Republicans are positioned to wrest control of the House in this week's elections, the wind at their backs as they reach to capture the 40 seats they need to claim the majority — and potentially many more.
Democratic candidates face a poisonous cocktail of public disenchantment with the economy, disappointment in President Barack Obama and tea party-fueled grassroots anger at government.
Few Democratic incumbents feel safe, least of all the 55 who seized GOP seats during the past two elections, as Republicans seek to catch a historic wave. As many as 100 races were competitive as the balloting approached, fewer than a dozen of them for seats now held by Republicans.
"We'll get to the majority, and if a wave materializes, then this is a hurricane, tornado, tsunami all in one — with a cyclone to top it off," said Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, the No. 2 Republican in charge of House campaigns. "The winds have never been stronger."
Republicans, he said, are telling candidates in scores of tight contests throughout the country, "Don't let up."
Democrats were in crisis-control mode, struggling to limit what all acknowledged were inevitable losses. They were bracing for grim confirmation of history's traditional midterm election curse: The party in power usually loses congressional seats, and prospects this year were made even worse by the sour economy.
"It's a very challenging environment. We've always known it was going to be a challenging environment, and anytime you have a soft economy it's very difficult," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the Democratic House campaign chief.
Still, Hollen said he held out hope that Democrats could hang onto power, if only narrowly. "We will retain the majority," Van Hollen said, citing "promising" early voting results he argued were evidence that his party's supporters were turning out in larger-than-expected numbers, and polls suggesting that others could still be swayed to vote Democratic.
Democratic candidates were being instructed to make a last pitch to persuade voters not to turn the reins over to Republicans.
"We're telling them to be everywhere in their districts, talking to voters about that very clear choice ... between continuing the progress we're making or returning to the days when the big-moneyed special interests had their way in Washington at the expense of average Americans," Van Hollen said.
Strategists in both parties predicted privately that the GOP had already essentially won nearly two dozen Democratic seats, while fewer than a handful of GOP jobs appeared to be lost. It was shaping up as a stunning turnabout from 2008, when Obama helped propel Democrats to big gains in their House majority only two years after the 2006 wave that swept them to control. It was the first time in more than 50 years that a party rode waves to bigger congressional margins two elections in a row.
This year, many operatives and analysts expect Republican gains to rival or exceed the party's 1994 win, when the GOP captured 52 seats and broke Democrats' four-decade grip on Congress.
All 435 seats are up for grabs.
The Democratic lawmakers seen as most at risk of losing their seats include Steve Driehaus and Mary Jo Kilroy of Ohio; Alan Grayson and Suzanne Kosmas of Florida; Betsy Markey of Colorado; Kathy Dahlkemper of Pennsylvania; and Debbie Halvorson of Illinois. All are freshmen who were elected with Obama and voted for key elements of his agenda.
House veterans, too, are in serious jeopardy, from Rep. Ike Skelton in Missouri, the House Armed Services Committee chairman, to Rep. Earl Pomeroy in North Dakota and Rep. John Spratt in South Carolina, the House Budget Committee chairman.
Some three-dozen Democratic incumbents were in peril in dead-even races from Arizona to Maryland, including first-term Reps. John Boccieri of Ohio, Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania, and Tom Perriello of Virginia. Yet another nearly 30 Democrats once considered fairly secure were at risk, including Rep. Mike McIntyre of North Carolina and Connecticut Reps. Jim Himes and Chris Murphy.
Even veteran lawmakers who usually coast to re-election by wide margins, such as 15-term Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., the House Financial Services Committee chairman, and the longest-serving Democrat, Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, were feeling the heat in closer-than-anticipated races.
Democratic departures gave the GOP still more targets, and Republicans appeared likely to pick up open seats in Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, two in Tennessee, and a New York seat left vacant when Rep. Eric Massa resigned in March amid an investigation into whether he sexually harassed male staffers.
There were a couple of bright spots for Democrats. Republicans privately conceded that Democrat Cedric Richmond would likely win his bid to unseat GOP Rep. Joseph Cao in his New Orleans, La.-based district. And Democrat John Carney was expected to claim Delaware's lone House seat left open by GOP Rep. Mike Castle's unsuccessful Senate run.
Democrats also were mounting a solid bid to unseat Hawaii Rep. Charles Djou, and pressing to pick up seats left open by Republican retirements in Miami and the Chicago suburbs.
Amid an economic downturn, both parties and their candidates were spending eye-popping sums to get their messages out to voters. Van Hollen's Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have spent $144 million while the National Republican Congressional Committee have shelled out $121 million. Those sums were dwarfed by the amounts House candidates had spent through mid-October — Democrats, $421.5 million and Republicans, $419 million.
But the seeming equality in spending among the party committees and candidates belied a stark imbalance in spending by outside groups that don't have to disclose donors. Organizations backing Republicans spent $185 million, compared to $88 million in spending by organizations supporting Democrats.