Conventional wisdom suggests that Republicans will gain seats in the upcoming November elections. And the GOP has history on its side, as the president's party typically loses ground in the midterms. They also have near-term momentum as reflected by Obama's soft poll numbers and less enthusiasm among the Democrats' base voters. The Republicans could even gain the 40 seats they need to recapture the House of Representatives. Winning the 10 seats necessary to retake the Senate is unlikely but not impossible. Strategists warn that November is still a long way off, however, and plenty can happen to upend the current political landscape. The GOP is targeting legislators at the center of the healthcare debate, but Democrats hope that voters will warm to the measures designed to make the most immediate impact, including allowing children up to age 26 to stay on their parents' insurance plans. But a number of sensitive issues remain on the Democrats' agenda, including controversial environmental cap-and-trade legislation and immigration reform. Tea Party activists are giving Republicans an energy boost even as they cause some party headaches with divisive primaries against establishment candidates. They represent a growing wave of concern over government spending—and ever-lower approval rates for Congress. This in turn could portend a "throw the bums out" frenzy that would spell trouble for incumbents, regardless of party.
What follows is a rundown of 11 Senate and House races whose outcomes will signal the election's partisan tenor. The percentage of the vote that Barack Obama and GOP nominee John McCain won in the state or district in 2008 is also noted. [See where all of McCain's campaign money is coming from.]
2008 • Obama 61% • McCain 37%
To date, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer has been fortunate in her campaigns to face weak Republican opposition. Not this year. She is up against a strong crop of challengers, including former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and former Rep. Tom Campbell. Boxer, who is seeking a fourth term, runs even with her Republican contenders in polls. "At this point, I think the polls are showing that there is more enthusiasm with the Tea Party," Boxer told attendees at a state Democratic Party convention in mid-April. John McCain has stumped for Fiorina, who aided his presidential campaign before she was sidelined for making a series of gaffes—including saying that vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin lacked the expertise to run a major corporation. Boxer has some advantages other Democratic incumbents lack. For example, healthcare reform is more popular in California than in the rest of the country, with nearly half of voters saying they would be more likely to vote for a lawmaker who supported the bill. Indeed, while Republican fundraising in the state is strong, some election watchers argue that Boxer's situation isn't all that dire. Democrats, they suggest, clearly have an interest in playing up the threat to Boxer to rally their base. [Track Boxer's campaign contributions.]
2008 • Obama 54% • McCain 45%
Independent voters have long found fertile ground in Colorado, where they call the shots. It's a state that can swing quickly, too. Bill Clinton captured Colorado in his first run, then lost it in his re-election bid. Likewise, while former Vice President Al Gore lost it in 2000, Obama won the state comfortably in 2008. Now Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet—who was appointed by the governor last year to fill the seat vacated by current Interior Secretary Ken Salazar—is facing a crowded field of contenders. First he must survive a liberal primary challenge from former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff. The challenger recently bested Bennet at the start party's convention, earning him the top spot on the August 10 primary ballot. If Bennet wins then, he will square off against the winner of the Republican primary between the GOP establishment favorite, former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, and Tea Party darling Ken Buck. The district attorney in Weld County, Buck has won the endorsement of activists on the right, including Sen. Jim DeMint, the South Carolina conservative, for supporting the repeal of healthcare legislation, term limits for elected federal officials, and a constitutional amendment mandating a balanced budget. He handily won the party convention, meaning he will be at the top of the Republican primary ballot. The GOP primary will be a key test of the conservative movement's electoral clout. [See an analysis of Bennet's campaign financing.]
2008 • Obama 51% • McCain 48%
Corrected on 6/9/10: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the date of North Dakota's Republican primary.