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Republicans clamoring for presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney to tap Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, author of the controversial budget plan that would privatize Medicare, as his vice presidential candidate might want to think twice: their House majority could be at stake.

A new Democracy Corps/Greenberg Quinlan Rosner survey of 1,000 voters in the 56 most competitive GOP-held districts finds Democrats improving their party brand and performing far better than they did during the disastrous 2010 midterms. The numbers also show the GOP losing ground among key demographic groups, including senior women, suburban voters, and moderates; the party’s image has taken a beating as state and national leaders have tried to pass harsh anti-abortion laws and reduce access to contraception.

But the real threat might be Ryan’s budget, which the Republican-controlled House passed a revised version of late last month:

Many of the proposals in this newest Ryan budget are deeply unpopular, leaving Republicans vulnerable to attack, particularly on taxes, Medicaid, Medicare, cuts to anti-poverty programs, and health care. Republicans do well when they describe their budget as a plan to “save Medicare,” but the bulk of their proposals misinterpret voters’ enthusiasm for fiscal restraint. While the Republican plan lays out deficit reduction as an end in and of itself, voters see deficit reduction as a means to protect the programs they rely on and care about most. Any budget that eliminates these programs in order to tackle the debt has deeply misunderstood voters’ priorities.

The result is that after voters hear a neutral description of the budget and a balanced debate between Republican arguments for the budget and Democratic attacks against it, the vote shifts a net 9 points, from a six-point vote margin for Republicans to a three-point advantage for Democrats. Importantly, those who shift include key blocs of voters that will be essential to the outcomes in these districts in November.

Voters in these districts have polarized along gender lines, with Democrats gaining ground among women, particularly unmarried women, while Republicans pick up support among men. This movement is notable in light of the recent Republican focus on contraception.

Perhaps most notably, Republican redistricting, which was supposed to buttress their control on power, could be backfiring. The poll found that in 14 competitive districts, the new lines are less favorable than the old ones to Republican incumbents.

It seems unlikely, however, that party leaders will change their minds on the policy — or politics — of the Ryan plan before November. Their presumptive presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, embraces it wholeheartedly, and has even made noises about putting Ryan on his ticket. For all the reasons that it alienates the center of the electorate, the Ryan plan excites and energizes the Republican base, which Romney will need fired up to have a shot at victory in November.

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