Can These Democrats Swim Against the Political Current in 2010?

March 12, 2010 · 10:42 AM EST

Democrats rode national political waves during the past two cycles. There will likely be another wave this year, but this time the beneficiaries will be Republicans.

The 2010 election cycle’s dynamics make difficult races even harder for two appealing House Democratic candidates I interviewed recently, Suzan DelBene and Jon Hulburd.

DelBene, 48, is an impressive Democratic recruit in Washington’s 8th district. She worked for Microsoft for almost a decade before becoming vice president at an Internet startup firm ( and then CEO of a software/data integration company (Nimble Technology).

She later returned to Microsoft as a corporate vice president. Her husband is a senior VP at the company, a very high-level position. Money shouldn’t be a problem for her bid.

DelBene has already put $500,000 into her race, ending 2009 with $773,000 in the bank. She expects the race to cost $3.5 million, certainly not out of line considering that Democrat Darcy Burner spent almost $4.5 million in her 2008 rematch against Rep. Dave Reichert (R), not counting the more than $1.6 million the DCCC spent in the district.

DelBene is poised, well-spoken and likable. She has a strong résumé of accomplishments and considerable business experience, and since she has never run for political office before, she can run as a political outsider and an agent of change. All those are pluses in this environment.

On the other hand, the Reed College graduate is a down-the-line liberal — pro-stimulus, pro-cap-and-trade, pro-House-health-care-bill, anti-Stupak-amendment (a measure that is offensive to abortion-rights advocates) — in a district where the liberal Burner came up just short twice, during great Democratic years.

The 8th district is evenly divided among Republicans and Democrats, but Reichert’s appeal is demonstrated by his ability to survive two Democratic waves. Had DelBene run last time, she probably would have won. But 2010 is looking like a much different year.

Democrat Hulburd faces a similar challenge in his bid to turn Arizona’s 3rd district blue. Rep. John Shadegg’s (R) retirement creates an open-seat opportunity for Democrats, especially given the huge Republican field and uncertain outcome of the party’s primary.

Hulburd, 51, is a commercial litigator making his first run for office. Like DelBene, he is well-spoken, poised and has substantial personal resources, a solid Democratic recruit who has been active in his community. He raised $315,000 in the fourth quarter and ended the year with $259,000 on hand.

Stressing his independence and the fact that he isn’t “a politician,” Hulburd hopes to tap the public’s dissatisfaction with Washington, D.C., and with the state Legislature.

The open seat presumably enhances Democrats’ chances, but past election numbers aren’t encouraging. Barack Obama drew 42 percent in the district, 1 point better than John Kerry did in 2004 and about the same as Al Gore did in 2000.

The 2008 Democratic nominee, Bob Lord, spent $1.8 million on the race (but inexplicably went dark on TV at a crucial time) and benefited from just more than $2 million in independent expenditure spending by the DCCC, all of which got him just 42 percent of the vote.

Hulburd might have done better as the Democratic nominee last time. But given Lord and Obama’s showings last time and the different mood of this cycle, Hulburd will need a deeply wounded Republican nominee to have much of a chance.

Another Democrat who faces the same problem is Rep. Brad Ellsworth, who is running for Senate in Indiana.

The 8th district Congressman is running for retiring Sen. Evan Bayh’s seat, and if the calendar said 2006 or 2008, I’d be putting my money on Ellsworth. But it doesn’t.

I haven’t interviewed Ellsworth since he ran for the House in 2006, but he is just the kind of Democrat who could win statewide in the Hoosier State in a favorable or even neutral political climate.

Socially conservative and a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, he opposes legal abortion and gun control, and he voted against both cap-and-trade legislation and the stimulus bill that passed the House. He did, however, support the final version of the stimulus that eventually was signed into law, as well as the House Democrats’ health care bill.

A former police officer and county sheriff, Ellsworth drew 61 percent in defeating a Republican incumbent in 2006. Two years later, he increased his showing to more than 64 percent at the same time that Obama was drawing only 47 percent in the district.

The Democrat obviously fits his district well, but as CQ’s Politics in America noted, his “telegenic good looks hasn’t hurt him, either.”

But this year, Ellsworth will be on the defensive because of his party, and his voting record will give Republicans ammunition. His likely GOP opponent, former Sen. Dan Coats, has plenty of vulnerabilities (including telling an audience that he plans to move to North Carolina when he retires), but being a Republican won’t be one of them.

Of DelBene, Hulburd and Ellsworth, I suspect that Ellsworth has the best chance of swimming against the tide. Senate races get more visibility than House contests, and the GOP field isn’t intimidating in the Indiana Senate race.

Timing is everything in politics, and good candidates sometimes find themselves running in bad places or in bad years. For DelBene and Hulburd, a difficult race may have morphed into a nearly impossible one right now.