Despite national political trends indicating that the GOP is in serious trouble, a race-by-race "micro" analysis suggests that Democrats cannot easily seize control of the House or the Senate this fall.
In the Senate, Democrats need a net gain of six seats. Republicans are truly fortunate to have only one senator retiring, Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee. Although Democratic Rep. Harold Ford is a talented candidate, he will have his work cut out for him against the winner of a competitive three-way August GOP primary for Frist's seat.
The South has become a GOP stronghold. In 2004, Democrats went 0 for 5 in attempting to hold open Senate seats in that region.
Democrats need to win in Tennessee and knock off five GOP incumbents. Only five look truly vulnerable: Conrad Burns of Montana, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Mike DeWine of Ohio, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and Jim Talent of Missouri.
Santorum is running 10 to 15 points behind in most polls, though my guess is that race will tighten considerably. Chafee is seeking re-election in one of the two or three most Democratic states in the country and in a region that is the toughest for the GOP this year.
He must survive a real primary fight just to get to the general election, so he is probably the second most vulnerable GOP incumbent. Montana's Burns is probably third, having entered the cycle in a precarious political situation that has been greatly aggravated by his ties to lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
DeWine doesn't have much baggage, but Ohio has become a disaster area for the GOP, thanks to state government scandals that have driven the Republican governor's job-approval rating down to 14 percent.
While some contend that Democrats pushed the wrong candidate out of the race to avoid a contentious primary, DeWine's course will be very tough. Finally, Missouri's Talent faces a very aggressive challenge from state Auditor Claire McCaskill, who knocked out an incumbent governor in a primary two years ago. This race is tied in the polls.
So Democrats have to run the table by defeating all of the most vulnerable Republicans while holding all of their own seats, including in Minnesota, where their incumbent is retiring, and in Washington state, where Sen. Maria Cantwell faces a very strong challenger.
They also need to hang on to somewhat more secure open seats in Maryland and Vermont, as well as 14 other incumbents. Although not impossible in a favorable political climate, this is a very tall order.
In the House, where Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats, only about three dozen are truly in play today. So far, 17 Republicans and 10 Democrats have announced their retirements. Ten of those Republicans serve in safe GOP districts, where Democrats stand little chance of winning.
Meanwhile, despite their herculean efforts, Democratic recruiters have enticed few first-tier challengers into running this year. Instead, the party has an abundance of second- and third-tier candidates who could never prevail on their own and would need a hurricane-force wind at their backs to cross the finish line first. (Democrats last had a strong political wind propelling them in 1982 -- and before that in 1974.) So, as with the Senate, Democrats need to win every truly competitive House race.
A hurricane does seem likely to hit the GOP this November. But the micro analysis shows that structural barriers in the House and Senate are protecting the Republican majorities like seawalls, and would likely withstand the surge from a Category 1, 2, or 3 storm. They probably couldn't withstand a Category 4 or 5, though.
In 1994, the last wave election, Democrats were protected by many of the same barriers, particularly in the House. The tsunami that slammed into their party had looked perhaps 10 stories tall, not enough for the GOP to shift the necessary 40 seats. But the wave ended up being 15 stories high, and Republicans picked up 52 seats (plus two party switchers).
In four out of five elections, the micro analysis proves accurate. But in about one out of five, it doesn't. Will this year be one of those exceptions?