WASHINGTON — Nervous Democrats are on defense and emboldened Republicans sense opportunity heading into 2010 and the midterm elections. It was just three years ago that the GOP lost the House and Senate as well as governors' races in a cross-country Democratic wave.
Now, with most states under their control and comfortable majorities in Congress, Democrats must protect far more seats than Republicans: 19 governors' mansions, 17 Senate seats and as many as 60 House districts in moderate-to-conservative regions and swing-voting areas.
At this point, Democrats must do it in a more difficult political environment than in 2006 and 2008.
President Barack Obama clearly recognizes as much. One year after his historic victory, he pleaded for his backers to be patient and asked them to stick with him.
"The challenges might not be met in one year or one term," he said in a video message last week. "We're making progress."
Fear about the economy and anger at incumbents are coursing through the country, while independents wary of government expansion and federal spending under the president they helped elect are shifting toward Republicans.
Limits to Obama's clout
Democrats will be forced to explain votes and positions on the expensive economic stimulus plan, climate change legislation and, probably, the health care overhaul. Although Democrats have a popular president on their side, there are limits to Obama's clout; Democratic gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia lost last week even though he campaigned for them.
Republicans hope to pick up seats by harnessing the sour public mood and voter wariness over Obama's policies. The GOP is re-energized, but faces tension between conservatives and moderates over the party's direction, just as Democrats did between liberals and moderates when they were out of power.
The Republican Party also lacks a leader, though presidential aspirants such as Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are jockeying for position as they campaign and raise money for GOP candidates.
Both parties face a bunch of primaries. Conservatives are challenging establishment-favored Republicans in several states, including Florida and California, while liberals are taking on Democratic moderates in Pennsylvania, Colorado and elsewhere.
Most governor's seats, more than one-third of the Senate, all 435 House districts and state legislatures will be on the general election ballot.
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A look at the landscape:
There are 58 Democrats, two independents who vote with them and 40 Republicans. At least 36 seats are up.
Democratic leader Harry Reid is woefully unpopular in Nevada. Six Republicans are competing for the chance to topple him the way GOP Sen. John Thune of South Dakota did to then-Democratic leader Tom Daschle in 2004.
The GOP is going after three Democratic-held seats filled with appointees after Obama chose sitting senators for his administration. Sen. Michael Bennet in Colorado is seeking his first full term; Sens. Ted Kaufman of Delaware, who has Vice President Joe Biden's old seat, and Roland Burris of Illinois, who has Obama's old seat, aren't running.
Republicans also have in their sights Democratic Sens. Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas, a state John McCain won last fall; Chris Dodd in Connecticut, hampered by a mortgage controversy; Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania, the party-switching former Republican; and Barbara Boxer in California, a frequent GOP target.
Democrats want to pick up seats left open by retiring GOP senators in Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire, and Ohio. They also are seeking to overtake scandal-scarred Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana and are eyeing GOP Sen. Richard Burr in North Carolina, where Obama won last fall.
Democrats control it 258-177.
The party in power typically loses seats in a midterm year; Democrats lost 54 seats — and the House — in 1994. Even Democrats expect to see double-digit losses next year. Republicans would need to pick up 41 to regain control.
Far more Democratic seats are vulnerable than Republican ones. About two dozen Democratic districts are especially ripe for a switch, compared with about a dozen GOP districts.
Democrats will campaign on legislation they passed, including the $787 billion economic stimulus package that the administration says helped ease the recession and, perhaps, a health care overhaul. But Republicans also will force them to defend those votes on legislation assailed as too expensive, as well as on an energy measure that critics call a job killer.
Republicans are targeting a slew of freshmen House Democrats elected on Obama's coattails in moderate-to-conservative districts that McCain captured last fall and in places where the victories were achieved largely because of record-breaking turnout of blacks and youth with Obama on the ballot. The GOP also is going after Democrats in traditional swing-voting seats.
So far, House Democrats have money on their side, with $44 million raised through September compared with $27 million for Republicans.
Voters will choose 37 governors. Many Republicans view winning these races as the best way to rebuild the party because those elected to statehouses in 2010 will redraw congressional and legislative districts for the next decade.
Democrats have a 26-24 majority of governor's posts, now that they lost Virginia and New Jersey to Republicans.
Both Republicans and Democrats expect the GOP will pick up Democratic-held seats in at least two states McCain won last fall. They are Tennessee, where Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen is retiring with no obvious successor, and Kansas, where Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson is stepping down and Sen. Sam Brownback is the GOP candidate.
Elsewhere, Republicans are looking to overtake Democratic governors in Colorado, Iowa, Massachusetts and Ohio. Incumbents in New York and Illinois are on the radar. The GOP has on its high-priority list open Democratic-held seats in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Attention is also on Oklahoma, Oregon, Maineand New Mexico.
Democrats' top targets are GOP governors in Arizona and Nevada, and Republican-held open seats in Florida, California, Minnesota, Vermont, Rhode Island and Hawaii. Others are Georgia and, possibly, Connecticut if Republican Gov. Jodi Rell decides not to run for re-election.
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