WASHINGTON — Their control of the House in peril, Democrats are playing defense all across the country. Disgruntled voters, a sluggish economy and vanishing enthusiasm for President Barack Obama have put 75 seats or more — the vast majority held by Democrats — at risk of changing hands.
The party could become a victim of its own successes during the past two elections, when candidates were swept into power by antipathy for President George W. Bush and ardor for Obama. Now, eight weeks from Election Day, the Democrats are bracing for the virtual certainty of lost House seats and scrambling to hold back a wave that could hand the GOP the 40 it needs to command a majority
Obama, grasping for a way to turn the tide, on Wednesday plans to propose $30 billion in new investment tax breaks for businesses to go along with tens of billions in spending he called for on Labor Day to invigorate the slow recovery. But even if Congress acts on the requests — a long shot in a highly charged political season — there's little time left for Democrats to salvage their election chances.
With Obama's popularity slumping and the party demoralized, dozens of first- and second-term Democrats as well as longer-serving congressmen who haven't faced serious challenges in years are toiling to hold onto their jobs in places that tend to prefer Republicans. And polls show independent voters leaning toward the GOP.
When asked which party they want to control Congress, voters are split or leaning toward Republicans, national surveys say. Perhaps even more ominously for Democrats, voters are overwhelmingly sour about national issues, especially the economy.
More than 60 percent said the nation was in a state of decline and on the wrong track in the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, in which voters likely to turn out in November gave Republicans a gaping 9-point edge when asked which party they wanted to control Congress.
Much can change between now and Election Day, and a GOP House takeover is far from sure. The political parties, individual campaigns and outside groups that spend heavily to influence elections have scarcely begun to distribute the hundreds of millions of dollars they plan to pour into key congressional districts across the country for advertising and on-the-ground organizing that can turn out crucial voters.
And most voters have yet to focus on the contests.
Still, Republicans are confidently predicting Democrats' defeat.
"Republicans have the intensity," said Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., head recruiter for House GOP candidates. "The map is growing by the day."
Democrats acknowledge the strong headwinds but counter that, with a solid fundraising advantage over Republicans and years worth of preparation for what they always knew would be a brutal election, they can fight off the GOP onslaught.
"We've got some very, very tough political territory on an off year with a weak economy, so it's a major challenge in a difficult political environment. That said, we will retain a majority in the House," said Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the party's House campaign chief.
The current breakdown is 255 Democrats, 178 Republicans and two vacancies that appear likely to be won by the GOP.
Democratic incumbents are at risk from California to New York and particularly in the unemployment-stricken Rust Belt, where six in Pennsylvania and five in Ohio face stiff challenges. Hotly contested races are unfolding in every region, including three each in Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Indiana, and two in Alabama, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Wisconsin and Virginia.
Among the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents are Betsy Markey of Colorado, Steve Driehaus of Ohio, and Tom Perriello of Virginia — all freshmen in districts that voted for Republican presidential nominee John McCain in 2008. They had little time to settle into elected office before casting votes for key elements of Obama's agenda that are overwhelmingly unpopular at home, including the health care law and the so-called cap-and-trade measure to curb carbon emissions.