This appears to be one of those times when a mid-term election will be an important trendsetter. The 2010 elections will determine whether President Obama is able to translate his personal popularity into a generation-long realignment that gives the Democratic Party - and especially its progressive wing - total control over government policy, or whether the public will react negatively and pare back the current Democratic majorities and perhaps even return control of one house of Congress to the Republicans.
The most important factor that will answer that question is the economy (and the electorate’s perception of it) in the fall of 2010. But the magnitude of any shift will depend on something much more organizational - the parties’ respective ability to recruit good candidates for close contests. It is very seldom when a vulnerable incumbent loses to an unsophisticated, underfinanced ticket filler. And blank spots on the ballot never win.
The Democrats have a leg up on candidate recruitment, because their candidates already hold most of the seats that are in play and will be seeking reelection with the advantages (in most cases) that incumbency provides. Republicans will be fighting a dispirited mood left over from 2008 and more retirements creating open seats to defend. And both parties, when seeking either challengers or open-seat contestants, will have to fight the usual reluctance of potential candidates to run when they fear they might lose. Unfortunately, most candidates (and nearly all recruitees who decide against running) give paramount consideration to their own careers, instead of serving to advance the party or ideology they support.
In the House, the ying and yang of politics should favor Republicans. After consecutive elections with big gains by Democrats, the President’s party now already holds nearly all of the seats they have a realistic chance of winning (and even a few they shouldn’t). Around 50 current Democrat seats are in districts that elected a Republican to the seat within the last four years. While some are suburban districts whose demographic or political changes should continue to favor Democrats, many new rural incumbents will be vulnerable. So will some longer tenured Democrats who are personally popular but represent districts carried by both George W. Bush and John McCain.
Different mechanics favor Democrats in the Senate, because the senators that are up in 2010 were elected in 2004, a Republican year. Most vulnerable seats (New Hampshire, Ohio, North Carolina, Kentucky, Louisiana, Florida and Missouri) are currently held by Republicans. Democrats, on the other hand, “de-recruited” their most vulnerable incumbent, Illinois’ Roland Burris, and Democratic Primary voters may do the same to embattled Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd. If Dodd loses his primary, the most vulnerable seat to Republican takeover might be that of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, whose defense is certain to be well-funded. Other potential seats for Republican takeover are Democrat-trending Colorado, a popular incumbent in North Dakota, and an Arkansas seat with a Republican Party in serious disarray. The Democratic nominees for the seats now held by party-switcher Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and appointed Sen. Kristen Gillibrand in New York will probably be bloodied after tough primary fights, but those are both really expensive seats for cash-strapped Republicans to contest. From a GOP point of view, the same dollars that it would take to run just a respectable losing campaign in either of those states would be enough to buy three other seats (in New Hampshire, North Dakota and Arkansas). These factors favor Democrats expanding their filibuster-proof senate majority, even if the country’s mood favors a Republican resurgence.
While the direction of 2010's political wave is still uncertain, the benefitting party won’t be able to ride that wave without credible, adequately financed candidates. That battle is being waged right now. I can’t begin to cover the house races, but recruiting a candidate with the name recognition and gravitas to raise the funds necessary to challenge an incumbent will be crucial to Republican chances.
In the Senate, both parties are pleased with their candidates for open Republican-held seats in Missouri and Ohio. Republicans appear to have won the recruiting war to keep their Florida seat with popular centrist Gov. Charlie Crist, but Democrats have the recruiting edge for the Republican-held seat in New Hampshire. Poor recruiting may doom Democrat chances to unseat Republican Senators Richard Burr in North Carolina and sex-scandal tarnished David Vittert in Louisiana, as well as Republican chances to topple Reid in Nevada and appointed incumbents Gillibrand (NY) and Michael Bennet (who has never run for public office!) in Colorado. Republican takeover chances in several states depend on their ability to recruit reluctant stars who could ride the expected wave. These include Gov. John Hoeven in North Dakota, Attorney General Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire and former Gov. (and current Fox News personality) Mike Huckabee in Arkansas, none of whom are yet on board. Kentucky Democrats have too many recruits, as two statewide officeholders will compete to take on embattled Sen. Jim Bunning.