With 100-plus days until the elections, top Democrats are high on their prospects of picking up more House and Senate seats.
They credit good candidates, fundraising muscle, a strong field operation, and planned TV buys—not to mention Barack Obama's coattails—along with the backdrop of an unpopular GOP president and ailing economy. The GOP, of course, counters that its rivals' early predictions count for little.
Could Democrats reach the magic number of 60 for a filibuster-proof Senate majority? Such a feat would certainly confound the expectations of political analysts.
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who is predicting a "tectonic-plate election," says that would be very difficult, but it's not out of the question.
Senate Democrats now have a slim voting majority of 51-49. The optimistic Schumer, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, says that his party's candidates are ahead in races in Virginia, New Hampshire, Colorado, New Mexico, and Alaska; running "even or very close" in Oregon, Minnesota, Mississippi, Kentucky, Maine, and North Carolina; and "not close but narrowing" in Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Georgia.
Leading up to November, Democrats have long had two built-in advantages: far fewer seats up for re-election, 12 vs. 23, and not a single retirement (while five Republican senators are calling it quits). Schumer prefers to point out that 35 races are playing out in 33 states that comprise the "reddest map in a long time." Most contests are in the Deep South, Great Plains, and Mountain West. Only three states with Senate races are blue, though barely: Maine, Minnesota, and Oregon, Schumer says.
Why the shifting ground?
Schumer points to the Great Depression elections of 1932—when America "was a mess"—and people wanted more from government and gambled on FDR. Next he harkens back to the 1980 contests—when the average family was "feeling darn good"—and Ronald Reagan won the presidency with a vision of shrinking the government.
Today, Schumer says, people "feel a little bit at sea, and they need some help." Polls show people favor a candidate who resembles a Democrat, intent on lowering healthcare costs, bettering schools, and enacting an energy policy that doesn't favor big oil, over a candidate who cares about having a strong military, guaranteeing no future terror attacks, and restoring traditional values so that abortion and gay marriage are not the norm, he says.
On the House side, where Democrats hold 236 seats to Republicans' 199, Schumer's counterpart, Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen, says he expects to buck history by picking up new seats. (Typically after a "wave election," as in 2006, when his party gained a net of 30 seats, the wave recedes.)
The Maryland lawmaker, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is not offering specific predictions, but he cautions against "irrational exuberance," suggesting that some of the optimism about Democratic gains could be off the mark.
Van Hollen says the DCCC has tough races involving 25 incumbents and is "on the offense" in 40 or 50 others. Already the group has reserved $53 million worth of TV ad time in 51 districts, he says, and spent an impressive $9 million in early voter-contact efforts, equal to the entire amount spent during the last cycle.
Both lawmakers are also buoyed by the Obama factor. The Illinois senator polls well in southern states such as Mississippi, North Carolina, and Georgia as well as in Minnesota, Oregon, Alaska, and Colorado, Schumer says.
Republicans, unsurprisingly, don't buy it. They blame high gas prices on Democrats and hope that will boost their campaigns in the fall. "As long as Democrats continue to defy 60 percent of the American people on the issue of producing more domestic energy to lower the soaring cost of gasoline, Democrats will continue to be forced to spend millions of dollars on their own members who have compiled atrocious records on the No. 1 issue on voters' minds," says Ken Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.