EDWARDS
Bill Perry  /  AP
Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards at the 2005 Florida Democratic Conference on Saturday.
By Deputy political director
NBC News
updated 12/14/2005 11:13:11 AM ET 2005-12-14T16:13:11

ORLANDO, Fla. - Talk about a difference. This time a year ago, Democrats were in the midst of their winter of discontent. They had failed to defeat George W. Bush in the presidential election, they had lost four seats in the Senate, and they also had lost more ground in the House. “We've got to reassess ourselves,” Democratic strategist James Carville lamented after the elections. “We've got to be born again."

But as prominent Democrats (including those eyeing a presidential bid in 2008) gathered here in Walt Disney World over the weekend for the Florida Democratic Party’s conference, the mood was upbeat, boastful even, about picking up seats in next year’s midterm elections -- and perhaps even regaining control of Congress. “I am hugely optimistic about our chances,”  former Sen. John Edwards, who was John Kerry’s running mate, told reporters.

“We’re coming, and we’re going to getcha,” the usually mild-mannered Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa told the gathering Saturday.

Did Disney World make these Democrats a bit, well, goofy? Hardly. They have plenty of reasons to feel optimistic about next year’s elections. Bush’s poll numbers remain at politically perilous levels, although they have begun to inch up. The public also is still dissatisfied with how the Bush administration has handled the Iraq war, the economy, and Hurricane Katrina.

In addition, ethics scandals have ensnared Republicans: A Texas prosecutor has indicted Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, on political money-laundering charges, forcing DeLay to step down from his leadership post in the House; Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., recently pleaded guilty on bribery and tax-evasion charges; and an ethical cloud surrounding Republican uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff is hovering over additional GOP lawmakers. What’s more, Democrats can point their gubernatorial victories last month in New Jersey and Virginia as a sign of things to come in 2006.

Let's do the math
But Democrats might not want to begin drafting their victory speeches just yet. While the political environment certainly seems to be in their favor, they still have plenty of obstacles to overcome before taking back control of Congress, let alone picking up seats.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle is next year’s map. Republicans currently hold a 55-45 advantage in the Senate, a 230-203 advantage in the House, and a 28-22 advantage in governorships. Although there will be 33 Senate contests next year, only one of them -- in Tennessee -- features a Republican-held seat that’s open. That means Democrats, in order to take back control of the Senate, have to defeat five GOP incumbents, plus win the open seat. And that’s assuming Democrats don’t lose any seats they currently hold.

In the House, all 435 seats are up for grabs, but the nonpartisan Cook Political Report says that just 28 of them are competitive, and 18 of these are held by Republicans. That means Democrats must win 83 percent of these GOP-held competitive seats to take back the House, says National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Carl Forti. “The math is very difficult.”

For Democrats, however, the math looks much better when it comes to next year’s 36 gubernatorial races. Republicans must defend 22 seats (seven of which have no incumbent, and that number could increase), while Democrats defend 14 seats (just one of which is open).

Democrats say they realize the math makes it difficult for them to win back Congress, but they believe the overall political environment, their fundraising, and their candidate recruitment has given them the opportunity to win seats next year. “We feel pretty good about our chances to pick up seats,” says Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Phil Singer. “Things have gotten off to a very strong start.”

A message for the masses?
Yet before picking up these seats, Democrats have another obstacle in their path: their message. According to last month’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll , just 11 percent of respondents said Democrats have a clear message for the future, while 18 percent said the same of Republicans. “The best thing we have going for us is the national Democrats,” says Brian Nick, a spokesman at the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

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And perhaps no issue has seemed to divide Democrats more than Iraq, as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. Jack Murtha, D-Pa., have advocated an immediate redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq, while Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., has backed Bush’s call to stay the course.

Democrats, though, used the conference in Orlando to dispel the perception that they don’t have a message. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., a rising Democratic star, told the audience on Saturday, “We are the party of Jefferson... We are the party of [Franklin] Roosevelt... We are the party of the New Frontier.” The night before, Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, who has received criticism for stating that the United States won’t be able to win in Iraq, highlighted his party’s message: honesty and integrity in government, a strong national defense, American jobs staying in America, health care for everyone, and a strong public education system.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who also was attending the conference, said in an interview that Americans know where the Democratic Party stands on the issues versus its GOP counterparts. “Poll after poll after poll is showing us to be way out ahead on every issue.”

Republicans & Democrats share obstacles
But Bernadette Budde, the senior vice president at BIPAC, a pro-business political group that mainly supports Republican candidates (also some Democrats), points out that Democrats have another challenge to overcome: The public is angry -- and not just at Republicans. Indeed, the November NBC/ Journal survey found that just 24 percent believe Republicans in Congress share their priorities, while 26 percent said Democrats do. “Anyone holding office and isn't doing their job ... can be thrown out of office,” Budde said at a press briefing last week. “We are thinking there could be a lot of surprises” in 2006.

Yet Hoyer believes the surprises will ultimately come at the GOP’s expense. “Are Democrats popular at this point? No, we’re not. But why? Because the Republicans have created in the consciousness of the American people such a disappointment in politics in general. But the fact is, the Republicans control the town.” He concluded, “The only way Americans are going to get change is to vote to change the leadership of the Congress.”

Rod Smith, a Democratic Florida state senator who’s running for governor next year, put it this way when he addressed the conference: “The Republicans have been doing their part to make sure we win. Let’s do our part.”

But what happens if Democrats don’t do their part? What happens if they fail to pick up a sizable number of seats -- despite all of the Republican Party’s current troubles? “Ask me a day after Election Day,” Hoyer replied.

Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.

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