The 2010 Elections Are Closer Than You May Think

December 24, 2009 · 8:00 AM EST

For political junkies everywhere, and particularly for those who like reading electoral tea leaves, the midterm elections start in less than a month — Jan. 19, to be exact, when the special election in Massachusetts to fill the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D) seat will take place.

While even the thought that state Sen. Scott Brown (R) might upset state Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) is probably too much for anyone to consider, true political junkies will be keeping their eyes on Coakley’s margin.

Does Coakley pile up a “normal” win, or does Brown do better than expected? Given Democratic problems last month in Virginia and New Jersey, a disappointing showing by Coakley, even if she were to win the election, would certainly set off another round of Democratic grumbling and media tongue-wagging.

Over the past decade, Democratic nominees for president have been carrying Massachusetts with about 60 percent of the vote, while no Republican has come close to the 40 percent mark since President George H.W. Bush drew more than 45 percent of the total vote against then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988.

Last year, for example, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) drew 36 percent against then-Sen. Barack Obama (D), about the same showing that President George W. Bush had against Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.

Democratic Senate candidates have also been rolling up big numbers for years. The last GOP Senate nominee to draw at least 40 percent of the vote in the state was former Gov. William Weld, who drew 45 percent against Kerry in 1996.

If Brown can crack the 40 percent mark against Coakley, it would be noteworthy.

In February, Illinois voters will head to the polls to nominate a slew of candidates.

Democratic strategists have been arguing that Republican primaries — and particularly the ideological split within the GOP — will severely hurt Republican prospects in the midterm contests. But a solid win in his party’s Senate primary by Rep. Mark Kirk (R) could undermine that Democratic message.

Attorney Patrick Hughes, a first-time candidate, is generally regarded as Kirk’s main challenger from the right, since he has been endorsed by Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly, the Joliet Tax Day Tea Party and a long list of “movement conservatives.”

Through Sept. 30, however, Hughes had raised less than $129,000 from individuals and political action committees (plus put in $250,000 of his own), far less than Kirk’s $2.9 million raised at the same point.

If Kirk wins convincingly, he can undercut the Democratic argument. But if Hughes gets uncomfortably close to the Republican Congressman, his showing will both provide further talking points to Democrats and embolden conservative insurgents who care more about making a statement than winning an election.

The Democratic Senate race is also worth watching. State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias is the clear favorite for the Democratic nomination, but he faces two primary opponents, former Chicago Inspector General David Hoffman and former Chicago Urban League President Cheryle Robinson Jackson. How the three place — and how well the state treasurer does in the balloting — will affect how the general election is viewed.

Of course, observers are certain to compare the relative showings of Kirk and Giannoulias in their respective primaries.

Primaries in two Illinois Congressional districts are also worth watching.

In the open-seat contest to succeed Kirk, Republican voters will choose from two wealthy conservative businessmen, Dick Green and Bob Dold, and state Rep. Beth Coulson, who is much more in the Kirk mold. Democrats will select either state Rep. Julie Hamos or Dan Seals, who made credible but unsuccessful races against Kirk in 2006 and 2008.

In the state’s 14th district, Republicans must choose a nominee to take on Rep. Bill Foster (D). Ethan Hastert, son of the former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R), faces state Sen. Randy Hultgren for the GOP nomination.

Foster narrowly defeated businessman/investment guru Jim Oberweis in a 2008 special to replace Dennis Hastert, and later that same year he polished off Oberweis again, though more comfortably. Now, with the national mood having shifted and Republicans likely to be more united behind their 2010 nominee than they were behind Oberweis, Foster is likely to face a more difficult challenge.

Finally, early March brings the Texas primaries, and all eyes are sure to be on the Republican battle for governor. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) is challenging Gov. Rick Perry (R), and while she began her bid with strong personal ratings and upbeat poll numbers, her prospects now look more uncertain.

Democrats hope that the bitter GOP primary will give their likely nominee, outgoing Houston Mayor Bill White, a shot to win a high-profile statewide office for the first time since 1990, when Democrat Ann Richards beat Republican Clayton Williams to become the state’s last Democratic governor. No Democrat has won a U.S. Senate, gubernatorial or presidential election in the Lone Star State since then.