How Bad Can It Get?

Tomorrow’s spin today: Three ways the Democrats can lose, and how they’ll explain it.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine. Click image to expand.
DNC Chairman Tim Kaine.

Just how badly are the Democrats about to lose this election? Yes, the likes of Tim Kaine, Joe Biden, and other men with horrible jobs are still promising that their party can win. But no one else is buying it. Charlie Cook predicts that the party will lose 50 to 60 House seats, and if he’s wrong the number will head higher. Nate Silver gives the GOP about an 85-90 percent chance of winning the House.

There are many good reasons to buy the doom, and few reasons to disbelieve it. A year ago, Democrats had an inauspicious off-year election, losing the governors’ mansions in New Jersey and Virginia and key county offices in New York. At the time, the generic ballot test found them roughly tied with Republicans nationwide. They’re not tied any more.

And the abiding Democratic mood is doom. Politico’s Alex Isenstadt has captured the conventional wisdom of party consultants, some of them named and some of them not, who assume that they’re going to lose the House and add, in the words of one scaredy-cat, “Everybody that is tied will lose, and everyone that is ahead by a few points will lose.” But there’s a difference between a Democratic loss and a historic Democratic meltdown. And there will be different kinds of spin from the ruling party depending on exactly how the party loses. Here, based on conversations with Democratic strategists, is some post-election spin—one day early!

Losing, Barely: When Democrats want to prove that 2010 is still survivable, they reach back to the 2009 and 2010 special elections and mine them for fairy dust. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee won every competitive special election for the House, save for a fluke in Hawaii, where two Democrats split the vote and allowed Rep. Charles Djou to slip into office on a plurality. The two model races—they hope—happened in New York’s 23rd District and Pennsylvania’s 12th.

In New York, Democrat Bill Owens eked out a victory over conservative candidate Doug Hoffman after Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava angrily quit the race and endorsed Owens. (She’d been effectively hounded out by national conservatives up to and including Sarah Palin.) In the Pennsylvania race, the late John Murtha’s district director Mark Critz powered out a decisive eight-point victory—bigger than the polls had predicted—with a muscular, union-driven get-out-the-vote program and a relentless campaign accusing Republican Tim Burns of backing outsourcing and a national sales tax.

Democrats want to repeat those results again and again and again. And they’re trying. In many districts where Tea Partiers or Libertarians are running to the GOP’s right, they’re paying for ads in the hope that the other side will split its vote. In the 28 states that don’t have right-to-work laws, Democrats are hopeful that their union-based field organization overcomes the Tea Party’s newer, less tested operation. And they’re running anti-outsourcing and anti-sales tax ads wherever they can, doubling down in more liberal districts by hitting Republicans on abortion rights.

If this works—and it’s by far the least likely scenario—Democrats could limit their seat losses in the House to the mid-40s and hold the Senate beyond the margin of Lieberman while keeping out Alaska’s Joe Miller and Nevada’s Sharron Angle. That would put them ahead of where they were in 1995—something true of most election scenarios, incidentally—and give incoming House Speaker John Boehner (we can say that now, right?) a working majority that would still be reversible in 2012. And in this scenario Democrats offset their gubernatorial losses in Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and a swath of red states with wins in California and Florida.

As Bad As They Thought: What if the polls are right? Democrats lose big—bigger than they thought was possible a month ago. As their Senate firewalls hold in Delaware, Connecticut, and California, they lose every other race that it was possible to lose. Patty Murray goes down in Washington. Rand Paul curb-stomps—figuratively speaking, of course—Jack Conway in Kentucky, pulling in a Republican member of Congress in one of the state’s two Democratic districts. Sharron Angle heads to the Senate from Nevada. The Republican wave reels in more than 60 members of the House, some of them from districts where Obama got 60 percent of the vote. Democrats hold the Senate, but only by one or two seats. They lose to Rick Scott—Rick Scott! The bald supervillain who killed the public option!—in the governor’s race in Florida, and the redistricting picture looks worse in other states as their numbers drop in state legislatures.

There are a few bright spots for the party. California stays blue, and everyone has a hearty laugh at Meg Whitman, outbid on the governorship. There are a few surprises: Perhaps Ben Quayle loses the open race for a safe seat in Arizona, or Annie Kuster wins the precarious 2nd District of New Hampshire. There are some races for Democrats to analyze and re-analyze for signs of how to rebuild, the way that they studied the Colorado Democratic surge in 2004. There are some rising stars who get profiled by the media, because the media needs to profile somebody. The last time this happened, some guy named Barack Obama got onto the cover of Newsweek with the headline “Seeing Purple.”

Some version of this scenario is what most Democrats now expect. It’s the scenario the party’s Cassandras are most ready to spin. “The Democrats who are going to survive are not going to be ‘green shoots,’ ” says New York-based Democratic operative Dan Gerstein, who has been warning of Democratic peril since early 2009. But the search for signs of Democratic life in this scenario has already begun, and it’s getting on his nerves.

“Democrats can win in California, so they’re surviving? That’s bullshit spin,” says Gerstein. “You’re hearing excuse-making and rationalizing when independents are screaming ‘It’s not working! You didn’t deliver the results!’ “

The Nightmare. Every toss-up goes to the Republicans. Some races that no one paid much attention too—little windy gerrymanders in New York and California and Illinois—go to Republicans who were never supposed to come close, and never had before. Some of the old bulls of the House who never looked truly vulnerable, like Missouri’s Ike Skelton and Washington’s Norm Dicks, lose their seats to candidates whom Democrats had considered too flawed or fringe to take advantage of the trends. The GOP picks up as many as 1,000 state legislative seats, and governorships they were never supposed to win. And they take the Senate. This is the scenario elegantly imagined by Nate Silver in a Sunday blog post.

How do the Democrats recover from this? For a while, they don’t. That AP-KN poll that found 47 percent of Democrats hankering for a primary challenge is answered by more polls trying to stoke a Hillary Clinton campaign for 2012. (This has begun already: Rush Limbaugh has proclaimed a “Reverse Operation Chaos,” in which election losses will be blamed on “Hillary voters” staying home to soften up Obama.) Depending on how many Blue Dog Democrats survive, the Republican House can get awfully close to overriding presidential vetoes.

And the nightmare scenario drops some time bombs that Democrats aren’t seeing yet. In a pure wave election, voters generally pull the lever for the winning party all the way down the ballot, in the races they know less about. This is one reason why Virginia’s Ken Cuccinelli easily won the 2009 race for attorney general despite editorial boards warning about his conservative activism. And this is why many budding Democratic stars— California attorney general candidate Kamala Harris, New York attorney general candidate Eric Schneiderman, Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray—could go down.

Few people have paid much attention to the Republicans who would replace them, or what they would do. Cuccinelli has the answer: A new class of Republican attorneys general can take dead aim at the Obama administration’s federal mandates, and a new class of Republican secretaries of state can raise the barriers to voting and voting registration, challenging early voting and same-day registration reforms that have been good for Democrats.

In other words, are Democrats about to lose one election? Or are they about to lose elections for years to come?

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