In the panoply of political prognosticators populating Washington, few have painted a bleaker picture of Democrats' 2010 election prospects than Charlie Cook.
And he doesn't see that picture getting any brighter.
To the contrary, Mr. Cook, who is editor and publisher of a newsletter that bears his name, and who stands as perhaps the most respected crystal-ball gazer in politics, now says it more definitively than ever: Republicans are on track to win back control of the House of Representatives, claiming their most coveted prize of 2010.
"I think Republicans are going to get the House back," he said flatly in a conversation taped for WSJ.com's "Big Interview" segment, which will be posted Friday morning.
To be precise, Republicans need to win 39 Democratic seats to get control of the House, and Mr. Cook's current estimate is that they are in line for a 35- to 45-seat gain. "But frankly, I think we're being very conservative with that," he added. "The odds of it being higher than that range are a lot better than lower."
Mr. Cook just this week raised his newsletter's forecast of Republican gains to reflect this new view. The analysis is significant, not only because Mr. Cook has a strong track record—he correctly called the last wave that brought Democrats into power in the House, in 2006—but also because Mr. Cook and his small staff of analysts probably devote more hours and shoe-leather to analyzing individual House and Senate races than anyone outside the political parties.
It's also significant because Mr. Cook has consistently been more bullish on Republicans' prospects this year than many other nonpartisan analysts have been, and events have generally evolved to match his view.
The basis of his analysis is simple: This doesn't look or feel like a normal midterm election. "There are two kinds of elections," he said. "There's sort of the Tip O'Neill all-politics-is-local, and then there are wave elections. We're seeing just every sign in the world that this is going to be a wave, and a pretty good-sized wave."
That wave, he thinks, won't be enough to bring the Republicans control of the Senate. Republicans would have to take over 10 seats now controlled by the Democrats to pull off that feat, and even this wave doesn't appear sufficient. In numerical terms, Mr. Cook sees 18 Senate seats up for election this year that could, plausibly, change party hands one way or the other, and Republicans would have to win 16 of the 18 to take over.
That task is "a couple of orders of magnitude higher" than the challenge Republicans face taking back the House, he said.
Could Mr. Cook's analysis of the climate be wrong? The key question at this juncture is whether something might happen to make the Cook picture less bright for Republicans, and less bleak for Democrats, by Nov. 2.
One way to analyze that question is to say that there are only about 10 weeks left before the election, and the broad trend lines don't figure to change very much in that amount of time. The other way is to say that there are 10 weeks to go and, given the speed and volatility of politics these days, that's a lifetime, and plenty of time for the picture to morph.
Some things simply won't change. One is the Democrats' most basic problem, which is that they have an awful lot of House members trying to hang on to seats in difficult territory. Because of the party's gains in the last two elections, there now are 53 House Democrats trying to defend seats that were held by Republicans just four years ago. That means a lot of Democrats are exposed to danger amid adverse conditions.
In addition, Mr. Cook says, voters tend to look for "balance" in the national political leadership. That helps Republicans right now.
On the other hand, Democrats might figure out how to do a better job convincing the nation of the wisdom of their policies. The apparent return of General Motors to health after President Barack Obama's bailout might help. Mr. Obama, who, despite his problems, remains far more popular than his party's congressional leaders, stands the best chance of making that case.
And Democrats' money advantage, which Mr. Obama was working to enhance this week with a fund-raising tour, will help in the stretch run. Above all, Democrats might finally get their base more excited.
Ultimately, though, Democrats are selling a controversial agenda amid lousy economic times. It appeared briefly in the spring that the economic trend lines might be starting to point upward. It doesn't feel that way now. And that, as much as anything, explains the Cook report.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Write to Gerald F. Seib at email@example.com