What a difference a year makes. As the Obama era began the new President'ês poll numbers were in the stratosphere, Democrats had captured seats and states thought to be safe Republican territory, and the GOP was confused, disorganized, and without any discernible leaders, especially here in Washington state.
Now, as we turn the calendar to 2010, Obama'ês numbers have fallen dramatically, bringing the rest of his party down to earth with him. And Republicans may have a credible, if not exciting, group of candidates waiting in the wings to lead their possible 2010 comeback, particularly in the Senate race for the Patty Murray seat, and in one or two Congressional districts.
Let'ês start with the polling data. When he took office, according to Gallup, President Obama enjoyed an approval rating of 68 percent, with only 12 percent disapproving, for an approve/disapprove ratio of +56. Now the most recent Gallup poll shows those numbers at 52 percent approve, 41 percent disapprove, for an approve/disapprove ratio of +11. The last generic ballot polls, taken just before election day 2008, showed Democrats with a 12 percentage point advantage. Polls taken in December show Republicans with 2.5 percent generic advantage.
The same trends are evident in Washington state polling. According to SurveyUSA, in January, President Obama'ês rating was 69 percent approve, 17 percent disapprove; in December it was 50-46. In January, Sen. Murray'ês rating stood at 55-36; by December it was 52-40, down a net 7 percent. And the year was particularly tough on Gov. Gregoire. In January, only 42 percent of voters approved of the job she was doing, a figure that has now fallen to 36 percent.
Some of this is to be expected. Once you win an election you begin to hemorrhage popularity, and the President'ês Party almost always loses seats in off-year elections. Also cheering to Democrats is the fact that Republicans are no more popular now than they were at the start of the year. CNN polls taken near the beginning and end of 2009 both showed that 54 percent of Americans hold an unfavorable view of the GOP. And a Rasmussen poll in December showed that continuing frustration among conservatives has made the 'êTea Party Movement'ê more popular than the Republican Party. (It might help GOP fortunes in the polls if congressional and legislative Republicans would produce positive, coherent alternatives to Democratic policies in Washington D.C and Olympia.)
With approval ratings hovering around 50 percent, neither Obama nor Murray can be called 'êweak'ê or 'êvulnerable.'ê It would be wrong to assume that the GOP is today on the verge of another 1994-type landslide. But it would be equally wrong to assume that the political trends of the Bush era will continue. The net result of the Obama slide of 2009 is that Democrats are losing their grip on suburban and independent voters, and that, with the right candidates, in 2010 Republicans cans win back some of the traditionally conservative seats they have lost over the past ten years.
There wasn'êt much on the ballot in 2009, but the few elections we had seemed to fit the trend of Republican resurgence. Republicans won the governorships of New Jersey and Virginia, both states that went for Obama. Michael Barone points out that Republicans won a number of down-ballot races in the suburbs in areas that had recently been trending Democratic.
Here at home, Susan Hutchison lost her race for King County Executive by a decisive margin, but she carried six of eight suburban legislative districts, and the two she lost were virtual dead heats. Hutchison received 49 percent of the vote in the close-in Eastside 41st and 48th districts, but she rolled up 58 percent of the vote in Federal Way, (30th district) and 61 percent in the battleground Kent/Auburn area (47th district) She even won the Highline area (33rd district), which hasn'êt come close to electing a Republican in many elections.
In this supposedly non-partisan race, Democrats succeeded in getting voters to view Dow Constantine as a Democrat and Hutchison as a Republican. Yet suburban voters — who have recently been sending Democrats to Olympia — chose Hutchison. Suburban Democrats, especially those in South King County and Pierce County facing re-election next year, should be nervous.
Of course, you can'êt beat somebody with nobody. Candidates win elections, not consultants or clever strategy. There may be a Republican wave next year, but the GOP has to recruit surfers to ride it. As the year draws to a close, there is suddenly some Republican momentum at the top of the Washington state ticket.
A number of earnest, determined activists have stepped forward to run against Patty Murray next year, but none of them is well known or seems to have the ability to raise serious money. Meanwhile, Susan Hutchison is being wooed by leading Republicans to get in the race, and by all accounts she is strongly considering it.
Hutchison would have hurdles to overcome, but she would be a credible, interesting candidate with name identification and the ability to raise money. In the Executive'ês race she received 40.7 percent of the King County vote, nearly 5 percentage points more than Dino Rossi polled in 2008 against Gregoire, and more than enough to win a statewide race. Liberals like to believe that Sen. Murray is overwhelmingly popular, but her approval ratings and re-elect numbers have never borne that out. Hutchison could turn Murray'ês cakewalk into a real race, and greatly aid down-ballot Republicans running for other offices.
In the third congressional district, Brian Baird'ês surprise retirement creates a tremendous GOP opportunity, and now they have an A-list candidate in state Rep. Jaime Herrera. There are other Republicans in the race, but Herrera is a young rising star, and she is the one Republicans are excited about. She has hired much of the same political team that worked on both Rossi campaigns for governor.
The Democrats have a deep bench and will nominate a strong candidate, but this southwest Washington district should be Republican territory. Rossi won the 3rd in 2004 and 2008, Bush won it in 2004, and Patty Murray only got 50 percent of the vote there in 2004. In this political atmosphere, Herrera should join her old boss, Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers in the House in 2011.
Republicans may also be competitive at the other end of I-5 in the second congressional district. Snohomish County Councilman John Koster is reportedly strongly considering running for a seat he nearly won back in 2000. The 2nd isn'êt quite as Republican as the 3rd, but Rossi did win it in 2004. Koster would be a serious candidate, and again, if there is a Republican tide, Congressman Rick Larsen could face an unexpectedly tough re-election fight.
If Hutchison and Koster join Herrera on the Republican ticket, Republicans will have a 2010 team much stronger than anyone expected just a few months ago. This will greatly aid Republican candidates running for the legislature. National Republican money will be here to help re-elect Dave Reichert in the 8th CD, and now the 3rd CD is certain to be an additional national target. If Hutchison and Koster get in, that could further increase attention and money flowing to Washington state for get out the vote tactics, critical in an off year election.
It is too soon to size up the field of legislative candidates, but Republican leaders Rep. Richard DeBolt and Sen. Mike Hewitt, and their political teams, by and large did a good job recruiting candidates in 2008. If they can field another strong crop of challengers, especially in the suburban crescent, they will most likely pick up seats and reduce the huge majorities Democrats currently enjoy in both houses.
Of course, this is how the world looks today, at the dawn of the 2010 election season. Nothing is constant but change, and in a few months things may look very different. It is certain, however, that Washington State Republicans end 2009 in much better shape than they had a right to expect when the year began.