BY Thomas M. Defrank
DAILY NEWS WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF
WASHINGTON—Republicans are banking on the unpopularity of healthcare reform to pick up congressional seats next year, and early signs suggest their just-say-no strategy is working.
GOP lawmakers had no difficulty sitting on their hands during President Obama's speech Wednesday night. They're having a harder time stifling their smiles over prospects for significant gains in the 2010 midterm elections.
"Healthcare has become a huge asset for the party's recovery," a senior Republican strategist said. "People don't like this plan, and they think less of Obama because of it."
Democrats contend the GOP's lockstep rejection of ObamaCare is the centerpiece of a strategy of deliberately withholding support for any of his major initiatives.
"Given all our problems, the country is hoping that Obama is FDR," said leading Democratic strategist Joe Trippi. "The Republicans are going to try to handcuff him and turn him into Jimmy Carter."
Republicans reject that charge, contending they oppose Obama's policies on the merits, not electoral gamesmanship. But in July, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said publicly what many GOP colleagues privately believe.
"If we're able to stop Obama on [healthcare], it will be his Waterloo," DeMint said. "It will break him."
Republican icon Rush Limbaugh said it even before the inauguration: "I hope Obama fails."
Political analysts have always expected the Democrats' 79-seat margin in the House to shrink. Since World War II, the party controlling the White House has lost an average of 16 seats in the first midterm after a new President.
Over the summer, however, healthcare blowback fueled a double-digit plunge in Obama's approval ratings. That gives Republicans an opening for bigger gains in the midterms.
Many House Democrats won with slim margins last fall in districts usually held by Republicans. Those freshmen are even more vulnerable now because of Obama's decline.
Both parties estimate about 50 Democrats represent districts that Obama lost in 2008.
"I wouldn't be surprised if Republicans pick up 10 to 25 seats in the House," said David Wasserman of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "The Republican base is much more energized right now than the Democratic base."
Predicting elections 14 months away is risky business. Many political pros believe a robust economic recovery, for instance, would reduce Democratic losses.
"It's too early to start making predictions, but we're hopeful," said Tory Mazzola, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "We have momentum, and the Democrats are scrambling."
- More coverage from the New York Daily News.