formidable opponent than Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was in 2002.

Of course, there's no certainty that these trends will continue or that Election Day will be doomsday for Democrats. That's why we have campaigns and hold elections. But Democrats are only deluding themselves if they don't recognize the danger ahead.

A political storm is brewing, one that could make the big ocean swells along Maryland's coastline seem like tiny ripples by comparison. Traditional factors, which always figured to make this a challenging election for Democrats, are being magnified by a strikingly negative national mood. Voters are alienated, aggrieved and angry. If they vent the full force of their pent-up fury, the wave that crests on Nov. 2 will topple well-funded, sure-footed Democratic candidates who weren't expected to lose.

Even in ordinary times, the first midterm election of a new president's term is tough for the party in power, which typically loses seats. Many of the U.S. House members who rode the president's vote surge into office — think of Democratic Rep. Frank Kratovil in this state's easternmost and traditionally Republican district — get swept out two years later. Add to that the fact that Republican voters are ordinarily more likely than Democrats to participate in nonpresidential elections, regardless of which party holds the White House.

And this is no ordinary time. For months, public opinion polls have been sending a consistent message: Voter "intensity" is extremely lopsided in 2010. Republicans are highly energized; Democrats aren't. The weak economic climate is only increasing the Republican advantage. It's a cliché that Americans vote their pocketbooks, especially when jobs are an overriding concern, but it's also true.

Growing dissatisfaction with President Barack Obama's performance is also a factor. Many of the "surge" supporters who helped elect Mr. Obama president won't bother to vote this year. And it's unlikely that he can do much about it. When voters are downbeat, even the best presidential communicators, including Ronald Reagan in the first midterm campaign of his administration, have been powerless to prevent their party's candidates from losing.

Against these trends of history and a sour public mood, the Democratic National Committee says it is spending $50 million on turnout. The aim is to motivate a big chunk of first-time voters from 2008 to rescue Mr. Obama's agenda by supporting Democratic candidates. The target group is composed disproportionately of the young, minorities and new American citizens. But many of them are feeling let down that their vote for Mr. Obama failed to generate hoped-for changes on global warming, immigration and gay rights, while at the same time producing an unwelcome U.S. military escalation in Afghanistan.

Looking back over the first half of Mr. Obama's term, Democrats should have a great case to present to voters. They saved the country from a possible new depression with a $814 billion stimulus package, preventing the Great Recession from getting worse by creating millions of jobs. A sweeping overhaul of the nation's health care system represents one of the most significant legislative landmarks in recent memory. And as the president reminded the country the other night, he is keeping his campaign promise to unwind U.S. military involvement in Iraq. But voters don't seem inclined to reward Democratic candidates for these achievements.

Republicans, meantime, are riding a winning streak that shows no sign of ending. A cynical but effective strategy of opposing Mr. Obama's agenda — which the president and other Democrats somehow failed to anticipate or counter effectively — has put congressional Republicans within reach of a return to power. They and their party's candidates aren't offering much in the way of new solutions to many of the same problems that festered when they were in charge. But Republican strategists appear to have concluded, perhaps correctly, that there's no need to waste a lot of time on new ideas. With a wretched jobless situation that refuses to budge and an economic recovery that's been heading the wrong way for months, Americans appear primed to throw out the current leadership in Congress.

If Republicans do win in November, expect to hear lots of brave Democratic talk designed to minimize the damage. They will point out how, in the aftermath of their 1994 setback, a chastened Bill Clinton rebooted his presidency and set to work with a new Republican Congress. Something like that could happen again in 2011. If Republicans gain control of Congress, their leaders — John Boehner in the House and Mitch McConnell in the Senate — might conclude that it is in their self-interest, as well as the nation's, to get things done. In that case, much needed progress could be made on big issues, like taxes, the long-term deficit and unsustainable health care spending.

Don't count on that, though. The prospect of an excruciatingly slow climb out of the current economic chasm may well embolden Republicans to keep the pressure on a weakened Mr. Obama for two more years. Their ultimate goals: reclaiming the White House and tightening the Republican hold on Congress. Republicans could take encouragement from last weekend's enormous rally of conservatives at the Lincoln Memorial. If the gathering was a sign that the economic, social and religious wings of the Republican Party are coming back together, a strengthened party base would benefit the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. Eyewitnesses on the National Mall took note of the friendly way that Glenn Beck's grass-roots supporters greeted counter-demonstrators led by the Rev. Al Sharpton, erasing fears of a possible clash. Perhaps that's because the Republicans can sense that they are already winning.

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