WASHINGTON -- As Democrats brace for a November wave that threatens their control of the House, party leaders are preparing a brutal triage of their own members in hopes of saving enough seats to keep a slim grip on the majority.
In the next two weeks, Democratic leaders will review new polls and other data that show whether vulnerable incumbents have a path to victory. If not, the party is poised to redirect money to concentrate on trying to protect up to two dozen lawmakers who appear to be in the strongest position to fend off their challengers.
"We are going to have to win these races one by one," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, conceding that the party would ultimately cut loose members who had not gained ground.
With the midterm campaign entering its final two months, Democrats acknowledged that several races could quickly move out of their reach, including re-election bids by Reps. Betsy Markey of Colorado, Tom Perriello of Virginia, Mary Jo Kilroy of Ohio and Frank Kratovil Jr. of Maryland, whose districts were among the 55 Democrats won from Republicans in the last two election cycles.
Reps. John M. Spratt Jr. of South Carolina, chairman of the Budget Committee, and Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota, who is seeking a 10th term, are among senior Democrats who have appeared to gain little ground in the summer months in the toxic political environment. A sputtering economy and discontent with Washington have created a high sense of voter unease that has also put control of the Senate in question.
To hold the line against Republicans, the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, issued an urgent plea for members in safe districts to help their endangered colleagues by contributing money. She called out to Democrats who were delinquent on paying their party dues and instructed members with no re-election worries to tap into a combined $218 million from their campaign accounts to help save their majority.
"We need to know your commitment," Pelosi wrote to lawmakers last week in a private letter, demanding that they call her within 72 hours to explain how they plan to help.
She added, "The day after the election, we do not want to have any regrets."
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A national campaign trumpeting Democratic accomplishments on health care, education and Wall Street regulation has given way to a race-by-race defensive strategy. Democratic incumbents are moving to aggressively define their Republican opponents and individualize races in an effort to inoculate themselves from the national mood.
In Missouri, Rep. Ike Skelton has rarely run hard-hitting advertisements during 34 years in office, but he sternly accuses his opponent in one of not supporting the troops. In Texas, Rep. Chet Edwards, using the word "lie" three times, accuses his rival in an advertisement of claiming that he voted in a recent election when polling records said he did not. In New Jersey, Rep. John Adler accused his challenger, also in an advertisement, of buying a donkey so he could call his house a farm and get a tax break on it.
The sharp messages underscore the decreasing array of options facing Democrats as they try to overcome the party's declining standing. It is an open question whether voters will find the back-and-forth exchanges persuasive or whether some have reached the point where they are no longer listening to Democratic messages.
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Nearly four dozen Democrats are broadcasting television advertisements -- far more by Labor Day than in previous election cycles.
President Barack Obama is adding more fundraisers to his schedule, traveling to Florida and Minnesota over the next six weeks to try to build on the House Democrats' shrinking financial advantage over Republicans. Obama intends to increase his efforts to draw a contrast with Republicans as he does more campaigning in the coming weeks and tries to energize the party's core voters.
While several Democratic candidates have more money in the bank than their rivals, Democrats fear that outside Republican advocacy groups will step in and fill the gap. They are watching to see if interest groups and other constituencies increase their donations to Republicans in the hopes of winning access and influence should the House change hands.
While Democrats have all but given up hope that the political or economic climate will improve substantially before the election, they are not conceding control of the House. Several party leaders and strategists privately acknowledge that about 20 seats are already probably lost, but they believe they can build a fire wall around seats in the Northeast and in other pockets across the country where Republicans have nominated untested candidates.
The battle is boiling down to a question of mathematics and difficult decisions for Democrats. By the best-case Democratic calculation, party strategists believe that Republicans must beat about 35 sitting Democrats if the parties split 16 highly-competitive open seats and Democrats win four of five Republican seats they see as within their reach in Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois and Louisiana.
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Faced with a hostile political atmosphere, Democrats said they were trying to allow candidates to use specific conditions in their districts or flaws in the opposition to overcome the disadvantage created by a sour national mood and intense opposition to the party's congressional agenda.
"Ultimately, these races come down to a choice," said Kratovil, a freshman who represents the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where Sen. John McCain beat Obama by 18 points two years ago. "The national part of it has some impact, but I think the bigger part of it is voters looking at people and deciding who is best going to represent them."
Party leaders have ordered new polls in second-tier districts to see if Democrats in less competitive areas are suddenly vulnerable. Democrats are scouring for signs of a Republican wave, carefully watching clusters of races in Illinois, Indiana, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, which under a worst-case scenario could represent almost enough seats to lose the House.
"In 2008, there was this sense of hope and this sense of being able to change the world," said Rep. Zack Space, D-Ohio. "A lot of that enthusiasm doesn't exist now, and I think a lot of that is a result of having been in a recession for two years."
But Democrats dismissed any suggestion that all was lost.
In some of the most conservative districts in the nation, several Democrats appear to be emerging in stronger positions, largely because Republicans nominated candidates who appear to be weaker. Even Republicans conceded that Reps. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, Walt Minnick of Idaho and Larry Kissell of North Carolina were no longer as vulnerable as once assumed.
For all of their advantages, including new polls from districts across the country last week that showed gains, Republicans dismissed the likelihood of winning a landslide 60 seats, as some analysts have predicted. Yet even as Republican leaders sought to contain expectations, several candidates said last week that the winds were unmistakably blowing their way.
"It's getting better every week," said Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., who lost a House seat in 2006 and is locked in a rematch with Rep. Patrick J. Murphy. Fitzpatrick said the environment for Democrats reminded him of what Republicans faced four years ago.
"Voters," he said, "will ultimately hold the party in power responsible."