After Special Elections, Democrats' Prospects Look Dim for 2012

Instead, Republicans and allied groups also went on the attack, spending nearly $1 million on ads to portray Marshall as a supporter of Obama's health care plan, which proved to be even more unpopular with voters than entitlement cuts. Internal GOP polling showed Marshall with a clear edge on Medicare at the campaign's outset, but she trailed badly on the issue by the end. In Washoe County (Reno), a key bellwether, Marshall lost by 10 points.

In addition, the enthusiasm gap between the two parties, as evidenced by early voting, was also striking: Fifty-four percent of the early voters were registered Republicans, compared to 34 percent identifying themselves as Democrats. The 20-point gap is far greater than the eight-point registration advantage Republicans hold in the district.

In the Senate, Democrats are defending seats in much more Republican territory than New York City - in Nebraska (Ben Nelson), Montana (Jon Tester), and Missouri (Claire McCaskill). If a highly-regarded Democratic recruit can't compete in a district Obama nearly carried, what does that say about Rep. Shelley Berkley's prospects against Sen. Dean Heller (or Obama's in the battleground state)? In the House, 50 Democrats hold more Republican seats than New York 9 - even after last year's GOP landslide.

As I've written before, special elections don't necessarily predict the outcome of future elections, but they can offer a wealth of insight about a slice of the electorate at a point in time. Democrat Kathy Hochul's surprise victory in upstate New York's 26th Congressional District in the spring demonstrated Medicare is a potent issue for the party. (Heck, just witness Mitt Romney's aggressive attempts to attack Rick Perry on that front in a Republican presidential primary.) But that was before Obama's approval ratings tanked, along with the economy.

There's still plenty of time before the November 2012 election--14 months is a lifetime in politics. But the fundamentals of a weak economy look to be holding firm. For a while, it looked like that would cause voters to take out their anger on both parties, resulting in a broad anti-incumbent backlash. The lesson from Tuesday's election: It's looking like they're still mad at the Democrats.

Image credit: Larry Downing/Reuters

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Josh Kraushaar is the political editor for National Journal.

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