Analysis: Can the GOP win control of Congress?

WASHINGTON — Just weeks ago, it seemed inconceivable the Republicans could win control of Congress this fall.

WASHINGTON — Just weeks ago, it seemed inconceivable the Republicans could win control of Congress this fall. Not anymore. Almost by the day, Republicans are sensing fresh opportunities to pick up ground. Just Wednesday, former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats announced he would try to reclaim his old seat from Democrat Evan Bayh, who barely a year ago had been a finalist to be Barack Obama’s running mate. And Republicans nationwide are still celebrating Scott Brown’s January upset to take Edward Kennedy’s former seat in Massachusetts. A Republican takeover on Capitol Hill is still a long shot. But strategists in both parties now see at least narrow paths by which the GOP could win the House and, if the troubled environment for Democrats deteriorates further, possibly even the Senate. "Democrats have got their hands full trying to navigate through unprecedented economic turmoil and two wars," says former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb. He suggests the gloomy talk within the party is overstated and the Democrats are still likely to retain control, but he adds: "There’s no question that there’s anger out there." With nine months to go, 2010 is shaping up in one sense to be a traditional midterm election for a new president: The out-of-power party is poised to gain seats in both houses. The question now is whether it will be a historic election with Republicans actually seizing power in Congress. The Republicans would have to gain 40 seats in the 435-member House, ten in the 100-member Senate — a tall order no matter how upset voters are. But still. … In the Senate, two Democratic seats are all but gone. North Dakota’s Byron Dorgan is retiring, and the Democrats don’t have anyone to challenge the Republican, Gov. John Hoeven. Democrats also failed to recruit their top candidate in Delaware. Vice President Joe Biden’s son eschewed a run against Republican Mike Castle. New Castle County executive Chris Coons, a Democrat, got in the race Wednesday but he’s expected to face an uphill battle. For a GOP takeover, incumbent Democrats also would have to lose in Colorado, where appointed Sen. Michael Bennet hasn’t run statewide and faces a primary; Nevada, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is unpopular but has a hefty bank account; Arkansas, where Sen. Blanche Lincoln suffers from representing a GOP-leaning state; Pennsylvania, where party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter is extraordinarily vulnerable, and Illinois, where a dogfight is certain for President Obama’s old seat. Republicans would have to hold on to all the Senate seats they have now, hardly a sure thing. And the GOP also would have to beat incumbents in New York, where no Republican has emerged to challenge appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, and Connecticut, where Democrat Richard Blumenthal is comfortably leading all GOP contenders in polls. If all that somehow happens, the tipping point could be either in Indiana or in California. "Every state is now in play," California Sen. Barbara Boxer said one day after the Massachusetts election. It was a frank recognition that no Democrat is safe — not even a three-term liberal with bunches of money in a solidly Democratic state. Not coincidentally, when Obama had a televised question-and-answer session with Democrats on Wednesday, the senators given prominent face time included Boxer, Reid, Bayh, Bennet, Lincoln, Gillibrand and Specter. "It would be surprising if Democrats lost power," says former Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla. "But anything in politics is possible. And if the economy’s still in the tank 60 days out of the election, it’s going to be difficult for Democrats." In the House, Democrats hold a 256-178 advantage with one vacancy. But 49 Democrats are in districts that Republican presidential candidate John McCain won in 2008. And many are freshmen who rode into power on Obama’s coattails in an election that saw a voting surge by minorities and youths. Obama won’t be on the ballot this time, and he has a poor track record so far when it comes to turning out his 2008 backers for fellow Democrats. Possible bellwethers: A GOP wave could be in the offing if Democrats like John Salazar in Colorado, Zack Space in Ohio, John Spratt in South Carolina or Ben Chandler in Kentucky are in close races this fall. House Republicans have their own challenges. In more than 50 districts, divisive GOP primaries are certain to drain bank accounts and force Republicans into taking positions that could be troublesome come the general election. In many cases, "tea party" candidates are running to the right of establishment-endorsed Republicans, casting them as too moderate for the party and too cozy with Washington. In other races, Republican candidates are dropping out to run as third party candidates who could siphon votes from the eventual GOP nominee. To understand why incumbents are nervous, look no further than the persistent 10 percent unemployment rate, the country’s bitterness over Wall Street bailouts and voters’ anti-Washington fervor. Obama’s party, controlling both the White House and Congress, is likely to feel that fury the most. And it’s defending far more seats than the Republicans. The Democrats already have faced one monumental setback this year, the GOP Senate victory in the Democratic bastion of Massachusetts. That outcome further energized Republicans and demoralized Democrats. It also fueled hope among Republicans and fear among at least some Democrats that another 1994 may be ahead. "Something’s happening out there," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the galvanizing Republican who helped unite the GOP that year when it swept to power in Congress on President Bill Clinton’s watch. "The economy hurts. People are unhappy." He put at even the chances that Republicans will take the House, though he predicted they would gain only up to six Senate seats. Compared with 1994, he said: "Democrats are more isolated ideologically with a much bigger economic problem." Conversely, he said, the GOP’s brand is weaker and it doesn’t have enough money. Indeed, Republicans dramatically trail Democrats in fundraising. They also lack a charismatic leader to rally around and are enmeshed in a bitter debate over their party’s future. And, like their Democratic counterparts, GOP incumbents face an electorate inclined to topple lawmakers of all political stripes. Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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