Who's Worried Now? Democrats are staring at what could be their best congressional election in 14 years. And they're worried that someone will come along and spoil it. Someone like Karl Rove, the White House strategist whose confidence leading up to the midterm elections has been downright spooky.
NPR logo Who's Worried Now?

Who's Worried Now?

That's It. Closer, Closer... Karl Rove gestures to a reporter as he walks toward Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House. Mark Wilson/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Karl Rove Interview

Web Resources

Right now, it's hard to say who's more nervous about the upcoming midterm elections: the party that expects to lose seats or the party that expects to gain.

Republicans expect to lose ground, and their bottom line is to maintain control in both chambers, even if only by the slimmest of margins. Their mood tends to be somewhere between grimly hopeful and resigned.

The Democrats, meanwhile, are staring at what could be their best congressional election in 14 years. And they're terrified. They're afraid they'll blow it. Or some event or some person will come along and spoil it.

Someone like Lucy pulling the football away in Peanuts. Tom Toles' cartoon in The Washington Post has Charlie Brown as a Schulz-style Democratic donkey gazing at a football held by Lucy, whose shirt reads "VOTERS."

"I have you ahead in the polls by substantial majorities," Lucy says, and little donkey Charlie Brown looks back at her in bleak despair.

One focus of the Democrats' fear is a familiar one. It is the figure of Karl Rove, much slimmed from earlier election cycles -- thanks to a liquid diet -- but as frightening to Democrats as ever. This was the man who took George W. Bush from his days as an oil and baseball guy and presidential son to the Texas governor's mansion and the White House.

If that were not enough to ensure his place in the Handlers Hall of Fame, Rove is also widely credited with masterminding a national party makeover that threatened to enthrone the GOP as "the permanent majority." He loves to cite the models of President William McKinley, who won two terms at the turn of the last century, and Mark Hanna, McKinley's backroom maestro.

Rove was not directly a part of the Republican congressional triumph of 1994, but he helped maintain and expand those majorities in 2002 and 2004. It was in these cycles that Rove perfected his turnout machine, which pros in both parties now speak of in hushed tones.

Relying on sophisticated, computerized voter-targeting and swarms of contact people working the final 72 hours of the campaign, Rove's machine can erase multiple points of polling margin in important races. It costs millions, but Rove raises money with the best of them -- including powerful officeholders.

So going into the final week with this apparatus going full throttle, Rove can go on the air sounding so assured that he gets Democrats everywhere talking to themselves. When he says his math -- "THE math" -- shows his candidates winning, he means it. He's reading the polls the way they make sense to him, based on how past polling has matched up against the assault of his 72-hour juggernaut.

And then there are the darker scenarios, of course, bruited about on talk shows and blogs. Some say Rove has "an October surprise" coming that will change everything (even if it doesn't come until November). Others insist the Republicans have already rigged enough voting machines to ensure their victory. This much is clear: Rove has already gotten way inside the Democrats' heads.

Now mind you, even if a White House strategist foresaw his party losing, he would say something different. He would have to. A major component in any winning campaign's endgame is the full faith of all those involved -- everyone from the president and party chiefs to the candidates and their volunteers. You've gotta believe, and

Rove can supply a lot of that belief just on his sunny smile and outsized reputation for success.

A reputation of such magnitude can be quite useful. When the Allies invaded Normandy in June 1944, the Germans held back their counterattack. They were sure the real invasion was to come later and to be led by U.S. Army General George Patton. The Allied high command had gone to great lengths to convince the Germans of this, but what really sold the ruse was the Germans' obsession with Patton.

On the evidence of recent days, Rove has the Democrats just that spooked.

Related NPR Stories