Democrats face uphill climb in midterm elections

With just over six months to campaign, Democrats face a substantial risk of losing the House and surrendering much of their advantage in the Senate, as Republicans capitalize on strong discontent with President Obama and continued voter concern over jobs and the economy.

The trend marks an erosion for Democrats since the beginning of the year, after the retirement of several senior lawmakers and the polarizing healthcare debate. Even recent signs of an economic rebound — the first glimmers of job creation, the stock market surge, a big rise in consumer spending — may not help Democrats, unless it translates into a significant drop in the unemployment rate by fall.

The good news for Obama and fellow Democrats is that, unlike the Republican landslide of 1994, strategists are well aware of the peril the party faces — Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown saw to that — and have much more time to fight back.

“Democrats got a heads-up,” said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster with dozens of clients in the midterm election. “They can raise more money, do opposition research against opponents, do focus-group testing on how to beat these guys. ... In 1994, they had very little notice a wave was coming.”

Democrats are doing what they can to reshape the political environment.

In recent days, Obama and congressional leaders have taken on Wall Street, practically daring Republicans to block reforms aimed at the maneuvers that almost capsized the financial system. The fraud suit against investment giant Goldman, Sachs & Co. on Friday has invigorated those efforts, at a time voter anger over bailouts and the bursting of the housing bubble continue to boil.

Still, several trends are running strongly in Republicans’ favor, after two dismal elections that first cost them control of Congress, then the White House.

The party holding the White House almost always loses congressional seats at the midpoint of a president’s first term; since World War II, the average is 16 House seats. However, the losses have been much greater when a president’s approval rating is below 50%, where Obama has been hovering of late.

Over the last half-century, presidents with a sub-50% approval rating have lost an average of 41 House seats, a number that could put the GOP back in charge on at least one side of Capitol Hill.

Republicans need to win 40 House seats to reclaim the majority they lost in 2006. Democrats are braced for losses in the 20 to 25 seat range, though any number of variables — the potency of the economic recovery, a foreign policy crisis, the strength of the candidates on each side — could affect that number between now and November.

“The question is not whether we have an uphill climb,” said Maryland Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen, head of the party’s House campaign committee. “The question is the steepness of the hill.”

It appears much tougher for Republicans to win control of the Senate, where Democrats enjoy a 59-41 advantage. The GOP is expected to win, at a minimum, a handful of seats. But to take over, Republicans would need to sweep all 10 of the most competitive contests, including California, while fending off Democratic challenges in several states — Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio among them — where Republican senators are retiring.

Strategists on both sides believe races could also develop in at least two Republican-leaning states, Arizona and Kentucky, if less-centrist candidates emerge from hard-fought GOP primaries. Arizona Sen. John McCain has held a steady lead over his insurgent challenger, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, but in Kentucky the establishment favorite, Secretary of State Trey Grayson, is trailing “tea party” acolyte Rand Paul by double digits.

When it comes to winning both houses of Congress, history suggests the odds are stacked against Republicans. The last time either party won at least 10 Senate and 40 House seats in a single election was in 1958, when Democrats surged in the second midterm election under President Eisenhower.

But as analyst Rhodes Cook pointed out, this has been an era of unusual political volatility: Not since 1980 and 1982 have there been back-to-back elections with a party gaining 20 or more House seats, as Democrats managed in the last two campaigns. A third straight election with at least 20 House seats changing hands would be the first in over half a century.

“You can guess what would happen if an election were held today,” Cook said. “But that might be different in a week or month.”

A pair of special congressional elections next month could offer some clues for November.

In western Pennsylvania, Democrats are fighting to hang onto the seat held for four decades by the late Democratic Rep. John P. Murtha. Republican Tim Burns’ resume — businessman, political outsider — seems well suited for the current antiestablishment environment, but Democrat Mark Critz, a former congressional staffer, could benefit from strong party turnout to pick the Democrats’ Senate and gubernatorial nominees. The election is May 18.

In Hawaii, two prominent Democrats, former U.S. Rep. Ed Case and state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, could split the vote, delivering an open seat to Republican Charles Djou in the May 22 winner-take-all contest. A GOP victory in the heavily Democratic state might not match Brown’s achievement — he claimed a Senate seat that Massachusetts Democrats held for more than 50 years — but would give Republicans a big boost, coming in Obama’s native state.

Strategists will also be watching a number of primaries for the way they shape the field for November.

In Virginia, for instance, freshman Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello is considered highly vulnerable after supporting the healthcare bill and other pieces of Obama’s ambitious agenda. But state Sen. Robert Hurt, perhaps his strongest GOP rival, faces a tough June primary against several more conservative challengers who may lack Hurt’s fundraising potential and broader appeal in November. Perriello would be a slight favorite for reelection against anyone other than Hurt.

In Michigan, a tea party favorite, Justin Amash, is running to replace retiring Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, a relatively centrist Republican. Amash angered many, however, by jumping into the race before the congressman announced his plans, and that could give Democrats an opening. “A lot of Ehlers’ loyalists perceive him to be a little brash,” said David Wasserman, a nonpartisan analyst with Charles Cook’s political report. The primary is Aug. 3.

Democrats see other opportunities. They hope to pick up half a dozen or so Republican-held seats, including vacancies in Delaware and Illinois and the seat in a heavily Democratic New Orleans district represented by freshman Anh “Joseph” Cao.

But Democrats concede they are trying to keep a difficult situation from turning disastrous. As Stuart Rothenberg, an independent campaign analyst put it: “The Democrats are in for a beating. The only question is how bad.”

Janet Hook in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.