WASHINGTON — Election Day is three weeks from now, and unless something happens fast, this will be one of those once- or twice-in-a-generation elections when a party enjoys unbelievable gains or endures horrendous losses that prove to be the exceptions to Tip O'Neill's adage that "all politics is local." In midterm elections, Democrats last suffered such a defeat in 1994; for Republicans, it was 20 years before that in the Watergate election of 1974.
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The direction, barring some unforeseen event, is clear. What is less clear is which specific seats will fall and how far inland this wave will go.
In the Senate, it would be a real shocker if Republicans Conrad Burns in Montana , Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania or Mike DeWine in Ohio got re-elected. Some would put Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee on the same list, but you could at least get a debate going on that one. Besides Chafee, the GOP seats still teetering on the edge are Jim Talent in Missouri , George Allen in Virginia and the open seat in Tennessee , although it's still worth keeping an eye on Jon Kyl in Arizona if Republican turnout truly goes through the floor.
Likely Democratic gain in Senate
On the Democratic side, it's appointed Sen. Robert Menendez in New Jersey hanging onto a very precarious lead. GOP strategists aren't sure they want to commit to funding a three-week TV buy in New York City and Philadelphia that would cost upwards of $7 million for a state that has disappointed Republicans so many times over the last dozen years. The GOP's chances against incumbent Debbie Stabenow in Michigan, Maria Cantwell in Washington and an open seat in Maryland are now long shots, at best. Right now, the Senate looks most likely to reflect a five- or six-seat gain for Democrats, putting the chamber at 50-50 or giving Democrats a hair-thin 51-49 majority. A four- or seven-seat gain is also quite possible, and a three- or eight-seat gain is theoretically possible, but highly unlikely.
In the House , there are now four GOP-held seats that are leaning toward Democrats and 26 more in the toss-up column. Keep in mind the Cook Political Report's almost iron-clad rule that unindicted incumbents don't get designated worse than a toss-up. Twenty more Republican seats are only leaning Republican. Another 15 seats are in the likely Republican column -- not quite in our competitive categories yet, but they could potentially be so, and some of these may be moving any day now. So call it 50 seats in jeopardy now, but a few more aren't too secure in this kind of environment.
Second and third tier races important
A Democracy Corps (D) survey (PDF) of 1,200 likely voters in the 49 most-vulnerable GOP-held districts released on Friday captured it best. The poll showed that while the 20 or so Republican seats most at risk had not moved much in recent weeks, there was a meltdown for the GOP in second- and third-tier races, which makes a certain amount of sense. In a highly adverse political environment, contested Republican incumbents with the most points to lose -- in terms of both job approval and actual support -- lost the most. Races that were already very close or where the races have been engaged for some time didn't have far to drop. Although the survey was taken by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research for Democracy Corps (D), which is headed up by Stan Greenberg and James Carville, pollsters in both parties have been following their surveys closely, particularly because this survey measures the actual ballot tests by naming the candidates running in each district instead of using a hypothetical generic ballot test like most other national surveys.
While many attribute the Republican freefall to the scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley and his e-mails to congressional pages, it really was no more than the straw that broke the camel's back. The seeds of Republicans' problems were planted long before publication of the congressman's e-mails to pages. The war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, other congressional scandals, federal budget spending and deficits, stem-cell research, Terri Schiavo and a multitude of other factors had been feeding the creation of an undertow for the GOP that goes back over a year. The "time for a change" dynamic that worked against Democrats in 1994 gradually came into place, fueled by all those factors mentioned above, and now it would probably take some huge event to alter its course.
Triage time for GOP
But this doesn't mean that each race is predetermined. From the standpoint of the two House campaign committees, it is triage time for Republicans. A time when those who are politically dead or unlikely to be saved should be jettisoned, with resources shifted to those who can still be saved. This is no time for sentimentalism, though it should be noted that the extremely able political division of the National Republican Congressional Committee is hardly the sort to get misty-eyed over a candidate who is a proverbial dead man walking. It's difficult to tell incumbents who should be able to save themselves to fend for themselves and that there are others who are needier. It should be noted that some of the more talented campaign committees in the past have ended up on the losing side of wave elections.
For Rahm Emanuel and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, it's time to swing for the fences. On a conference call last week, Carville noted that if he were directing the Democrats he would go to the bank and borrow $5 million and put that into the second- and third-tier races -- races 20 through 50 -- that have received little if any support up until now, because they looked like long shots (or in some cases, no-shots) until this environment changed. My only disagreement with Carville is that I would borrow $10 million, up against future receipts, and put $500,000 in each of 20 races, and shift resources from the first 20 to the next 10, effectively going after 50 GOP-held districts. My guess is that the top 20 targets for Democrats will somehow find money from Washington and a PAC community. 2006 key races
Nobody is saying that Democrats will be picking up 50 seats, or even 40 seats. But could this hit 25 or 30 or 35 seats in the House? Absolutely. Democratic voters are spitting nails and can't wait to vote while their Republican counterparts are showing signs of despondency and may be impervious to party pleas to turn out and vote, no matter how elaborate the program is. That's how midterm election debacles occur: disproportionate turnout.
Of course all of this could change. The North Korean nuclear tests should serve as a reminder of how an external event could shift the spotlight away from Iraq and scandals and onto national security or terrorism. But if such a thing occurs, we will know it when we see it.
Charlie Cook is a NationalJournal.com contributing editor, weekly columnist for National Journal magazine and the founder and publisher of the Cook Political Report. This column also runs in CongressDailyAM when Congress is in session. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.