In the two months since my last report much has happened. The Democratic health care plan finally passed in Washington, D.C., and the Democrat-controlled legislature adjourned after finally finding a combination of tax increases that could win majority votes in the House and Senate.
Believe it or not, I am almost rooting for some good news I can report for the Democrats just so I won't be accused of being a GOP cheerleader. There is some such news, but an honest look at the data leads to this conclusion: Six months out from Election Day, the Republican tidal wave still is building momentum.
National polling data remain largely unchanged since February, which is terrible news for the Democrats. There was no "health care bounce." Only 40 percent of Americans support the health care plan, while 52 percent are opposed. President Obama's approval rating remains at 48 percent, and Republicans have slightly increased their lead in the congressional generic ballot. The GOP now leads by 45 to 42 percent.
The generic ballot numbers are particularly significant. As Gallup pointed out in its latest survey, which found the GOP ahead 48-44 percent, Republicans rarely lead among all registered voters:
The trend based on registered voters shows how rare it is for the Republicans to lead on this "generic ballot" measure among all registered voters, as they do today. Other recent exceptions were recorded in 1994 — when Republicans wrested majority control from the Democrats for the first time in 40 years — and 2002, when the GOP achieved seat gains, a rarity for the president's party in midterm elections. In midterm years when Democrats prevailed at the polls (such as 2006, 1990, and 1986), their net support among registered voters typically extended into double digits at several points during the year — something that has yet to happen in 2010.
Here at home, according to SurveyUSA, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray's approval rating has dropped to 46 percent, with 61 percent of independents saying they disapprove of her job performance.
Adding to the Democratic woes is the recruiting success Olympia Republicans are having, especially for the state Senate. (Much less Republican progress in state House races, however.) The Senate R's have virtually run the table in terms of finding top-tier candidates for targeted races. And the GOP's marquee congressional candidates posted strong April fundraising totals.
One giant shoe is yet to drop: will Dino Rossi run for the U.S. Senate?
U.S. Senators are particularly vulnerable when their party faces a negative national tide, and Murray is no exception. Given the Democratic leanings of their Puget Sound districts, incumbent House members Adam Smith and Jay Inslee are routinely re-elected with 65 percent of the vote or more, giving them a large cushion during a bad election cycle. Sen. Murray, however, has never topped 60 percent of the vote. Her falling approval ratings, and the fact that she fails to break 50 percent against any Republican confirms her vulnerability. Real Clear Politics recently changed the status of Sen. Murray’s re-election from "likely Democrat" to "lean Democrat."
So who will Murray's opponent be? Rep. Dave Reichert recently made it known he is not interested in a Senate race this cycle. Republican insiders believe Rossi is very close now to a go/no-go decision, perhaps in the coming weeks.
If Rossi pulls the trigger, the race is a toss-up. If he doesn't, businessman Paul Akers and state Sen. Don Benton are the two leading contenders for the Republican nomination, and this race is a likely hold for the Democrats. But if the Democrats' national slump gets even worse, Sen. Murray may find herself in trouble, even against one of the lesser-known Republicans.
U.S. House races
Here is a look across the state:
Safe Republican: Doc Hastings, 4th Congressional District, Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, 5th CD.
Likely Republican: 8th CD Dave Reichert v. Suzan DelBene. DelBene continues to raise a lot of money. In a different kind of year, this race would be a toss-up.
Lean Republican: The 3rd Congressional District is an open seat, with Democratic Rep. Brian Baird retiring from office. Spirited primary battles are shaping up on both sides. On the GOP side, former Bush administration official David Castillo isn't going away, and has roughly $50,000 in the bank. The favorite, however, remains state Rep. Jaimie Herrera, who has banked an impressive $140,000. Castillo is running a serious race, but Herrera has more name identification, the credibility of being an elected official, and almost three times as much money in the bank. It’s hard to see how she loses the primary to Castillo.
On the Democratic side, former state House majority leader Denny Heck is turning out to be a fundraising machine. He has $532,000 in the bank, $250,000 of which is his own money. State Rep. Deb Wallace dropped out a few weeks ago, leaving state Sen. Craig Pridemore as Heck's Democratic opponent. Pridemore has $51,000 in the bank, and was just endorsed by the Sierra Club. This is shaping up as a classic confrontation between the "establishment moderate” (Heck) and the “true liberal” (Pridemore).
In the end it probably won't matter which Democrat prevails. The 3rd is a Republican-leaning district and this looks like a Republican year. Herrera is most likely going to Congress.
Lean Democratic: 2nd district Rep. Rick Larsen v. John Koster. Snohomish County Councilmember John Koster achieved a significant milestone by banking roughly $100,000 in the first quarter of 2010. In a normal year, Larsen would be cruising to re-election, but this isn't a normal year, and Koster's solid fundraising performance, combined with the competitive party balance in the 2nd district, makes this a race to watch.
Likely Democratic: There are two of these races, one involving Rep. Jay Inslee in the 1st district. Two Republicans have lined up to run against Inslee, Matthew Burke and James Watkins. Neither has raised much money, but Watkins has loaned his own campaign $100,000. Inslee is probably safe, unless the Republican wave reaches tsunami proportions.
Also in the same category is 9th district Democratic incumbent Adam Smith. A lot of Republicans are excited about Pierce County Councilmember Dick Muri's candidacy, but his April fundraising total is likely to dampen some of that enthusiasm. Despite Smith's being the local focus of the health care debate, Muri raised only $26,000 during the first quarter of 2010, and has only $42,000 in the bank after being in the race for a year. In the meantime, James Postma, Smith's GOP opponent in 2008, is running again, has loaned his campaign $150,000, and is already running cable TV ads. At this point it seems more likely that Muri will lose the primary than it does that he will beat Smith in the general.
Safe Democratic: Norm Dicks, 6th district, and Jim McDermott, 7th district.
State legislative races
For months, Democrats in Olympia fretted over how to balance the budget while doing themselves the least possible political damage. In the end, they cut spending roughly $700 million and raised a combination of taxes on such things as beer, soda, bottled water, and candy.
Going into special session in order to raise taxes and cut spending is certainly not good politics, and won't be popular on the campaign trail. But in the end, it really doesn't matter what the Olympia D's did this year. This is going to be a nationalized election, and Democrats are in trouble because of health care and the economy, not what they did or didn't do in Olympia. Many Democrats in swing districts voted against the budget and the tax increase package. This fall they are likely to learn the same lesson their predecessors in both parties have learned in past elections: When the national tide is running against your party, there's not much you can do to save yourself.
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