Obama’s transition and the 2010 landscape

That the party that holds the White House traditionally suffers losses in midterm elections is generally attributed to voters’ desire to send a message to the incumbent Administration and their alleged preference for divided government. But Obama’s transition points to another factor in midterm losses: A new president draws a number of his party’s star figures to Washington, making it more difficult for the DSCC and DCCC to recruit down-the-line and opening up seats to potentially dangerous special elections.

This is most obvious in the Illinois and Delaware elections that will be held in 2010. Both are Democratic states, but Republicans have an outside shot in getting either of them competitive, particularly if the governors appoint place-holders who do not run for re-election in two years and if the GOP get very lucky recruitment-wise (for instance if Delaware Rep. Castle decides to run for Senate, an unlikely but plausible scenario).

Other special elections could take place in Massachusetts or New York if either John Kerry or Hillary Clinton (who has become the buzz of the day) are nominated as Secretary of State. I already discussed the situation in Massachusetts earlier this week. In New York, Gov. Paterson would get to appoint Clinton’s successor, and there is a remarkably deep bench in the Empire State, starting with Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, a long list of ambitious House representatives (for instance Nita Lowey and Anthony Weiner) or former Spitzer foe Tom Suozzi.

In both states, it is difficult to see which Republican could force Democrats to play defense - but all of these special elections will only increase the number of Senate seats Democrats have to defend.

The DSCC could be further frustrated if Obama taps Govs. Janet Napolitano and Kathleen Sebelius. Both are term-limited and cannot run again in 2010, and both are mentioned as strong contenders for Senate seats that year. In Arizona, a recent Research 2000 poll showed Napolitano defeated John McCain and its difficult to see many other Democrats with the potential to defeat the former presidential candidate. In Kansas, Senator Sam Brownback has already announced that he will retire, but this is a conservative a state in which Democrats have a small bench. It is difficult to see anyone but Sebelius having a shot at the seat.

The most direct consequence on Senate numbers, however, would come if Obama appoints Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed, another name who is mentioned as a possible Cabinet member. The Rhode Island Governor is a Republican, which would lead the GOP to gain a seat in the unlikeliest of states. Obama could compensate that by tapping Maine’s Republican Senator Olympia Snowe, who is rumored to be in contention for Commerce Secretary and who would be replaced by a Democratic Governor.

At the House level, Obama’s decision to tap Rahm Emanuel has also provoked a lot of commotion in IL-05, but there is no possibility whatsoever that the seat becomes competitive. The Democratic primary will essentially be the general election, which is why there are more than a dozen credible candidates who are now jostling for support. But the situation would be very different in Texas if Chet Edwards (who, you will remember, made a last-minute appearance in the veepstakes) joins the Cabinet. Edwards represents a heavily Republican seat, and the GOP would be favored to reclaim that seat.

At the gubernatorial level, a number of appointments could result in Republican gains. Of the four Democratic governors whose name is most often mentioned, only Kathleen Sebelius has a Democratic lieutenant. Cabinet taps for Pennsylvania’s Ed Rendell, Montana’s Brian Schweizer and Arizona’s Janet Napolitano would all lead to Republican lieutenant governors or secretary of states taking over the governor’s mansion - and positioning themselves to keep the job in 2010.

In Arizona, for instance, secretary of State Jan Brewer (there is no LG in this state) is already mentioned as a possible contender in 2010’s open gubernatorial race; a Napolitano resignation would allow her to run as the incumbent. Tapping New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, however, could have the opposite effect. Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish, a Democrat, is virtually certain to run for Richardson’s job in 2010 (the incumbent is term-limited), and she would get a head start in keeping the seat in Democratic hands if Richardson moved to Washington.

5 Responses to “Obama’s transition and the 2010 landscape”

  1. 1 stephennyc

    Great point; I hadn’t calculated appointments into my 2010 Senate races-to-watch. Instead, I have been looking at term-limited governors. Repub govs in CA and HI make those Senate seats realistic targets. Conversely outgoing Dem govs make AZ, IA, KS, NC, and PA realistic targets. Govs are why I think Dems will have 3:1 advantage in 2010. Only 4 seats look promising for Repubs: HI, CA, DE, NV. But 12 seats, for Dems: KY, PA; AZ, KS, NC, FL; IA, OH; GA, MO, SC). Considering appointments, AZ and KS are at risk, of course. However, appointment of HI’s gov could guarantee a Dem hold in 2010. (Appointment of FL’s Repub gov would at least sideline the biggest Repub gun in that state.) ALL IN ALL, 2010 still looks like Dem gains in the Senate, whatever history may suggests.

  2. 2 Taniel

    More on this in the weeks ahead, no doubt, but Republicans could also have a shot at North Dakota, Colorado and even Wisconsin depending on recruitment - especially if 2010 shapes up to be a GOP-leaning year (which is very much possible, since it’s a midterm). If we count GA or SC as potential pick-ups, these Dem seats are definitely in the mix as well for now.

  3. 3 Guy

    Taniel - I would be cautious in expecting the GOP to do well “especially if 2010 shapes up to be a GOP-leaning year (which is very much possible, since it’s a midterm)”

    because history does not always repeat itself. Bush won big in 2002 and Obama himself won an historic election so history is only a guide.

  4. 4 Taniel


    The GOP’s victory in 2002 was indeed quite a stunning exception to the rule - but the fact remains that Republicans did not post particularly big wins in either the Senate or the House, and that their gains were only celebrated as a great victory for Republicans because they were expected to lose seats by virtue of 2002 being a midterm. As for this year, Obama did win an historic election - but one that every single historical measure predicted he would win.

  5. 5 Jim Hannon

    You need to add MD-01 and NM-01 to your list of Dem pick-ups. That is a total of 24 pick-ups, compared to 4 Republican pick-ups, for the net gain of 20 that you have indicated. VA-05, called already by many, makes 21.

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