Two months before election day, the U.S. economy is teetering. President Obama’s approval ratings are anemic. Republican voters are pumped. The smart money is betting against Democratic incumbents.
With the political and economic landscape tilted so steeply against the Democrats, the biggest question is: How in the world could Republicans not win control of Congress?
But despite all its assets, the GOP still faces hurdles. It suffers a disadvantage in fundraising, a national organization in shambles, an inconsistent message, and bruises from a tumultuous primary season — all factors that could make the difference between winning and winning big.
“This isn’t going to be as easy as it looks, by any means,” said Terry Holt, a top aide to George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign who has been informally advising House Republican leaders. “It’s going to require an awful lot of really focused organizational and grass-roots efforts to truly take advantage of the opportunity we have been given.”
Nonpartisan analysts, one by one, have become increasingly bold in predicting a Republican takeover of the House. A Senate majority will be harder for the GOP to achieve, but the prospect is no longer unthinkable, as it was just a few months ago.
Still, one big thing stands between Republicans and taking charge of Congress: a campaign. Most voters are just beginning to focus on the candidates and their messages.
“If we get overconfident and don’t stick to our message, and we don’t work for that vote, we will lose that vote,” says Glenn McCall, a member of the Republican National Committee from South Carolina.
To address the shortcomings, party leaders and outside allies are working to close a gap between their fundraising and the bulging coffers of the Democratic Party. They also are preparing a new campaign manifesto that will be unveiled this month, to answer charges that they offer no credible alternative except to recycle the unpopular policies of the Bush administration.
And the GOP will be shifting from a primary season of intraparty strife between establishment candidates and insurgents. The final months of the campaign will test just how receptive swing voters will be to the populists who so excited the conservative base.
Looking for chinks in the GOP armor, Democrats hope to stave off disaster with their own financial clout, a disciplined critique of Republican policies and their attacks on GOP candidates.
“We have been preparing from Day 1 for what we knew would be a very tough campaign season,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
‘Gale-force winds’ favor GOP
To take control of the House, Republicans need to pick up 39 seats. To win the Senate, the GOP would need to gain 10 seats.
Doing so would represent a breathtaking turnaround for a party that less than two years ago had been flattened by two crushing electoral landslides that left it depleted, leaderless and demoralized.
“The gale-force winds that blew Democrats to power have shifted entirely and are now behind Republicans, who appear to be sailing to a remarkable victory,” said Lawrence Jacobs, an expert on polling and elections at the University of Minnesota. He sees the situation for Democrats as even more dire than in 1994, when Republicans swept to power.
A recent Gallup poll gives Republicans nationwide a 10-point edge in popularity, the largest in the recent history of midterm elections. That means more and more congressional seats are in play.
The party’s biggest obstacle to taking advantage of that expanded playing field is money. Republican challengers, if they are unknown to voters, are especially vulnerable to advertising purchased by deep-pocketed Democratic incumbents.
For instance, in the GOP effort to unseat Democratic Rep. Patrick J. Murphy in the suburbs of Philadelphia, polls show the GOP challenger leading Murphy, 48% to 41%. But the area is an expensive media market, and the National Republican Congressional Committee has not included it in its first wave of advertising.
That means attack ads may not be countered in time. “Money can buy you confusion; it can buy a lot of fear,” said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.).
Half a dozen Democratic incumbents are already airing ads portraying their Republican opponents as enemies of Social Security. Among them is Rep. Baron P. Hill (D-Ind.), who is trailing his opponent in polls but can dip into a 4-to-1 funding advantage to launch early attacks.
There are signs that Republican candidates and allied outside groups are making progress on reversing their money woes. In December 2009, the Democrats’ House campaign committee had 6-to-1 cash advantage over its Republican counterpart. In June, Democrats had a 2-to-1 advantage, and the gap continues to close. Meanwhile, newly formed independent conservative groups — like American Crossroads and Americans for Prosperity — have been raising millions to support GOP candidates.
The mood swing was evident to Kingston when, in the dog days of August, he held a National Republican Congressional Committee fundraiser in his Savannah district, with former Bush advisor Karl Rove as the headliner.
“We had a very easy time filling the room,” Kingston said.
Organization, message woes
Meanwhile, internal dissent at the Republican National Committee and controversies surrounding Chairman Michael Steele have disrupted planning, oversight and organization. In past campaigns, the RNC was a crucial resource in developing disciplined, detailed get-out-the-vote plans for candidates and incumbents nationwide. It was considered more sophisticated than organized labor, a vaunted ally of Democrats.
The RNC’s shortcomings have prompted campaign consultants to make independent plans. They have looked to groups like American Crossroads for help in organizing sympathetic voters.
“It’s sad to say, but the RNC, which was so important in the past, has become almost irrelevant this year,” said one party veteran working on statewide races, who asked not to be identified because of pressure not to criticize the party.
Another campaign veteran said RNC officials rejected an offer he made Thursday to send experienced volunteers to battleground races. It was the first time he had encountered such a response in 10 years of working in campaigns.
RNC spokesman Doug Heye said that the national party had adjusted its tactics and spending priorities this year, but that it remained active in every significant race and had made nearly three times the number of contacts with individual voters than the RNC had made at this point in 2008. On Friday, the RNC announced plans to send more than 300 paid staff to help mobilize supporters in key races across the country.
Some Republicans argue that they are handicapped not just by their party’s money gap, but also by a vacuum in the party’s message after months of criticism calling it “the party of no.”
With big gains in sight, they are under increasing pressure to say what they would do if they won control of Congress.
“The purpose of a political party is to not to win elections but to prove you are ready to govern,” said David Winston, a Republican pollster, quoting British Prime Minister David Cameron. “One of the elements that has to be addressed is the fact that people remember Republicans from 2006. The electorate was not satisfied. They weren’t getting things done. They fired them. Republicans have to address those concerns.”
That is, in part, why Republicans are preparing to unveil a policy manifesto on par with the 1994 “Contract with America” — a conservative bill of particulars that was the road map for the GOP during its first 100 days in control of Congress.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) and other GOP leaders are drawing up a new agenda, based on town hall meetings and other voter feedback gleaned during the August recess.
At the same time, Democrats are trying to portray many GOP primary winners as extremist “tea party” conservatives who are out of step with mainstream voters. “Imagine, these people could represent you,” said the concluding line on a DNC Web video spotlighting the conservative views of Republican nominees across the country.
But veterans of political “wave” elections note that an ideological landslide can overpower the foibles of individual candidates or the shortcomings of a party’s funding, organization and message.
In elections like that, candidates fighting the wave find that “it’s hard to make your opponent the issue,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who was chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2006 and 2008, when Republicans were on the losing end of a big political surge. “What we do doesn’t make much difference.”