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Challenges and Challengers in the Senate

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Between health care reform, financial reform, and analyzing the fascinating and disturbing trends in right wing ideology over the last 15 months, I haven't written that much about the 2010 elections lately, but that will be changing in the months to come. This election season will be intriguing.

Back in March of last year, I started warning my fellow Washington, DC Democrats that we could be headed for a 1994 style train wreck if we didn't watch out. By following the Geithner/Summers plan to coddle the big banks and accept the classical trickle-down economic idea that "jobs would be a logging indicator," I feared we were both discouraging base voters and ticking off working class swing voters. My worst fears proved in the New Jersey, Virginia, and Massachusetts elections, as working class swing votes turned against us with a vengeance and Democratic base voters - young people, unmarried women, and people of color - did not turn out to vote in very high numbers.

It is way too early to tell what will happen in November. There are signs that Democrats are starting to understand what they need to do to improve their chances. The passage of health care reform shows that Democrats have the guts and ability to get big things done. Pushing back harder and picking a fight with the big bankers and their Republican allies (thank you, Mitch McConell!) is incredibly important, and the Obama administration has been willing to do that. Going to the mat for immigration reform will help turn out Hispanic and young voters. And if the real economy - meaning jobs and wages, not the stock market or bankers' profits - starts to see real improvement, Democratic performance in 2010 might surprise some people. However, it's still too early to tell how all this is going to play out.

One thing that is clear to me, though, is that the mood of voters is more anti-establishment and anti-incumbent than it is purely anti-Democrat. When a formerly popular Republican Governor Charlie Crist is being trounced by 30 points in the polls to a previously unknown far right-winger like Rubio, when a republican icon like McCain is struggling with a primary challenge, and when a longtime, well-liked Republican Senator like Chuck Grassley sees his approval rating go from the mid 70s to the low 40s in a year, you know that voters' ire is at least as much about incumbency as it is about party.

In that context, I want to raise a big red flag about one of the most traditional strategies political parties fall back on in a challenging election cycle, which is what I call the "defend the flag" strategy. The assumption is that they have to defend all incumbents at all costs, and give up on challengers breaking through. I think that is a major mistake in an anti-incumbent, anti-establishment year like this one. Usually, party committees and the numbers prove that in an average election cycle, saving incumbents is easier than electing challengers. In a year like this one, I think it's a huge mistake for Democrats to make. It's the outsiders, the anti-establishment, anti-status quo candidates who have more traction in this election.

In Florida, Kendrick Meek has a very solid chance at taking out far right extremist Rubio after he wins his ugly primary fight with Crist. In Ohio, both Lee Fisher and Jennifer Bruning are strong candidates to take out a Bush administration hack in Rob Portman. In NH, Paul Hodes is strongly positioned to win the Gregg's Senate seat given the nasty primary on the Republican side. In Missouri, Robin Carnahan is a very appealing alternative to Tom DeLay's closest ally in Roy Blunt. In Kentucky, if Jack Conway wins that primary, his reformer credentials give him a solid shot at beating extremist libertarian Rand Paul. And in Iowa, crusading anti-corporate lawyer Roxanne Conlin might have the stuff to beat ancient insider Grassley. These would all be pick-up seats for the Democrats. That's 6 races where Democratic challengers have a decent shot at taking a Republican seat.

My strong advice to my friends at the party committees and in the donor community: don't forget about races like these. Pulling back and playing only defense to save incumbents and seats we currently hold is a formula for bigger losses this year. We have a chance at holding our own this cycle if we play some offense well.