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Unlikely battleground of Wisconsin reflects Democrats' vulnerability in midterm elections

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By Karen Tumulty
Monday, September 6, 2010; 10:47 PM

MILWAUKEE - Democrats in Congress are no longer asking themselves whether this is going to be a bad election year for them and their party. They are asking whether it is going to be a disaster.

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The answer will probably be found in states such as Wisconsin, one of a growing number of spots on the map where Democrats accustomed to winning reelection with ease - including Sen. Russell Feingold - are unexpectedly in trouble.

The GOP pushed deep into Democratic-held territory over the summer, to the point where the party is well within range of picking up the 39 seats it would need to take control of the House. Overall, as many as 80 House seats could be at risk, and fewer than a dozen of these are held by Republicans.

Political handicappers now say it is conceivable that the Republicans could also win the 10 seats they need to take back the Senate. Not since 1930 has the House changed hands without the Senate following suit.

"Given the races in play - six for Republicans and 13 for Democrats - a plausible case can now be made that those 10 seats are within their reach," the nonpartisan Cook Political Report wrote last week. But it predicted that the GOP's gain will fall just short of that, at seven to nine seats.

Even if Republicans do not win enough seats to wrest control of Congress, they appear poised to increase their numbers enough to block Democratic bills and all but halt President Obama's agenda.

This political turmoil is on full display in Wisconsin. There are at least two Democratic House seats at stake and also a close race to succeed retiring Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle.

But the real surprise here is that Feingold, whose reelection to a fourth term had once been considered a lock, is in a tight race. He is one of three Democratic senators unexpectedly in that predicament, and in large part because of the hostile political climate nationally. Barbara Boxer in California and Patty Murray in Washington are also struggling to keep their seats.

Midterm elections have often been an early indicator of larger turns in the direction of the country - and a (sometimes spotty) predictor of presidential contests that follow two years later. In 2010, Democrats are burdened with a bad economy for which they are at least partially blamed, an increasingly unpopular president whose policies they backed and a turbocharged opposition that won't let voters forget, either.

"I don't think there's been a door more open for an opposition party to do well - certainly better than 1994," the last time the Republicans took control of both houses, said David Winston, a pollster who advises the House Republican leadership.

The White House is rushing to put together a package of tax cuts that would encourage businesses to step up hiring. Also on the agenda is a congressional debate over whether to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans - a fight that leaders of both parties insist would work in their favor.

But Democrats know they have little chance of seeing what would help them most: a dramatic improvement in the economy before November. And public support has not materialized as they had hoped it would for their signature achievement, an overhaul of the health-care system.


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