It took Democrats 12 long years to fight their way back to the majority after their stinging defeat in 1994. And the party is in danger of handing control back to the Republicans after just four years at the helm.
Six months from now, a restive electorate suffering from economic anxiety, continued high unemployment and a strong distaste for the ways of Washington will head to the polls in what is shaping up to be a particularly brutal midterm election for the party in power.
"The success of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi's agenda is what we will give them credit for. And it is a miserable failure with continued unemployment, higher taxation and debt," said National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas at a recent campaign briefing with reporters where he was laying out the message strategy for the months ahead.
Democratic members of Congress and campaign operatives are fond of saying that 2010 is not comparable to 1994 because the party is prepared for a tough campaign for control of Congress. Republicans are quick to point out that they were prepared for 2006, but the national electoral wave against them was simply too strong to withstand.
"The choice is a pretty clear one," argued DNC Chairman Tim Kaine at a briefing with reporters last week.
"One party put the economy into a ditch, stood by and watched it collapse, not really willing to pull the rip-chord on the parachute," Kaine said. "The president has come in and taken bold action, often tough action, sometimes unpopular action, but necessary action, to turn the economy around to start climbing again, to tackle big problems that have bedeviled earlier administrations and earlier presidents like health insurance, because that's what he told the American public he would do and that's what he will do."
When asked to cite a recent historical precedent for a midterm election that was not a referendum on the party in power, Kaine could not think of one. He said that elections are always about choices.
"I'm fine with it as a referendum or a choice," Kaine added.
Our most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll showed nearly six out of every 10 voters looking around to elect a new member of congress in November.
House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, told NPR News last week that at least 100 House seats are in play this year. Our latest ABC News electoral outlook puts 115 House seats currently in play and about 50 of those are highly competitive races.
Republicans certainly need an expanded playing field if they are going to outperform the average first midterm losses for the president's party and win a net gain of the 40 seats they need to become the majority party in the House.
The Senate Showdown
Republican efforts to take control of the Senate would require a net gain of 10 seats for the GOP, which still appears somewhat elusive six months out from Election Day. However, Democrats of every stripe and from every region are in serious trouble as they are being forced to defend themselves even on what in some cases should be pretty hospitable turf.
The Democratic senate seats in Illinois, Delaware, North Dakota, Nevada, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Indiana could all potentially fall into Republican hands this year.
In addition, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is likely going to have to pour significant resources into California defending Sen. Barbara Boxer's seat there.
The GOP is working to hold on to its seats in Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio, Kentucky and Florida. Those are five tough states for Democrats in any election year, even tougher in this political environment.
If the Republicans run the table and the Democrats can't convert one of those open seats currently held by a Republican, the GOP still wouldn't have enough seats to overtake the majority.
"This has been a huge change since January 2009. We had wind in our face, a strong headwind, and now I feel we have the wind on our back," National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said at a roundtable with reporters last week.
Where the House Is Won
However, six months before the election it appears there is more of an opportunity for Republicans to potentially take the majority in the House.
Republicans were in charge during the last redistricting process, and House majority leader Tom DeLay made it a top priority to work with state legislators to draw maps in a way that would yield additional GOP seats nationally.
After the huge Democratic gains in 2006 and 2008, there are a slew of Democrats currently sitting in districts that were clearly drawn for Republican representation. There are 48 Democrats currently sitting in districts won by John McCain in his 2008 presidential bid.
The battle for control of the House will be largely centered in the industrial Midwest, Pennsylvania, and upstate New York. There are 10 competitive races in Pennsylvania, six in Ohio, seven in New York, three in Indiana and four in Illinois.
There are certainly high profile competitive races throughout the country in states including Colorado, Nevada, Virginia and Florida. But the cluster of competitive races in the upstate New York-to-Illinois corridor may well prove determinative.
"We are a geographically balanced machine," NRCC Chairman Sessions said. "In previous years there have been a lot of conversations about how our party was failing to land top tier candidates and perhaps maybe writing off certain areas of the country."
We will get a sneak peek at one of the Pennsylvania districts on May 18 when a special election is held to replace the late Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa.
Murtha represented the only congressional district in the nation that supported John Kerry in 2004 and flipped to support McCain in 2008. A former aide to Murtha, Mark Critz, is the Democratic nominee running against Republican businessman Tim Burns in what both parties describe as a dead heat.
Burns has been hammering away on the cap-and-trade energy bill Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats passed last year. The DCCC is on the air with a TV ad painting Burns as supportive of tax loopholes that encourage jobs be sent overseas.
After losing a string of special House elections over the last year, Republicans are eager to pick up this seat and to showcase it as a harbinger of things to come in November.
Sessions also stressed the suburban districts as a potential key to Republican success this year. Many of these suburban districts were heavily targeted by Rahm Emanuel when he ran the successful campaign effort for the Democrats in 2006.
The Money Race
The single biggest factor that prevents many Republican party operatives from predicting a slam dunk success at taking the majority is money.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has $26 million on hand, compared to the NRCC's $10 million. That is more than two and a half times as much cash on hand the Democrats have over their Republican counterparts. While that is a lot smaller than the advantage the Democrats had at this point in the 2008 cycle, but a significant and possibly critical advantage nonetheless.
Sessions conceded the importance of money, but he made clear that he doesn't think his candidates need to have more money than the Democrats in order to win back the House.
"We don't need to outraise the DCCC, but we need to be competitive and within some parity. In wave cycles, it's true that the challengers don't need to match the incumbents to beat them. It was proven in 2008," Sessions said.
"In 2006, losing GOP incumbents had a 171 percent cash-on-hand lead over their challengers," he said. "Having a lot of money is a great position to be in, but it is not the final indicator about where you are going to end up on election night.
"We do not have the White House, We do not own the Senate or the House, so we will have to stay after it," he added.
Running on Results, Against Washington
Democrats are eager to paint themselves as the party of results on big-ticket items such as health care reform, Wall Street reform and economic recovery.
But Obama and his political team are also fond of separating him from the rest of unpopular Washington (read: Congress), which could prove uncomfortable for his Democratic brethren on the campaign trail over the next six months.
"There is a great deal of concern about Washington and about the national political climate," Kaine said.
"The strain that is the most powerful strain is a perception that the big tough issues will not be tackled by the culture of Washington that seems to value the status quo rather than making the necessary changes," he said. "This president has been willing to tackle the tough issues."
Although Kaine was not willing to predict any numerical breakdown for the results in November, he did predict the Democrats will still be in the majority.
"We are going to perform in the midterms in such a way that the president will have strong majorities in both houses," Kaine said.