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The landscape as the final midterm sprint begins

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 16, 2010; 4:35 PM

Two weeks out from Election Day, Campaign 2010 has come down to this: Democrats are increasingly pessimistic about holding the House but cautiously optimistic that they can keep their majority in the Senate, though with little room to spare.

That view is shared by many Republicans. They are bullish, some extraordinarily so, about the House. However, many now worry that the Senate may elude them, because of the weak candidates they have nominated and Democrats becoming more energized.

In gubernatorial races, Democrats are also bracing for significant losses that could give the GOP its biggest majority in governors' mansions since the 1994 election. The only silver lining for the party is that Democrats remain competitive in big states such as California and Florida and - to a much lesser extent - Texas. Heavy losses are especially likely across the industrial heartland.

Often overlooked because of the keen interest in who will hold power in Congress next year, these gubernatorial races could have a significant impact on issues including redistricting, the implementation of the new health-care law and the future leadership of the Republican Party.

Two things appear to be happening as the sprint to Election Day begins. In blue states, where there has been a history of Democratic voting in recent presidential elections, Democratic fortunes have improved, if slightly. Overall, however, the number of competitive House races continues to increase.

The two best handicappers, Charlie Cook and Stu Rothenberg, continue to add districts to their lists of competitive seats. Rothenberg this week raised the number of potential battlegrounds to an even 100, with 91 now held by the Democrats. Cook, who saw a potential tidal wave building earlier than many other political forecasters, pegs the number at 97, with 90 held by Democrats.

Joe Gaylord, who for many years has been the top political adviser to former House speaker Newt Gingrich, predicted last week that Republicans will pick up between 59 and 63 seats - far more than the 39 they need to gain control of the House. That's not to say he's right, but two months before the 1994 landslide (and well before others were prepared to say so), Gaylord told Gingrich the GOP would pick up 52 seats, almost exactly the number that turned over that November.

Also last week, NPR released results of a poll of 96 competitive House districts (86 held by Democrats) conducted by Democrat Stan Greenberg and Republican Glen Bolger. Two findings were of note. First, in 53 of the most competitive districts now held by Democrats, Republicans are ahead, although narrowly. At the same time, Bolger and Greenberg noted, Democrats have gained some ground in those districts since a similar poll in June.

Bolger said in his analysis that the results are mostly good news for Republicans, but with qualifiers. He pointed out that independents may not support Republicans by the overwhelming margins that were seen, for example, in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races last year. He said that means Republicans will have to count on turning out their core supporters even more than they may have anticipated.

At the same time, he said, GOP enthusiasm outstrips that of the Democrats and still could be the biggest factor in shaping an electorate that tilts more heavily toward the Republicans than two years ago.

While significant Republican gains are considered likely in the Senate, control of that chamber likely will come down to the outcome of contests in such states as Nevada, Illinois, Colorado, West Virginia, California and Washington.

Of those, California and Washington, two strongly blue states, may be the most difficult for Republicans to capture, though they are not yet safely in the Democrats' column. That's one reason Obama will be campaigning there next week as he seeks to build a firewall for the Senate.

Nevada, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid faces Republican Sharron Angle, the tea party candidate who raised an astounding $14 million in the past quarter, is too close for anyone to call. The turnout battle could decide that contest.

Illinois is a race to the bottom between Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Alexi Giannoulias. Voters there may be holding their noses over their choice.

Colorado tilts slightly to Republican Ken Buck over Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet but is still close. West Virginia is unexpectedly tight, despite the fact that the Democratic candidate, Gov. Joe Manchin, is personally very popular. There the issue is not Manchin, but Obama and his policies.

Among Republican-held seats, Kentucky remains competitive largely because of questions about GOP nominee Rand Paul, another tea party candidate.

Many Republicans believe they have given away Delaware because of the nomination of tea party-backed Christine O'Donnell, who badly trails Democrat Chris Coons. Had Rep. Michael Castle (R) been the nominee, Delaware would rate as a likely Republican pickup. If Republicans lose Nevada, Illinois and Kentucky, they will wonder how much their candidates' performances cost them in those races, as well.

Democrats see their prospects improving in some states with a history of backing Democratic presidential nominees. One is Connecticut. Democrats say another could be Pennsylvania, where Rep. Joe Sestak (D) has been running behind former representative Pat Toomey (R).

Democrats need two other things to hold down their losses: a more effective economic message than they've delivered to date and a get-out-the-vote operation that rivals that of Obama's two years ago. Neither is a certainty.

Republicans lack the money they once had for mobilizing their voters, but that may not be as costly this year because so many of their loyalists are itching to get to the polls. "They're already pitching tents out in front [of polling places] to be first," said Tom Davis, a former Republican member of the House from Virginia.

The final two weeks of the campaign will not be for the faint of heart. A torrent of money, much of it from outside groups whose donors are not disclosed, will rain down on states and congressional districts, disproportionately for Republican candidates. The money will underwrite a barrage of ads, almost all of them wholly negative and highly personal.

The president has made an issue of the outside money, although other Democrats question whether the White House strategy is as effective as it could be. Obama and his advisers have focused attention on whether the Chamber of Commerce is using foreign money to fund its political activities, which chamber officials deny. Other Democrats argue for a broader message focused on the potential corruption of the political process caused by the influx of corporate and individual money from unknown donors.

Many individual Democratic candidates are holding their own against their Republican counterparts in money raised and spent - although some GOP challengers had strong third-quarter fundraising. But the outside money has caused a huge disparity overall and is likely to grow more significant in the final weeks. One Democrat called the disparity "unfathomable . . . an endless sea."

That is just one of many reasons Democrats begin the final weeks so much on the defensive.

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