Democrats headed into the Fourth of July recess facing stiff head winds in their quest to maintain a Senate majority this fall, contending with voters' unease over the economy and a slew of Washington controversies.
But analysts say that a narrow path still exists for the party because of atypically strong enthusiasm levels among Democratic voters, while Republicans confront newly inflamed tensions with their base after a roller coaster series of primaries.
New data released last week by leading pollsters in both parties show how November's midterm election could hinge on Democrats' success in rallying key voting sectors, such as women.
The party's Senate leaders have already tailored their legislative agenda with an eye to these groups, pushing proposals to raise the minimum wage and to ensure pay equity between men and women in the workplace. President Obama on June 26 traveled to Minnesota to spend what he called a "day in the life" with a 36-year-old mother of young children who had written to him about her family's struggles.
But Obama's diminished popularity and recurring questions about government competence, including the healthcare law rollout, IRS scandal and Department of Veterans Affairs appointment backlog, have been a more powerful drag thus far on Democratic candidates.
"It makes it far more difficult to stand with the president as a Democratic incumbent, and to carry this weight of an unpopular president," said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. "The more these stories come out, the more difficult it is to carry that load through November."
Democrats hold a 55 to 45 advantage in the Senate, including two independent lawmakers who usually vote with them. To win the majority, Republicans need to gain six seats out of the 36 races that will be contested this fall, a target many nonpartisan handicappers say is within reach.
Ayres conducted a survey in 12 states with the most competitive Senate races and found Obama's job approval rating at 38%. When asked if they would prefer the Senate controlled by Democrats to help pass Obama's agenda or Republicans to "act as a check and balance," voters preferred the GOP 54% to 36%.
Matt Canter, deputy executive director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, acknowledged that Democrats are facing a difficult landscape but said the candidates are well positioned.
"Constituents in their states understand that their senator is putting their state's interests ahead of Washington and even ahead of their own national party when they think that that's right," he said. "These races have truly become choices."
But Ayres found one ray of hope for Democrats: the party's voters reported equal levels of enthusiasm about the November vote as Republicans in these states. Typically in the midterm election of a president's second term, the opposing party has a significant edge, as national polls now show.
"This is an unusual result," Ayres said. "But I do think that's a function of the attention that's been lavished on these dozen states so far. There's been a tremendous number of ads already, even where the Republican nominee has not been settled yet. So I think that's what's generating this parity in enthusiasm."
Ayres' survey, conducted for the GOP think tank Resurgent Republic, also found that Republican voters were more likely to be dissatisfied with their party's leadership in Congress than were Democratic voters, a product of the tea party-versus-GOP establishment battles that have hurt previous efforts to win back the Senate.
This year, GOP incumbents have thus far withstood challenges from their right, including six-term Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, who beat tea-party-backed Chris McDaniel last week in a bitter and costly runoff. But Democrats hope that the discord seen in the Mississippi race and elsewhere might dampen the zeal of conservatives to help Republicans win total control of Congress for Obama's final two years.
"This infighting has taken its toll," said Amy Walter, a national political analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Republicans "are not as enthusiastic as they were in 2010. Even they are a little bit disillusioned by what's been happening over the last couple years."
That also means Republican candidates are not getting the benefit of the doubt among independent voters as they did in 2010, Walter added.
A spokesman for the Senate Republicans' campaign committee noted, however, that most polls show independents siding with Republicans.
"There's a reason why independent voters in the battleground states are overwhelmingly siding with Republicans, and that's because they are sick and tired of what's going on in Washington," Brad Dayspring said. "The people who pay the price for that are the incumbents."
Democratic strategists say that the party needs to focus on shoring up its own base. Pollster Stan Greenberg issued what he called a "populist call to arms" for his party to build on the Democratic advantage with young voters, minorities and unmarried women.
It is in that last group where Democrats see lagging support as compared to previous elections. Democrats won unmarried women by 20 points in 2010 and 34 points in 2012. The Democracy Corps survey released last week found them with a 17-point lead over Republicans.
"There are big forces that could shift the race: Lack of enthusiasm for the president is a risk for Democrats; increasing hostility toward Republicans in Congress is a risk for Republicans. Unmarried women are the opportunity for Democrats to take their fate in their hands," Greenberg wrote.
Walter said the Democrats' campaign on a theme of economic fairness may have limited success if target voters don't see hope in their own economic situation.
"Minority voters are much more pessimistic now about the economy even than they were in November 2012," she said. "Those are the kind of voters that you need. The most important thing that can happen between now and November is that people do start to feel like things are getting better, or at the very least that things will get better a year from now."
As he wrapped up his Minnesota trip Friday, Obama was joined by Democratic Sen. Al Franken, who is seeking a second term, on a visit to a job training center. There, Obama said Republicans were standing in the way of efforts to boost the economy and said he had "a sense they just don't know what most folks are going through." The line elicited agreeing boos from a supportive audience.
"Don't boo," Obama said, "I want you to vote!"