Democrats May Hold House, Not Senate

Democrats had a very good night on Tuesday, dampening, at least for now, Republican boasts about taking back control of the House. Democrat Mark Critz, a longtime congressional aide, held the Pennsylvania House seat of his former boss, the late and legendary logrolling politician John Murtha, calling into question GOP claims that Republicans would sweep blue-collar swing districts in key states across the country and return the party to power.

Building on this momentum, Democratic leaders showed off the balding, bureaucratic-looking Critz to their caucus Thursday morning, displaying him like a conquering hero even though he ran as a pro-life, pro-gun, anti-health-care-reform Democrat, in the mold of the man he replaces, which is why he won. Taking reporters’ questions after squiring around his new member, the head of the Democratic campaign committee, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, pointed out that unlike his Republican opponent, Critz doesn’t want to repeal health-care reform.

Critz ran on jobs and the economy, exploiting his opponent’s support for a provision that allows American corporations to get a tax benefit for moving jobs overseas. Van Hollen promised that a bill closing that loophole would be on the House floor Friday or early next week, and that it would be one of Critz’s first votes in Congress.

Republican hopes to regain the House took a big hit when they failed to carry Murtha’s district. It is the only one in the country that went from supporting John Kerry in 2004 to backing John McCain in 2008. Its constituents are heavily white, Catholic, blue-collar workers displaced from the steel and coal industries, a hardscrabble life that lends itself to expressing grievances against the Obama administration.

The district seemed ready-made for a GOP pickup, and the Republican campaign committee, together with outside groups, put $1.5 million into the race. (Democrats spent $1.3 million.) Polls showed Republican Tim Burns comfortably ahead of Critz, and as late as 7:30 on Wednesday evening, GOP leaders were voicing confidence the district was theirs. When the win failed to materialize, Virginia Republican and former GOP campaign committee head Tom Davis exclaimed, “If you can’t win a seat that is trending Republican in a year like this, then where is the wave?”

For the GOP, this was a test run of their strategy to rally voters around opposition to the Obama agenda and to personalize the race against Nancy Pelosi as the face of runaway liberalism. Republicans tried a similar approach back in the 1980s against then-speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill, portraying him as a cigar-smoking party boss whose liberal ideas were out of date. Ads featured an actor playing the rotund and white-haired O’Neill laughing as his car ran out of gas. As inviting a target as O’Neill was in the age of Reagan, with his reverence for bleeding-heart liberalism, the campaign against him failed to gain traction, and the Democrats held their House majority.

Republicans are on course to make substantial gains in November, but the wave that would bring them the 40 seats they need to reach the majority seems more elusive today than it did before they fell short in Pennsylvania. Contrary to the early conventional wisdom that the House is poised for a Republican takeover, it could be the Democrats’ firewall, while the Senate, considered a much bigger challenge for the GOP, is looking a lot more vulnerable for the Democrats.

The bombshell this week was the revelation that Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal had exaggerated his military record (he said he had served in Vietnam, when in reality he received five deferments and a stateside slot with a Marine Reserve unit). Blumenthal had been coasting to an easy win to replace Sen. Chris Dodd, and the race is now rated a tossup. His was one of the races the Democrats were counting on as a bulwark to keep the GOP from getting the 10 seats they need to claim the majority.

A Republican gain of up to seven or eight seats appears likely, and that’s close to the number they need. Some of the potential losses are self-inflicted wounds, the result of Obama’s raiding the Senate to stock his government: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s seat in Colorado and Joe Biden’s seat in Delaware are up for grabs. And thanks to the bungled handling of Obama’s old seat in Illinois, that one is too. California’s Barbara Boxer always has a tight race, but for Democrats, it’s really unsettling to see her in the tossup column. If Democrats can’t win in California, the bluest of states, the wave will have hit and the tide gone out for the Democrats.