Monday, January 4, 2010

The Daily Strike-1/4/10-New Year Election Preview

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. Today was a slow day in politics, as the President was returning from a long trip to Hawaii (which is, incidentally, where The Big Picture currently finds himself). I thought I could take this opportunity to give my first take on this November's midterm elections. I'll try to update this every couple of months to reflect changes in the political environment, as well as individual races.

OVERALL ENVIRONMENT: It's hard to get a firm hold on the political environment 10 months before the election, but certainly, a narrative has already been shaped by the mainstream media. President Obama's policies have become increasingly far-reaching and unpopular, and an enthused conservative base and rough economy will lead Republicans to a sweeping victory in November. I think there is some truth to this hypothesis. I do think the Republicans will have a good year, perhaps even a great year. The biggest reason is that their base is extremely motivated by anger against the President, and they'll show up to the polls in droves. An enthused base not only brings out voters, but it brings out campaign volunteers and donations, factors critical to electoral success. In contrast, the Democratic base is relatively unenthusiastic. Yes, they still like Obama (angry bloggers notwithstanding), but there's a sense that a) they did enough politicking in 2008 to get him elected and there's no reason to campaign for a silly midterm election and b) the President has not been the Messiah some of us had hoped he would be. I think a lot of Democratic voters, especially those who aren't as into politics as we are, may see Democrats bickering and compromising away liberal priorities in Congress, and Democratic politicians attacking their own party's bills. These are not exactly ways to fire up the base.

I also think high unemployment and low growth are usually formulas for majority party losses. On top of that, a President's party almost always loses seats in midterm elections (with notable exceptions in 1934, 1998 and 2002). If you combine all of these factors, things look pretty bleak for the Democrats in 2010.

Now there are some caveats that might give Democrats a grain of hope in at least keeping Republican gains to a minimum. For one, the economy is seemingly on the upswing, and if things continue to improve, President Obama's numbers will probably inch up as well, which will help Democrats across the country. Two, the Republican party remains extraordinarily unpopular, even among conservatives. This unpopularity can manifest itself in several ways. I think conservative tea party activists could run against less doctrinaire conservative Republicans and cause a schism on the right.

The bottom line, though, is that Democrats have very little to get excited about. I remember in 2006 when a GOP operative told my Washington Semester class that Republicans would do well, because the election would be determined by "local issues," not by the national political climate. That proved to be very wrong then, and I think any Democrat making that claim right now shouldn't be taken too seriously. In the age of national campaign fundraising committees and national cable news/the internet, it will be very hard for Democratic candidates to make this election about local issues. What worried Democratic candidates SHOULD do is work very hard to enact policy programs that help people's lives. Ultimately, no matter where a Democrat might be from, his success in 2010 depends on the success of President Obama and the Democratic party. Anything an individual candidate does to undermine the President may look shrewed in the short-run, but it is stupid in the long-run.

So. how will this environment manifest itself in the various races? Let's break it down:

THE HOUSE: House Republicans will be aided by a couple of factors besides the national environment. For one, Democrats reached a high-water mark of seats in 2008, and thus will be defending many seats in conservative districts. Republicans will also benefit from the retirements of a few Democratic members in moderate districts. I do think that House Republicans will have a tough time gaining the 40 seats necessary to take back the House. There are not enough Democratic retirements yet to suggest a huge impending wave. Republicans would have to beat about 30 incumbents at this point, which is no small task. They also don't have a positive agenda to run on. It's ok not to have concrete policy proposals if you are opposing an unpopular majority, but Republicans need to give the voters SOMETHING besides tired Bush-era rhetoric. Currently, the Democrats hold a 257-178 advantage in the House. I predict that they will lose 25-30 seats, which should bring their majority at or below the level they enjoyed during the 110th Congress (2007-2008). I'd put the chances for a Republican takeover at about 25%.

THE SENATE: The Senate is more difficult territory for Republicans, since there are fewer Democratic targets. So far, 19 Democratic Senate seats are up for election next year. Republicans would have to take 11 of those without losing any of their own in order to capture the majority. That seems extremely unlikely at this point, though not completely out of the question. Democratic incumbents in Connecticut, Colorado, Nevada, Arkansas and Pennsylvania are in enough trouble that I would give them at most 50/50 odds of winning reelection. They are also reasonably likely to lose an open-seat race in Delaware. That's 6 very promising pick-up opportunities for the Republicans right there. Republicans have a strong candidate running for Barack Obama's old seat in Illinois. Though Illinois is a very blue state, a Republican victory is not out of the question. Republicans could also have a chance to gain a seat in North Dakota if popular governor John Hoeven decides to challenge Democrat Byron Dorgan. A true Republican wave might even knock off Democratic incumbents in California and New York, though I would say those are long shots.

Democrats actually have some solid pickup opportunities of their own. They have very solid candidates running for open-seats in Missouri and Ohio. In New Hampshire's open seat, the Democratic candidate is running slightly behind a couple of Republican challengers. There's an outside chance that Democrats could capture seats in Louisiana (if the Bayou state decides its tired of being represented by a prostitute patron) and North Carolina. Depending on whether popular Governor Charlie Crist survives a right-wing primary, Democrats could also have an outside shot in Florida.

If the political environment stays the way it is, close races will tilt towards the Republicans. I would say that 6-7 Democratic losses in the Senate will be offset by 1-2 gains, leaving the net Republican gain somewhere between 4 and 6.

GOVENRORS: Gubernatorial races are tougher to handicap, because they frequently are not decided by national issues. This year's gubernatorial landscape is, shall we say, a clusterf*ck. 37 states will elect Governors this year. Several of those races are open seats (18!), and many of those open seats are in states dominated by the opposite political party (For instance, there is currently a Democratic Governor of Oklahoma and a Republican Governor of Vermont). It is thus very hard to predict how these races will shake out over the next year. I would guess that as many as 12 state houses will switch party hands, with the majority of those switches being from Democrat to Republican. I'll predict a net gain of 3-4 state houses for the GOP, which would give them a slight majority of governorships nationwide.

So my message to Democrats: stay strong! Keep working on behalf the American people and you will be rewarded. But as a backup plan, make sure your liquor cabinet is well-stocked on November 2nd.

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