All Signs Point to Another Top-Notch Election Cycle in 2010

by Stuart Rothenberg September 10, 2009 · 9:00 AM EDT

I began this year doubtful that we’d see much excitement in the 2010 elections. I’m quickly changing my tune.

After two big elections, Democrats didn’t have many opportunities left in the House. GOP Senate retirements seemed to open the door to more Democratic gains, but with the Democrats controlling 59 (then 60) seats, additional party gains, quite frankly, wouldn’t be regarded as significant.

But growing public concern about spending, taxes and the size of government has started to shift the national landscape away from the Democrats to a more neutral position, and quite possibly toward the GOP. The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll has even found that Republicans have regained their historic advantage as the party better suited to deal with spending and taxes.

The change in the political landscape has encouraged Republican candidates and prospects. But Democratic recruiting remains on track, with a list of strong candidates.

Even now, a number of top-shelf contests are developing, making for a surprisingly interesting 2010 election.

Open Senate seats in competitive states seem to guarantee feisty contests in Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio, Kentucky and Illinois, while vulnerable (or potentially vulnerable) incumbents in Connecticut, Louisiana and North Carolina create uncertainty. And of course, there is Pennsylvania, where one of the nastiest, meanest and bloodiest primaries in recent history seems inevitable, and where too many people are underestimating the chances of a competitive general election.

Indeed, the large number of competitive Senate primaries can only make the cycle more volatile.

Over in the House, recent Democratic recruiting against Republican Reps. Jean Schmidt (Ohio state Rep. Todd Book), Michele Bachmann (Minnesota state Sen. Tarryl Clark) and Charlie Dent (Bethlehem, Pa., Mayor John Callahan) gives Democrats some interesting opportunities even as the overall national political environment is moving away from them.

Democratic insiders are also enthusiastic about Nebraska state Sen. Tom White against Rep. Lee Terry (R) and Palm Springs, Calif., Mayor Steve Pougnet, who is taking on Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R). Other challengers could emerge, as well. It’s still early.

The big question, of course, is whether these seemingly strong Democratic challengers waited one cycle too long to take the plunge into a Congressional race. Mediocre challengers sometimes do better in a great year than strong challengers do in a difficult one.

Republican open seats in swing or Democratic-leaning districts (currently represented by Illinois Rep. Mark Kirk and Pennsylvania Rep. Jim Gerlach) give Democrats better opportunities, as does an expected open seat in Delaware, where former Lt. Gov. John Carney (D) looks to be a formidable candidate. But could the midterm trend that works against the president’s party allow Republicans to hold Kirk’s suburban Chicago district and Gerlach’s suburban Philadelphia seat?

Republican House prospects looked good technically — that is, many Republican districts are now held by Democrats who should theoretically have re-election problems — but the GOP’s damaged brand and minority status didn’t seem like a great argument for recruiting.

And the special election in New York’s 20th district earlier this year suggested the political environment hadn’t changed much from 2008.

But the National Republican Congressional Committee has already recruited some intriguing challengers, and a noticeable shift in the national mood will almost certainly put more Democratic seats into play over the next six to 12 months.

Repeat GOP candidates such as Steve Stivers (Ohio), Andy Harris (Md.) and former Rep. Steve Chabot (Ohio) have to be regarded as strong challengers given their narrow defeats last time. Former Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), who is running to regain a seat he gave up to run for the Senate, is another strong contender.

Republicans are also high on California Assemblyman Van Tran, Manchester, N.H., Mayor Frank Guinta, Colorado state Rep. Cory Gardner, Honolulu Councilman Charles Djou and Montgomery, Ala., City Councilmember Martha Roby, who give the GOP an unusual mix of challengers with considerable appeal. And former U.S. Attorney Pat Meehan is about to enter the open-seat race in Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak’s Pennsylvania district, giving the GOP a chance to win the seat.

House retirements have been relatively few, and as the last election in this redistricting cycle, total House retirements may be down. But we still should see some additional retirements over the next few months, possibly adding to the list of competitive contests.

Finally, there are plenty of races for governor.

Again, I thought that many of the gubernatorial outcomes were easily predicted, but the combination of a weak economy and some interesting candidates have shaken up a number of races. It’s early, but contests (in some cases both primaries and general elections) in a number of large states, including Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and even California, look potentially fascinating.

The tide clearly has turned nationally, with the president’s popularity down and Democrats fighting against a growing mood of dissatisfaction. That’s a huge problem for Democrats in the two states that will have gubernatorial elections this year.

But while Republican strategists are showing greater optimism about the midterms, they also say that they wish those elections were taking place this November, not more than a year from now. And that’s another reason why the next 14 months should be so exciting.