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Republicans Count on Jobs, Health Care for Revival: Albert Hunt

The 2010 U.S. congressional elections, viewed through the prism of a sporting event, are at halftime. The visiting team, the Republicans, have put a lot of points on the board.

The Republicans need net gains of 40 seats in the House and 10 in the Senate to take control. With less than six months to go, they are competitive in five dozen Democratic-held House districts, almost within striking distance of the required number of Senate contests and in danger of losing only a handful of their own seats.

The two best political handicappers of congressional elections, Charles Cook and Stuart Rothenberg, agree the Republicans face an uphill struggle to win the Senate. They have different takes on the House; Cook sees the odds as “high” for the Republicans winning a net of more than 40 House seats; Rothenberg, stressing it’s early, thinks a gain of 25 to 30 is more likely.

The variables over the next months will be crucial in deciding whether President Barack Obama retains or loses his congressional majorities. At the top of that list is the economy. Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin sees a modest uptick in voters’ attitudes as the economy improves.

Republican Congressman Kevin McCarthy of California, a chief strategist for his party in the House contests, dismisses such claims: “You’re not going to convince people the economy is getting better anytime unemployment is above 8.5 percent.” The most optimistic forecasters anticipate the current 9.9 percent jobless rate will still be above 9 percent on Nov. 2, Election Day.

Health Care Looms

Almost as big a problem for the Democrats is that six weeks after Obama’s health-care overhaul became law, most Americans still view it negatively. The White House has enlisted top Democratic strategist Stephanie Cutter to achieve what it failed to do last year -- convince most Americans of the virtues of Obamacare.

Several Republican political consultants have warned candidates to stay away from the pledge made by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and other congressional heavyweights to “repeal” the health-care measure next year if the party wins the majority in Congress. There are a number of politically popular provisions in the measure, such as preventing insurance companies from refusing coverage for people with preexisting conditions, and providing a tax credit for small businesses. After an initial chorus of “repeal and reform” pledges, many candidates are now just generically criticizing the legislation.

‘Not About Us’

McCarthy and other Republican strategists have advised the party to keep the focus entirely on the Democrats and not to let the November showdown become a choice between two competing agendas. “This election is not about us” is a Republican mantra.

Democrats believe, however, they can force a number of candidates out of this political rope-a-dope. House strategists will try to tie the leading Republican budget proposal of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan around the neck of other candidates. The Ryan plan would turn Medicare into a voucher system, partially privatize Social Security and focus massive tax cuts on upper-income individuals.

Garin, the Democratic pollster, says he and Obama pollster Joel Benenson recently did a survey revealing that once voters are aware of the Republican alternatives, there’s movement back to the Democrats. “Our job is to explain to people the consequences of empowering Washington Republicans,” he says.

Internecine Warfare

Cook is skeptical: “I don’t think anyone outside of Paul Ryan’s district is going to know who Paul Ryan is,” he says, noting that midterm elections rarely focus on the challenging party.

The Democrats’ other hope for minimizing losses, especially in the Senate, is that Republicans will fall prey to internecine warfare, with conservative activists opting for more ideologically pure candidates. There’s already some potential evidence of this in upcoming primaries ranging from Florida, where a conservative challenger forced the incumbent governor, Charlie Crist, to switch and run as an independent, and Kentucky to Nevada and Arizona.

This seems less of an issue in the House. Just winning Republican districts that only went Democratic in the last election or two, and some seats of retiring officeholders, gets the Republicans to a 20- or 25-seat pickup. (As of today, only four or five Republican-held House seats are competitive).

Democratic Freshmen

To win a majority, the challengers need the sort of political tsunami that will knock out strong Democratic candidates, such as freshman John Boccieri of Ohio, a former state legislator, professional baseball player and Iraq war veteran, and long timers such as House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt of South Carolina and Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton of Missouri. They got a break last week when Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey of Wisconsin, a 41-year veteran, decided to step down, making it an even bet that district will go Republican in November.

In the Senate, the Republicans have an advantage in all 18 seats they currently hold, though in a few places like Missouri and New Hampshire, it’s close. Of the 18 Democratic-held seats, four now seem likely to switch -- North Dakota, Delaware, Illinois and Indiana -- and four others are tilting that way -- Arkansas, Colorado, Pennsylvania and Nevada. (Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada has terrible poll numbers, though he could be saved by a massive financial advantage and a fractured opposition.)

To win control, the Republicans have to score upsets in places like California, Wisconsin and Washington, where they lack strong candidates.

A scriptwriter’s scenario, not totally farfetched, is Republicans win a net of nine Senate seats, leaving each party with 49 members and independents Crist and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut the determining votes.

(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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