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.
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.
So they are trying to convince skeptical voters that Democratic economic policies, such as the $814 billion stimulus package, are working, although not as fast as anyone would like; to blame the Republicans for having caused the problem in the first place; and to warn of the consequences of a return to those policies.
If voters are dismissive of Democrats, polls show that they aren't exactly sold on Republicans, either, given memories of how the party governed the last time it was in power.
In coming weeks, House Republican leader John A. Boehner (Ohio), the speaker in waiting, plans to unveil a blueprint of what his party would do if it regains a majority. But it is not clear whether that message will have much impact, or even whether Republican candidates will want to line up behind it. Many GOP campaign consultants are advising their candidates simply to stay on the attack and avoid getting tripped up by deep discussions of issues and policy.
Although the parties are trying to set the broad themes of this election, it is also a collection of unique contests: for all 435 House seats, as well as for 37 governorships and 36 Senate seats.
"There's a big wave coming," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "The question is, are individual candidates building high enough walls to protect themselves from that wave?"
Wisconsin was not a place where Democrats had anticipated a breach. Obama carried the state by 14 points in 2008, and it has sent only Democrats to the Senate since Feingold's first election, in 1992. The senator is also known for his independence from his party. He opposed Obama's decision to send more troops to Iraq and a financial regulatory bill that he said did not go far enough.
But Wisconsin has traditionally been closely divided political territory, Feingold said; he is in trouble in large part because voters associate him with their frustration about the economy and the mess in Washington. "It's a classic purple state," Feingold said. "It will always be affected by national trends either way."
Feingold's probable Republican challenger, who jumped into the race in May and is favored to win the party primary on Sept. 14, seems well cast for a year in which claims of political inexperience are often an asset.
"Sixteen weeks ago, I was you. I am you," business executive Ron Johnson told a few dozen Rotary Club members last week in the Milwaukee suburb of Mequon.
This particular everyman, however, is a multimillionaire plastics manufacturer who already has spent $4 million on television advertising, nearly three times more than Feingold has.
Yet for all that is going against the Democrats this year, they have some advantages.
One difference from 1994 is that this time they saw early on what was coming. Feingold has built a formidable campaign operation, with 16 field offices and a vast network of workers.
This year's Democrats also are, by and large, better financed than their Republican opponents - and most of that campaign money has yet to be spent.
But with so many seats in play, there won't be enough money for Democrats to defend themselves across the map, or for Republicans and their allies to take advantage of every opportunity. Ultimately, some candidates, including incumbents, will have to be left for dead so that the parties can spend where it might still make a difference.
The National Republican Congressional Committee announced plans to reserve television ad time in 41 districts, all but one currently represented by Democrats. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has dibs on time in 60 districts - 90 percent of which are held by Democrats.
Count on those ads to be even more brutal than usual, as evidenced by what both sides have done so far. Where candidates' early ads are usually upbeat, the spots this year have been almost 60 percent negative, said Evan Tracey, who tracks ads for the Campaign Media Analysis Group.
Even as Johnson brands Feingold an "out-of-touch Washington insider," the senator has attacked his opponent over revelations that Johnson's company took low-interest government loans.
For voters, "this is going to be a decision between two people," Feingold said. "But it's also based on what's going on in the country."
In the tense weeks ahead, Feingold and his endangered colleagues will be doing everything they can to make that decision much more about the first than the second.
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.