Midterms are tough for presidents, but party leaders aren’t usually in trouble.
Next Tuesday Democrats will receive a crushing rebuke. More to the point, voters will be delivering a verdict on the first two years of the Obama administration.
Midterm elections are almost always unpleasant experiences for the White House, especially when the economy is weak. But key races that should have been safe for the party in power demonstrate the extent to which President Obama and his policies have nationalized the election.
In Nevada, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has a huge war chest in a state Mr. Obama won in 2008 by 12 points. Mr. Reid trails Sharron Angle by four points in the latest Rasmussen poll.
In West Virginia, Joe Manchin, a popular Democratic governor, is running for the Senate, yet he lags behind John Raese by two points in the Oct. 23 Fox News Poll, largely because of Mr. Obama’s 30% approval rating in the state. Mr. Manchin is running away from the president, telling Fox News that Mr. Obama is “dead wrong on cap and trade,” and that he would not have supported ObamaCare had he known everything that was in the bill.
Or take the Illinois Senate seat held by Mr. Obama before he was elected president. It should be safely Democratic. Instead, Republican Congressman Mark Kirk has led Illinois Treasurer and Obama basketball buddy Alexi Giannoulias in eight of the 10 polls taken this month. It will be a terrible embarrassment if the president’s former Senate seat flips.
Elsewhere, some powerful Senate Democrats were either forced out by popular Republican challengers (North Dakota and Indiana) or they trail badly because their races became nationalized over the Obama agenda (Arkansas, Missouri and Wisconsin).
One of the more interesting Senate races is in Ohio, where Rob Portman, a former trade negotiator and budget director for George W. Bush, leads Democratic Lt. Governor Lee Fisher by an average of 19 points in a state Mr. Obama carried by four points.
Ohio is no longer friendly Obama territory. An August survey by Public Policy Polling reported that Ohioans would prefer George W. Bush in the White House today rather than Mr. Obama by 50% to 42%. Mr. Portman campaigns relentlessly on jobs, presenting a principled, optimistic case that conservative policies mean economic growth. It’s a winning strategy.
Then there are senior House Democrats who normally don’t draw more than token opposition. This year, some are terminal and others in jeopardy.
Nine-term Congressman Earl Pomeroy (North Dakota) and 13-termer Paul Kanjorski (Pennsylvania) will both go down. Three House committee chairmen—John Spratt (South Carolina), Ike Skelton (Missouri) and Jim Oberstar (Minnesota)—are trying to hold off late-charging challengers. Even the dean of the House, Michigan’s 27-term Congressman John Dingell, is having to fend off a spirited challenge by cardiologist Rob Steele.
Then there’s House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, squaring off against Republican Sean Bielat, a Marine and businessman, in Massachusetts. In 2008, Mr. Obama carried his district by 29 points, but Mr. Frank is now stuck at 46% support in a recent poll commissioned by the Boston Globe. Anything less than 50% is a dangerous place for an entrenched incumbent. Mr. Bielat has campaigned so effectively he’s forced the acerbic, high-strung Mr. Frank to confess he’d been wrong to oppose reform of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the years before their spectacular collapse.
While Mr. Frank and several other senior Democrats may hang on, the fact that they even face tough races shows how much trouble the Democrats are in.
Adding to Democratic problems, the record GOP turnout in this year’s primaries points to higher turnout next week. Four years ago, 82 million people voted in the midterms. This year I estimate 89 million to 91 million Americans may cast a ballot, based on voting-eligible population statistics calculated by George Mason University’s Michael McDonald. Could there be a late surge in Democratic enthusiasm? The latest Pew poll, from Oct. 21, reports that 64% of Republicans say they have given a lot of thought to the election, while only 49% of Democrats have. This intensity edge is staggering, larger even than the GOP’s 12-point lead in 1994.
In recent days, Mr. Obama screamed defiantly to Democratic rallies that Republicans have to “sit in the back,” and he told a Latino radio audience that it’s time to “punish our enemies and . . . reward our friends.” That may be the president’s idea of how to appeal to Americans’ better instincts. Next Tuesday night we’ll see how badly wrong he is.
Mr. Rove was senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush