The new normal for Democrats is losing 30 to 40 U.S. House seats in November.
What’s driving these potential losses is simple: The message from the Obama administration and the party’s congressional leadership is not in sync with the American electorate.
"Everyone is happy going to the sacrifice, except the lambs," says a highly regarded Democratic strategist working on several House races.
Congressional Democrats are in the unenviable position of defending a lot more House seats than Republicans, which means they have to reach across the political spectrum. Facing all of these challenges will cost them a lot of money.
When the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and National Republican Campaign Committee recruit for a House race, they first look for so-called first-tier candidates.
These are elected officials (state legislators, mayors, even statewide officeholders) as well as prominent, wealthy businessmen and women, University of Virginia political scientist Isaac Wood explains.
Second-tier candidates have money or name recognition, but not both.
Third-tier candidates have never run for elected office, have no personal wealth and no established political or fund-raising network.
Usually, Wood says, "a third-tier candidate loses big."
Yet in a sour political year such as this, what Democrats may lose bigger on is money spent to defend against third-tier opposition.
"Third-tier candidates are tricky for both sides," Wood says. "Sometimes they hurt their party by sucking up resources, especially money, that could be better used on other candidates with a better shot at winning."
Sometimes they do succeed in damaging the other party, by forcing the incumbent to concentrate on the coming election and to raise money from donors who otherwise would bolster other party incumbents.
With more cash in their congressional campaign committee coffer than Republicans have, Democrats seem to be okay heading into the summer. The real fear is about supply and demand.
"The supply of money could easily dry up as more members worry about their own re-elections and turn their fundraising attention back to their own race," says Wood.
If 75 to 100 Democrats are on the electoral chopping block, as some analysts predict, the resulting money squeeze would hugely impact the overall effectiveness of the party’s efforts in November.
Although not gravely threatened yet, two particular incumbents – and the surprising exit of a third, House Appropriations Committee chairman David Obey – illustrate the trouble for Democrats:
– Democrat Obey of Wisconsin’s 7th U.S. House District is not a household name. Yet Washington insiders are shaken by his decision last week not to seek reelection to a seat he held comfortably for years. He was set to face a strong opponent in Republican Sean Duffy, a young district attorney who has built a strong campaign.
The district is not as bad for Republicans as you might expect; George Bush got 49% of its vote, and Obey never faced a serious challenge before.
You might have smelled this one coming: Appropriations Committee staff had noticed Obey tamping down his rhetoric and holding D.C. fund-raisers for the first time in years.
– Allen Boyd is one of two incumbent Florida Democrats in districts carried by Republican John McCain in 2008. His toughest GOP challenger is Steve Southerland, who may benefit from Boyd facing state senator Al Lawson in the Democratic primary. Not only did Boyd flip-flop on health care (no in November, yes in March) but his support for the health care bill forced student-loan provider Sallie Mae to lay-off 700 in his district alone.
– Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.) has been much smarter with his votes than the state’s other "Blue Dog" Democrats. He is considered a moderate Democrat – but it is that second word, Democrat, that may be more important in a district that went nearly 2-to-1 for McCain.
Wood notes that Boyd and Davis are "running against first-time candidates, at least at the congressional level. Their opponents will likely make stumbles and gaffes along the way, which could make their reelection bids all the easier."
If the political climate improves for Democrats, Boyd and Davis could possibly escape with comfortable victories – but Obey’s departure is a warning that third-tier challenges are not to be dismissed.
As each day breaks with news that works against them, cushy House members should be seriously concerned about a worst-case scenario in which Obama’s popularity declines even more and little-known challengers gain traction.
"In a 1994-redux scenario," warns Wood, no one is safe this year.