An Early Look at November

White House spokesperson, Robert Gibbs, caused a bit of a stir last week when, in an appearance on Meet the Press, he suggested that Democrats might lose control of the House of Representatives in November. To be fair, Gibbs was merely saying what has become accepted as conventional wisdom in Washington. Nevertheless, his comments concerned many Democratic Members of Congress who feared the remarks might serve to depress Democratic voters while emboldening Republicans.

Democratic leaders were also upset feeling that after making tough votes supporting the White House’s agenda–”a stimulus package, a “cap and trade” energy bill, health care reform and financial reform legislation–”they were being written off as a potentially “lost cause”.

There can be no doubt that Democrats have a hill to climb in November. They currently hold a comfortable 77 Member edge in the House of Representatives and a 58 to 40 lead in the Senate (with 2 independents who vote with the Democrats). While the Senate margin appears to be secure –” it would take a string of major upsets and extraordinary good luck for Republicans to win enough of the seats being contested in the fall to take control of the upper chamber –” Democratic control of the House is less secure.

At present, most analysts consider between 60 to 70 congressional elections as close contests –” most of these currently held by vulnerable Democrats. Should Republicans turn two-thirds of these Democratic-held seats, they would return to the majority. This is possible, though not a sure thing.

The reasons for the Democrats’ concern are a combination of historical factors and the general depressed mood of the electorate. Some of the now vulnerable Democratic seats were won in 2006 when voters turned against George W. Bush or in 2008 when many more were swept in by the “Obama surge” of new voters inspired by his historic campaign. It is normal that in the mid-term election the party holding the White House loses seats. The President is not on the ballot, voter turn-out is lower and some parts of the electorate express their dissatisfaction with Washington by voting against the party that controls the White House. Over the past several decades the average number House seats that have switched (going from the party that sits in the White House to the opposition party) in mid-term elections is 28.

This year it may be bigger. With two unresolved wars and a still sluggish economy, with high unemployment, compounded by a near three month long devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, voter disenchantment with Washington has grown. While none of these calamities can fairly be blamed on the President or Democrats, the Republican Party has been effective in exploiting voter unrest and, in some cases, anger. They have mobilized a movement of discontent directed at “big government” and Democrats.

In this regard recent polls reveal an interesting profile. Obama retains the approval of just about one-half of the electorate (a severe decline from his 71% approval rating in early 2009). And Democrats still have a slightly higher approval rating than do Republicans. But less than a third of all voters think the country is moving in the right direction and a plurality now say that they would prefer that Congress be controlled by the opposition party rather than the Democrats who also control the White House.

All of this is a rather remarkable turn of events. Republicans controlled Congress for most of the past 15 years and the White House for the 8 years that preceded Obama’s 2008 win. Despite this, they have been able to cast Democrats as the “establishment” and lay the blame for the nation’s ills at their doorstep. They have turned the same voter disenchantment with Washington’s failures that catapulted Obama to victory against the President and his party and they have unleashed a social movement that has already been a decisive factor in some contests.

The challenge now facing Democrats in the less than four months remaining before November is to create an equally effective mobilization on their side. They need the White House to commit both resources and the personal involvement of the President in support of vulnerable Democrats in the fall campaign. And, since these elections will be low turnout contests and decided by the party that has the most intense voter support, they want the White House to help gin up excitement among the party’s faithful to create a change in momentum offsetting the GOP’s current edge.

Of course other factors can help. A dramatic upturn in the economy or another White House success that carries with it some felt benefit for voters, or a more compelling Democratic message that convinces voters that “staying the course” would be more in their interest than returning to a divided government. Any of these would help change the national mood and the dynamic leading up to the elections. But even with this, Congressional Democrats want the White House engaged and fighting on their side, energizing and not depressing potential voters. That’s why the Gibb comments created such a stir. By week’s end, following a White House meeting, they appeared on the same page with promises of a combined effort to buck historical trends and transform the public mood helping Democrats forestall GOP wins in November.