Republicans, not without justification, see themselves in the midterm election as subjects in a clear, well-focused photo marking a huge victory and new majorities for the GOP in the House, and perhaps the Senate. But the campaign reality looks more like an impressionist painting.
From a distance, the scene appears rosy: numerous polls show that voters are unhappy with Congress, a trend that tends to punish the ruling party more than the minority. Generic polling for congressional races largely favors the GOP. As recently as August 30, a Gallup poll showed Republicans with an unprecedented 10 percent lead over Democrats in a generic congressional contest. And while the same polling operation shows the two parties now tied in a hypothetical generic race at 46 points each, the GOP still benefits from an "enthusiasm gap," with twice as many GOP voters—50 percent—declaring they are "enthusiastic" about voting in November, compared to 25 percent of Democrats who feel similarly thrilled.
But up close, the scenario is far murkier. Americans, of course, do not elect members of Congress nationally; they do so district by district and state by state. And there, the path to the majority is far rockier for the GOP.
Despite national discontent, Republicans still face serious obstacles in New England and other parts of the Northeast—both areas where the GOP must make inroads if the party is to win a House majority. Republicans appear to have few opportunities there. The two New Hampshire congressional seats are the best pickup chances for Republicans. However the open House seat in Delaware, now held by moderate Republican Rep. Mike Castle, who is running for Senate, could well go Democratic. The all-Democratic Connecticut delegation appears relatively safe. Maine and Vermont are solid for Democrats. In Massachusetts, Democratic Rep. Niki Tsongas, once considered vulnerable, is now favored to keep her seat. Even New York's 23rd district—an upstate seat that was long Republican until an intra-party spat flipped the seat to Democratic Rep. Bill Owens—is not a sure GOP pick-up.
The rest of the country offers more opportunities for Republicans, but some challenges as well. Two other seats, one in Louisiana and one in Hawaii, lean Democratic in November. A Kentucky seat, now held by Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth, should have been easy pickings for the GOP in such a conservative state. But the Senate candidacy of controversial Republican Rand Paul, who infamously said government should not force private businesses to abide by civil rights laws, may churn up the African-American vote in the Louisville area, helping Yarmuth.
And while Obama's tepid approval ratings don't help Democrats, they aren't necessarily doing much to help the GOP, either. Democrats are right in noting that if Republicans couldn't capture the seat vacated by the death of Rep. John Murtha, they can't count on an anti-Obama backlash to propel the GOP to majority status.
Surely, Democrats should be very worried, especially since close races tend to go overwhelmingly in one party direction, instead of being divided closely between the two parties. But to take a majority, Republicans have to mount a campaign that offers more than an anti-Democratic argument, no matter how unpopular Democrats are.