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%
It's a riveting race for political junkies, who liken it to both a barroom brawl and a bellwether for conservative politics. Popular Gov. Charlie Crist was once considered the clear front-runner for both the Republican nomination and the general election. But conservatives incensed at, among other things, Crist's literal and figurative embrace of the Obama stimulus plan lined up behind Marco Rubio, a former state house speaker. The fact that Rubio is caught up in a federal financial fraud investigation surrounding the use of state party credit cards to wine and dine big donors hasn't put much of a dent in his campaign. Typical of the anti-Crist criticism was former Vice President Dick Cheney, who endorsed Rubio in April, warning that Crist "cannot be trusted in Washington to take on the Obama agenda"—or, Cheney added, "even to remain a Republican." Indeed, Crist's late-April announcement that he plans to make an independent bid for the seat is no idle threat. Polls show him leading a three-way race with Rubio and presumed Democratic nominee Kendrick Meek. And with $7.6 million in the bank, he had almost as much money at the end of March, when the most recent campaign funding figures were released, as his two rivals combined (Rubio had $3.9 million and Meek $3.8 million). While GOP officials warned that Crist's financial and political support would quickly dry up, Democrats relish the opportunity to split Republican voters in November. Meek, who represents Miami, is a likely lock for his party nomination, though he faces primary bids from former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre and billionaire investor Jeff Greene. But Meek, a former state trooper, is not widely known throughout Florida. He got a boost from a Bill Clinton endorsement, but a recent poll showed that 6 in 10 Floridians report that they don't know enough about Meek to vote for him.
2008 • Obama 62% • McCain 37%
The Democrats' chances of holding Obama's old seat are marred by tricky allegations surrounding the failure of Broadway Bank, which was controlled by the family of nominee Alexi Giannoulias. While the 34-year-old state treasurer had acknowledged that the financial institution was likely to fail, he placed the blame on the bad economy rather than bad management. Still, Giannoulias pronounced it "devastating" the day federal regulators took over the bank in April. Rep. Mark Kirk, the Republican nominee and a Navy reservist, has seized the chance to tap into voter frustration over the bailouts of big Wall Street banks. This has prompted frustration in the Giannoulias camp. "Just about every sentence that Congressman Kirk utters these days is a noun, a verb, and Broadway Bank," Giannoulias quipped. Democrats remain strongly behind Giannoulias, but Kirk is a tough contender—even though, says Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia political scientist and editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball newsletter, he can't decide whether he's a moderate or a conservative.
2008 • Obama 55% • McCain 43%
The possibility that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could be cast out of office by voters—who would voluntarily give up the federal largesse that comes with having a powerful, long-serving legislator—is a sobering one for Democrats. "It reveals the intensity of feeling in many places about spending, taxes, and debt," Sabato says. Polls show Reid trailing casino owner and former state Republican Party Chairwoman Sue Lowden as well as businessman Danny Tarkanian (the son of well-known former University of Nevada, Las Vegas basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian). Lowden, Tarkanian, and conservative former state Assemblywoman Sharron Angle are the front-runners in a crowded Republican field for the June 8 primary. But Reid is aiming to raise at least $25 million, which would break state records (he had pulled in more than $16 million at the end of March, and still had $10 million on hand). Lowden raised roughly $2.1 million (she donated more than $700,000 of it herself) and Tarkanian had drummed up $1.1 million (including $32,000 of his own money), though each GOP-er had less than $300,000 left in the bank. Republicans are particularly concerned about possible third-party candidates siphoning off votes from their eventual nominee. Regardless of who he faces, Reid remains confident. "If the election were held today, I'd win," he told a Nevada newspaper in April. With Latino voters an increasingly important voting bloc in the state, immigration reform looms as a potentially critical issue. Reid is vowing to tackle immigration legislation, but whether he can actually get a bill through Congress remains unclear. For their part, Democratic insiders say that Latino voters may prove less concerned with whether Reid actually manages to pass legislation than with his willingness to take it on. [See where Harry Reid gets all of his campaign money.]
2008 • Obama 49% • McCain 51%
Freshman Democrat Suzanne Kosmas won by a wide margin—57 to 41 percent—in the GOP-leaning district on the state's central east coast in 2008 against an incumbent who had been tied to convicted felon and former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. But whether she can hold the seat when she's not facing a scandal-plagued competitor remains to be seen. Kosmas originally opposed Obama's healthcare reform bill, but ultimately voted for it. Republicans will no doubt call her a flip-flopper who caved to pressure from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The GOP also figures to paint Kosmas, who previously served as a state legislator, as a career politician. That would contrast with their preferred candidate, Craig Miller, a former Ruth's Chris Steak House CEO. Democrats in turn are expected to call Miller an elitist and point out that he took a multimillion-dollar payout after he was fired by the company. When Miller entered the race in late February, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent out a news release calling him a "drunk driving enthusiast" for opposing a national blood alcohol standard, presaging a down-and-dirty race. [See Kosmas's campaign fundraising history.]
2008 • Obama 75% • McCain 23%
As a district that went so overwhelmingly for Obama, the 2nd, which includes New Orleans, is one of the Democrats' strongest chances of reclaiming a Republican-held seat. Republican Anh "Joseph" Cao captured the traditionally Democratic vote in 2008 after incumbent Rep. William Jefferson was indicted on corruption charges the previous year (he was convicted in November, 2009). Now Cedric Richmond, a state legislator, is a front-runner to take him on. The Democrats are sure to point out that Cao reversed his support of healthcare reform, voting for it before joining his GOP colleagues in voting against it. The election is symbolic, too, notes Isaac Wood, House race editor for Sabato's Crystal Ball. "You know it's a Republican wave if they hold on to that seat," he says. [See which industries give the most to Cao.]
2008 • Obama 38% • McCain 60%
The re-election campaign of Democrat Ike Skelton, one of the party stalwarts and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is regarded as an important barometer among strategists. "These are the races where, if you're going to win [control of the House], you've got to knock out the Skeltons," Democratic consultant Peter Fenn says of the GOP. "You need to win some of those old bulls, as well as the younger Turks." The district, which runs from central to western Missouri, is red territory, having gone for McCain in 2008 and for George W. Bush in 2004. And it's clear, adds Fenn, that even a moderate like Skelton "is looking over his shoulder." His challengers include Vicky Hartzler, a former Missouri state legislator who raised $94,000 between January and March, as well as state Sen. Bill Stouffer, who has raked in a little less than half that (they each ended March with a bit under $300,000 in the bank). Skelton took in $150,000 in the same period and has a total of about $1.2 million on hand. Once considered a Democratic lock, the race is now seen as competitive. Skelton faces "strong challengers and a growing realization that [he] is way too liberal for the district," Missouri GOP spokesman Jonathon Prouty said in April. This means, he added, that ending Skelton's 33-year run "now looks achievable." Democrats are vowing not to let that happen. [See an analysis of Skelton's campaign fundraising.]
2008 • Obama 45% • McCain 53%
North Dakota's sole House seat has been held by influential Democrat Earl Pomeroy for nine terms, a solid run in a state that consistently votes Republican for president (it went almost 2 to 1 for Bush in 2004). And Democrats clearly have worked to bolster the popular congressman's re-election chances with plum committee assignments. He sits on both the influential Ways and Means Committee, which writes tax laws, and also the powerful Agriculture Committee, which allowed him to help shape the farm bill to benefit his state's many ranchers. Few legislators have the chance to serve on two such influential committees at once, and it seems to be paying off. Pomeroy had more than $1.6 million in the bank at the end of March. Likely Republican challenger and former state House Speaker Rick Berg—who was endorsed by his party for the state's June primary during a recent convention—has contributed more than $100,000 of his own funds and had $344,000 in his campaign account. A late-April statewide poll ran 51 to 44 in Berg's favor. But Pomeroy knows how to run a close race, pollsters say, and his party is optimistic that he can earn a 10th term. "If he loses as an incumbent who's been in there a while—and is quite popular," says Democratic consultant Fenn, "then the Democrats are in a world of hurt." [Read more about Pomeroy's background.]
2008 • Obama 43% • McCain 56%
During his 11 terms, Democrat John Tanner never received less than 62 percent of the vote, even running unopposed in 2008 when McCain handily carried the western Tennessee district. But Tanner is retiring, and now embodies a deep fear within the Democratic Party that longtime incumbents would leave GOP-leaning districts, essentially ceding the seats to the Republicans. The front-runner for the GOP nod is Stephen Fincher, who boasts a biography that could not be better suited for his demographic. "He's a farmer/gospel singer. They always describe him with the 'slash,' " says Wood. "It's a great fit for the district, and the two best things you can put on your resume in Tennessee." The Democrats are running a more conventional candidate in state Sen. Roy Herron. He raised half a million dollars in the first three months of the year, and had $1.1 million in the bank. Fincher also had more than $1 million in his campaign war chest but must first get past well-financed (to the tune of more than $780,000 in his campaign account) physician Ron Kirkland in the August 5 primary. The district is one quarter African-American, so any chance for a Democratic victory may hinge on voter turnout. The question is to what degree Obama can motivate his voters to come back to the polls in November. [See Tanner's biography.]
2008 • Obama 48% • McCain 51%
Democrat Tom Perriello's 2008 victory was the closest House race in the country. He beat a six-term Republican incumbent by a mere 727 votes out of more than 300,000 cast. Since he won the seat, he has voted for healthcare reform, the stimulus package, and environmental emissions reform legislation in a district that is culturally conservative and preferred McCain for president. The June primary for his Republican challengers in the south-central district is a crowded race, and the Tea Party movement is a significant factor there, with no fewer than three active chapters. What remains to be seen is whether Republicans can unite behind one of the seven candidates. State Sen. Robert Hurt, the only contender who has any elective experience, is considered the best in a field whose fundraising numbers have not been great. The GOP is watching this race closely, concerned that one or more of the Tea Party candidates could run as an independent should they fail to win the primary. But Democrats think that their incumbent is a good fit for the district. "Perriello preaches conviction politics—that he's going to vote for what's right. And he's a religious progressive," notes Wood. "He talks a lot about his faith. The question is whether voting his conscience is something voters will buy into." [See where Perriello's campaign money is coming from.]
- Check out this month's best political cartoons.
- See which industries give the most to Congress.
- See a slide show of the hot races.
Corrected on 6/9/10: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the date of North Dakota's Republican primary.