Big States Set to Host Hottest Contests Next Year

by Nathan L. Gonzales July 6, 2009 · 9:00 AM EDT

It is impossible to predict what the national political environment will be next year, but a handful of battleground states are guaranteed to be a hotbed of activity.

Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, California and New York have the most overlap in terms of competitive elections on the state and federal levels. All of the states are relatively large, and the gubernatorial and Senate races there are expected to be very expensive.

The following are the top five states that appear to be the political epicenter of the 2010 elections.

1. Ohio

Up and down the ballot, the Buckeye State is shaping up to be the hottest battleground in the country. Gov. Ted Strickland (D) is running for re-election in difficult economic times. Strickland’s race against Fox News Channel host John Kasich (R), an ex-Congressman, could be a bellwether for whether voters blame the governor and the Democrats for the economic hardship or continue to blame Republicans and former President George W. Bush.

Republicans are playing offense in the gubernatorial race, but the party has to defend the seat of retiring Sen. George Voinovich. Democrats like their chances against former Rep. Rob Portman, the likely GOP nominee, because he worked in the Bush administration. But first, Democrats have to sort out their primary between Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher and Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner.

On the Congressional level, Republicans are hoping to take back the 1st and 15th districts, represented by freshman Reps. Steve Driehaus (D) and Mary Jo Kilroy (D). Former Rep. Steve Chabot (R) and state Sen. Steve Stivers (R) are seeking to avenge their losses last cycle. Democrats will take their biennial shot at trying to defeat Rep. Jean Schmidt (R), and Republicans will try to finally land a top recruit against Rep. Zack Space (D), but both races start as long shots for each party.

In addition, Ohio’s other statewide offices are up for election and competitive. Winning those may prove to be the most critical for each party because the state’s redistricting commission — made up of the governor, auditor, secretary of state and one member of each party from the legislature — will draw new state Legislative district lines after 2010.

2. Pennsylvania

Over the past four years, Republicans have lost both Senate seats and five House seats in the Keystone State. But history is on their side as they seek to win back the governorship in 2010.

Republicans lost the second Senate seat recently when Sen. Arlen Specter defected to the Democratic Party. It looks like he’ll face Rep. Joe Sestak in the Democratic primary. But regardless of who wins that battle, the Democratic nominee will start with the advantage over former Rep. Pat Toomey, the likely Republican nominee in a state that is growing more Democratic.

The outlook is brighter for Republicans in the gubernatorial race since voters have put the out-of-power party in control every eight years since World War II. The fields are still fluid, but Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, state Auditor General Jack Wagner and wealthy businessman Tom Knox are battling on the Democratic side, while Attorney General Tom Corbett and former U.S. attorney Pat Meehan are jockeying on the Republican side.

Rep. Jim Gerlach (R) is exploring a gubernatorial bid as well. If he leaves the House, Republicans will have a difficult time holding his 6th district seat. Republicans will also take a look at the 7th district, if Sestak runs for Senate, and try to oust Rep. Christopher Carney in the 10th district, Rep. Jason Altmire in the 4th district and Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper in the 3rd district — although it’s far from certain that those races will be competitive.

3. Florida

Gov. Charlie Crist’s (R) decision to run for Senate dramatically increased the GOP’s chances of holding the seat of retiring Sen. Mel Martinez, but it put the governorship at significant risk. Crist faces former Speaker Marco Rubio in the GOP primary and will likely face Rep. Kendrick Meek (D) in the general election — although Rep. Corrine Brown (D) has recently said she is exploring the race.

But Crist remains popular, despite the state’s sour economic conditions, and at this point he’s viewed as the frontrunner.

With Crist’s absence, state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink is the early favorite to win the governorship for Democrats. State Attorney General Bill McCollum is the likely GOP nominee, but some Republicans worry about his ability to win given his unsuccessful bids for Senate in 2000 and 2004 (when he lost the primary to Martinez).

On the Congressional level, Democrats are once again targeting the 10th district seat held by Rep. Bill Young (R), where they believe state Sen. Charlie Justice (D) can win regardless of whether Young retires. Democratic party strategists also believe they have an opportunity to make the open-seat 12th district race competitive, but time will tell whether they are right.

Republicans are excited about knocking off freshman Rep. Alan Grayson (D) in the 8th district. Their prospects are decidedly uphill against Reps. Suzanne Kosmas (D) and Ron Klein (D).

4. California

Democrats have gained 53 seats in the House over the past four years, but only one in California. But after a strong performance by President Barack Obama, a surge in Democratic voter registration and the collapsing numbers of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), Democrats are on offense.

Targeting more than a handful of Congressional seats, Democrats’ best opportunities appear to be against GOP Reps. Ken Calvert, Dan Lungren and Mary Bono Mack. Republicans believe state Assemblyman Van Tran (R) can be competitive against Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D) in the 47th district.

Democrats’ best opportunity of all is likely in the gubernatorial race, where they’re banking on voter fatigue toward Republicans after seven years of “the governator.” The Democratic primary field got slightly less complicated when Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D) announced he wasn’t running, but the nominee will likely be former governor and state attorney General Jerry Brown or San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner are vying for the Republican nod.

And while it’s not expected to be close, Republicans are hoping to woo former Hewlett Packard executive Carly Fiorina (R) into running against Sen. Barbara Boxer (D), who has never won a Senate race with more than 60 percent of the vote.

5. New York

If Gov. David Paterson runs for re-election and is the Democratic nominee, Republicans actually have a chance of taking back the Empire State’s governorship, even if their nominee is former Rep. Rick Lazio (R).

But if state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (D) changes course and decides to run, polls show he could coast to the nomination and into the governor’s mansion — though most Democratic insiders do not see a Paterson-Cuomo primary taking place. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is probably the Republicans’ best hope, but he’s only likely to run if it looks like Paterson will be the nominee.

Republicans are down to holding just three House seats in the 29-Member delegation. And they are at significant risk of losing Rep. John McHugh’s (R) 23rd district in a special election now that he has agreed to serve in the Obama administration. Prior to the 2006 elections, Republicans held nine seats.

But Republicans are trying to crawl back by targeting a handful of seats in an effort to regain relevance in the Northeast. They are hoping competitive races develop in the districts represented by Democratic Reps. Eric Massa, Michael Arcuri, John Hall and Scott Murphy, who just won the 20th district special election.

Depending on how Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s likely Democratic primary against Rep. Carolyn Maloney plays out and the Republicans’ ability to get a recruit with statewide viability, Democrats are in good position to hold both Senate seats.

Although former Gov. George Pataki (R) and Rep. Peter King (R) say they’re considering the possibility of running for Gillibrand’s seat, neither is expected to do so. Senior Sen. Charles Schumer (D) is safe.