Musgrave-Markey race sign of larger fight to control Congress

(Photo/Storm Crypt, Flickr)

(Photo/Storm Crypt, Flickr)

Democrat Betsy Markey is leading incumbent U.S. Rep. Marilyn Musgrave by 6 to 8 points, according to internal Democratic polling, but her lead could disappear if Markey is unable to keep advertising on television after next week.

Markey raised more money than Musgrave in the third quarter, but she could have to pull her ads off the air starting sometime next week because the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee wanted her to start running ads early to prevent Musgrave from defining her candidacy.

But that strategy has left her vulnerable in late October, even though internal polling shows that Markey has cracked the 50-percent barrier and leads Musgrave by 8 points, a senior Democratic strategist told a group of Democratic contributors in a conference call on Friday.

Markey’s campaign did its own poll 10 days ago, showing her leading by 6 points, campaign spokesman Ben Marter said.

Musgrave, a Republican darling among social conservatives for her opposition to abortion and gay marriage, narrowly won races in 2004 and 2006, even though she represents a Republican-leaning district. Democrats are afraid if they cannot beat her this year, they will never win the seat.

Markey’s staff remains confident that it can raise enough money to finance television ads through the campaign, Marter said.

Markey’s race is emblematic of other congressional races around the country where Democrats are charging hard against Republican incumbents or leading in Republican-leaning districts where there is no incumbent running.

But in 25 races in suburban and exurban areas around the country, only three Democrats have cracked the 50-percent threshold.

A top Democratic source told a group of donors on Friday that these candidates, including Markey, had not sold themselves to undecided voters and that their leads were shaky.

“Undecideds are hostile terrain,” the Democratic strategist said, adding that Democrats were trying to get traditionally independent-leaning Republicans to do something they are unaccustomed to doing: vote Democratic. The goal in the remaining 18 days is not to let those congressional districts snap back to their norms.

In a larger context, Democrats are challenging history: The last time a party won back-to-back “wave elections” was in 1930 and 1932 when Democrats expanded their majorities in Congress and Franklin Roosevelt was elected president.

In other so-called “wave elections” in 1946, 1958, 1966, 1974, 1982 and 1994, the winning party subsequently lost seats or watched the other party win the White House. For example, in 1982 Democrats picked up 26 seats in Congress, but two years later Ronald Reagan won reelection in a landslide.

Democrats currently hold 235 seats in the House (they held just 203 in 2005).

In the Senate, Democrats are gunning for 60 seats, which would give them the ability to overcome GOP filibusters.

Democratic Party leaders see Markey’s race as key to winning roughly 25 more seats and building a working majority in the House to pass energy, health care, tax and financial services regulatory reform bills if Barack Obama becomes president.

The DCCC will continue advertising in the district, and Politico reported on Friday that the DCCC borrowed $15 million to help carry Democratic challengers.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has had to borrow $8 million. Many GOP challengers will be left to fend for themselves while the party works to protect its incumbents.

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Jonathan E. Kaplan

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