November 2008 is just behind us, but the parties are both gearing up for what promises to be a critical midterm election in 2010. 34 Senators, 36 Governors, and all 435 members of the House will face re-election.
Traditionally, the party of the incumbent President loses seats in the midterm elections (though usually more in the midterm of his second term). Most likely, this is because a President is never quite able to live up to all his campaign pledges, displeasing some voters.
But Obama has handled his first four months with remarkable political skill. Over 80% of Americans approve of him personally, and his job approval rates are sky high. But his continued popularity will ultimately depend on the course of the economy. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said yesterday that we may be out of the recession by the end of this year. Especially if this is the case, 2010 could potentially see a third straight cycle of Democratic gains in both houses of Congress.
Two races have seen interesting developments in the past few days. In Ohio, a new Quinnipiac poll matches the two most likely Democrats against the two most likely Republicans. The poll shows the frontrunners for both nominations pulling ahead. State Attorney General Jennifer Brunner (D) would have made a good candidate, but it looks increasingly likely that the Democratic establishment will nudge her out of the race to avoid a bruising primary battle. The eventual matchup will almost certainly be Ohio Lt. Governor Lee Fisher (D) against Congressman Rob Portman (R). Portman was the former chair of the Office of Management and Budget. In fact, he was my prediction for John McCain's 2008 VP pick. The jury is still out until fundraising numbers come in, but given the Democrats' recent gains in Ohio, this race is Fisher's to lose.
In Delaware, Joe Biden's son, Beau, is widely expected to run. However, new polling shows him being crushed by likely Republican opponent Mike Castle. Castle has represented the state at large in the House for eight terms. At 70, he may retire -- but with his war chest of $850,000 (a lot of advertising in the tiny state) he can give the Democrats a run for their money. It seems ludicrous for him to turn it down.
Two Democrats, Roland Burris and Chris Dodd, seem especially vulnerable this cycle. But both come from very liberal states, and will face their dangers in the primaries: the inevitable Democratic nominee will almost certainly keep the seat blue.
I'll write a preview for all the Senate races when we know a few more candidates. If Bunning retires in Kentucky or Crist decides to run in Florida, the Republicans have the decided upper hand in those races. But if both decide to stay with business as usual, the Democrats will come close to 2/3 in the Senate. Until we know about Bunning and Crist, though, everything is pure speculation.