A user's guide to the 2010 elections

Key dates, trends and themes that Democrats and Republicans alike are watching between now and Nov. 2

Published January 13, 2010 1:20AM (EST)

This may not be the happiest of Januaries for most members of Congress or the political operatives who work to keep them in office. As 2010 opens up, Democrats are nervous about exactly how many seats they'll lose in the November elections, and Republicans are wondering whether the prospect of significant wins ahead can help them put their infighting behind them. Voters still seem to be unhappy with incumbents in both parties. "They're angry at who's running the show," said GOP pollster Glen Bolger. "Democrats are earning it because of what they're doing ... [but] we have our own image problem."

There isn't much doubt that the GOP will have a pretty good night on Nov. 2, when voters elect all 435 members of the House and 34 members of the Senate, as well as 37 governors. (State legislatures, most of which will determine House district boundaries for their states after this year's Census, are also up for grabs.) An average take for the party that doesn't hold the White House in a midterm year would be about 15 House seats; whether the GOP gains are bigger than that depends, mostly, on whether the economy appears to be turning around by the time the elections get here. The Democratic margin in the Senate will almost definitely drop below 60-40, but Republicans are actually defending more open seats, and Democrats should be able to hold their losses down there.

Here's a look at some key dates between now and November that could help shape how the midterms go.

Jan. 19: Massachusetts holds a special election to fill the late Ted Kennedy's Senate seat. Democrat Martha Coakley's plan to run the clock out on the campaign is showing signs of wearing thin -- some polls have Republican Scott Brown pulling within 10 points. But Kennedy's wife, Vicki Kennedy, endorsed Coakley, Democrats shipped staff up from Washington to help bolster the campaign and most observers expect her to pull the election out. If she doesn't, in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 3-to-1, the recent panic about Democratic chances in November will increase by at least the same ratio.

Jan. 20: First anniversary of Obama's inauguration.

Jan. 27-30: Aloha, Michael Steele! The Republican National Committee holds its annual winter meeting in Honolulu. By the time RNC members start landing in Hawaii, there's no telling what sort of trouble Steele, the party chairman, will have gotten himself into. Most recently, he told Dennis Miller he didn't seek the job he's got, a few days after saying the GOP won't win back the House and that party leaders in Congress should "get a life or shut up." As it happens, former South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson, whom Steele just beat to win the RNC job last year, will be going to the winter meeting instead of the state's current GOP boss. Dawson denies a coup is in the works. But at the rate Steele is going, leaving Hawaii without being fired would be a victory.

Late January/early February: Obama delivers his first official State of the Union speech (last year's address didn't technically count). It's been a tumultuous first year for the administration, and when Obama arrives in the House chamber to evaluate where things stand, he'll be weaker politically than he's been since he trailed Hillary Clinton by double digits in national polls in the early days of the 2008 primaries. His overall job approval rating, a key measure in an election year, flirts weekly with 50 percent. "History shows that when it's above 60 percent, the party in power doesn't lose seats," says Bolger, the GOP pollster. "When it's in the mid-50's, they lose in the low teens, and when it's below 50 percent, then it's pretty bad." But big speeches full of promises always help presidents with voters, and Obama isn't exactly a slouch when it comes to rhetoric. Expect the address to give Democrats a boost. White House aides are considering pushing the speech back to February to give Congress time to pass healthcare legislation before Obama's address, but press secretary Robert Gibbs says it won't be Feb. 2 -- meaning the speech won't bump "Lost" off the air, which for some reason became a minor obsession among the political class recently. Regardless of the exact timing, one Democrat with close ties to the administration mused about a possible scenario where Obama signs a landmark healthcare bill in the morning, then shows up on Capitol Hill for the State of the Union in the evening: "That'd be a great day."

Feb. 2: Primary in Illinois to determine who will run for the Senate seat Obama once held (Sen. Roland Burris is retiring before his colleagues can force him out). Democrat Alexi Giannoulias and Republican Mark Kirk are the front-runners. Hanging on to this seat in the fall will be a priority for the White House, and therefore for the entire Democratic establishment.

Early February: The Treasury Department's special master for executive pay, Ken Feinberg, is due to release his review of 2010 salaries and bonuses at American Insurance Group, Chrysler, Chrysler Financial Group, General Motors and GMAC. All of the other banks that received massive injections of federal aid during the economic collapse paid back their loans -- in part in order to escape government control over their pay. Feinberg cut salaries and bonuses for executives at 25 firms by an average of 50 percent last year. His 2010 report is likely to spark more national conversation about how the federal bailout worked -- or didn't -- and why bankers who wrecked the economy are back to making millions while 10 percent of Americans are looking for jobs.

Feb. 4-6: The first-ever National Tea Party Convention is held in Nashville, Tenn. But activists are already grumbling that the event is more a money grab than a reflection of grass-roots organizing; Sarah Palin will, reportedly, make around $50,000 for addressing the group. What's interesting about this convention is that Palin won't be going to the other big right-wing February confab, the Conservative Public Action Conference in D.C. -- and her allies have been taking potshots at CPAC's organizers, to boot. Joining Palin at the convention will be Michele Bachmann, Marsha Blackburn, Judge Roy Moore and other speakers. Both events will be useful for keeping tabs on where the growing conservative movement is heading -- though the tea party organizers have decided to keep most of the press away from theirs. Florida Senate candidate Marco Rubio will give the CPAC keynote on Feb. 18, and other confirmed speakers include Newt Gingrich, John Bolton, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Rick Santorum.

Feb. 15-18: Congress goes home for the first of its five scheduled "work periods" out of Washington. In an election year, each of these breaks is vital campaigning time. Others are set for around Passover and Easter, around Memorial Day, around the Fourth of July and most of August. You may not be able to avoid your local elected official if you venture out to things like parades, ball games or ice cream parlors during these periods.

March 2: A double whammy -- Texas holds a gubernatorial primary, and Mitt Romney's new book, "No Apology: The Case for American Greatness," is published. The Texas GOP race between incumbent Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is becoming a test of how much influence the tea party wing has; courting conservative votes, Perry has been so zealously anti-Washington that he's suggested Texas might want to secede from the union. Hutchison better fits the old "country club Republican" label, and her day job in D.C. hasn't endeared her to Texas GOP primary voters. Romney's book, meanwhile, is obviously intended to be a manifesto for a 2012 presidential campaign -- as if the title alone didn't give that away. He'll head to Iowa later in the month to, ahem, promote the book. Probably just following the well-known rule in publishing that anything that doesn't sell in Des Moines is doomed for the remainders table. What? There's no such rule? Then perhaps Romney has another reason in mind for the Iowa trip.

March 31: The Federal Reserve plans to shut down a $1.25 trillion program that's been buying up mortgage-backed securities, one of the main reasons interest rates have stayed low and the housing market has shown signs of recovery. Will that kill the fragile signs of "green shoots" and send the economy plunging back down toward last year's lows again?

April 8-11: The first big event of the 2012 Republican presidential primary (yes, already), the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, in New Orleans. Most of the main possible contenders will be there -- like Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Tim Pawlenty and Sarah Palin. (Romney will skip it.) A handful of Southern governors will also speak, as will California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh.

April 15: Taxes are due to the Internal Revenue Service, which means a horde of tea party protesters are also due back in Washington to howl about the horrific threat to liberty represented by a government that tries to expand access to healthcare and jolt the economy out of the worst recession in decades (among other perfidies). When the first big march was held last year, the tea partyers seemed to represent a fringe movement of libertarian nutjobs; now they seem to represent a fringe movement of libertarian nutjobs who are poised to take over the Republican Party and who nearly managed to bring healthcare reform down by hijacking town hall meetings last August. Look for this rally to draw a far more star-studded roster of GOP speakers than last year's, where the highlights included Alan Keyes and Grover Norquist.

April 30: Qualifying ends for federal candidates in Florida. Which means this is Gov. Charlie Crist's last chance to decide to run for Senate as an independent instead of in the Republican primary, which he's in serious danger of losing to conservative favorite Marco Rubio. There's not really much buzz about Crist pulling such a radical move, though, even if it might be his best chance at actually getting to the Senate. Even if the far more conservative Rubio wins the nomination in August, Republicans claim they aren't worried. "They're both beating [Democratic front-runner] Kendrick Meek handily in the polls," says National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh. "There's all this focus on the so-called GOP civil war, without looking at what really matters at the end of the day -- which is holding the seat."

May 4: Primaries in Ohio, Indiana and North Carolina.

May 11: Primaries in Nebraska and West Virginia.

May 18: A busy primary day. Pennsylvania Democrats choose between Sen. Arlen Specter, who began 2009 as a Republican, and Rep. Joe Sestak, who morphed from moderate House member to progressive champion when he decided to run for the nomination. Whoever wins goes on to face Republican nominee Pat Toomey, who once ran the rabidly anti-tax Club for Growth. Specter switched parties last year because Toomey was going to beat him out for the GOP nod, but so far, polls show him holding on to enough Democrats to make it to the general election. In Kentucky, voters choose Senate candidates, as well, for a race to replace retiring Republican Jim Bunning. The leading Democratic candidates are Attorney General Jack Conway and Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo, who lost to Bunning in 2010. Republicans choose between Rand Paul -- Ron Paul's son -- and Secretary of State Trey Grayson, whom the GOP establishment is backing. Arkansas and Oregon also hold primaries.

May 25: Idaho primary.

June 1: Primaries in Alabama, Mississippi and New Mexico.

June 8: California Republicans pick their nominee to challenge Sen. Barbara Boxer. Ex-Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina (a close confidante of John McCain's during the 2008 election until she said he couldn't run a corporation) goes up against conservative Assemblyman Chuck DeVore. Also primaries in Iowa, Maine, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota and Virginia.

June 11: The World Cup starts in Johannesburg, South Africa. The White House has indicated that Obama will attend some of the opening festivities, but after his trip to Copenhagen to lobby for the Chicago Olympics didn't pay off, might that plan change? Security is also rumored to be a concern. On the second day of the tournament, the U.S. plays England. If the Yanks can't pull off the upset, look for right-wing blogs to blame Obama. (On the flip side, if the U.S. does well in the tournament, look for right-wing blogs to say soccer is un-American, and blame Obama for its spreading popularity.)

June 22: Primary in Utah, where the Club for Growth is trying to unseat Republican Sen. Robert Bennett for being insufficiently conservative.

July 20: Georgia primary.

July 27: Oklahoma primary.

Aug. 3: Primaries in Kansas, Michigan and Missouri.

Aug. 4: Obama's 49th birthday. Remember: No matter what some crackpot might say in a chain e-mail, he was born in Hawaii, not Kenya.

Aug. 5: Tennessee primary.

Aug. 10: Primaries in Colorado and Connecticut. Connecticut Republicans choose between a former wrestling executive, Linda McMahon, and a moderate House member trying to kiss up to the tea party types, Rob Simmons, for Senate. Either one would be a big underdog against Democratic Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who stepped into the race when Sen. Chris Dodd announced his retirement. In Colorado, Sen. Michael Bennett, a Democrat who was appointed by unpopular Gov. Bill Ritter, will be challenged by former state House speaker Andrew Romanoff. Republicans have at least four, and possibly five, candidates.

Aug. 17: Primaries in Washington and Wyoming.

Aug. 24: Primaries in Alaska, Arizona and Florida. In Arizona, John McCain may be forced to actually compete for the GOP nomination to his Senate seat -- right-wing talk-show host J.D. Hayworth, a former House member, is thinking about challenging him.

Aug. 28: Salon's 2009 Crazy Person of the Year, Glenn Beck, holds a march on Washington. "I ask you, your family and neighbors to join me at the feet of Abraham Lincoln on the National Mall for the unveiling of The Plan and the birthday of a new national movement to restore our great country," he wrote late last year. What, exactly, that might mean remains unclear for now. But if Beck is involved, it's sure to be paranoid, misinformed and melodramatic. Maybe he's hoping to be a repeat winner! Also, Louisiana holds a primary election.

Sept. 14: Primaries in Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin. In New York, Sen. Kristen Gillibrand may be fending off a challenge for the Democratic nomination from former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr. New Hampshire Republicans have a three-way primary for their Senate nomination.

Oct. 8: Unemployment figures for September are released, in the last batch from the Bureau of Labor Statistics before Election Day (the October numbers come out three days after the midterms). Jobs, and whether enough Americans have them, are likely to be the key issue in just about every federal race in the country. If voters feel like things are turning around, Republican gains might not be as sweeping. That shift -- a feeling that the worst is past -- probably can't come soon enough for nervous Democrats. "Opinion moves at something greater than a glacial pace, but certainly not like Niagara Falls," says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "It does take a while for opinion to change, so some people have to start feeling it sooner" rather than later. Democratic National Committee spokesman Hari Sevugan says every monthly unemployment update will be critical: "Any jobs report that comes out where we're moving in the right direction is going to be able to be presented as a case for recovery."

Oct. 16: Early voting begins in Nevada, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is fighting what increasingly looks like an uphill battle to hold on to his job. The last Democratic incumbent senator to lose an election was Reid's predecessor as majority leader, South Dakota's Tom Daschle, who was beaten in 2004. Six years later, Reid's political fortunes look like they might even be worse than Daschle's was. A recent poll had Reid trailing all three of his potential GOP challengers, with only 33 percent of voters rating him favorably. But one Democratic consultant watching the race closely says it's not the same situation as the one Daschle faced up against now-Sen. John Thune in South Dakota. For one, Thune was a popular House member in the state's only congressional district. Reid's would-be opponents are barely known even in Nevada, which isn't exactly the most engaged state in American politics to begin with. "It's not as bad as the public polls look," the consultant said. "John Thune represented the entire state. These guys don't represent anybody."

Oct. 21: The last campaign finance reports filed before the elections are due to the Federal Election Commission. As the year begins, Democrats have more cash on hand than Republicans both at the national party committees and at the Senate and House campaign committees. The GOP has had trouble getting incumbents to kick in to their campaign funds so far; if Republicans continue their money woes all year, they could miss out on the chance to put more Democratic seats in play in November.

Oct. 31: A busy Halloween for thousands of campaign staffers and volunteers, as this is the last weekend day for get-out-the-vote work before the election. Democrats have a big challenge this year: how to keep the voters who turned out in droves in 2006 and, especially, 2008 engaged and active this time around. "There is clear evidence that Democrats are feeling less enthusiastic about their candidates than they have in the past," said one Democratic pollster. Republicans, in contrast, point to evidence that their voters are fired up and ready to go (even if they might not use that slogan).

Nov. 2: Election Day. And the clock for the 2012 election cycle starts running in earnest as soon as the polls close.

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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