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Both parties campaign to the finish line

Democrats fought Republicans on Saturday in a campaign battle that stretched coast to coast, pushing against an epic tide of anger, frustration and economic anxiety that could sweep the GOP to control of one and possibly both houses of Congress.

Driving deep into once-solid Democratic territory, Republicans spent the last weekend of the midterm election campaign targeting House seats in blue-state bastions such as California, New York and Massachusetts. Democrats poured tens of millions of dollars into a last-ditch effort to save dozens of threatened incumbents, writing off others whose chances appeared beyond hope.

With spending near the $4-billion mark, a record for a midterm contest, there was little escaping the last blast of campaigning. Candidates and others with a stake in Tuesday’s outcome — including, most prominently, President Obama — staged rallies while hundreds of thousands of volunteers knocked on doors and manned phone banks, urging supporters to the polls.

In Philadelphia, the first stop on a final campaign swing, Obama said all the progress of the last two years could be rolled back if Republicans seize control of Congress.

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“We can’t move backwards now. We’ve got to keep moving forward,” Obama told an audience of Democratic volunteers at Temple University. “And that’s all going to be up to you. So I want everybody to get out there, knock on doors, make phone calls, volunteer, talk to your friends, talk to your neighbors.”

Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, the likely House speaker if Republicans take over, used the party’s weekly radio address to jab at the president and Democrats and to promise a change from the last time Republicans ran Congress. He promised smaller government and greater accountability.

“We’ve tried it President Obama’s way,” Boehner said. “We’ve tried it Washington’s way. It hasn’t worked.”

All the while, a torrent of TV and radio advertising provided a loud and surly campaign soundtrack, blaring virtually around the clock. In some states, every last minute of TV ad time was sold out.

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All 435 U.S. House seats are up on Tuesday. Republicans need a gain of 39 to win control of the House, which they lost in 2006. Despite a public show of optimism, based on healthy Democratic turnout in some early voting, party strategists privately echoed Republicans who have suggested a change in power was highly likely. The only question, both sides agreed, was the magnitude of Republican gains and whether it approaches — or surpasses — the 52-seat GOP landslide in 1994, the last time Democrats controlled Congress and the White House.

Voters will cast ballots for 37 of 100 U.S. Senate seats. Democrats were confident they would keep the majority, albeit narrowly, and Republican strategists conceded the likelihood. The GOP needs to convert 10 seats to take over and many handicappers predicted the party would fall short, as contests in Connecticut and West Virginia seemed to tip the Democrats’ way and as Sens. Barbara Boxer in California and Patty Murray in Washington appeared to shore up support.

The last time either party gained at least 10 Senate and 40 House seats in a single election was in 1958.

Also on the ballot Tuesday are the governorships of 37 states, including California, Florida, New York and Texas. Republicans seem poised to gain about a half-dozen governor’s seats and take control of several statehouses, which could have significant implications for races in 2012 and beyond, as legislators redraw the boundaries used to elect members of Congress.

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Midterm contests are typically a referendum on the president and almost always cost his party congressional seats. This year appears no different. If anything, the achievements of Obama and congressional Democrats — passing massive economic stimulus and healthcare bills, rescuing the auto industry, cracking down on Wall Street — sharpened the opposition, giving birth to the “tea party” movement that promised to usher a number of insurgents into Congress.

Compounding problems for the president and his party, this year’s races were run in a brutal economic climate, following the worst downturn since the Great Depression. At nearly 10%, the jobless rate is the second highest it has been for a midterm election in the last 50 years.

“If unemployment was 7.4%, or even 8.1%, but dropping, and people clearly perceived that things were getting better, then Democrats would take some losses,” said Tim Hibbitts, an independent pollster in Oregon. “But not the potential catastrophe they’re facing.”

A look at the national map showed the party’s dire circumstances.

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Of 100 or so House seats that looked at least marginally competitive, Democrats were on the defensive in all but a handful. Some of the party’s most durable incumbents — including committee chairmen Barney Frank of Massachusetts, Ike Skelton of Missouri and John M. Spratt Jr. of South Carolina — were in trouble or, at the least, facing their toughest reelection fight in years.

Seats that would normally be out of Republican reach, in districts Obama easily carried two years ago, were in the toss-up category or leaning Republican, leading some independent analysts to forecast GOP gains of as many as 70 seats or more.

A swing of even 60 seats would be the largest midterm shift since 1938.

“This election is about frustration with government and bureaucracy and the sense that the federal government is just too big and too inefficient and doing more than it should,” said Lara Brown, a political scientist at Pennsylvania’s Villanova University. She cautioned Republicans, though, not to misinterpret the message on Tuesday.

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“It’s not that voters are any happier with Republicans than Democrats,” Brown said. “It’s just that Democrats are the ones in power and … you don’t punish the ‘out’ party.”

House Democrats started the year with a financial edge, which they hoped would fortify their chances against an anticipated GOP wave. But a late influx of money from conservative groups allowed Republicans to increase their targets, threatening several Democrats — including Reps. Jim Costa of Fresno, Iowa’s Bruce Braley and Connecticut’s Christopher S. Murphy — who once appeared out of harm’s way.

All were among 66 incumbents who received a cash infusion from the national party, which sunk almost $22 million into a final flight of advertising to stem Democratic losses. Other incumbents, in Ohio, Arizona, Wisconsin and New Hampshire, were left to fend for themselves.

Anthony Corrado, a Colby College expert on money and politics, suggested the outpouring of conservative contributions might make a marginal difference on Tuesday. Much of the cash has been given by anonymous donors, a fact Democrats sought to use against Republicans. But “the principal effect,” Corrado said, “will be to reinforce a tide that was already there.”

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In what passes for good news among Democrats, party strategists were hopeful they could contain their Senate losses to fewer than 10, keeping them in control of at least one congressional chamber.

Republicans seemed virtually certain to pick up open seats in North Dakota and Indiana and were confident of defeating Sen. Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas. Strategists on both sides gave Republicans the edge in Wisconsin, for an additional pickup, though Sen. Russell D. Feingold has squeaked by in previous tough races.

The Pennsylvania Senate contest has closed in recent weeks but Republicans were still favored to win and gain a fifth seat, while state “tea party” founder Rand Paul was ahead in Kentucky despite his stumbles. The open seat is the only one Republicans feared losing Tuesday.

Democrats were confident of retaining seats in Delaware, West Virginia, Connecticut, California and Washington. The three-way race in Alaska appeared to be moving toward incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, but her write-in effort has made predictions uncertain.

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The three most competitive Senate races were in Colorado, Nevada and Illinois, which strategists on both sides agreed were too close to call.

In Nevada, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was battling “tea party” insurgent Sharron Angle, each side was bracing for a close finish that could extend the campaign — through lawsuits, a recount or both — well beyond Tuesday.

mark.barabak@latimes.com


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