Here's what I think an analyst can safely say about the major campaigns of 2009 and 2010 right now... at such a very early time on the political calendar.
1. In Virginia, Republican Attorney General Bob McDonnell has run a pitch-perfect gubernatorial campaign, focusing almost entirely on the economy, eschewing cultural issue propaganda, touting his ties to Northern Virginia, not being scary, portraying his opponent, Creigh Deeds, as a tax-and-spend Democrat. McDonnell isn't attacking Barack Obama or Democrats; he's finessed small symbolic issues -- like whether to take a pay cut -- quite well. Deeds's road bends uphill: he says a lot of the right things, he's the right type of Democrat -- rural and centrist -- but he's not terribly charismatic, and his message task is harder: he's got to convince people that Bob McDonnell's friendly visage masks a harshly partisan, conservative soul. (Deeds is running an ad comparing McDonnell to George W. Bush.) Where's this race now? For eight years, Democrats have accumulated political power in Virginia. Now they run the Congress and hold the Presidency. McDonnell is basing his campaign on the theory that (a) Virginia is naturally an extremely competitive state; independents are skeptical of one-party government, particularly amid a recession; that Barack Obama didn't win because a whole bunch of liberals suddenly sprang to life from the lawns of Loudoun or Fairfax counties. Now -- all is not lost for the Democrats. Deeds is trying to emulate the Tim Kaine electoral coalition, with the big difference being that Kaine benefited from the groundwork laid by Mark Warner, his predecessor, and Deeds can't expect to much of a benefit from Kaine's coattails. Deeds is more conservative on cultural issues than his reputation would suggest, and that could help him in some areas. He will need Barack Obama to be more popular than he currently is, and Deeds will need to replicate his 2005 success among black voters. (It did not help matters when Doug Wilder, the former Democratic governor, refused to endorse him.)
2. New Jersey voters are sick of the corruption pandemic, and right now, it seems as if the Republican, the crusading former U.S. Attorney, Chris Christie, is tied up in more questionable activities than the Democratic governor, Jon Corzine. Corzine isn't popular, but the race is shifting from being a referendum on his performance to a choice between the devil they know and the one they're learning more about.
3. Democrats have a pretty good shot at minimizing their losses in the Senate, all other things being equal, and will probably lose a small-to-medium sized chunk of seats in the House of Representatives, all other things being equal. If you want more than generalities, you need to be able to predict the future. It's not just Obama's popularity in, say, March of 2010, it's whether unemployment is shrinking and personal income is growing, it's whether the US is mired in a foreign policy crisis, its whether Democrats begin to shoulder the blame for Afghanistan, it's whether recruitment works out, it's whether the enthusiasm of the Democratic base rises enough; it's whether, if health insurance reform passes, Democrats get credit for it. Assuming that the status quo today exists next November, it's hard to see Republicans picking up too many seats.
But unlike 2002, where George W. Bush and Republicans favorably exploiting the politics of the time to reverse the "history" of a president's first-mid-term, the winds are blowing in the Republican direction. This could change, of course.The prognosticators disagree about how much jeopardy Democrats will face. For now, CQ says
Democrats are defending 59 of 100
of the most competitive seats and are "solidly favored"in 31 of them; 49 of the 100 are in McCain-Democrat districts and 34 are in Obama-Republican districts. Democrats also have a slight edge, so say the prognosticators, in a couple of Republican districts, where Republicans, as of today, don't have any identifiable edge in any Democrat-held district where the candidate slate is (relatively) set in stone. (The two most vulnerable Dem seats -- ID 01 and MD 01 -- are rated as tossups.) Stu Rothenberg's rating
of competitive seats now is basically a wash. Charlie Cook, looking
at Congress's 70% disapproval rating, projects a loss of at least six-to-twelve seats, but fears that his projection is "too low.")
4. The 2010 governor's races
? Lots of fun ones, and in big states, like California, New York, Texas, and New York. Key fact: of the 17 open seats -- that's almost a record -- Democrats hold
10 now. (Overall, Dems reside in 29 executive mansions and are defending 22 of them; Republicans reside in 21 executive mansions and are defending 16 of them.) Democrats have pick-up opportunities in Hawaii and Nevada, most prominently, and in Rhode Island, Minnesota and Vermont. Depending on turnout, Republicans could make California competitive. With the right candidate, they could wrest Michigan from the Democrats, and partisan trends alone give them a strong shot at winning in Oklahoma and Tennessee. Again, a lot depends on the candidates, the primaries, and unknown unknowns.
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is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.