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First thoughts: The battle for Congress

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** The battle for Congress: With the House on its recess and with six months into the Obama administration, now's about as good of a time as any to look at the battle for Congress that will take place some 450 days (!!!) from today. Currently, Dems hold a 79-seat advantage in the House (256-177, with two vacancies). That means for Republicans, to regain the majority in House (i.e., get 218 seats), they must net 41 seats. While it's unlikely that the GOP will be able to pick up that many seats, Republicans have history, the map, and (it's starting to seem) the political winds at their back to regain a chunk of congressional seats in 2010. Below is everything you wanted to know about next year's House races but were afraid to ask. We'll take a stab at the Senate races next Monday, after the Senate has embarked on its August recess.

*** History's on the GOP's side: As for the history, the first midterm election for a sitting president hasn't been kind to that president's political party: Since the end of World War II, every president except one -- George W. Bush, after 9/11 -- has seen his party lose House seats. In fact, since 1946, an incumbent president's party has lost an average of 26 seats in his first midterm election (that includes 1974, after Ford had succeeded Nixon after Watergate). The worst performance was in 1994, when the Democrats lost 57 seats. The second-worst was in 1946, when Dems lost 55 seats. The best performance was in 2002, when Republicans actually netted two congressional seats. Now keep in mind, as true math freaks will tell you, we actually haven't had enough elections to make these numbers statistically significant. Still, it's a trend that does matter…

*** So is the map: As for the map, Republicans appear to have more potential pick-up opportunities heading into 2010. There are 49 Democratic-controlled congressional districts that McCain won last year (most of them in the South, the very districts represented by those Blue Dogs). By comparison, there are 34 GOP-controlled congressional districts that Obama won (many of them in blue states like California, Illinois, Michigan, and Pennsylvania). What's more, after their big gains in 2006 and 2008 -- in down years for Republicans -- Democrats may very well have hit a ceiling. Translation: Even with the 34 Republican-controlled districts that Obama won, Democrats have nowhere to go but down. But GOPers have this slight problem: Some of their very best incumbents in blue states (Mark Kirk, Jim Gerlach, perhaps Mike Castle) are running for statewide office, which means these seats will probably flip back to the Democrats next year.

*** One big difference: Yet keep in mind that 2010 isn't 1994 in this one respect: The 1992 election actually provided hints of the 1994 tsunami (redistricting, strength of anti-establishment Perot etc.; Republicans actually did well in 1992 House races and picked up senate seats). So 1992's results scared a number of Dems and led to a lot of retirements -- making 1994 even more difficult for their party. Remember, MSNBC's Morning Joe won his Dem-held House seat in an open seat contest; the conservative southern Dem decided to retire. We're not seeing this same pattern for 2010 just yet. Democrats seem to have the ability to have insulated themselves from a 1994- or 1946-like result.

*** The answer my friend is blowing in the wind: And as far as the political winds go, Republicans are faring much better in polls' generic-ballot tests. In last week's NBC/WSJ poll, Democrats held a seven-point advantage over Republicans in the generic ballot, 46%-39% -- the smallest edge for Dems since April 2006. In fact, since Hurricane Katrina, Democrats typically had a double-digit advantage over the GOP. In addition, an NPR poll showed Republicans with a one-point edge in its generic-ballot test. As Charlie Cook wrote on National Journal on Friday, "It is too soon to say that Republicans have captured the momentum or hold the advantage, but a shrinking Democratic edge will almost surely precede a reversal, hence the understandable anxiety on the Democrats' part as they continue wrestling with health care…" 

*** The Dems' clear state advantage: But new Gallup numbers -- taken in the first half of this year -- are an important reminder why it's still going to be difficult for the Republican Party to become the majority anytime soon. According to these numbers, Democrats have a clear advantage in 30 states (plus DC), while Republicans have an advantage in just FOUR states. In short, Democrats have firewalls that the GOP doesn't have anymore. Just look at these top-10 lists. The Democrats' top-10 states: DC (65-point advantage), Massachusetts (34-point advantage), Hawaii (29 points), Maryland (28 points), Vermont (28 points), Rhode Island (27 points), Illinois (26 points), New York (25 points), Connecticut (25 points), California (22 points). The Republicans' top-10 states: Utah (23-point advantage), Wyoming (21 points), Idaho (13 points), Alaska (11 points), Alabama (6 points), Mississippi (1 point), North Dakota (even), Nebraska (even), Kansas (-2 points), and Arizona (-2 points). Wow.

Video: National Economic Council Director Larry Summers discusses the state of the beleaguered U.S. economy with NBC's David Gregory on "Meet the Press."

*** Selling the new normal: That's what Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner (on Saturday) and chief White House economic adviser Larry Summers (on Sunday) were selling. They were both asked tax hypotheticals, and both left themselves wiggle room. But wouldn't it have been news -- and some might argue irresponsible -- if they answered any other way? How were they supposed to answer? Is it any different than asking a foreign policy team member about ruling out military intervention in, say, Iran? By the way, Cash for Clunkers is coming at a great time for the Obama administration. It's an easy-to-understand government program. And the demand for it, coming the same week as the GDP news (which is harder to explain), allows for a better story to tell about any evidence of an economic recovery. Can Republicans like John McCain and Jim DeMint stop it? One other Clunkers thought: The Dems are re-directing stimulus money to fund it. Could this be a sign of things to come with the stimulus in which congressional Dems redirect it if they decide they can't politically actually ASK for a second stimulus?

*** Memories, like the corners of my mind…: Anyone who is a fan of First Read and politics will no doubt love the new book on the 2008 election by Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson, "The Battle for America 2008." On Sunday, the Washington Post excerpted a portion of it (featuring an interview with Obama). Today's installment looks at McCain's choice of Palin as his VP. Also, on Sunday, the two authors were on "Meet the Press," where they laid out some lessons they've taken away from the campaign about how the president is and will continue to govern.

*** The Great American Health Care Fight: With the House on recess, there are several previews in the papers about the August health-care campaign… In fact, we're getting more trickles of how the recess will play out: It will be Dems v. insurance industry, and GOPers vs. Obama… Obama is traveling to the West to sell the health plan… And John Boehner's office has a new Web ad (with "Young & The Restless music in the background) hitting Obama on health care.

 Video: With August just one day away, MSNBC political analyst Eugene Robinson talks about the progress made on the heath care front and where it's likely to end up now that Congress is on vacation.

*** Other odds and ends: In an op-ed, is CIA chief Leon Panetta

sending a signal to Congress to stop the Bush-era intel probes?... The Washington Post has a C.W.-setting piece noting that Dems are still using Bush as punching bag still… And Tim Pawlenty continues his subtle differentiation with Romney on the issue of health care.

*** Obama's day: The president delivers remarks on the post-9/11 GI Bill at George Mason University at 11:05 am ET. After that, at 12:30 pm, he meets at the White House with the emir of Kuwait.

*** And did you know? At the end of the New York Times' profile of Tom Arnold, per MSNBC's Brooke Brower, it says he's going to shoot a movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron the day after Arnold leaves the governor's mansion. So does this mean Schwarzenegger's political career is more over than he's hinted publicly?

Countdown to Election Day 2009: 92 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 456 days

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