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Change

By Michael Talent

 

Much has changed in the year following the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Elected as the “hope and change” candidate, but mostly as the candidate who was not George W. Bush, President Obama promised to end the vicious partisanship of the Bush years with clarion calls a new politics of post-partisanship and hope. Policy can be changed, the President found out. But American democracy, warts and all, is here to stay.

And, as of now, American democracy is working against the president and his party. The stimulus, which provided little to no growth for about a trillion dollars of debt, and the healthcare debacle have resulted in an almost constant disapproval rate around 50% for the president. The Republican Party, almost despite itself, appears poised to make strides in the 2010 midterm elections.

In this atmosphere, what should people expect in the 2010 midterms? The answer, with several months yet to go, is a Republican tide. Polls show the Republicans leading on the generic ballot—the single greatest predictor of success in congressional elections—by margins not seen since the GOP acquired fifty-four House seats and eight Senate seats in 1994. What follows is a race-by-race preview of some of the more interesting races so the reader will have a guide to a summer and fall of politicking.

The Races:

Missouri Senate: A “bellwether” state, Missouri has been trending right in recent years, going for McCain in 2008, albeit by only one point. In 2010, Republican Congressman Roy Blunt and Democratic Secretary of State Robin Carnahan will compete for Kit Bond’s vacant Senate seat. Current polls show Blunt consistently ahead of Carnahan, one of the latest—at the time of this writing—puts Blunt ahead by eight points at 50% to Carnahan’s 42%. (In full disclosure, the author will become a staffer for the Blunt campaign in June.)

A Republican, Blunt was the former House minority whip and has served in the House since 1996. Two years ago, Roy Blunt’s record would have been a liability, as it connected him with the unpopular Bush administration and the Republican Congress. In addition, he has been linked with disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. While this doomed many a Republican in the past four years, it looks like this may not affect Blunt. It remains to be seen if the electorate his moved on from the Bush years, and is now focused on the Democrats and Obama. Considering the lack of issues that the Democrats have to run on—basically having used up all of the political capital they had in 2008 on healthcare and spending and therefore losing their credibility on almost every issue—expect Carnahan to talk incessantly on Blunt’s background.

Carnahan is the polar opposite of Blunt. She is now serving her second term as Secretary of State, which also happens to be her only political office. This lack of a record will exacerbate the frequency and vehemence of her attacks on Blunt, since she lacks true substance to run on. Blunt, on the other hand, will seek to link her to Obama and the healthcare bill, which is even more unpopular in Missouri than it is nationally. It will be interesting to see how Carnahan handles this charge, especially since her brother, Representative Russ Carnahan, is a staunch supporter of the bill. For now, she has wisely laid low, trying to distance herself from President Obama and his policies, even avoiding an appearance at a fundraising event in which President Obama was an honored guest. Expect this race to become real ugly, real fast.

Ohio Senate: Senator George Voinovitch’s retirement has opened up an interesting race in the state, one that would have gone to the Democrats just a year ago. Ohio is similar to Missouri: as Gregg Keller, executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, points out, both states are “bellwethers with an open Senate seat.” In fact, Ohio is probably a better indicator than Missouri; unlike Missouri, the state went for Obama in 2008, giving him a five-point margin of victory over McCain. The GOP candidate, former Congressman Rob Portman, is in a statistical tie with his challenger, Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher. Fisher will try to stick Portman, a former Bush administration official, with Bush’s electoral legacy.

The Ohio elections embody the classic political adage, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Ohio has an unemployment rate of 11% and, as Keller points out, “high unemployment is always bad for the party in power.” Portman knows this. Look for him to exploit the dissatisfaction that Ohio voters have with the Democrats economic politics, expect the Stimulus and the resultant debt to loom large, no pun intended.

Florida Senate: This section was going to be about the Florida primary, since it was a matchup of a moderate Republican, Charlie Crist, with a staunch conservative, Marco Rubio. However, Crist is now running as an independent. After all, there was almost no way that he was going to win the primary, polls had Rubio ahead of him by 20 points. It makes sense that Rubio would win the primary; outside of more liberal areas like New England or California, Republican primary voters will often choose the most conservative, yet electable, candidate.

Given this logic, it is easy to understand how Rubio went from underdog to running Crist out of the race in a year. He has proven himself an electable conservative, while Crist has been known to embrace liberal positions and politicians. Now that Crist is gone, Rubio can focus on the general election, running against two candidates who would support President Obama. Watch as he draws comparisons between the two: “A vote for Crist or Meeks is a vote for out-of-control government spending!”

What makes the Florida Senate race noteworthy is the Tea Party movement coming out in droves to support Rubio. This reflects a national phenomenon, with candidates like Rand Paul—the son of Congressman Ron Paul who is running for the US Senate in Kentucky—and Chuck DeVore running to compete against Barbara Boxer in California, having their origins in the Tea Party. The fact that these candidates are running as Republicans, not as a third party, is indicative that the Tea Party movement is in effect a Republican movement. Keller speculates that the Tea Partiers are actually Republicans who stayed home in 2006 and 2008, and are now returning to the fold. Given the general discontent about the current administration, expect the Tea Party movement to continue until Election Day and come out in droves to vote Republican.

Nevada Senate: There will be a great deal of satisfaction on the right if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid loses in November—a very likely scenario. According to McSherry, Reid is facing a worse situation than Tom Daschle—the former Senate Democrat leader—faced when he lost his seat in South Dakota in 2004. In the past, Reid has been elected by playing down his liberal credentials, but this year, he will be the standard-bearer for a very unpopular President and his unpopular liberal policies. The general discontent about the economy, health care, and direction of the country can all be placed, not unfairly, at Reid’s door. Current polls all have him down by significant margins against all of his potential opponents, many of whom have less than ideal qualifications. Harry Reid will not be missed.

The situation in Nevada is representative of a wider, anti-Democrat incumbent trend. Senate incumbents, while not invulnerable to defeat in elections, should not be as far down as Reid is—especially if they are part of the leadership and especially if they are a four-term incumbent. The problem for Reid is that independents are now flocking to a reenergized Republican party. It is the mirror opposite of 2006 and 2008. The “moderate” Democrats who were elected in red states are going to be shown the door.

California Senate: Very unexpectedly, Senator Barbara Boxer is facing a tough election. Current polls only show her beating the GOP frontrunner, Tom Campbell, by two points, a statistical tie. The other mainstream candidate, Carly Fiorina, is down 42-38 against Senator Boxer. Both of them would be very hard candidates for Boxer to beat—Campbell is a pro-choice moderate and Fiorina is a woman with deep pockets.

But why would Boxer, a liberal senator from a liberal state, have such a challenge? The answer, according to Mike McSherry, executive vice-president at the consulting firm IGR, is that “voting ideological is a luxury”—one that Californians are increasingly unable to afford. In a state with a 12.6% unemployment rate and an almost bankrupt government, the Republican tide will be strong. Boxer does not have a great history with independent voters. Perhaps they find her too liberal, or just too darn condescending. Boxer also faces a primary challenge from independently-wealthy, idiosyncratic liberal blogger Mickey Kaus—which adds a new level of intrigue to what will be a fun few months out west.

As a conservative with deep pockets, Fiorina would probably be the best candidate to challenge Boxer in the fall. However, the presence of Tea Party candidate Chuck DeVore will split the conservative vote, and could give the nomination to the moderate Campbell. Campbell is definitely a solid candidate, but may not have the money to be competitive on television in the months leading up to the election, and considering the liberal electoral history of California, the national Republicans will more than likely send their funds to more promising races. So, depending on the primary results, Boxer may just pull this one out, as a Republican tide cannot make up for candidate invisibility. However, even if the Republicans lose, the fact that the California Senate will most likely be close speaks volumes about the national mood about Democrat policies.

Here are a few other races to keep an eye on, in no particular order:

Michigan 1st district: This is Representative Bart Stupak’s seat. Ostensibly, he retired to spend more time with his family—a decision that coincided with his decision to cave on health care. Of course, the skyrocketing dissatisfaction after he acceded to Obama, Pelosi, and Reid maybe had something to do with it. Expect that dissatisfaction to make this seat a prime Republican pickup opportunity.

Missouri 3rd district: While Robin Carnahan is running for Senate, her brother, Russ Carnahan, is running for reelection in the House. While this seat is usually considered safe for the Democrats, Carnahan has not handled the healthcare bill well and his challenger, Ed Martin, is energetic and visible. This is the sort of race that Republicans are finding across the country. They need to win races like this to get the majority back in the House.

New York 29th district: There should be a special election to replace Congressman Eric Massa, who had to retire after engaging in a “tickle fight” with a staffer. Governor Patterson has delayed on setting a date for it, since it appears the Republican, Tom Reed, would win. But New York Democrat politics cannot stall the November elections, and this seat will probably go Republican along with four or five other New York districts.

Michigan governor: That Michigan is in bad shape economically is no shock. That Michigan voters appear to be blaming the Democrats is. Republican pickup.

Ohio governor: Like Michigan, Ohio’s economy is in the dumps. With the Democrats controlling the state house and governor’s mansion, there will be a lot of frustration with the party. The governor’s race is close, but a GOP pick-up is possible. As of now, the Republican, John Kasich polls 46% to Democrat governor Ted Strickland’s 45%. The tide that will give Portman the Senate seat might give Kasich the mansion over the uninspiring Strickland.

Connecticut governor: This is a very close race, with polls swinging between Republican Thomas Foley—the frontrunner for the GOP nomination—and his two potential opponents: Ned Lamont and Don Malloy. A GOP victory in November ensures that the Connecticut governor’s mansion stays in Republican hands.

Colorado Senate: Colorado is a swing state that has been trending Democrat in recent years. Republicans are looking to defeat Senator Michael Bennet—who was appointed to finish Ken Salazar’s term when he accepted the position of Secretary of Interior—and reverse the recent leftward trend of Colorado.

Indiana and North Dakota Senate: The retirement of Senator Evan Bayh and Byron Dorgan were huge blows to Democrats. Expect these seats to go to the winners of the Republican primaries of the respective states. Right now, the final tally should excite Republicans. The GOP will likely make sizeable gains in the House, potentially regaining control of it, and will pick up 6-8 seats in the Senate. In the aftermath, we might see a dramatically different political process and begin readying for 2012.