The Republican comeback of 2010

The midterm elections are only two years away. Can the Democrats defend their gains?

By Thomas Schaller
December 8, 2008 4:32PM (UTC)
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With a Senate runoff just concluded in Georgia, a Senate recount in Minnesota still to be decided and a few lingering House races, the 2008 elections are not quite complete. Could there be a better time to begin speculation about the 2010 election cycle?

Joking aside, Democrats have put together two solid elections in a row, first capturing majorities in the House and Senate -- and then adding the White House and expanding their majorities last month in a historic election. But the last time the Democrats controlled all of Washington was following the 1992 victory of Bill Clinton. Just two years later, the Republicans swept into power, defining the politics of the next 12 years. Perhaps it really isn't too early to start looking at the prospects for the 2010 election, the results of which could have major implications not only for [Rep.] Nancy Pelosi and [Sen.] Harry Reid's congressional majorities but also for Barack Obama's presidency and political agenda.


Three luminaries of political analysis agreed to share their insights with Salon. Chris Hayes is the Washington editor of the Nation and a fellow at the New America Foundation. His articles have appeared in the American Prospect, the New Republic, and the Washington Monthly. Chuck Todd is the national political director for NBC News. One of the most recognized political experts on national television, Todd also serves as NBC News' on-air political analyst for "NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams," "Today," "Meet the Press" and MSNBC's "Hardball With Chris Matthews." Amy Walter, the editor in chief of the Hotline, the National Journal Group's online briefing on politics and policies, writes a weekly column called "On the Trail" for Before joining the Hotline, she was an editor at the Cook Political Report, where she handicapped U.S. House races for almost 10 years. Salon spoke to Hayes, Todd and Walter by phone.

Tom Schaller: Although Bill Clinton in 1998 and George Bush in 2002 broke the historical pattern, usually the president's party loses seats in midterm cycles. Shouldn't 2010, the first midterm with a unified Democratic government since the 1994 Republican revolution, favor the Republicans?

Chris Hayes: I think that so much right now depends on the objective conditions of the country, particularly the economy. It's really difficult to predict ... because the economy is in such a period of sustained distress and uncertainty. I think there's a distinction between the Senate and the House. The Senate schedule is looking quite favorable to Democrats. That kind of insulates them a little bit, whereas in the House, the Republican caucus is pared down about as low as it could possibly go short of redistricting. I don't really see a whole lot of room left for the Republicans to go anywhere but up. So, I would expect to see some modest gains for Republicans in the House in 2010.


Chuck Todd: You know, you would assume Republicans should pick up House seats. I say you would assume.

The Republicans are going to deal with a big problem of retirements, more so on the Senate side. The Senate map looks terrible for the Republicans. When you think of the Democrats who are up for reelection, the only ones that are really going to be in trouble are Harry Reid plus whoever gets appointed to these vacant seats in Delaware, New York and Illinois simply because of the crazy politics. There could be primaries. That's the only thing that's upsetting the apple cart for the Democrats in the Senate in 2010. The Democrats up for reelection are the guys that won in '04. So Democrats that survived '04 -- I'd be shocked if Republicans found a decent candidate to run against Ken Salazar in Colorado.

The other thing that you've got to remember is, I think, Republicans are going to have a money problem. I think this is not like '93-94, because you're going to have money on the side of the Democrats and a depressed Republican Party, and that's going to lead to more retirements. History says that Republicans should at least pick up some House seats, but if Democrats picked up seats in both houses, it wouldn't surprise me simply on mechanics.


Amy Walter: I think that it's clear that Democrats hold their majority in the Senate. OK, so that one's done.

Can they lose, like in '94, can they lose the 40-plus seats that would give Republicans control of the House? Right now, we know that there are at least 70 if not more Democrats who sit in red districts. If we're just going to play it on red versus blue, there are enough seats to be put into play. I agree with Chuck that there aren't that many Republican seats left -- there are only five Republicans in districts that John Kerry won in 2004.


Now, that said, retirements do make a big difference, even in the House. The real question in my mind is recruiting, and I think that's more important in the Senate than in the House. The key for Republicans is not just what the mood will be, but there are also a lot of governors' races, so that's going to be enticing for some of these Republicans who are looking to move up the ladder. And let's see where the mood of the country is. It's easy to say now that Republicans are depressed, Democrats have the momentum.

I don't think this is '93-94, where you're going to have a president who comes in and makes all kinds of mistakes and puts Democrats in difficult positions to make tough votes. At the same time, the odds that this is just going to be one big lovey honeymoon for the Democratic Party -- I think that that history suggests that is not likely.

Schaller: Let's pick up on some of the comments you made and move chamber to chamber. Let's start with the Senate. Who might be vulnerable for the Democrats, or what open seat might be in reach for the Republicans?


Walter: Chuck's right that Harry Reid right now is the only obvious target. If you've seen the most recent polls, even up against Jon Porter, he was up but still under 50 percent. He has high unfavorables. He is a target that every Republican will want to be spending time on. And then you look at the rest of these folks. I think it's true that Ken Salazar, in a bad year for Democrats, sure would make a nice target. The bench there is not very deep -- is it Tom Tancredo that they pick to go against him?

I'm not really sure where you go from there. Can Republicans finally find somebody in Arkansas, for God's sake? This is one of the few states that went for McCain by a bigger percentage than it went for Bush. But there's no bench there. You kind of look at the rest of these folks and they're in very blue states. [Barbara] Mikulski [of Maryland], [Charles] Schumer [of New York], [Patrick] Leahy [of Vermont], [Chris] Dodd [of Connecticut], [Barbara] Boxer [of California]. These are not easy places to go. And then Patty Murray [of Washington], Russ Feingold [of Wisconsin]. I just don't see it. This also assumes that they're all staying there, none of them are retiring. And it also assumes that the environment is going to be good enough that somebody who has a serious challenger can count on the strength of their incumbency to hold on.

Schaller: That means there's not much upside on the Senate side, but it's not like the Democrats are going to add many seats either, right?


Todd: I think they can get to 60. It's possible simply because they're going to deal with a few problems on the Republican side. No. 1, we already know one of them: Florida, Mel Martinez. So right off the bat, that will be a contentious primary and we'll learn a lot. I think the thing that will keep Democrats from getting the 60 Senate seats that they came just short of this time is these appointed seats. You just don't know what dominoes that creates, what internal party problems that could create in Illinois and in New York or even in Delaware if there's a backlash to how that whole Biden thing went down.

But, let's go through the Republicans. Let's look at Richard Burr [in North Carolina]. That seat has changed hands every six years going back 40 years now. That Senate seat. So how do you assume he's safe? You can't. Kit Bond [in Missouri]. George Voinovich: Does he run again in Ohio? And if he does, do you think that Democrats aren't going to think that they can win now, there? It's not like Voinovich is going to get a free pass. Kit Bond is not going to get a free pass. Is Judd Gregg this time in New Hampshire going to get a free pass? I don't think so this time.

I think the No. 1 recruiting job for John Cornyn [new chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee], is to keep these guys from retrying. And by the way I still have no idea why Republicans turned to two Texans to try to get themselves out of their rut other than, as somebody pointed out to me, it is a money state. So the upside is, it's a good fundraising base for Cornyn to start with.

Chuck Grassley [of Iowa], he's a guy who will always be safe if he runs. But at what point does he say, I'm not going to be finance chair until 2014. I don't know. He may say, "I'm done. I'm outta here. I want to try to help my grandson get into higher office." I think a good test for the Republicans for 2012 will be what happens in two Senate races, and that's Colorado and Wisconsin. If they get viable candidates in both of these places, in two states that they need to improve, even if they come close and don't win, it would at least show signs of progress that they can get stuff back together.


Schaller: Is that how you see it, Chris?

Hayes: I think the retirement issue, like Chuck said, is really key. Grassley, also Voinovich. Arlen Specter's going to run for reelection, we know, but the guy is a cancer survivor -- a lot can happen in two years. We already found out about Martinez, who took off after only one term. It's not a lot of fun to be in the minority. And it makes a huge difference in the day-to-day life of a legislator on both sides of the mall, Senate and House, whether you're in the minority or majority. The problem is compounded when it looks like not only are you in the minority now but you're also probably going to be that way for a long time. That has a kind of domino effect, whereby people start retiring because they just don't want to play that game anymore, and that of course just digs the hole deeper.

Schaller: Let's switch to the House. The 2006 freshman class, which was 31 new seats strong for the Democrats, survived largely intact in 2008. That's the time to beat them, when they're coming up for their sophomore cycle. Is there any opportunity for Republicans to take out some of the 2006 class, or do they have to focus on the 20-some-odd-member, depending on how it shakes out, 2008 class?

Todd: I think you do look at both classes. It would be foolish not to. The environment could be different. Just because they failed to get a couple seats this time doesn't mean they shouldn't go back and try to go after a Wisconsin 8th District or try to go back and see if they can get their hands on a New Hampshire 1st District. You don't assume that just because you didn't do it this time, you can't come back and do it next time. At this point, you might as well start with your base. You try to go get North Carolina's 8th District back, go get those two Alabama seats that they probably should have, go see if you can get Florida. You assume that in some of these places, if you're going on a pure numbers game, you find any of these seats that had an African-American population of 10 percent or more and go after those in 2010 without Obama on the top of the ballot. Those are the ones you might be able to pick off.


The question is, what do they do in New England? Do they just walk away? You know, I might walk away at this point. For now. For 2010. That doesn't mean you don't want to eventually fix your problems there. But start in the more competitive places. Go into Virginia and get a couple of those seats back. You're not going to get the 11th back in northern Virginia. But go to some comfortable places and go find a dozen seats you can win back.

Walter: I think we should go to this point of recruitment because it's a very important one. And part of the lesson that Democrats -- it took them a couple cycles to learn, but they finally got there -- was bringing the diverse elements of the party together into a détente and to recognize that, you know what, we have to find candidates that fit the district rather than find candidates that fit the political correctness of the party platform. And so you recruit pro-life candidates in pro-life districts and you go down to the South and you find a candidate who's not going to agree with the party platform on a whole lot of issues, but that's the only way you're going to win these seats.

And the same goes for Republicans, finding candidates who can actually fit their districts, rather than the sort of generic one-size-fits-all kind of approach that they seem to have taken in the last few years. Now it's true, it's very hard to recruit, I don't care how good and how smart you are as a House party chairman. If the environment stinks, you're not going to get good candidates. The smart people are smart for a reason. They sit on the sidelines in bad years and run in good ones. But I do think that it's true that you go for the low-hanging fruit first -- the Alabamas and Idahos and Mississippi and New Mexico -- and you try to go there first.

They need to make some sort of statement, which is, maybe it's not in the Northeast, but to make a statement that they're not willing to cede some key battleground areas. They need to do well in counties that have high Hispanic populations. They need to be able to say, "You know what, we do have a broader platform and a broader message." Just going in and picking up some Southern seats isn't going to convince anyone that this is a national party. And it's true, you can write off New Hampshire, fine. You can write off Massachusetts and Rhode Island -- those guys are long gone. But don't write off suburban Virginia, don't write off suburban Ohio, don't write off suburban Michigan.


Schaller: Chris, I'm hearing a non-Northeastern strategy. Is that right -- go where the fruit is lowest or where the rate of return is highest?

Hayes: I think the two biggest issues, aside from recruitment and personnel, will be (a) the economic issue. I'm writing a story right now about the Blue Dog caucus, and I was covering Chris Carney, who was elected somewhat freakishly in 2006 when the longtime incumbent in the district outside Scranton, Pa., Don Sherwood, had allegedly strangled his mistress, which tends to be a rough revelation for an incumbent during a campaign. And Carney won, and I think there was a lot of belief that he would be easy to knock off. And I think he ended up winning by 10 points. He won pretty comfortably. I think the key there was the economy. It's a district that's one of these classically postindustrial, blue-collar struggling places, and when the chips are down, they trusted the Democratic Party to vouchsafe their economic interests.

So one question is, does that brand association that the Democratic Party has continue to function even if the economy is still in bad shape two years from now, or do people view the Democratic Party as the incumbents and therefore hold them responsible for it? So in these districts, like Carney's district and other districts that tend to be more blue-collar, that's going to be a big question.

The second question is this regional question, which is, Can any Republican really win Chris Shays' seat? [Shays was the last Republican member of the House from New England before he lost his Connecticut seat on Election Day.] Has that ship sailed? I think as things stand now, the demographic trends are strong enough that the answer to that is essentially no in the short term, particularly in the next two years. The best shot they're going to have is going after Bobby Bright down in Alabama and seats like that, where Republicans are performing plus-10 or so in presidential races.

Schaller: Speaking of statewide results, we have a lot of governors' races in 2010. And we saw a class of plus-six Democrats from four years ago, so those governors will be up for reelection, and they're in some red states like Arkansas and some blue states like Maryland, and some states that continue to be national bellwethers like Ohio. What are the governors' races that will be the bellwether as to whether Democrats push up their present number, which I believe is 29 out of 50?

Walter: I don't think you should ignore 2009 either. In terms of bellwether, Virginia we can finally say is a bellwether. In this case, we can say, "Hey, you know what" -- if you're a Republican, you can point to [Gov. Tim Kaine], [Sen. Jim Webb], and maybe even Obama and say, "Well there were unique circumstances and unique candidates and unique this and that, and just because Democrats keep winning here doesn't mean that there's a trend." But I think if you have a Democrat win again, hold on to the governor's mansion in three successive elections in Virginia, and you now have a trend line for Democrats doing well, especially in northern Virginia consistently, I think you're looking at a state now that starts to sink more and more into the Democratic column rather than the toss-up column. And if I'm a Republican, that to me, in terms of sending a message, if Republicans lose that race, I think that sends a really strong message again like we had just talked about -- which types of places are going to be targeted and where they think they're going to be successful going forward in some of these other states.

You look at the places that Democrats have to defend. Michigan -- these are all open seats, a lot of term-limited open seats. Arizona, which was already going to be open even if [Gov. Janet] Napolitano hadn't been nominated [as Secretary of Homeland Security]. Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kansas, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, New Mexico -- all open seats. So those to me would be all the danger spots for Democrats. For Republicans -- obviously, California, Hawaii, Rhode Island.

You know we have incumbents who are not exactly very popular, like Republican Jim Gibbons in Nevada, Rod Blagojevich, who is a Democrat in Illinois. I think Democrats at this point have much more exposure than Republicans do, but it's also going to be a big test in terms of how competitive these so-called Obama states or battleground states in '08 remain in the next election.

Hayes: The other thing to keep in mind is that you don't want to be a governor in the next two years. You don't want to be running a state, you don't want to be running a city.

One of the most interesting things is that ... if you look at the class of mayors from the boom period in the '90s, a lot of them went on to tremendous success. Bob Corker [of Chattanooga, Tenn.] was a mayor and he became a senator. Obviously there's Rudy Giuliani, and there were a lot of mayors around the country -- [Pennsylvania Gov.] Ed Rendell, who was the mayor of Philadelphia -- a lot of mayors who happened to preside over municipal government at a time when the coffers were brimming, and they could do things like improve city services and cut property taxes all at the same time. And a lot of governors doing the same.

What we're going to see now at all levels of government is the reverse of that. It's going to be an ugly time. There are going to be a lot of cuts, and so anyone who is an incumbent is exposed because there's going to be a lot of backlash and discontent. Whoever is defending the most is at a disadvantage.

Todd: The governors' races aren't bellwethers, it's very hard for them to be seen as bellwethers, because they are so localized. The races themselves become so localized. Democrats have won two terms in Oklahoma. Oklahoma was one of the four worst states for Obama. That told us nothing about the direction of Oklahoma. That said, the Virginia race is important. Because there's also this interesting streak that I don't think is a coincidence. It is something like seven straight governors' races in Virginia where the party out of power in the White House has won the Virginia governor's race. So if Democrats stop that streak, it may actually say something about what's going on in Virginia. Virginia just happened to stop being a battleground and is on its way to looking more like a Northeastern state or a mid-Atlantic state.

If [Democrats] Terry McAuliffe or Brian Moran is governor, to me that tells you Virginia is not a battleground state. No offense to Terry McAuliffe or Brian Moran, but are you kidding me? Are you telling me that a carpetbagger like Terry McAuliffe or someone from northern Virginia like Brian Moran could end up becoming governor of Virginia? That tells you how powerful northern Virginia becomes in that state.

Texas is going to be curious to me. Obviously [Republican] Kay Bailey Hutchinson is going to end up quitting her Senate seat and really wants to be governor. But can Democrats, at all, find somebody? I mean, I do think that while governors' races are not bellwether, it is a way to start planting a flag. There are a lot of Democrats who believe Texas is on its way to becoming a battleground state soon. Now, is soon 2012? No. I think soon is 2016 or 2020. In order to even get close to being there, you have to start electing people on the statewide level. I think Republicans have a great shot in California. Look, if you become governor of California, you become a presidential candidate on the Republican side, or a player in national politics, as long as you were born in this country.

Schaller: I was going to ask you about these postindustrial states. You got Ohio, Michigan -- in any of these seats are Democrats in trouble, whether it's an open seat or an incumbent running for reelection in this economy?

Todd: Absolutely. I think all of those guys could be in trouble. But the problem is, what is the solution? This is where the Republicans have to hope these governors' races serve as little petri dishes where they get to test out their new policy proposals. How they can somehow become pro-government but in a more nimble way? This whole anti-government, low-taxes rhetoric is just falling on deaf ears. Voters don't hear it anymore; they're not listening. Could a [Jim] Doyle [in Wisconsin] or a [Chet] Culver [in Iowa] or a [Ted] Strickland [in Ohio] be in trouble? They could. But the Republicans are going to have to have an alternative that isn't just the same rhetoric that you've been hearing.

Schaller: Let's talk about the campaign committees for the Republicans and the Democrats. And let's talk about money. Are Republicans freaking out in terms of what kind of resources they're going to have for their campaign committees going into 2010?

Hayes: Yeah, I think they are. I was on a panel with a Republican the other day, who went so far as to say -- and I think he was needling me provocatively -- the Democrats are the party of big money now and Republicans have to learn to accept that. They have to wake up to that reality. I obviously think that's an overstatement.

But there are two ways to interpret what happened vis-à-vis fundraising this election. One is to say that it was a singular, perfect ... combination of this harnessing of a new technology and a very charismatic candidate who obviously stirred a level of commitment and passion that was obviously beneficial. But there are also a lot of structural reasons to think that the changes of the two coalitions and particularly, I think, the ways in which financial sectors of the economy have given so heavily to Democrats really provide them with a basic floor on their fundraising that the old business coalition has provided for the Republicans for years.

If you're a Republican, you have to think about the fact from that narrower perspective, that it may be a lot harder for those folks to write checks if they don't have jobs. Or maybe they'll sort of be recycling government bailout money back into campaign contributions. I think there's a concern that what we're seeing is a real structural shift in terms of the relative resources of the two parties. And on top of that, of course, is always the incumbency advantage. It's a lot easier to raise money when you're in power because you have control of the purse strings. That's going to be playing a factor too.

Walter: I think when you control all three branches it makes it a lot easier to raise money, and I think you raised the very important question: How involved does the Obama list become in the 2010 campaign? Which is: Do you pull the trigger on those 30 million donors or are they still active? Will there be a grass-roots fundraising component that is similar to the one that Obama put together? Is that even possible given the fact that, let's face it, you're talking about a lot of people who wrote small-donor checks to a guy who was making history as the presidential candidate versus asking somebody to write a check to a first-term member of Congress. It's not really as exciting and eventful.

You hear a lot of Republicans saying this too, which is: "You know what, we've made strides. For all the talk that we're the party of big business, the reason we raised more money than Democrats is that we figured out how to do direct mail. We were the folks who figured out how to harness grass-roots money, and now Democrats have figured that out through the Internet, and now we're two steps behind."

Schaller: Chuck, are they two steps behind or 10 yards behind?

Todd: I think that one thing you've learned is that the losing party catches up a lot faster on the technology front than people realize. In 1990, the Democratic National Committee didn't have a fax machine, I believe.

Schaller: The half-life is shorter and shorter.

Todd: It is. I just think, financially, it's going to be very tough for Republicans to keep up. There's a reason why the Democrats keep taking guys from New York and New Jersey to run the committee, because that's where they raise all their money -- the Amtrak corridor, Philadelphia, New York and Boston and D.C. But then of course, they've got what they believe is a technological advantage in fundraising, though I don't believe it's as much that as that the party in power can just raise a ton, a ton of money.

I talked to one House Republican strategist about this who said, "I know that everybody thinks the Democrats are going to be targeting seats, but they're going to have so much extra money, they're going to be able to do defense, and they're going to be able to go after 10 to 12 incumbents or Republican-held seats and they'll win six of them." They're just convinced that this money thing causes that kind of problem. Where sure, the low-hanging fruit for Republicans -- to go get a seat or two in Alabama or a seat back in Virginia or Florida or New Mexico -- yeah, they can do all that, but because of this financial juggernaut that the Democrats will have at their disposal, they'll go and be able to go after some guys.

Look, they still have some seats in Florida that Democrats think they can go and get, and some other places, like in California, that they can go and get if they actually spend time finding good-enough candidates. And that's the luxury the Republicans aren't going to have.

Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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