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Democrats Shift from Offense to Defense

WASHINGTON - It's been more than a year since he was first elected to Congress, but for Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick, the race never really ended.

The first-term Idahoan still updates his campaign website. He travels back to his district every weekend to shake hands. And he has pulled in $1 million in political donations - an average of $3,000 a day - for his re-election campaign.

"I didn't make my first fundraising call until the Monday after the election," quips Minnick, a 67-year-old former businessman. "I took the balance of the week and the weekend off."

Faced with a down economy, high unemployment and polarizing decisions on health care and energy, Minnick and dozens of other vulnerable Democrats in Congress are juggling votes in Washington with a campaign that's in full swing a year before the 2010 elections.

The stakes are high not only for the lawmakers whose jobs are on the line, but for President Obama.

At this point, non-partisan political experts such as Charlie Cook don't expect a repeat of the 1994 "Republican revolution," when the GOP seized control of Congress after a Democratic president failed to revamp health care. But they do project losses that could complicate Obama's agenda.

The Democratic shift from offense to defense is partly a product of history: After World War II, the party of a first-term president has lost an average of 16 congressional seats in midterm elections, says Cook, editor of the non-partisan Cook Political Report. And 2010, he says, is shaping up as even more challenging for the Democrats.

"We know winter's coming," Cook says. "Some of these new plants aren't going to survive."

Democrats added 66 members to their House and Senate majorities in the past two elections by winning traditionally Republican seats. Forty-nine Democrats represent districts carried by Republican presidential candidate John McCain in 2008.

Republican wins in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races this month demonstrated that independent voters who have fueled past Democratic success in those districts are willing to elect GOP candidates as well. A November Gallup Poll showed voters favored Republican congressional candidates over Democrats, 48% to 44%.

Four years ago, before Democrats swept into office, a Gallup Poll found that 50% of voters favored Democrats compared with 43% for Republicans.

The dynamic already is affecting policy on Capitol Hill, where Democratic leaders have struggled to pass controversial legislation despite wider majorities than two years ago. Democrats representing conservative districts forced House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California to include stronger abortion restrictions in the $1.1 trillion health care bill that the House narrowly approved Nov. 7.

Minnick, whose district supported McCain, voted against his party 60% of the time during his first six months in office, a Congressional Quarterly analysis shows. He opposed the health care bill, the $787 billion economic stimulus and a global-warming bill - all of which have been cast by Republican leadership as budget-busters or harmful to the economy.

Yet one of his GOP opponents predicts Minnick's voting record won't protect him in 2010.

"The people in Idaho are upset with the current direction the nation is going," says Vaughn Ward, 40, an Iraq war veteran. "They hold all Democrats responsible."

Tides, tables turn

Less than a year ago, Republicans were sulking.

Driven by President Bush's low approval and the Iraq war, Democrats took control of Congress in 2006. Two years later, the party won the White House and ultimately built a 60-vote majority in the Senate - enough to overturn filibusters if all Democrats and two independents vote together. In the House, Democrats secured nearly three in five seats.

As Democrats won, the GOP wrestled with how to fuse conservative values with the need to attract independent voters. A USA TODAY/Gallup Poll in June found that 52% of people couldn't come up with a name when asked to specify "the main person" who spoke for Republicans.

"After the last election, the one word I would have used would be 'despondent,' " says Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who leads the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Then in August, voters who were angry over the cost of the president's stimulus and the scope of his health care plan turned out to confront lawmakers at town-hall-style meetings across the nation.

Despite signs of economic progress, unemployment continued to rise - creating a talking point Republicans rarely fail to sound. "The American people are looking at what's going on in Washington and are saying we see a lot more government but a lot fewer jobs," says Ken Spain, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

As momentum started to build, star Republican candidates began jumping into races. A widely well-regarded state attorney general, Kelly Ayotte, launched a campaign for New Hampshire's open Senate seat. In Delaware, Rep. Mike Castle, a popular nine-term congressman, announced he would seek the Senate seat left vacant by Vice President Biden.

Now, even some veteran Democrats are in tough re-election battles. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada has raised $17 million since 2005, but his approval rating at home has slipped. An October poll by the Las Vegas Review-Journal found that half of voters had an unfavorable view of Reid, a senator since 1987.

"We're rebuilding," Cornyn said. "It's amazing how much a difference 10 months can make."

Not all smooth sailing for GOP

With the election almost a year away, there are warning signs for Republicans, too.

The GOP lost a House seat in Upstate New York this month after national Republican leaders and conservative groups rejected the party's nominee and backed a third-party conservative candidate. The district had been represented by Republicans for more than a century.

Similar internal ideological fights are shaping up in Republican primaries across the USA, including in Florida's Senate race. There, Republican Gov. Charlie Crist faces a challenge from the more conservative Marco Rubio. Crist is taking flak from the right wing of the GOP for supporting Obama's economic stimulus plan.

Though they've gained ground in public opinion polls, it's not as if Republican lawmakers are popular. A Gallup Poll last month showed that 37% of respondents trusted Republicans in Congress on health care. Almost five in 10 trusted Democrats.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, acknowledges that next year will bring a "very tough and competitive election" for Democrats. He also says Republicans are running without a clear platform of ideas.

"The public doesn't really see the Republicans as providing any answers," he says. "If you're a Republican, you've a got a hard message to say, 'Let's do what we were doing before the Democrats took over.' "

Cook says that's one reason Republicans are not likely to repeat the 1994 takeover, when they used their "Contract with America" to propose specific ideas.

"The Republican brand is still badly damaged," Cook says. "We think this is going to be a really rough election for Democrats, but it may not be nearly as bad as it could be."

Overall, the playing field in the Senate is more even than in the House. Out of 37 races, Cook rates six Democratic and four Republican seats as tossups. All four Republican tossup seats are being left open by retiring senators.

In Missouri, Republican Sen. Kit Bond is retiring after 22 years. Seven-term Republican Rep. Roy Blunt, 59, who is running for Bond's seat, is telling voters that Democrats shouldn't have a lock on Washington: "The whole issue of checks and balances in the federal government will be important in this race."

Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, a member of the state's most prominent Democratic political family, is pitching a message of change - similar to the one Obama used last year.

"Special interests have a stranglehold on Washington and we've got to break that stranglehold," says Carnahan, 48. "We know that change doesn't happen in one election."

A Public Policy Polling survey last week showed the two in a dead heat.

One deciding factor in close races will be whether young and black voters who were inspired by Obama in 2008 will turn out to the polls again next year even though he's not on the ballot, says Nathan Gonzales, political editor at the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report.

A key issue, Gonzales says, will be the economy. If it improves, so do Democrats' chances of success, he says. If it stagnates, and Republicans can paint the costly stimulus as a failure, Democrats will be in trouble.

"Right now, it's too early to know which side will benefit," he says, but "the economy is going to be a key factor to all the races."

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