The last time is happened, of course, was in 1994 when Republicans rode a tidal wave of voter discontent and swept Democrats out of power in Congress, disposing of longtime Washington fixtures that never saw it coming. Candidates who wouldn't have had a chance in more conventional elections, from states and districts they never should have had a chance in, winning a net gain of 54 seats in the House and eight in the Senate.
Nobody is predicting quite that level of gains for Democrats this year – at least not yet. But if the economic meltdown has been the earthquake that has jolted the landscape, the tsunami that follows could be unpredictable.
The signs, from top to bottom, are hard to ignore. At the presidential level, Barack Obama has established a solid, if slight, lead in the national polls. More importantly, the battleground states at the moment are almost exclusively traditional Republican must-haves like Florida and Ohio in addition to states that have been traditional locks for the GOP, such as Indiana, Virginia and even North Carolina.
The national picture has suddenly made the outlook much darker for Republicans down the ballot as well. In the Senate races, Democrats entered this cycle with a big advantage in terms of open seats, recruitments and safe seats. It appeared that even in the best of circumstances, it was unlikely that they would pick up the nine seats needed to achieve a filibuster-proof, 60-seat majority. But in recent weeks polling has shown some surprisingly close races in previous safe states like Kentucky and North Carolina. In 1994, candidates were swept away that way, casualties of the bigger trends.
In the House, Republicans came into the cycle with similar disadvantages. Over two dozen retirements, recruiting difficulties and financial woes had the party hoping to simply stem the number of lost seats to single digits. With the Democrats now defending very few of their seats and taking the fight to Republicans all over the map, those hopes appear to be dashed. Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg yesterday revised his predictions upward, saying Democrats are now likely to win upwards of 20 seats in the House, maybe even 30 if current trends continue.
There are still over three weeks to go in the campaign and a lot can happen. Disgruntled voters may decide to punish the whole lot of them, lodging their frustrations against Democrats as well as Republicans. John McCain may succeed, whether in next week's debate or afterwards, in his efforts to raise questions about Obama's readiness and experience. Voters could decide that they don't want one-party rule in Washington again. But time is growing short and there is little good news to calm nervous Republicans right now.
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