By Karen Tumulty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 25, 2010; 12:10 AM
The question around Washington today is not whether Nov. 2 will be a difficult day for the Democrats who control Congress, but rather how bad it will be.
Increasingly, it looks like the answer depends on which chamber of Congress you're following.
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report now estimates that more than 90 Democratic House seats are potentially in play; on the Republican side of the aisle, it estimates that only nine appear in jeopardy. As a result, most leading forecasters say it is more likely that Republicans will win the 39 House seats they need to take control.
On the Senate side, however, the battle has narrowed to a handful of true nail-biters in Nevada, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Colorado - all of which are likely to stay close to the end.
It would take a sweep of nearly all of them, improbable but not impossible, for the Republicans to pick up the 10 seats they need to gain control of the chamber. At this point, it's possible that Democrats will end up losing only three or four seats, and they will count that as a good night.
If these trends hold - if the Republicans do gain the House without also taking control of the Senate - that would represent a historic anomaly: Not since the election of 1930 has the House changed hands without the Senate following suit.
Two national party officials, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele and Democratic National Committee Chairman Timothy M. Kaine, gave very different predictions Sunday of what would happen on Election Day.
Steele said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that an unprecedented GOP wave would win control of both chambers as well as state legislatures, in a broad condemnation of President Obama and Democratic policies.
"The voters are tired of the fact that the federal government has not listened to them over the past two years, has moved in its own direction, at its own rhythm, and they want to pull back on that," Steele said.
Kaine, speaking on ABC's "This Week" pointed to strengthening poll numbers for his party's candidates as a sign that the Democratic base was getting energized.
"Four or five months ago, the Republicans thought they had a great chance at taking both houses," Kaine said. "For a variety of reasons, the Senate has gotten much more difficult for them. And again, we're seeing this week strong moves in polling for our Senate candidates" in several states.
Reflecting that potential trend, a Los Angeles Times/USC poll released Sunday found Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer (Calif.) eight points ahead of Republican challenger Carly Fiorina, and a Denver Post/SurveyUSA poll found Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.) tied with Republican challenger Ken Buck, whom he had trailed for months.
In addition, early voting is underway in 29 states, and initial indications suggest that Democratic turnout could be higher than expected in many of those.
Democrats are struggling to survive in a toxic political environment for a party in power: a weak economy; a president whose approval rate is sagging; an anti-Washington, anti-incumbent political mood; tens of millions of dollars in spending by outside interest groups; an opposition that appears more energized than their own base.
In addition to their anticipated congressional gains, Republicans also expect pickups in the 37 states that are electing governors, and in legislative races down the ballot. Those elections could have repercussions for congressional redistricting next year and for the presidential contest in 2012.
However, in California, the state with the most seats in Congress, Sunday's Los Angeles Times poll found former governor Jerry Brown pulling ahead of former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman by 13 points. If Brown wins the election, it will be a major gubernatorial pickup for the Democrats.
President Obama has been criss-crossing the country in an effort to reignite the Democratic voters who put him in the White House two years ago. His schedule for the final weekend is a good indicator of how varied are the challenges faced by his party.
The president will also go to Pennsylvania, where there is a tight Senate race and at least two Democratic-held House districts in danger of falling into Republican hands. At least one poll recently also showed the governor's race there narrowing, though the state's Republican attorney general, Tom Corbett, continues to lead over Democratic Allegheny County executive Dan Onorato.
Obama will also make his 12th trip as president to Ohio, a crucial swing state where Republicans stand a good chance of winning a trifecta: picking up a governorship in the race where former Rep. John Kasich (R) has a slight lead over incumbent Gov. Ted Strickland (D), a Senate seat with former Rep. Rob Portman (R) running well ahead of Democratic Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher and at least three House seats held by Democratic freshmen.
Particularly vulnerable this year are the 48 House Democrats who are defending seats in relatively conservative districts that Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) carried in the presidential election two years ago.
Many of them were elected in the Democratic sweeps of 2006 and 2008, but the toll this year could also include such veterans as House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton in Missouri; Budget Committee Chairman John M. Spratt Jr. in South Carolina; and Reps. Earl Pomeroy in North Dakota, Gene Taylor in Mississippi and Chet Edwards in Texas.
Some previously safe Democrats, such as Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (Ore.), had assumed they were facing weak opponents, only to discover that a flood of outside money may have made their races considerably closer.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who generally wins reelection without much worry, has had to dip into his personal retirement savings to lend his campaign $200,000 in a tighter-than-expected race against unknown 35-year-old ex-Marine Sean Bielat.
Others have made their own political blunders. Among them is Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), whose district is solidly Democratic, but who faces a backlash over his call for an economic boycott of his own state over its tough immigration law.
Democratic candidates had a significant fundraising advantage through much of this election cycle, but recent months have produced a surge of contributions for their GOP opponents.
Republican House candidates brought in $104 million from July through September, compared with $89 million for Democrats, according to Federal Election Commission reports. In Senate races, Republican candidates raised almost $60 million, while Democrats had a haul of less than $40 million.
Overall, this midterm election season will be the most expensive in history, with nearly $1 billion having been spent on House races alone.
The impact of that cash is making itself felt in individual contests. In Florida, for instance, a new poll shows Rep. Ron Klein, a Democrat once thought to be relatively safe, in a statistical tie with Republican Allen West, a tea party favorite who has been outraising him by better than 2 to 1 in recent weeks.
The political rule of thumb in close races is that, barring any outside event to shake things up, undecided voters will break for the challenger.
At this late date, incumbents - particularly those who are getting less than 50 percent in the polls - know that "what they see is likely what they are going to get," said Joe Gaylord, who was a political strategist to former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R) in the 1994 election that saw Republicans regain control of that chamber for the first time in four decades.
But one advantage that Democrats may have in 2010 that they didn't have then was the fact that they saw this one coming.
Democratic pollster Mark Mellman recalls that some of his clients who hadn't conducted a poll in years were suddenly asking for one in the final weeks before the election in 1994 - by then, it was too late.
This year, he was in the field early, even for candidates with every reason to believe they are safe. As a result, Mellman said, there are not likely to be as many surprises come election day.
"There are fewer sleepers," he said, "because there are fewer people asleep at the switch."