State Waves Add to Democrats’ National Woes

by Stuart Rothenberg September 24, 2010 · 9:21 AM EDT

Everyone agrees a political wave will hit on Nov. 2, though Democrats and Republicans disagree on the size of it. Some see a “normal” political wave, while others expect a political tsunami.

Obviously, with reapportionment and redistricting on the schedule for 2011 and 2012, a huge Republican victory has larger ramifications than merely who will control the House for the next two years.

Waves seem to work themselves down the ballot, and a national Republican Congressional wave surely is going to be mirrored by strong GOP gains in state legislatures and gubernatorial contests.

But an unusual dynamic also seems to be working against Democrats this year that could add to the party’s woes: the weakness of both Democratic Senate and gubernatorial candidates in some key states.

In Illinois, for example, there are signs of a GOP wave that could give Republicans the state’s governorship, a Senate seat and some House seats.

Voters in the state, certainly fatigued from the bizarre drama surrounding former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and angry about the economy, seem prepared to elect Republican Bill Brady over the sitting governor, Democrat Pat Quinn, who succeeded the discredited Blagojevich when he was impeached in 2009.

Brady has been leading Quinn in polling since the February primary, and voters seem to have lost patience with the state’s Democrats. That can’t be helping state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D), who was hoping to hold the Senate seat once held by President Barack Obama. Giannoulias may not be able to swim against the current in his race against Rep. Mark Kirk (R).

In the state’s Congressional races, Rep. Debbie Halvorson, a former state Senate Democratic leader, looks likely to lose her seat after just a single term. Democratic Rep. Phil Hare unexpectedly finds himself fighting for re-election in the state’s 17th district, and Rep. Bill Foster (D) is hoping to hang on by his fingernails in the 14th district.

And Republicans might be able to hang on to Kirk’s open seat because of the Illinois voters’ change of heart about the two parties this year. Remember, Illinois is no longer the swing state that it was 30 years ago. It’s solidly Democratic — normally.

Democratic prospects are just as bad in Pennsylvania.

Attorney General Tom Corbett (R) will defeat Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato (D) in the gubernatorial race, and I’ll be surprised if it’s close. The next question is who will vote for Corbett as well as Democratic Senate nominee Joe Sestak?

Democrats certainly hope Sestak does better in the Philadelphia suburbs than Onorato will, but recent polling suggests Sestak is trailing Republican Pat Toomey in the Senate race. On style points alone, Toomey has the edge. When you add Republican enthusiasm, the midterm dynamic and money, the GOP top of the ticket looks strong in the Keystone State.

As in Illinois, House races are also going the GOP’s way in Pennsylvania. Rep. Paul Kanjorski in northeast Pennsylvania and Kathy Dahlkemper in the far northwestern corner of the state are in deep trouble, no matter whose polling you believe. Sestak’s open House seat probably favors the GOP slightly, and the very Republican 10th district, now held by Rep. Christopher Carney (D), is at risk, even though Tom Marino, the Republican nominee, has far more political baggage than he does campaign dollars. And Democrats can forget about knocking off Rep. Jim Gerlach (R) this cycle.

Wisconsin is also looking like a mess for Democrats.

Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker (R) is favored over Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D) in the gubernatorial race, and challenger Ron Johnson (R) is surprisingly no worse than even money against veteran Sen. Russ Feingold (D). The “time for a change” mood in Wisconsin, normally a swing state but one Obama won by 13 points, is helping both Walker and Johnson, and each seems to be helping the other.

Further down the ballot, retiring Rep. David Obey’s open seat is at risk, and Rep. Steve Kagen (D), who holds a Republican-leaning district, could well fall because of the momentum in the state.

And now we come to the biggest headache for Democrats: Ohio.

Some of the state polls undoubtedly exaggerate Republican advantages in both the Senate and gubernatorial contests, but there is also no doubt that Republicans lead in both. After all, Gov. Ted Strickland (D) released his own poll showing him down to Republican John Kasich by 3 points in an attempt to counter the growing buzz that the gubernatorial contest has turned into a blowout.

Going into the cycle, most observers thought voters liked Strickland and would re-elect him. But the state’s economy and Democratic control of almost all state government have created a different dynamic.

Republican Rob Portman looks to have a clear edge over Democratic Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher in the Senate race, and Democrats are likely to lose at least two House seats and possibly as many as five.

The top-of-the-ticket dynamic is also working for Republicans elsewhere. In California, GOP gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman’s spending and attacks on Democrat Jerry Brown seem to be helping Senate hopeful Carly Fiorina (R).

The dynamic isn’t as easy to see in Nevada. Yes, the Reid name isn’t popular, so Democratic Sen. Harry Reid’s low personal ratings aren’t helping his son, Rory, who is the Democratic nominee for governor. Rory Reid will lose, and it will not be close.

But it isn’t clear whether voters will take the opportunity to vote against two Reids or will split their “Reid” vote, giving the Senate Majority Leader another term. A stronger Republican opponent for the Senator would surely mean both Reids would lose.

After eight years of Blagojevich/Quinn in Illinois, Gov. Ed Rendell (D) in Pennsylvania and Gov. Jim Doyle (D) in Wisconsin, voters in those states seem ready for a change, and not only in the state’s top office. For Strickland, who is finishing only his first term, it’s simply a matter of timing. Of course, in politics, timing is everything.