For GOP, a grim November looms

/ Source: National Journal

The slogan on the Morton Salt boxes is, "when it rains, it pours." For Republicans, the past few years must seem like monsoon season.

On the presidential level, the Gallup national tracking polls have shown Sen. with 50, 51 or 52 percent in every three-day moving average since Oct. 4, with Sen. between 41 percent and 43 percent in every average over that same period. No presidential contender in modern times has successfully closed this wide a gap in this short a time. At this point, a major international event would be required to shift the public focus toward foreign policy, McCain's strong suit, and away from the economy, his weak spot. It would be premature to say this is over, but the incline just seems to gets steeper every day for the Arizonan. This is a totally different dynamic than the one that existed last summer when Obama averaged a precarious 3-point margin over McCain. Obama's margin in the polling data today seems more durable than it previously had.

It's perfectly normal for a party to suffer a train wreck election from time to time, but it's really rare to have them in back-to-back elections. Indeed, only twice in the last 80 years has a party suffered significant, double-digit congressional losses in back-to-back elections, Republicans in 1930 and 1932 and Democrats in 1950 and 1952. Having lost 30 House and six Senate seats in 2006, not counting the three special congressional election losses earlier this year, Republicans now look to be on track to lose at least 20 more in the House and at least another half-dozen, perhaps as many as eight or nine, in the Senate.

Indeed, what appears to be two of the biggest factors in whether Democrats reach a theoretical 60-seat, filibuster-proof Senate, at least on party-line votes, is whether you start off with an assumption of them having 50, that is, not counting Joe Lieberman, or 51, with the Connecticut independent in the count; and whether Alaskan incumbent Ted Stevens is acquitted or convicted in his ongoing trial for not reporting personal gifts. There is a general assumption that if convicted, Stevens is likely to lose his re-election bid, if acquitted, he more likely wins, but then again, given the unpredictable nature of the last couple of years in American politics, any assumption is probably dangerous.

It's hard to see the Senate as anything but grisly for the GOP. No one disputes that Democrats will pick up the open seats in Virginia and New Mexico. Republican nominee Bob Schaffer in the open seat in Colorado and GOP incumbents John Sununu in New Hampshire and Gordon Smith in Oregon all appear to be running behind their Democratic opponents by a handful of points. With just three weeks left, it's hard to see how they recover, barring an unforeseen event.

Sen. Elizabeth Dole is running a couple of points behind Democratic challenger Kay Hagan in North Carolina, but is well within the margin of error. Incumbent GOP Sens. Roger Wicker in Mississippi and Saxby Chambliss in Georgia are running slightly ahead of their Democratic challengers, former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and former state Rep. Jim Martin, respectively. Both races are considered Toss Ups. Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman is locked in an intensely competitive and volatile three-way race against Democrat Al Franken and Independence Party nominee Dean Barkley.

On a really bad night, that's nine seats, with one more incumbent, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, holding on to a lead against Democratic businessman Bruce Lunsford. McConnell is holding right around 50 percent, perhaps 8 or 9 points ahead, but isn't likely to see many undecided voters fall his way.

While it is very unlikely that Republicans will lose all of these seats, anyone who doesn't think that one party can win just about all of the close races hasn't watched these things for very long, and in fact must not have been paying attention two years ago.

In the House, the chances of Republican losses remaining below 20 seats seem to be diminishing and the possibility of this race getting above 25 and approaching a 30-seat gain rising. It's astonishing to think that Republicans could be punished with such toxic political environments in two straight elections. In 2006, when they were in control of Congress, the war in Iraq and scandals cost them their majorities, and now, the economy and credit markets are seizing up and Republicans are being hammered being the party holding the White House.

Pollsters are privately saying that the public is evenly divided on the $700 billion economic rescue package, without much of a difference between Democratic and Republican voters. While at most they say that just 35 percent to 40 percent of voters know how their member voted, there is far greater intensity among those voters opposed to the package. While they say it seems easier to defend a vote against the package than one in favor, rescue package opponents have to be willing to say what they would have voted in favor of, what they would do in response to the crisis. In this case, "just saying no" doesn't work. In the words of one GOP pollster, "those candidates who are most hurt by this issue are those challengers who have not taken a stand. They look foolish."

Pollsters say that as the stock market and voters' retirement savings have slid, the rescue package has become less of a focal point than just a public that is apoplectic about where the economy is and what happened to their investments and worried about their jobs and future. Unless this changes, it really will be a horrible night for the GOP.