Republicans poised to make gains; House could fall, Senate unlikely

By Dan Balz and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 31, 2010; 1:04 AM

Two days before Tuesday's midterm elections, Republicans appear poised to capture control of the House and are likely to make substantial gains in the Senate, an outcome that could dramatically alter the balance of power in Washington, according to a Washington Post analysis of competitive seats across the country.

President Obama is spending the weekend attempting to rally the Democratic base in an effort to hold down his party's losses. Only a significant surge in Democratic participation appears capable of offsetting big gains by the GOP, fueled by the most energized Republican base since 1994, when the party won the House and Senate.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows Republicans with an advantage in House races among those voters considered most likely to turn out Tuesday, with 49 percent saying they would vote for the GOP candidate in their district and 45 percent saying they would support the Democratic candidate. That represents a narrowing since September. Even so, the so-called enthusiasm gap has given Republicans confidence that they will see major gains.

Among all registered voters, a less reliable predictor of the outcome, Democrats have the edge, 49 percent to 44 percent.

In the House, Republicans need 39 seats to win back the majority that they lost four years ago and are competing on an enormous playing field heavily tilted in their direction.

According to The Post's analysis, 19 Democratic-held seats currently lean toward the Republicans, and Democratic strategists all but concede those contests. An additional 47 Democrat-held districts are considered tossups, while 38 other Democrat-held seats, while leaning toward the Democratic candidate, remain in potential jeopardy. Meanwhile, just four Republican-held seats appear truly competitive - three leaning toward the Democrats and one considered too close to call.

That gives Republicans multiple opportunities to win enough seats to claim the majority. Some independent forecasters are projecting GOP gains of 50 seats or more, which would offset all of the GOP's losses in the past two elections and rank in size with the party's historic 1994 landslide.

In the Senate, Republicans need to win 10 seats to take the majority. As of this weekend, they appear all but certain of winning three seats - Arkansas, Indiana and North Dakota - and probably a fourth in Wisconsin. According to The Post analysis, Republicans could gain as many as nine seats. But to do that they would have to run the table on the most competitive seats - Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Washington - and that appears unlikely.

In governor's races, Democrats hold 26 states to 24 for the Republicans (which counts Florida, although Gov. Charlie Crist quit the GOP in his campaign for the Senate). Republicans have set a goal of reaching 30 and appear likely to reach and possibly exceed that number.

Republicans are almost certain to pick up Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Oklahoma and Tennessee. They are also favored in Maine, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Democrats could pick up Hawaii, Minnesota and California. The most competitive races are in Illinois, Ohio, Massachusetts and Oregon, all currently held by Democrats; and in Florida, Connecticut and Vermont, which are in Republican hands. Rhode Island, held by the GOP, could go independent.

Nearly three-quarters of all voters disapprove of the way the Democratic Congress is handling its job, according to the new Post-ABC poll. Nearly as many are dissatisfied with the federal government more broadly, and the renewed optimism that was apparent at the start of the Obama administration has faded. More than seven in 10 now see the country as headed off course.

Almost all Americans say the economy is in bad shape, and barely more than a quarter see it improving at all.

Obama and the Democrats fare far better among registered voters now apt to sit out Tuesday's election than among those likely to vote. Their hopes of blunting GOP gains will hinge on their ability to mobilize these supporters in the next few days. Trouble is, more than half of voters inclined to skip the election say a Republican takeover of Congress would not make a difference.

"It's a politically challenging environment," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who nonetheless said he remained confident of holding the House.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, said Saturday that the outlook is extremely bright for his party. "You heard me say nearly a year ago that the political environment was better for Republicans than it was in the 1993-94 cycle," he said, "and that remains the case overall."

This year's midterms have played out against a backdrop of partisan battling in Washington, deep public anxiety about the state of the economy and a conservative insurgency aimed both at Obama and the Republican establishment. This volatile combination is reflected in races for House, Senate and governor throughout much of the country.

House

At the start of the 2010 campaign, House Democrats' 39-seat majority seemed insurmountable. But Republicans - buoyed by a growing distaste for single-party control among the electorate - have successfully broadened the number of races regarded as competitive to nearly 100, providing themselves considerable margin for error as they seek to regain House control.

Democrats are in jeopardy from coast to coast, with at least two dozen competitive seats in the Northeast, South and Midwest and another dozen or so in the West.

The roughly 20 Democratic seats that are at risk across the country include open seats in red areas. One example is the seat of Rep. Bart Gordon's in Tennessee's 6th District, which gave Obama just 37 percent of the vote in 2008.

Then there are the newly minted incumbents who were swept into office in one wave election and could now be swept out if there is another. They include Wisconsin Rep. Steve Kagen, who won his seat in 2006, the year Democrats took control of the House from Republicans, and Pennsylvania Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper, who won her seat two years ago, when Obama brought Democratic candidates to Washington with him.

Beyond those 20 seats are more than five dozen districts - almost all held by Democrats - where one or both national parties have spent money in an ever-expanding game of political chess.

There are some like veteran South Carolina Rep. John M. Spratt Jr., chairman of the House Budget Committee and longtime ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) who, after 14 terms in Congress, appears to be in serious jeopardy of losing.

There are others like Pennsylvania Rep. Patrick J. Murphy, who pulled off an upset in his suburban Philadelphia 8th District in 2006, and is now in a coin-flip race with Mike Fitzpatrick, the Republican he ousted four years ago.

And there are some like Ohio freshman Rep. John Boccieri, who, after initially voting against Obama's health-care legislation, switched to a yes vote on final passage of the bill and could pay the price Tuesday.

Dozens of Democratic incumbents find themselves competitive with their Republican challengers but below the critical 50 percent mark in recent polls. The question that Tuesday's election will answer is whether they can find a way to win enough undecided voters to prevail.

Senate

It has been eight decades since control of the House switched without the Senate also changing sides. At this point, Republicans appear to be falling short of their hopes of flipping the Senate and installing Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as majority leader.

Republicans will almost certainly win seats now held by Democrats in Arkansas, Indiana and North Dakota. Another measure of how difficult and surprising this year has turned out to be for Democrats is in Wisconsin. Few people expected Sen. Russell Feingold (D) to have a real challenge. Instead he has struggled in a race against a surprisingly strong first-time candidate in Oshkosh businessman Ron Johnson (R).

There are five close Senate races this weekend. None has drawn more attention than the contest in Nevada between embattled Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid and Sharron Angle, the tea party Republican. The two have pummeled each other for weeks, but neither has been able to gain a significant advantage.

Colorado's race between appointed Sen. Michael Bennet (D) and Weld County prosecutor Ken Buck (R) is equally close. The state has seen more than $25 million in spending by national party committees and outside organizations, a sign of the importance Republicans and Democrats attach to winning.

Millions have also been spent in Pennsylvania, where former Rep. Pat Toomey appears to be a slight favorite over Rep. Joe Sestak, who upset party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter in the primary.

In Washington, Sen. Patty Murray (D) may have the narrowest of edges over former state Sen. Dino Rossi. In Illinois, the race for Obama's old seat has been a race to the bottom between two flawed candidates, state treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D) and Rep. Mark Kirk (R). Obama campaigned there Saturday.

Democrats' opportunities for gains are all but nonexistent. In Kentucky, Republican Rand Paul, another tea party candidate, now appears to have the advantage over Democrat Jack Conway. The Democrats' best opportunity could be in heavily Republican Alaska, where Sen. Lisa Murkowski's (R) write-in candidacy against tea party favorite Joe Miller, who defeated her in the primary, has opened the door, however slightly, for Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams (D).

The Republicans' narrow path to a Senate majority would require not only a sweep of the five closest contests mentioned above but also come-from-behind wins in Democratic-friendly states likes Connecticut and California. Both those states are leaning toward the Democrats.

Republicans squandered an almost certain pickup opportunity in Delaware, when Rep. Michael Castle (R) lost the GOP primary to Christine O'Donnell. She is now trailing well behind Democrat Chris Coons.

Governors

The governors' races have been overshadowed by the battle for Congress, but they are equally important this fall given the implications for the 2012 presidential race and the role governors play in redistricting, which will take place next year.

Republicans appear likely to score gains across the industrial heartland, where Democrats have been in control. The closest race is in Ohio, where Obama will campaign on Sunday in the hope of saving Gov. Ted Strickland, who is in a competitive race with John Kasich, the former House budget committee chairman.

The highest-profile contest is in California. Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman has spent about $160 million, nearly all from her personal fortune, in her race against state attorney general and former governor Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. But with Democrats heavily outnumbering Republicans in registration there, Brown has the clear advantage heading into Tuesday.

Democratic hopes for salvaging some pride may rest on whether they can prevail in the competitive race in Florida that pits Democrat Alex Sink, the state's chief financial officer, against businessman Rick Scott.

One of the wildest contests is in Rhode Island. Obama declined to endorse the Democratic candidate, Frank Caprio, who said the president could "shove it." He has been sinking, opening the door for independentt Lincoln Chafee, a former Republican senator.

It has been that kind of year.

Polling director Jon Cohen and staff writers Aaron Blake and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.

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