To voters, 2010 elections, some nine months distant, are something only remotely in mind. To elected officials, however, they are a consuming topic as they face what many sense to be the imminence of their hanging.
Could presumed safe-seat incumbents, such as Sen. Patty Murray, be at risk? The answer, almost everywhere, is yes.
Nine months is a long time in politics, and events to come could change expectations. But, as of now, the fundamentals point to a big turnover this November. Media already are making race-by-race predictions in U.S. Senate and House races. That will begin happening soon at state and local levels.
First, the fundamentals.
The "out" party historically has made gains in off-year congressional elections. There are additional circumstances this year which should accentuate that trend.
We remain plagued by the worst financial/economic troubles since the Great Depression. The "official" unemployment rate is expected to remain near 10 percent for the rest of the year — thus not improving markedly by election day. The unofficial rate (including those working part-time or who have stopped looking for work) is somewhere between 17 and 20 percent.
Our financial system seems at least temporarily stabilized. But many Americans' net worth remains far less than it was two years ago. A stock-market correction remains likely before the Dow bounces back even part way toward the 13,000 level it enjoyed Before the Fall. Bankruptcies, foreclosures, and small bank and business failures continue. The federal stimulus package appears to have saved some public-sector and auto-sector jobs but, in general, employment has not picked up elsewhere.
Washington, D.C., dialogue still focuses on the prospects of stalled health-care and cap-and-trade legislation. But, out in the country, ordinary voters and taxpayers are more concerned with a) their personal financial and economic situations, and b) a huge federal debt overhang. Public officials are conditioned to pleasing voters by spending public dollars on their behalf. But, in 2010, voters fear spending, deficits, and debt. This fear is not restricted to the Tea Party movement. If you talk with politically savvy legislators, they will tell you this is a general phenomenon among their own constituencies.
Against this background, the release last week of the federal budget — accompanied by projections of long-term $1-trillion-per-year-deficits — was unsettling. So was the international news that Greece was on the verge of financial collapse and might have to be bailed out by its European Union partners. A bipartisan deficit-reduction commission, to be appointed by President Obama, can begin to work toward long-term U.S. federal-deficit answers. But, short term, it will only underscore the urgency of the problem. Longer term its recommendations necessarily will include cutbacks in such politically popular programs as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. (Washington Post economics columnist Bob Samuelson's column of Monday, Feb. 8, presents an objective assessment of the scope of the problem).
War-peace is the other big issue in election years.
There, too, the situation is difficult. Obama has pledged to begin withdrawal from Iraq later this year and to begin an Afghanistan pullout in 2011. Those are chancy promises. Will the present Iraqi government be able to maintain stability and domestic security this year? In Afghanistan, we are only now implementing a troop buildup which cannot realistically suppress Afghan and Pakistani Taliban forces, train Afghan forces and police, and help establish economic/political stability in Afghanistan by the promised pullout date.
U.S. casualties in Afghanistan are certain to rise this year. Our involvement there already is the longest such involvement in U.S. military history. Survey data already show a big majority of Democratic voters and a small majority of independent voters to be opposed to the Afghan commitment.
Homeland Security officials last week declared a terrorist attack on U.S. soil to be almost a certainty in coming months. If it occurs, voter insecurity will increase.
The financial/economic and war-peace problems would be besetting at this juncture any President, of any party, and his congressional majorities. But it is Obama and Democrats, not George W. Bush and Republicans, who are incumbent and governing and it is their lot to deal with the unhappy political situtation.
Now, to the specifics.
If congressional elections were held today (the usual phrase to protect predictors) Democrats probably would maintain a narrow U.S. Senate majority but would be in danger of losing their majority in the House of Representatives.
The most endangered Senate Democratic seats include those of Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and others in Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, North Dakota and Pennsylvania. (Vice President Joe Biden's son had been thought a shoe-in for election in Delaware but, not wishing to run against the tide, has foregone a 2010 candidacy). California Sen. Barbara Boxer and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand are narrowly ahead or behind in early polling matchups with Republicans. Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh and Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold were thought sure bets for reelection only a few months ago. Now both are running scared.
Sen. Patty Murray? She normally would be thought invulnerable in our true-blue state. She is senior in the Senate Democratic hierarchy and has brought home federal bacon for innumerable state projects and programs. Yet she gained her seat originally in an upset.
And "bringing home the bacon" is not necessarily an asset when voters are upset about earmark spending and, in particular, about the spending buried in stimulus and health-care bills to gain support from Democratic legislators whose votes were needed for their passage.
If Dino Rossi (or even Rep. Dave Reichert) chooses to challenge Murray, she will face a competitive race. At this point I would nonetheless predict her reelection. But it will not be automatic.
Rep. Brian Baird is not seeking reelection in his district. Denny Heck, founder of TVW and former chief of staff to Gov. Booth Gardner, is a strong candidate to succeed him and could hold the seat for Democrats. Rep. Rick Larsen, if faced with credible opposition, could be the member of the state's delegation most in danger.
At federal, state and local level, the message is: Incumbents beware. The sub-message: Present yourselves as tough minded on deficits and public spending and focused on jobs and economic growth.
The message for Republicans is: Don't count political chickens before they hatch. An anti-incumbent tide will not be enough to elect your candidates if those candidates are unattractive or appear unqualified.
Back in the day we used to refer to Republicans as "the dumb party." That is, they could be counted upon to turn prospective success into failure and to alienate voters with out-of-mainstream political views. Republicans, after all, did not really seem to like either governance or politics and entered both with a kind of joylessness that turned voters off.
In 2010, however, hopes of GOP bumbling will not be enough to save incumbent Democrats running in perilous conditions. They will have to run hard and smart to keep their places.