Image: President Barack Obama and Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds
Steve Helber  /  AP
President Barack Obama and Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds wave to the crowd during an October rally in Norfolk, Va.
updated 11/8/2009 11:30:07 AM ET 2009-11-08T16:30:07

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:

The Senate
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.

The House
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.

Governors
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.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Roundtable examines elections’ impact

  1. Transcript of: Roundtable examines elections’ impact

    GREGORY: Let me move on to talk about politics. And because it's so heavily impacted by the healthcare debate, also by jobs, which I'll get to in just a minute, but let's talk about what happened this week and the results of this election . One thing that, that struck me was something that you mentioned in your column, E.J. , and that is on terms of what happened, New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg saying this: "There are two things happening. One is fear. The other is punishment. Voters fear for themselves and their families, and they want to punish anyone who got them into this condition." The change election of 2008 seems to be the change election of 2009 .

    MR. DIONNE: Well, I think you've got to divide these elections in two. You've got the governors' races and you've got the congressional races. There were two House races, including that one in the 23rd district where the right-wing candidate lost. Democrats held those seats. And the Republicans keep losing these special House elections; so if they're in such great shape, why are they losing those House elections? If this were a pure anti- government mood, there were two tax limitation referenda on the ballot in Maine and Washington state that were overwhelmingly rejected. So if there's a big anti- government mood, why didn't one of those pass? New Jersey and Virginia are warnings, particularly to incumbent governors on the ballot next year. I think New Jersey was a very personal thing about Corzine . It's amazing, given his low popularity ratings, that he got as many votes as he did. Virginia is, I think, the one which has substantive lessons. The Obama constituency was asleep; the electorate that voted on Election Day favored John McCain by eight points in a state that Barack Obama carried by seven points. If Democrats can't turn out those folks who supported Obama , particularly the young, they are in trouble.

    GREGORY: And, Ed Gillespie , you have so much experience in Virginia politics . Is the lesson for Republicans nationally, is the model for elections Bob McDonnell , the, the, the elected governor now, because you had a social conservative running as not quite a moderate, but certainly a more pragmatic, middle of the road candidate than a social conservative ? Is that the lesson?

    MR. GILLESPIE: Really, what Bob McDonnell did -- in full disclosure , I volunteered as general chairman of his campaign -- is he translated conservative principles into practical policies and then talked about how they improved quality of life for Virginians. It was a very smart model. I hope that Republicans across the country take a look at that, do idea-driven campaigns and appeal to those centrist voters in the middle.

    MS. MADDOW: Ed...

    MR. GILLESPIE: Independents voted overwhelmingly for both Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie . That is the warning sign for Democrats , by the way.

    MS. MADDOW: I think that if, if Republicans could choose to have anything to extrapolate from the, from the Bob McDonnell race, it would be to have as an opponent Creigh Deeds . If they could pick anything that they wanted. I mean, Creigh Deeds was a, was a marketably ineffective Democratic candidate, essentially running away from the president, running from everything popular in the Democratic agenda and doing it in a stylistically poor way. So I'm sure he's a very nice guy ; he was a very bad candidate.

    MR. GILLESPIE: Mm-hmm.

    MS. MADDOW: And Bob McDonnell , I think, benefited as much from that as he did from his own record.

    GREGORY: Let me just get your thoughts on the election .

    MR. BROOKS: We saw the same trends in New Jersey and Virginia and Nassau County , Westchester County and Pennsylvania , across the country, and those trends were these: One, liberals stayed home because they think Obama 's going too slow. But more importantly, independents switched parties. The independents took a look at the Republicans in 2008 and said -- looked at Katrina , thought, "These guys can't run anything. I'll try the Democrats ." They took a look at the Democrats right now, too much spending, a little nervous making because of all the activist government , they shifted back. And we know that because for the past four months there's been a whole series of polls, and the polls have said the same thing, there's been a shift towards the right. Is government getting too big? Is spending too big? Are labor's too -- are labor unions too powerful? There's been a noticeable shift in poll after poll. There's sort of a retraction caused by anxiety because of perceived activism in Washington .

    GREGORY: Let...

    MR. DIONNE: I don't think it's a shift towards the right. I think there is great concern about 10.2 percent unemployment.

    GREGORY: Right.

    MR. DIONNE: Which is what Senator Lautenberg was talking about.

    GREGORY: Let me just...

    MR. GILLESPIE: ...concerned that the Democratic policies aren't, aren't addressing it, that the policies of this administration, this Congress are not making it better.

    GREGORY: Let me just pick up E.J. 's point. E.J. always leads us to the next discussion point, which is job -- which is his official role here on the program. Let's look at 10.2 percent

    unemployment for October. Here's the trend line since the inauguration, and we can show it to our viewers here to see where it was on Inauguration Day : 7.2 percent, 10.2 percent now. It's up 42 percent. David Axelrod was on this program touting the effect of the stimulus , $800 billion, and whether it would prevent this spike in unemployment. This is what he said back in February.

    GREGORY: Will this stimulus pan -- plan prevent unemployment from reaching 10 percent, do you think?

    MR. DAVID AXELROD: Well, that's our hope. That's our hope. There's no doubt that without it that's what -- that's where we were looking, double-digit unemployment. And that's what we're trying to forestall. We want to turn this thing around , and we think that this will, will happen. That's why the president had such a sense of urgency of acting now.

    GREGORY: The bottom line , Rachel Maddow , is what went wrong?

    MS. MADDOW: Well, or what could have gone more wrong?

    GREGORY: Right.

    MS. MADDOW: I mean, I'm sure is the way that they would put it. Obviously, job numbers are the holy grail for the next election , as the governors who were just on previously were, were articulating. And if -- I, I think that whatever Democrats do, they're going to be accused of overspending. No matter what they do, if they don't spend another dime between now and 2010 , they're going to be accused of it. And so if they're getting shy about the second stimulus , it's not going to make conservatives back off and say, "Oh, Democrats are the party of fiscal moderation." They're going to get slammed as overspenders anyway, and their choice is whether they're going to do it with intractable double-digit unemployment and a, and a, and an appearance that they're not doing enough to stop it, or whether they're going to be aggressive. And they need to not be shy about a second stimulus .

    GREGORY: See, and, and on that point, that is what I think is such a big issue right now, which is -- and Marc Ambinder refers to this -- which is Republicans have a, have a strong message in these -- in this election , which is less government , less spending; as opposed to Democrats , who want to spend their way further, expand government to get out of the recession. It seems to me Democrats have to own the idea of big government as the solution at this point. There is no alternative for Democrats at this point.

    MR. BROOKS: Oh, I hope so. But let me tell you, there -- 40 percent of Americans call themselves conservative, 40 percent call themselves moderates and 20 percent call yourself liberal. So if you want that 20 percent, fine, be the party of big government . But I'd try to be a lot more subtle about it, the way Barack Obama was. What have we learned about the stimulus ? We've learned that government spending does save jobs in education and in state employment. That stuff has worked. What have we learned that doesn't work so far, which is trying to create a multiplier effect , trying to gin up private investment and spending. Because you can pump a lot

    of money into that sector, but if people are nervous they just won't invest and create jobs. So that part of the stimulus does not seem to have worked, and we ought to learn that lesson.

    MR. DIONNE: The problem is the stimulus was too small, and they compromised it down and so you had less effect. I mean, the fact is these numbers would be a lot worse without the stimulus . But for politicians, the slogan "Vote for us, things could be a whole lot worse" is not a very good slogan at election time. And I think that Democrats have to say straight up, "Hey, wait a minute. Yes, government does good things."

    GREGORY: Right.

    MR. DIONNE: I think that vote last night on health care was their bet that in the end voters would say, "We don't like government in the abstract"...

    GREGORY: OK.

    MR. DIONNE: ..."but we want help on health care ."

    GREGORY: Ed , you have about 10 seconds for a final thought.

    MR. GILLESPIE: All right. When they passed this, they said, "We have to pass this now or unemployment will get above 8 percent. We have to stop that."

    GREGORY: The stimulus , you're talking about.

    MR. GILLESPIE: It's at 10.2 -- the stimulus -- and we've lost 3 million jobs since, and they're talking about doing more of the same. This healthcare bill is going to stifle job creation , what they're talking about on cap and tax and on other issues going to stifle job creation . This -- that's part of the problem, this administration's policies.

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