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Salena Zito: Obama's coattails short

| Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012, 9:04 p.m.
Eric Allie

One thing is clear: Barack Obama is running the kind of presidential campaign that provides short coattails to any Democrats running down-ballot.

That reduces any chance House Democrats might have to regain a majority in this election cycle.

Obama is not running on what he accomplished in the past four years, nor on what he wants to do in the next four. He is running on a cult of personality — and, at the same time, trying to trash Republican Mitt Romney as a personality.

Such a mano-a-mano campaign, as opposed to an ideological crusade, is not the kind to give Democrats a sweeping wave of victory.

If anything, it could give many swing voters an urgent desire to have some supervision over a re-elected Obama — by splitting their votes and giving Republicans a remote chance to gain more House and Senate seats on the heels of their historic shellacking of Democrats in 2010.

Another thing hurts House Democrats: Obama is not running much of a campaign in such “safe” states as California, New York and Massachusetts, giving Republicans a chance in races they never could have won in an election such as 2008's.

And that is not because Obama's base isn't motivated. Instead, the problem for Democrats is that, in 2008, they won among independents by 3-to-1 or 4-to-1; this time, they are winning among independents narrowly and, in some cases, losing them.

In 2006, Democrats began a “wave” election cycle that swept Republicans out of power in the House for the first time since 1994; they won even more seats and the presidency in 2008.

The day after the 2008 election, every paid pundit on the air and in social media predicted an era of Democrats dominating Washington that would last for at least a generation.

Yet, by the time the stimulus package was signed in 2009, a backlash had begun.

And in 2010, Republicans came back with a boom. They won not only a House majority but also governorships, state legislatures and county courthouses across the country.

Though voters are still wary of the Republican brand, they also are pretty hostile to Democrats. They haven't forgiven the president's party for the health-care bill, stimulus spending and a variety of failed bailouts, and are convinced that Democrats will raise taxes.

Most interesting is that the Medicare issue has not hurt Republicans in local races, even with Wisconsin's Congressman Paul Ryan on the GOP ticket. That is partly because Republicans went on offense over Ryan's proposed Medicare reforms, and partly because of the “new” seniors.

A fight over Medicare was last at the center of an election more than 12 years ago; seniors then were predominantly from the World War II generation. This time, the seniors are baby boomers who know they squandered their money and want reform for their children and grandchildren.

In the worst-case scenario for Republicans, they could lose no more than 12 to 15 House seats in November, perhaps no more than five. And it remains remotely possible that they could gain seats in the House.

The best place to pull up a chair and watch what happens with the House is along the banks of the Ohio River.

Along the river in Pennsylvania, you have incumbent Democrat Mark Critz fighting to hold onto his congressional seat against Republican businessman Keith Rothfus. The race is a statistical tie in this redrawn Western Pennsylvania district stretching from Johnstown to the Ohio border.

Critz can win if he pulls out huge numbers in his Cambria County base — but Rothfus is winning across the rest of the district. And a Rothfus victory means Republicans are in for a very good night.

Along the river in Ohio is the fight for the Buckeye State's 6th Congressional District seat, once held by Democrat Charlie Wilson. There, military veteran and businessman Bill Johnson caught even Washington Republicans by surprise when he upset Wilson in the 2010 midterm election.

Wilson is back again, but Johnson is fighting hard.

A win for Wilson in that coal-rich southern Ohio district means a good night for Democrats — and a great night for Barack Obama.

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media. (412-320-7879 or szito@tribweb.com)

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