What to expect as a result of the mid-term U.S. congressional elections: not just gridlock, but super gridlock, resulting from 1) what is likely to be a Republican-controlled House of Representatives; 2) a Senate with such a slim majority of either party that it is effectively controlled by neither, and 3) a Democrat president likely to be faced with vetoing legislation that attempts to undo existing Administration initiatives. That’s the prediction that Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, offered to attendees at ULI’s 2010 Fall Meeting last week in Washington, D.C.

“People are worried about ‘dinner table’ issues such as employment, paying the bills, their retirement savings, their children’s college education – those issues are driving this election…This election is all about the economy…and what people can see is grim,” Sabato said. “Inevitably, in those circumstances, they vote against the incumbent party.”

Adding to Democrats’ woes is the fact that their traditional populist message has been stymied by the “pitchfork populist” message of the Tea Party, he noted. However, while low enthusiasm among Democrats has energized Republicans, the likely GOP victories will represent nothing more than a “pendulum swing” that is common at the midpoint of many presidential terms, Sabato said.

“This swing says nothing about what will happen in (the presidential election of) 2012. The pendulum swings can come very quickly, and we are in for a lot of swings, because of this very unsettled economy. If people are dissatisfied, they are likely to move quickly back and forth between Democrats and Republicans, or even a third party.”

Absent a terrorist attack between now and November 2, Sabato predicted the following changes in Congress:

  • A gain of more than 45 Republican seats in the House of Representatives, resulting in more than 220 Republicans (218 constitutes a majority), with numerous members backed by the Tea Party; and,
  • A possible gain of as many as 9 Republican seats in the Senate. “If the Democrats retain control, it will only be by a seat or two,” he said, falling far short of the 60 votes needed to block a filibuster of pending legislation.

With the mid-term elections all but a foregone conclusion, President Obama’s chances for re-election in 2012 will depend, in part, on his ability to successfully pin the blame for federal gridlock on the Republicans, and on the nomination of a Republican presidential candidate so conservative as to be “not electable,” Sabato said.