Josh Kurtz: Red Storm Rising

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Could American voters really hand the keys to the Capitol back to the Republicans this November?

Hard as it may be to believe, the answer is yes.

Polls continue to show that Americans blame George W. Bush more than Barack Obama for the economic crisis we’re in. They blame Bush more than Obama for the fiasco of bailouts for Wall Street and the high unemployment rate. While we’re at it, they may as well blame Bush for the untold environmental devastation in the Gulf of Mexico. And barely anyone even talks any more about the two chaotic wars that Obama inherited from Bush.

But voters can no longer boot George W. Bush out of office. What’s more, they think Obama is making government grow too fast. They fear higher taxes and mushrooming federal deficits. So even though approval ratings for Congressional Republicans remain low, even though the phrase “Speaker of the House John Boehner” is pretty frightening, voters are going to punish Democrats at the polls this November.

It won’t be a happy circumstance for Maryland’s 10-member Congressional delegation. After all, nine of the 10 Members are Democrats, whose power and effectiveness largely depends on being in the majority.

More on the fate of the Maryland delegation in another column in the very near future. But first, how realistic is a Republican takeover of Congress? Consider:

Following the Democrats’ bone-headed loss in a special Hawaii House election Saturday (two Democrats who refused to defer to one another split 61 percent of the vote, allowing a Republican to slip in with 39 percent), Republicans need to flip 39 Democratic-held seats to take control of the House. And the GOP needs to flip 10 seats to win control of the Senate.

By way of reference, Democrats picked up a total of 53 House seats and 14 Senate seats in the 2006 and 2008 elections combined. Republicans flipped 52 House seats in the watershed 1994 election, when they took control of the House for the first time since the early 1950’s.

Since the Civil War, the party of a new president has lost an average of 26 House seats and six or seven Senate seats in the first midterm elections of his presidency. So you might say the GOP is already halfway there — and in what is shaping up to be a toxic environment for the Democrats, hitting their ultimate goals shouldn’t be that difficult.

By sheer numbers alone, in competitive election years, the minority party should always have a better chance to make gains in the House because there are simply more potential targets of opportunity — and more conceivable paths back to the majority.

This year is no exception. The Republicans have done a good job of putting anywhere from 50 to 80 Democratic seats in play. So if, say, the Republicans fall short in their efforts to knock off freshman Rep. Frank Kratovil (D) right here in Maryland — and Kratovil is on Roll Call’s list of 10 most vulnerable House incumbents — they have a lot of opportunities elsewhere.

In fact, many of Republicans’ best targets are freshmen or sophomores in districts just like Kratovil’s Eastern Shore turf — conservative areas that preferred John McCain for president over Obama two years ago. On top of that, Democrats are leaving several House seats open in places like Tennessee and Arkansas and Indiana and Kansas and northern Wisconsin — conservative districts where battle-tested incumbents were able to hang on, but where all the trends favor Republicans.

And then there are Democratic districts from coast to coast that are vulnerable to Republican takeover if this is a “wave” election. So yes, a GOP takeover of the House is very possible.

The Senate, though, where Republicans need to pick up 10 seats, is a different story. Without a doubt, there is a path to victory for the GOP. But it’s awfully narrow.

There are 36 Senate races on the docket this year, and we know we can automatically take about 15 safe races off the table (though Scott Brown’s success in the Massachusetts special election has some Republicans in unlikely places thinking big). And we know we can automatically move Democratic-held seats in North Dakota and probably Delaware into the GOP column. So then the target becomes eight.

Arkansas leans Republican, and Nevada probably does, too. Democratic-held seats in Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Colorado are tossups. Republicans have more distant pick-up opportunities in California, Washington, Wisconsin and, thanks, to the lies of the Democratic nominee over his war record, in Connecticut.

But remember, Democrats have legitimate targets of their own, in Ohio, Missouri, New Hampshire and, to a lesser extent, Kentucky — and even longer-shot pick-up possibilities in North Carolina, Florida and Louisiana. How does that scramble the math?

Senate Republicans have two pieces of history on their side. Since 1930, control of the House hasn’t changed without Senate control also switching (the Senate, on the other hand, occasionally changes hands without the House also flipping). And since the late 1990s, almost all of the competitive Senate seats have moved in one direction.

That trend was most dramatic in the last two election cycles: In 2008, Democrats won four of the five Senate races that Roll Call rated as “Tossups” a month before election. In 2006, Democrats won all six Senate elections that Roll Call rated as “Tossups” a month before the election — and won Virginia, which the paper rated as “Leans Republican” a month out.

Two years earlier, things went better for Republicans: they won six of the seven seats that Roll Call deemed “Tossups” a month before Election Day; in 2002, they won four of the six races the paper classified that way, plus the Georgia Senate race, which Roll Call had rated as “Leans Democratic” that October. And in 2000, which was more of a Democratic year (even as George W. Bush was — barely — winning the presidency), six of seven “Tossup” races went the Democrats’ way.

Yes, there are a lot of crazy political cross-currents this year, and anything can happen. And Obama always seems to be on the verge of getting his Mojo back. In fact, it’s hard to find a Democratic strategist who DOESN’T believe that Obama will be re-elected in 2012. But by then, it will be too late for many Democratic Members of Congress.

Josh Kurtz is a managing editor at Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Michael & Me

Wanted: Fresh Blood


Black and Blue?


Take Me Back to Old Virginny

The Political Lives of Peter Franchot

Bob and Weave

How to Make Prince George's County King

Kane is Able

To Be Frank

Gay Rights and Political Wrongs?

The Washington Post Goes to War

Snow Job

Unsolicited Advice for Ehrlich — Wait Till 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne's World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.