In run-up to midterms, glimmers of hope for Democrats?

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 29, 2010; 8:21 PM

The story line for Election 2010 has been set for months. Republicans are on the march, Democrats in deep trouble. Is it now possible that Democrats have begun a comeback?

A number of Democrats say there is modest movement in their direction and some reason for optimism after many dismal months. But late September can be a fickle time in an election year. It was four years ago. So are signs of more enthusiasm for Democrats false indicators or the start of something real?

Here are some reasons Democrats feel better today than they did a month ago.

- A Washington Post poll in Maryland shows Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley opening up an 11-point lead over former Republican governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. A few months ago, the race was essentially even.

- In Ohio, Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland has bounced back against former Republican representative John Kasich. Most of the latest polls show Strickland almost even with Kasich, although still not looking as strong as he should.

- For the past several weeks, Gallup's measure of voting intentions among registered voters has shown parity between Democrats and Republicans - after earlier showing a sizable Republican advantage - though Gallup officials caution that among likely voters Republicans look stronger.

- President Obama drew 25,000 people at a rally on the campus of the University of Wisconsin on Tuesday in the first of a series of events designed to energize young voters.

These signs alone are not enough to suggest there is a dramatic turn underway. But for Democrats struggling to hold their House and Senate majorities, they are reason for hope.

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One Democratic strategist e-mailed Wednesday morning to say, "I don't want to overstate the trend, or suggest it is happening everywhere, but in several places I definitely have seen Democrats starting to come home and feel more strongly about the importance of preventing a Republican takeover of the Congress."

This strategist said he had seen several new polls in competitive races where Democratic Party identification had started to rise - and in places where it had previously declined. He also said there is growing preference for a Democratic Congress.

Much has been made about the parallels between this year and 1994, when Republicans captured the House and Senate in a landslide. For most of this year, the overall climate for Democrats has appeared as bleak as it was then, if not worse. But some Democratic strategists now say, hold on, the comparisons are not necessarily accurate.

One strategist who was in the thick of the battle in 1994 said nothing the Democrats tried that fall had an impact on the voters. "Everything you tested - nothing!" he said. This year, given the weakness of some Republican candidates, attack ads are having a more predictable effect. "We move numbers in individual races," he said. "In 1994 it didn't matter."

For comparison purposes, I went back and looked at notes from interviews with Republican and Democratic strategists in late September 2006, when Democrats were thought to be marching toward their takeover of the House and Senate.

The interviews came after then-President George W. Bush had begun the GOP's fall offensive, built around the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and an effort to make national security a more significant issue in the campaign. What's eerie is that Republicans then were saying some of the same things Democrats are saying now.

"I'm feeling better about some of the races," one Republican pollster said at the time. "The campaigns are making a difference."

"There's a real sigh of relief for Republican operatives," said another. "Unlike 1994, when Democrats were caught off guard, Republican strategists are pretty focused on the environment we're in and being tactically competent and aggressive. ... We all know this is going to be a game of inches."

A Democrat said at the time: "A lot of the polls we've done this year [showed that] Democrats were more energized behind Democrats than Republicans were. Republicans [now] seem to be awakening and coming back to their partisan senses."

A few weeks later, they were despairing once again.

What happened for a time in 2006 may be happening now. At this point in every election, partisan lines harden, people who hadn't been engaged begin to get interested.

Democrats believe that, in recent weeks, more of their partisans have awakened to the prospect of a Republican Congress influenced by tea party sentiments and don't like it. The stakes have become clearer.

There are limits to all this, however. For every sign of movement toward the Democrats, there is a race where Republicans are doing better.

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The most surprising of the past week is Connecticut , where Republican Linda McMahon, the former professional wrestling executive, has narrowed the lead of state attorney general Dick Blumenthal to single digits.

In Ohio's other big race, former Republican representative and Bush administration official Rob Portman has opened up a big lead over Democratic Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher. In Colorado, Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet struggles against Republican Ken Buck. House Democrats are on the defensive in district after district.

For Democrats, the signs of life among their partisans will help, but mostly in places that are Democratic strongholds - those blue states where there are competitive races, such as California or Washington or Maryland.

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But in swing states and swing districts, where Democrats made significant gains in 2006 and 2008, that alone won't be enough. Democrats must find a way to appeal more successfully to independents if they hope to blunt the Republicans' march toward a majority.

The reality is, changing the fundamentals of any election are difficult. Democrats can do little between now and Nov. 2 to change negative impressions about the economy. Obama's approval ratings have shown no real sign of improvement. Republicans are still more energized than Democrats.

Pessimistic Democrats still fear they will lose the House. Fighting at the margins, they see some encouraging signs. But will that be enough to prevent a wipeout in November?

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