In my first 2010 preview
last July, I observed, “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.” As we start the election year, negative public reaction and a probable paring back of the current Democratic majorities seems to be the more likely outcome, but change of party control of Congress still appears unlikely. But things can change over the next 11 months, just as they have since July, and changes can, well, change everything.
Here’s how things look at the start of the year of this first off-year election of the Obama Administration.
Since World War II, the party in the White House has lost an average of 16 seats in the first off-year election, but actual results vary widely. Democrats lost 54 seats (and control) in 1994, the first off-year election of the Clinton Administration, but Republicans actually gained seats (with help from reapportionment) for George W. Bush in 2002. Republicans need to take over 41 seats to retake control of the House. That could happen, but more things favoring Republicans (or hurting the Democrats) have to change between now and the election for it to come to pass.
Democrats enjoy a 258-177 lead in the House. Republicans have turned up the heat on Democrats who backed Administration policies that appear to be unpopular in their districts. But that heat didn’t register in the results of special elections in 2009. Democrats won two key special elections in New York (one a turnover), seeming to confirm a continuation of the 2006-08 Democrat surge.
As the year starts, Congressional Quarterly projects Republicans leading in 176 districts (including 12 rated as just “leaning” Republican), another 13 seats rated as tossups, and 23 seats as merely “leaning” Democrat. But if the GOP sweeps all of them (including all 23 Democrat leaning contests), they only win 35 new seats. A 1994 redux would require Republicans to take over at least six seats currently rated either Likely or Safe Democrat.
An example of what is involved is unfolding in western Missouri. The 4th District solidly backed Republican John McCain over President Obama, 60%-38%, and voted to re-elect President George W. Bush by a margin of nearly 30 points. But Rep. Ike Skelton (D-MO) has represented the district for 34 years. He won reelection last year with 66% of the vote by running 28 points ahead of Obama, and scored a 68% win in1994 against the grain of the Republican congressional takeover. He has been winning with a reputation as a conservative Democrat. But his recent voting record has been more progressive, including his vote for the controversial cap-and-trade bill that most other rural Democrats opposed. A sitting state senator and a former state rep are now vying for the Republican nomination to oppose him, and the National Republican Congressional Committee has targeted the contest, prompting CQ to lower its rating from Safe to Likely Democrat. This is the type of district Republicans need to win in order to retake the House, but they’ll need to overcome Skelton’s personal popularity to do it.
Similar scenarios exist in maybe 20 other Democrat-held districts. These districts will determine control of the House.
The historic off-year pattern has been less pronounced in the Senate, where only a third of seats (plus special elections to fill vacancies) are up in any election. Underlying factors this year favor Democrats. While they hold a solid 60-40 majority (counting supportive independents) in the upper chamber, the seats being contested this year are evenly divided, with only 18 Democrat seats up. Assuming Democrats hold onto the late Ted Kennedy’s seat in a special election later this month, Republicans will need to hold all of their own 18 plus win 11 of the Democrat seats to regain control of the Senate. On the other hand, as little as a net gain of one could return their ability to stop measures with a unified party filibuster.
In senate races, on January 1 CQ projected Republicans leading in 15 contests (including three rated as just “leaning” Republican), another six seats rated as tossups, and four as merely “leaning” Democrat. But if the GOP sweeps all of them, they only win seven new seats. A 1994 redux would require Republicans to take over at least four seats currently rated either Likely or Safe Democrat.
Democrats’ chances are better in the senate because there are more Republican seats seriously in play. Four of the six tossup seats (including Missouri’s) are open seats already held by Republicans. A Democratic takeover of any one of them digs a deeper hole for Republicans and realistically kills any chance to change control.
Republicans, though, could force a change in the Majority Leader’s chair without seizing control. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is himself one of the senate’s most vulnerable incumbents (even though CQ still rates his race “Leans Democrat”).
What could change things?
- I blogged about this last July
, and the parties are still trying to recruit game-changing nominees in some states. CQ rates Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) as safe, but he becomes vulnerable if Gov. John Hoeven (R) decides to take him on. CQ rates Vice-President Joe Biden’s former seat in Deleware as leaning towards Republican takeover by Rep. (and popular former governor) Mike Castle, but the race reverts to tossup if Attorney General Beau Biden (D) (son of the veep) answers his party’s call. New York Republicans recently lost their best realistic shot at appointed Sen. Kristen Gillibrand when former New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani declined to run. On the de-recruitment front, Democrats avoided their surest giveaway by persuading tainted appointed Sen. Roland Burris (D-IL) to retire, and Republicans matched that achievement by talking cantankerous Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) to hang up his spikes. (CQ still rates both contests as tossups.) Still pending is whether Democrats can coax ethically challenged Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT) to retire.
Update: Right after this post was published, there were two game-changing senate retirements that pretty-much canceled each other out. First, "safe Democrat" red-state Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) opened up his seat, leaving Republicans a good chance for a takeover, with or without a Hoeven candidacy. The next day, Democrats got the Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) retirement they needed, rescuing a possible blue-state loss. The net numbers mentioned above remain virtually unchanged.
The economy (and don’t call me Stupid) - President Obama may have overpromised on the results of his policies, as unemployment is now much higher than he warned it would become if Congress failed to pass his stimulus package. If unemployment is worse in November than it was when Obama took office, more Democrat seats will be lost. But if the economy improves noticeably, Democrats will hold on very well.
International events - National security is an issue that favors Republicans if the public is focused on it. If minor events (such as the foiled Christmas Detroit plane bombing) leave the Administration looking incapable of protecting the country, Republican chances will improve. Ironically, though, if a major terrorist attack succeeds in the U.S., the natural tendency of the American electorate will be to unite behind their president (as they did behind a befuddled George W. Bush after 9-11), and Democrat chances will improve.
Party intensity - This isn’t a done deal yet, but it could prove to be Democrats’ Achilles Heal. Voter turnout is always less in off-year elections, and Democrat turnout generally dips more than Republican turnout. But this year could be an extreme example. If Obama and Congress fail to deliver what they promised, ideological progressives and folks hurting from the economy (the very base of the Democratic Party) may have little incentive to vote. In contrast, Republican anger at what Democrats have proposed, whether successfully passed or not, will likely result in a much more Republican mix of voters turning out in 2010 than was the case in any election since 1994.
The Tea Party movement - This is related to party intensity. The spontaneous protests over Democrat policies - quite out of character for Republicans - pose potentially big problems for Democrats. The protests are out of character because the characters that are involved are mostly new to politics and don’t all consider themselves Republican. Democrats’ public dismissal of them as “astroturf” suggest that the party fails to understand what’s happening and is therefore unprepared to deal with it. Whether the potential is realized will depend on whether the Tea Party movement can sustain its enthusiasm and whether it focuses on supporting Republicans as the means for removing Democrats from power. If the movement “peaked too soon,” or if it veers off chasing third-party fantasy, it will be a bust, and Democrats will hold on.