WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For nervous Democrats, the big question now is: How bad will November’s congressional elections be?
The answer: Pretty bad.
Battling a tough political climate fueled by economic fears and President Barack Obama’s political difficulties, Democrats face an uphill struggle to retain control in the House of Representatives and avoid big losses in the Senate.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs’s recent statement of the obvious — that enough races are in play for Republicans to reclaim House control — was the latest sign of growing Democratic nervousness.
“We have always said this election is an uphill climb for Democrats. The question is the steepness of the climb,” said Representative Chris Van Hollen, who heads the House Democratic Campaign Committee.
But he was adamant Democrats could avoid a loss of the House that would likely slam the brakes on Obama’s legislative agenda and reshape the battle lines for the president’s 2012 re-election campaign.
“We will maintain a majority in the Congress,” he said.
All 435 House seats, 36 of 100 Senate seats and 37 governorships are at stake in November, with Republicans needing to gain 39 House seats and 10 Senate seats to reclaim majorities.
Republican victories would be welcomed by the business community and put Obama’s plans for climate change legislation and immigration reform in doubt.
The non-partisan Cook Political Report lists more than 70 House seats as highly competitive and predicts Republicans will pick up 30 to 40 seats in November — putting them on the cusp of a majority.
“The House is in play,” said David Wasserman, Cook’s House analyst. “A couple of months ago our forecast for Republican pick-ups would have been 25 to 35 seats. We’re at 30 to 40 now. I don’t know where we will be in a few months.”
In the Senate, Republicans would need to sweep nearly all of about 16 competitive races to reclaim the 51 seats needed for control. Poll averages compiled by the web site Real Clear Politics show the Democrats are likely to suffer big Senate losses but narrowly keep control.
“For the Senate to flip, you need a lot of things to happen — Republicans will probably need a couple of surprises,” said pollster Peter Brown of Quinnipiac University. “Clearly the Republicans are going to pick up seats, but they have a lot of seats they need to pick up.”
Public concerns about the economy, a high jobless rate and Obama’s performance have created a glum public mood and a strong desire for change that has already led to the ouster of several incumbents from both parties in early primaries.
Obama’s approval ratings now hover under the 50 percent level in most polls and support among independents has steadily shriveled. Republicans moved into the lead over Democrats on generic ballots in several recent polls, including Tuesday’s Washington Post/ABC News survey.
That poll also found 51 percent of Americans believed it was more important to have Republicans in charge of Congress to act as a check on Obama’s policies, while 43 percent believed it was more important to have Democrats in charge.
History is also with Republicans — the party holding the White House traditionally loses seats in midterm elections, with only rare exceptions.
For Democratic House strategists, the problems are compounded by the election map. After big sweeps in 2006 and 2008, first- and second-term House Democrats occupy nearly 50 conservative-leaning districts won by Republican presidential candidate John McCain in 2008.
Republicans are targeting many of those freshmen and sophomores, and when possible focusing on their votes for the healthcare overhaul, economic stimulus package and climate control bill.
“If you’re a Democrat who supported all three, it’s going to be a real weight on your campaign,” said Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for the Republican House campaign committee.
Democratic strategists say they hope to counter the trends by localizing House races and increasing turnout. They point to May’s special House election in Pennsylvania, won by Democrats, as a textbook example of what they need to do nationwide.
“We have to make it a choice between two candidates and their vision of the future,” Van Hollen said.
“We have to paint a very clear picture of what it would mean if Republicans take control of Congress,” he said. “The more people hear about it the more they see that it’s simply a rehash of the economic policies that got us into this mess.”
Democrats are spending $30 million to try to get Obama’s 15 million first-time voters in 2008 — many of them young, women, blacks and Hispanics — back to the polls.
Republican strategist Karl Rove, architect of former President George W. Bush’s two White House wins, said he thought Republicans could pick up 35 seats and possibly as many as 55.
But ultimate House control could be decided by a small number of close races, he said, noting the 15 closest House races in 2006 hinged on 27,000 votes out of 82 million cast.
“It will be settled by small numbers,” Rove said.
Additional reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Doina Chiacu