With House all but lost in 2014, Democrats in US pin hopes on Senate

WASHINGTON (AFP) - With Republicans expected to retain control of the US House in 2014, strategists warn Democrats must scramble to preserve their Senate majority - or risk a miserable finale to Mr Barack Obama's presidency.

An incumbent American president's party historically fairs poorly at the ballot box in the middle of his second term, and there is increasing recognition that Mr Obama's Democrats may suffer such a fate in November.

Mr Obama's approval ratings are lousy, his health care reform law is even less popular, and mid-term election demographics, largely dominated by elderly and white voters, favour Republicans.

"I think it's difficult to win back the House," respected Democratic pollster David Beattie told AFP, acknowledging that cutting into the Republicans' 17-seat advantage will be a steep climb.

"Even staying even would be bucking historical trends."

That acknowledgement could fuel the cold-hearted calculation prevalent among some major Democratic donors and strategists to shift attention to protecting what they have in the Senate rather than going for broke in the other chamber.

"The legitimate part of it is to send a signal to party contributors that it's essential for Democrats to save the Senate," said Mr Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia professor who has tracked congressional races for years.

"President Obama's last two years will be pure hell if he has neither house."

Clearly, some Democratic contributors are supporting specific House candidates or incumbents, but political operatives appear to be getting their message through to deep-pocketed donors that an all-in approach to hold the Senate will be necessary.

"Democratic donors such as myself are likely - I would say certain - to increasingly shift their attention and resources to Senate races," Tin House magazine publisher Win McCormack told Politico.

In 2012, Mr McCormack gave US$125,000 (S$160,000) to a liberal political action committee dedicated to defeating conservative House Republicans, according to Politico.

Not this year.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee raised an impressive US$75.8 million in 2013, US$15 million more than its Republican counterpart.

Still, "House Democrats don't think they're going to be wielding the gavel" next year, National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Greg Walden told reporters.

He cited the announced retirement Thursday of House veteran Henry Waxman, who could have secured a powerful committee chairmanship if his party regained the majority.

"I would much rather be us than them, even with their cash advantage," Mr Walden crowed.

DEMOCRATS IN 'TOUGH SPOT'

Democrats are hoping voter frustration with Congress will cripple Republicans, who were mostly blamed for a government shutdown last October.

Seeking to erase that perception, House Speaker John Boehner sought to rebrand his Republicans.

"We're not just the opposition party, we're the alternative party," he said on Thursday in unveiling Republican principles on immigration reform.

It would be a bitter pill for Democrats to leave Mr Boehner at the helm, forcing leader Nancy Pelosi, 73, to wait two more years for a chance to reclaim the speaker's gavel in 2016, when the political map is far more favourable.

But that is looking increasingly likely, a chief Pelosi lieutenant, Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, signalled this week.

"I'm not going to confidently predict that Democrats will take the House back," she said.

Congressional expert Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute forecast the odds Republicans hold the House at "way over 90 per cent," and if Democrats were realistic, they would "concentrate more resources in the Senate."

The numbers are not favourable for Mr Obama's party in the 100-member chamber.

Republicans need to gain six seats for a majority. But there are seven vulnerable Democrats up for re-election or resigning in Republican-leaning states like Arkansas, Louisiana and Montana.

Even thoughMr Obama could help in fundraising, some embattled Democrats like Alaska's Senator Mark Begich are choosing to avoid the president, lest he gets tarred with the same low approval numbers.

"Frankly, we're in a tough spot," the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee wrote in a January fundraising email warning of being outspent in 2014 by conservative groups.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid rang that alarm, accusing David and Charles Koch, billionaire industrialists who contribute huge money to conservative causes and candidates, of "trying to buy the country."