WASHINGTON — The ill winds of an angry electorate are blowing against Democrats with the warning signs clear in a closer-than-expected Senate race that may doom President Barack Obama's health care agenda and foreshadow the party's midterm election prospects.
Anti-incumbentand anti-establishment sentiment is rampant. Independents are leaving Obama. Republicans are energized. Democrats are subdued. And none of that bodes well for the party in power.
"It's going to be a hard November for Democrats," said Howard Dean, the Democratic Party chairman in 2006 and 2008 elections when the party took control of the White House and Congress. "Our base is demoralized."
While he praised Obama as a good president, Dean said the Democrat hasn't turned out to be the "change agent" the party thought it elected, and voters who supported Democrats in back-to-back elections now are turned off.
"They really thought the revolution was at hand but it wasn't, and now they're getting the back of the hand," he said.
Just how much voters have soured since Obama took office — and took over a country in chaos — is reflected in the president's late-game decision to rush to Massachusetts on Sunday to try to stave off an extraordinary Republican upset in the race for a Senate seat Democrats have held for more than half a century.
Obama faced a no-win situation as he weighed whether to campaign with Democrat Martha Coakley. Had he decided against going, he would have enraged the base and been blamed if she lost. But a Coakley defeat following a presidential visit would be embarrassing, raising questions about Obama's popularity and political muscle.
Once heavily favored to cruise to victory, Coakley is locked in a tight fight with Republican Scott Brown, a little-known state senator, for the race to fill the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's seat.
The stakes are enormous.
Losing the race would cost the Democrats their 60-vote coalition in the Senate, where they can't afford to lose a single vote. The president has been relying on that supermajority to pass not only his health care overhaul but also the rest of his legislative agenda heading into his first midterm elections.
A Suffolk University poll released late Thursday showed Brown with 50 percent of the vote and Coakley with 46 percent. The survey indicated that Brown's supporters — a mix of disaffected Democrats, a large number of Republicans and a majority of independents — are far more enthusiastic than Coakley's backers.
Voters are down on Washington. They are deeply divided over the health care plan in Congress, and a majority think the country is on the wrong track. Nearly all remain anxious about the prolonged recession even though there are signs of recovery, and only about half approve of Obama's job performance. Excessive spending and big government irk them, and they have lost faith in institutions.
It was that same brew that helped Republican Chris Christie topple Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine in New Jersey, and Republican Bob McDonnell overtake Democrat Creigh Deeds in Virginia. Those victories coupled with the tight race for Kennedy's seat have Republicans and Democrats alike predicting a good Republican year in 2010 and a tough one for Democrats who control the White House and Congress.
Democrats are likely to be punished more because they hold power. But Republicans are feeling the effects, as seen in the anti-big government "tea party" movement whose followers are challenging establishment candidates in primaries nationwide.
"Washington is just not in touch," Dean said. And now, he said, the tables have turned: "Republicans are unified against Democrats they way we were against them when Bush was president."
In the country at large, a new Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor survey found that the public's years-long shift against institutions is in overdrive, fueling anti-establishment sentiment. It also showed that Obama has lost his luster — his job performance rating is at 47 percent — amid a belief that his administration's response to the recession has favored the wealthy and powerful over the middle class and average families.
The survey also showed that people have little trust in any institution; they gave bottom-barrel ratings to government, major corporations and financial entities. And, many Americans say the country is heading the wrong way, levels similar to those during the George W. Bush years.
All that adds up to is a warning for Democratic candidates running for House, Senate or gubernatorial seats this fall, and for politicians of any stripes for that matter.
Such an environment also portends troubles for Obama's long-term agenda; passing his legislative priorities would become much more difficult with fewer seats and, if Coakley does poorly but still eeks out a victory, moderate Democrats in Congress may think twice about falling in lockstep behind the White House on its priority legislation.
The public's mood also could scare off establishment Democrats considering entering races, like Beau Biden for Delaware's open Senate seat, or prompt vulnerable Democratic incumbents, like Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, to retire.
Brown, a little-known Republican state senator with a limited record who had never before run statewide, shed his party markings and downplayed his conservative credentials throughout the month-long campaign. He spent weeks campaigning not just against Coakley but against Capitol Hill.
He cast himself as a man of the people, fighting for them: "It's not the Kennedy seat. And it's not the Democrats' seat. It's the people's seat."
Coakley, the state's popular Democratic attorney general, comes right out of the establishment and has embraced her stature within the party. She has run a Rose Garden inevitability strategy, largely shunned retail politics and dashed to Washington for an oh-so-insider fundraiser.
Now, with the race tight in its final days, Coakley's trying to appeal to an anti-Washington, pro-populism electorate by seizing the fight-for-the-little-guy mantle in hopes of thwarting a Republican victory. The White House and Coakley are hammering Brown for opposing Obama's just-announced plan to tax large Wall Street firms.
"I'm standing with Main Street on this one. Scott Brown stands with Wall Street," Coakley charged.
"There's only one candidate in this race who's a tax cutter — and it's not Martha Coakley," countered Brown, unwilling to cede his advantage among the angry electorate.