The November midterms are still a long way off, but two special elections in May will give us a taste of what's to come.
House elections in Hawaii and Pennsylvania will be the last races (barring any more retirements from Congress) before November. Coincidentally, both are competitive, and if either party sweeps both races, it will set the tone leading up to the midterms.
If Republicans win, they will trumpet their victories as a sign that voters have rejected the Obama agenda on jobs, energy, and health care. If Democrats win, they will use it to refute GOP claims that voters don't like what Democrats are doing--that, in fact, Democratic policies are good for winning elections.
With that in mind, here is a preview of the two races...
In Pennsylvania's 12th district, Democrat Mark Critz faces off against Republican Tim Burns on May 18 in a contest to replace the late Rep. John Murtha, who represented southwest Pennsylvania in Congress for 35 years.
Critz, who worked as a Murtha staffer, is running as the heir apparent to Murtha's legacy; Burns and Republicans will try to tie him to Murtha's support for the cap-and-trade bill that passed the House last June, since Critz worked for Murtha during the cap-and-trade push. (Critz served as director of economic development, then as district director.) Critz, for his part, opposes cap-and-trade and will fight the association. He filmed his first ad in front of a coal mine, highlighting his work to rescue nine miners from the Quecreek mine in 2002.
The issues in this race: jobs and energy.
In Hawaii, Democrats are facing a possible inversion of New York-23--the '09 race in which Conservative Party candidate Dough Hoffman's entry derailed Republicans' chances and handed a congressional seat to Democrats. One major difference: this race doesn't express a larger ideological divide among Democratic ranks, as NY-23 did among Republicans.
This is a three-way race featuring two Democrats, former Rep. Ed Case and Hawaii State Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, squaring off against Republican Charles Djou. It is a winner-take-all contest between the three candidates, competing to replace Neil Abercrombie, who left Congress to run for governor.
The winner will represent Hawaii's first district, covering urban Honolulu--the district where President Obama was born and raised.
Right now, the race is close: according to a Democratic source, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has conducted an internal poll showing Case at 32%, Djou at 32%, Hanabusa at 27%, and 9% undecided.
And there is some further in-fighting going on here. The DCCC has reportedly inserted itself into this race, sending some undercover help to the Case campaign, including assistance from DCCC Western Regional Political Director Adam Sullivan.
Hanabusa, meanwhile, has the support of Hawaii's two Democratic senators, Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye (who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee)--meaning the DCCC has evidently split from the wishes of Hawaii's two most senior politicians, in an attempt to elect the perceived frontrunner with an edge in the polls.
There's more to the back-story: according to two Hawaii Democrats, Case offended Hawaii's senators by challenging Akaka for his Senate seat in 2006, campaigning (indirectly) on Akaka's age.
"He was trying to make the argument that, look, our two senators were 85 years old. Let's make a switch now and start building some seniority so we don't lose everything all at once," one Hawaii Democrat said. "In insulting Sen. Akaka, he pissed off Sen. Inouye."
"It was the subtext of everything, that Sen. Akaka was old and that for some reason he's incapable of representing Hawaii in Congress," another Hawaii Democrat said, adding that both Akaka and Inouye liked Case at the time and were comfortable with him becoming Hawaii's next senator--if he waited his turn.
The DCCC is airing an ad in the race attacking Djou, but not taking sides between the Democrats.
If Djou wins, it would be difficult for Republicans to claim it's a referendum on President Obama or health care reform: Hawaii has one of the most liberal health care systems in the nation, and the Democrats' recently passed health reform bill actually exempts Hawaii from one of its provisions.
But it is the district where Obama hails from, and if Republicans can take it, it will be a feather in their cap between May and November. The seat could turn red with 60% of the votes going to Democrats, but a Republican win in Hawaii would be a coup for the GOP--and Republicans would certainly trumped the symbolism of Obama's hometown district changing hands.