Here comes the GOP

Yes, they can: Republicans positioned to reclaim power in nation, Maryland

September 06, 2010

If current trends continue, Baltimore-born Nancy Pelosi will soon become the first female former speaker of the House. Congressman Steny Hoyer of Maryland would be demoted to minority leader, or worse. And Republicans might even seize control of the U.S. Senate, along with the U.S. House of Representatives.

Change is coming to Washington. For the third national election in a row, voters are ready to punish those in charge for the way things have been going in the country. That much is clear. All that remains to be determined, heading into the fall campaign, is the precise size and shape of the Republican rebound.

In 2006 and 2008, the Democrats successfully exploited voter anger at Republican President George W. Bush. As a result, they took control of both houses of Congress and the White House, prompting overheated talk about a new age of American leadership. Now, with the pendulum swinging back, the future of that new era is in serious jeopardy. Things are headed the Republican way, perhaps with a vengeance. Or as Dick Cheney would say — big time.

Some usually reliable indicators suggest 2010 could be an even better year for Republicans than 1994. That was the election that cost Democrats their majorities in both houses of Congress and put Newt Gingrich in the House speaker's chair. A recent national opinion survey by the Gallup organization, which has been tracking congressional voting preference since 1942, gave Republicans their largest advantage ever in that measure.

The shifting national picture could be a sign that change is coming to Annapolis, too. Many Marylanders still remember what happened locally in 1994. Ellen Sauerbrey, the Republican nominee for governor, came within a whisker of getting elected. This autumn, the Republicans are going to be fielding a proven winner, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., at the top of the state ticket. The former governor might well be in the right place at the right time, though Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley will prove a far more formidable opponent than Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was in 2002.

Of course, there's no certainty that these trends will continue or that Election Day will be doomsday for Democrats. That's why we have campaigns and hold elections. But Democrats are only deluding themselves if they don't recognize the danger ahead.

A political storm is brewing, one that could make the big ocean swells along Maryland's coastline seem like tiny ripples by comparison. Traditional factors, which always figured to make this a challenging election for Democrats, are being magnified by a strikingly negative national mood. Voters are alienated, aggrieved and angry. If they vent the full force of their pent-up fury, the wave that crests on Nov. 2 will topple well-funded, sure-footed Democratic candidates who weren't expected to lose.

Even in ordinary times, the first midterm election of a new president's term is tough for the party in power, which typically loses seats. Many of the U.S. House members who rode the president's vote surge into office — think of Democratic Rep. Frank Kratovil in this state's easternmost and traditionally Republican district — get swept out two years later. Add to that the fact that Republican voters are ordinarily more likely than Democrats to participate in nonpresidential elections, regardless of which party holds the White House.

And this is no ordinary time. For months, public opinion polls have been sending a consistent message: Voter "intensity" is extremely lopsided in 2010. Republicans are highly energized; Democrats aren't. The weak economic climate is only increasing the Republican advantage. It's a cliché that Americans vote their pocketbooks, especially when jobs are an overriding concern, but it's also true.

Growing dissatisfaction with President Barack Obama's performance is also a factor. Many of the "surge" supporters who helped elect Mr. Obama president won't bother to vote this year. And it's unlikely that he can do much about it. When voters are downbeat, even the best presidential communicators, including Ronald Reagan in the first midterm campaign of his administration, have been powerless to prevent their party's candidates from losing.

Against these trends of history and a sour public mood, the Democratic National Committee says it is spending $50 million on turnout. The aim is to motivate a big chunk of first-time voters from 2008 to rescue Mr. Obama's agenda by supporting Democratic candidates. The target group is composed disproportionately of the young, minorities and new American citizens. But many of them are feeling let down that their vote for Mr. Obama failed to generate hoped-for changes on global warming, immigration and gay rights, while at the same time producing an unwelcome U.S. military escalation in Afghanistan.

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