Within hours of Parker Griffith’s defection, the DCCC got two other signs that the political winds have shifted over the past year, transforming strong Democratic opportunities into long-shots. Indeed, at the start of the cycle Democrats had not given up the hope of scoring substantial gains: With California looking like it has untapped resources and a number of GOP incumbents coming out of the 2008 cycle with an aura of vulnerability , 2010 was the opportunity to pick-up additional seats.
One such incumbent is Rep. Michelle Bachmann. Defeating her has been a liberal priority ever since she became one of the far right’s leading spokespeople, and the party has recruited strong challengers against her: state Senator Tarryl Clark and Maureen Reed, a doctor who has been insisting she will now bow out for Clark and who’s been able to maintain herself due to surprisingly strong fundraising. With Bachmann regularly in the news for some statement or another, Democrats have been hoping these candidates can appeal to independents and perhaps even moderate Republicans.
Yet, a new PPP shows Bachmann is a strong position to win a third term. Not only does she have a solid approval rating (53% to 41%), including 51% approval among independents, but she has large leads against both Democrats: 55% to 37% against Clark, 53% to 37% against Reed. While her challengers are less-known that the incumbent, the poll doesn’t suggest respondents are reluctant to vote for Bachmann since she easily crosses the 50% threshold in both match-ups. There is no substantial pool of voters who are turned off by the incumbent and are looking for an alternative.
Given that MN-06 was one of the DCCC’s top eight offensive priorities according to comments made over the summer by the committee’s executive officer, these numbers sure are rough.
PPP compares Bachmann’s standing to that of Herseth Sandlin, the South Dakota Democrat who led her top competitor 46% to 39% in a poll released last week. Both incumbents have a similar approval rating spread (+12% and +11%, respectively), yet the latter has a far smaller lead and fails to cross 50%. That’s striking considering the fact that Herseth Sandlin has coasted to triumphant re-elections in 2006 and 2008 whereas Bachmann has struggled to win on both occasions. This suggests that many voters typically open to voting for a Democrat are very reluctant to do so this year, whereas there is no such qualms among those who typically lean right.
This situation might not limit Democratic opportunities in districts like LA-02, DE-AL, PA-06 and IL-10, and it doesn’t prevent the party from winning swing seats like MN-03 and the California districts that swung to Obama. But it does make it tough to envision a Democratic challenger pick-up a red district like MN-06, which did give McCain a 8% victory: Wave or no wave, the sort of cross-over voting this would be required is unlikely to occur in the midterm election of a Democratic president.
That situation is surely weighing hard on the mind of candidates who are challenging Republican incumbents in challenging districts: They got in at a time Democrats seemed like they could do anything, and they’re now stuck in races that look rather unwinnable - or at least far more difficult to pull off. One such candidate was businessman Jack McDonald, who was challenging Rep. Michael McCaul.
TX-10 is one of those districts which are bound to be very competitive some time in the future due to demographic changes, and while we aren’t there yet the past three presidential results are telling: Bush won by 33% in 2000, he won by 24% in 2004 and McCain won by 11% last year. That same day, McCaul was held to 54% by a Democrat who was barely noticed by national observers until the final weeks of the campaign. His 2010 opponent, however, was noticed within the first few months of 2009: He massively outraised the incumbent in the first quarter ($311,000 to $98,000), a rare discrepancy that he managed to repeat in the second and third quarter. Reporting nearly $1 million in contributions in an off-year is certainly enough to get national Democrats’ attention: The DCCC’s executive officer also included TX-10 among the party’s top eight priorities.
Fast forward to December: While the DCCC is no longer as focused on playing offense, it is nonetheless excited when McDonald finally formally announces a run (he had only formed an exploratory committee for most of 2009). But in a bizarrely speedy twist, McDonald announced last night that he was dropping out. There are only 10 more days before the filing deadline and $1 million in contribution that just evaporated: Gone are Democrats’ chances of contest the district. McCaul will most probably coast to an easy re-election.
For one of the party’s eight priorities to suddenly go completely off the map is quite a blow, not only because of what it does to TX-10 but also because of what it says about Democrats’ mood elsewhere. Consider that the party’s top recruit also recently dropped out in another of the DCCC’s top priorities: OH-02! I was never convinced that race merited an inclusion on that list when there were so many more promising districts in California, but at the very least this speaks to Democratic fortunes in those races the DCCC was looking to focus on.
If these developments are troubling for the DCCC, they’re all the more worrisome for Blue Dogs. We already knew that the coalition will lose many members (senior members are retiring, a number of junior recruits will probably lose their re-election races, and one of their members just became a Republican yesterday!), but we are now learning that they’re unlikely to gain any new members. The districts Democrats pick-up next year will be in districts like DE-AL and IL-10, which are unlikely to elect a conservative; Democrats who were looking to join Blue Dogs (McDonald and Maureen Reed have both been using that label to describe themselves) are running in districts that are looking like increasingly tough propositions for the party. Democrats might lose seats next year, but it won’t necessarily make it that harder for Nancy Pelosi to pass her priorities.