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Victory by Democrats on health care could turn sour

By Gloria Borger, CNN Senior Political Analyst
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Democrats concerned about retirements in their ranks in Congress
  • Gloria Borger says recent state election in Kentucky highlights risks to Democrats
  • GOP candidate "nationalized" election by tying Democrat to Pelosi, Borger says
  • Democratic victory on unpopular health bill could hurt the party in midterm elections, she says
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Editor's note: Gloria Borger is a senior political analyst for CNN, appearing regularly on CNN's "The Situation Room," "Campbell Brown," "AC360°" and "State of the Union With John King," as well as during special event coverage.

Washington (CNN) -- Democrats in Congress, already worried about their dim prospects in the 2010 midterm elections, have been thrown in a tizzy about something else that could reduce their majority: retirements.

They are four departures down and worried about more members leaving districts that have grown more competitive. And they're right to be concerned: Districts without any incumbent running often wind up switching to the other party.

But there's much more to worry about. Consider the results of a recent "open seat" special election for the state senate in a Democratic district in rural eastern Kentucky: Republican Jimmy Higdon beat the Democrat Jodie Haydon by tying him to, of all things, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats.

"Congress is out of control," one effective ad intoned, "and [Haydon] will bring Nancy Pelosi's one-party control of government to Frankfurt."

Republican Higdon won by 12 points.

Sure, the Democrats say, there are local reasons their guy lost: The district itself is trending Republican. There were only about 20,000 voters. Obama himself only carried 38 percent of the vote there.

And while both candidates oppose abortion rights, the Republican Higdon was endorsed by the local right-to-life groups -- a big plus in this socially conservative region -- which he trumpeted in TV spots. So, they claim, all politics is local, right?

But wait. How do you explain the good GOP turnout? Or the fact that the Democrats won a prior special election in Kentucky earlier this year -- when no national issues were interjected -- but lost this time when the themes centered on Washington? "The country likes and wants balanced government," says Brad Todd, a GOP political consultant who worked on the Kentucky race. "And they feel the country is out of balance right now."

In other words, it's easy to nationalize even a state senate race when the locals don't like the way things are going in the country.

And it's not only the economy, although that is a big part of it -- with unemployment at more than 11 percent in Kentucky. The health care debate, which was supposed to be a huge plus for Democrats, has instead become a huge political albatross. "It's a polarizing issue," says Todd. "The Democrats have been pushing on this issue for an extended period of time now -- in the face of public opinion against it. The length and content of the health care fight has hurt the Democratic brand."

O, the irony: The Democrats -- who run the Congress and the White House -- have to pass health care to prove they can govern. If it falls apart, after all this time, they will look weak and ineffectual. Yet while they toil long days and nights trying to put together the votes, the bill itself has morphed into something the public fears. So passage could well become a short-lived political victory.

Some numbers: According to CNN polls, almost 8 in 10 believe it will add to the deficit. When asked whether the Senate bill would help your family a resounding 75 percent said no. And will it increase your taxes? Eighty-five percent said you bet it will.

So why not have a GOP candidate in Kentucky inject health care into a state senate race? "Keep the big hand of government out of our personal health care decisions," one Higdon ad warned ominously. One Democratic strategist familiar with the race says the ad didn't matter much since not enough people saw it to have a real impact.

Beyond Kentucky, the Democrats also protest on health care: The issue is misunderstood, they say. We are just losing the spin war and that will change, they say. Even if all of that is true, there's something else to understand: Once health care passes, it's still going to be unpopular. At least until the Democrats can prove why it works, and that could take a very long time.

The Republicans haven't exactly covered themselves in legislative glory, either. They might have had a real shot at success -- if that's what they really wanted -- if they had called the president's bluff. They might have looked for some areas of agreement on health care that could be passed with bipartisan votes. Instead, they opted for the "just say no" strategy.

It's a bad idea, but it's working. Why? Because "no" works when you're opposing something that is unpopular.

So maybe, as the Democrats say, this GOP Kentucky state senate victory was an outlier. "Since inauguration, there have been five races where national issues have been on the ballot and in each and every one of them ... Democrats won," says Democratic National Committee Press Secretary Hari Sevugan. "The real harbinger of things to come ... is the deep split in the Republican Party that is allowing a right wing fringe to take over, purge moderates and present a fundamentalist agenda to voters."

Gee, sounds like the Democrats are also happy to nationalize the upcoming midterm elections -- against the Republicans. As for the voters, they're just looking for results.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.