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US Congressional Elections Look to Be Referendum on Obama

Public opinion polls suggest Republicans will make gains in November; 40 seats needed to retake control of House of Representatives

President Barack Obama faces a major political test later this year when U.S. voters go to the polls in the November midterm congressional elections.  Public opinion polls and political experts suggest Republicans will make gains in November, and that would have a significant impact on how Mr. Obama is able to govern over the next two years. 

Republicans are confident about their chances of gaining seats in the November elections.  All 435 seats in the House of Representatives will be up for election, as well as more than one-third of the 100 U.S. Senate seats.

Republicans need to gain 40 House seats to retake control of that chamber, which they lost in the 2006 congressional elections.

John Fortier is a political expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.  He spoke on VOA's "Encounter" program.

"I think the number of seats Republicans are likely to gain right now looks like 20 or 30, and I do not expect them to take a majority unless something different happens.  But that will still be a very significant win if they do that and it will change Barack Obama's presidency," Fortier said.

Some analysts predict Republicans have a good chance to win the 40 seats they need to win a majority in the House.

A Republican takeover of the House would drastically curtail President Obama's ability to get his agenda through Congress.  Republicans are also likely to gain seats in the Senate this year.  Democrats currently control 59 of the 100 Senate seats, but Republican gains would make it easier for the minority to block or defeat Democratic legislation, another potential setback for the president and his agenda.

At the moment, much of the energy looking ahead to the midterm elections seems to be with Republicans, thanks in part to the grassroots conservative activities of the so-called Tea Party movement.

The Tea Party is not an actual political party, at least not yet.  But it is a loose confederation of conservative and libertarian groups opposed to taxes, deficit spending and government interference in the economy.

Independent voters who generally supported Democratic congressional candidates in the 2006 and 2008 elections now seem to be leaning toward the Republican Party, says David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report.

"And I really think the key to this midterm election is independents, and independent voters, those voters who don't necessarily affiliate with either party, they basically behaved at the polls like Democrats in 2006 and 2008.  And in the public opinion surveys, the data that we are seeing, they are behaving more and more like Republicans lately," Wasserman said.

The party that controls the White House historically loses congressional seats in the first midterm election of a president's term.

Political experts say President Obama and the Democrats are going to have to work harder to make sure their supporters get out and vote in November to match the energy on the Republican side.

The president and Democrats are expected to highlight the recent passage of health care reform in hopes of motivating their supporters, says Tom DeFrank, the Washington bureau chief for the New York Daily News.

"The White House is hoping that now that something has passed and Obama will go into the history books for it, for better or worse, and that the White House can now pivot to the economy.  They understand that Obama's future as a one-term or two-term president rides not really on what people think about health care but whether the economy turns around and I believe you are going to see a huge effort on the part of the White House to increase jobs, reduce unemployment and to get the economy moving again," DeFrank said.

Historically, another key to the midterm elections is the president's approval rating.  President Obama's approval rating in several recent polls has dipped under 50 percent.  That can be a danger sign for Democrats looking ahead to the November elections, says John Fortier.

"I think you see still a very strong base for Barack Obama but not a majority supporting him.  Somewhere in the 40 percent range support the health care plan, somewhere like 48, 49 percent support him as president.  But the energy is a little stronger on the Republican side.  He is not as unpopular as George W. Bush was by any circumstance, but he is not nearly as popular as he was at the beginning of his presidency.  And those numbers at the end of the day are going to be important in those midterm elections," Fortier said.

Democrats hope that signs of encouragement in the U.S. economy will improve their chances to hold their congressional majorities in November.

But another political distraction could come in the form of a Supreme Court confirmation battle in the Senate once President Obama nominates a successor to take the place of retiring Justice John Paul Stevens.

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