Democratic struggles could cost handful of contests

If you missed any of this year's primaries -- or just forgot -- here are the names and faces you need to know in November.
By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 10, 2010; 7:25 PM

Rick Snyder may be House Democrats' biggest nightmare.

The Michigan Republican, a former head of the Gateway computer company, is running way ahead of Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero (D) in the Wolverine State's gubernatorial race. (A poll released Sunday gave him a 20-point advantage.) Such a wide margin for Snyder creates the potential for a down-ballot sweep that could wash out Democrats' chances in two hotly contested House districts.

State Rep. Gary McDowell (D) and surgeon Dan Benishek (R) are competing for retiring Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak's seat in the 1st District - a swing district in northern Michigan that Barack Obama won with just 50 percent two years ago.

Rep. Mark Schauer (D) is trying to beat back former congressman Tim Walberg (R) in a rematch of their 2008 contest for a tossup seat in the 7th District, where Obama won with 52 percent.

With Snyder leading Bernero by such a wide margin, there is considerable concern among Democratic strategists that a poor performance at the top of the ticket could make just enough difference to sway the 1st District and 7th District races against them.

The situation in Michigan is the most extreme - but far from the only - example of how Democratic struggles at the top of the ticket could well cost the party a handful of congressional contests on Nov. 2.

"Getting tied to an unpopular ticket hurts with swing voters, but it also makes it even harder to rally your base and get them to turn out," said one Democratic consultant who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the problem candidly.

The trouble for Democrats is most acute in the Midwest.

In Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn (D) is running behind state Sen. Bill Brady (R), while the Senate race between state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D) and Rep. Mark Steven Kirk (R) is a dead heat. A loss by Quinn or Giannoulias would bode poorly for the likes of Reps. Debbie Halvorson (D) and Phil Hare (D) and could endanger what should be a Democratic open-seat pickup in the 10th District.

In Wisconsin, both Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the Democratic nominee for governor, and Sen. Russell Feingold (D) are trailing their Republican opponents. And it's no accident that Republicans are feeling more bullish about their chances of beating Rep. Steve Kagen (D) and winning the open 7th District seat being vacated by retiring Rep. David R. Obey (D).

Ditto in Iowa, where Gov. Chet Culver (D) appears headed for a drubbing at the hands of former governor Terry Branstad (R) - a defeat that, if it's large enough, might sweep Reps. Leonard L. Boswell (D) and Dave Loebsack (D) out of office.

The top-of-the-ticket situations are similar in Ohio and Pennsylvania, each of which has a contested gubernatorial and Senate seat on the ballot. Republicans are running well in all four contests - although the Ohio governor's race looks to be very close - and a strong showing at the top of the ticket could jeopardize as many as 11 Democratic-held House seats in the two states.

There are, without question, a handful of places where the top-of-the-ticket's performance is likely to aid targeted House Democrats.

The best example is New York, where state Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo (D) is headed for an easy victory over controversial - to say the least - businessman Carl Paladino (R) in the governor's race, while Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D) are expected to cruise to victories as well.

That Democratic tide should aid Empire State incumbents in tough races, such as Reps. Bill Owens, Michael Arcuri and John Hall. Wins by all three would put a damper on Republicans' House majority hopes.

In the broad view, however, it's clear that the struggles of Democratic gubernatorial and, to a lesser extent, Senate candidates have the potential to make an already difficult election that much tougher for House incumbents trying to find a way to win.

In close races - and there will be lots of them at the House level in 22 days' time - a few hundred votes can make all the difference. And that's where a stronger-than-expected (or weaker-than-expected) than expected showing at the top of the ticket will matter - in a major way.

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