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Notes on the State of Politics in the New Year

A Commentary by Larry J. Sabato

Surprise Retirements

What a difference a day makes. Two Democratic senators, both likely reelection losers, throw in the towel. The incumbent Democratic governor of key swing state Colorado shocks everyone by declining to run for a second term. And the all-but-certain Democratic nominee for governor of Michigan, Lt. Gov. John Cherry, drops out because he can't raise money. Maybe it's just a series of coincidental announcements but it sure looks like a January panic by Democrats.

These are some preliminary conclusions:

  1. Since last summer we've all been saying that 2010 would be a good year for Republicans. It's turning out that way. January is a big retirement month, and it is often the time when speculation becomes reality.

  2. Looking just at the Senate, Democrats can now be fairly certain they aren't going to have 60 seats anymore come 2011. Actually, Dodd's drop-out may save a seat for them, if state AG Richard Blumenthal steps into Dodd's shoes as the party nominee. But Dorgan's seat is a goner as long as Gov. John Hoeven (R) runs. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) is very shaky. Also in serious to deep trouble: Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA), and the Democratic open seats in Delaware and Illinois. Democrats may not lose all of these seats, but some defeats are probable. Republicans now seem likely to keep most, but not necessarily all, of their open seats (Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire, and Ohio), plus their two endangered incumbents, Richard Burr (R-NC) and David Vitter (R-LA). A multi-seat gain for the GOP in the Senate is now the best bet.

  3. The gubernatorial picture is much more mixed, with Democrats likely to gain in some places and Republicans in others. And all pigs are equal but some are more equal than others. A Democratic pick-up in California will be worth four or five other medium-sized states. Nonetheless, I would expect Republicans to net several governorships in November , and you've just seen two likely prospects. Last summer the Crystal Ball put Michigan in the GOP column; Cherry's exit just confirms it. Colorado, like Nevada and some other swing states that voted Democratic in 2008, may well swing back to the Republicans in 2010. The gubernatorial picture is complicated by 21 open seats among the 37 races, and the fields haven't shaken out in many places. Still, with 21 open seats so far and a number of incumbents quite insecure, there's a good chance that a majority of the fifty states will have new governors come 2011--with dramatic implications for redistricting.

  4. Now we can all see clearly why President Obama is pushing so hard for his agenda in his first two years. He's unlikely ever again to have anything approaching his current 20-seat margin in the Senate and 40-seat margin in the House. With almost no GOP votes for his bills in either house, Obama's programs are barely scraping by as it is, especially in the Senate. The key question: Will the January panic by Democrats shake any Senate vote loose on health care reform? Probably not, but everybody will be watching closely. It may also be difficult for the President to get his other controversial items (climate change, immigration reform, etc.) passed. As one semi-threatened Democrat said to me just before Christmas, "I've taken all the tough votes for Obama that I intend to take this term." That sentiment may well spread and harden in the Democratic caucus.

Webb-Allen Senate Rematch in Virginia?

There's no question that Allen is looking seriously at running. And if he wants to try for a comeback, it's hard to see how any other Republican can stop him from getting the nomination. Allen remains a favorite of the conservative GOP base. Tom Davis isn't running, and I don't think any GOP House member or AG Ken Cuccinelli would challenge him. Allen is encouraged by the '09 results in Virginia, and the GOP is likely to do well in the 2010 midterms, too. Two solid Republican years could launch his candidacy, which would be backed by Gov. McDonnell. Allen would run a strongly anti-Obama and anti-health care reform campaign, I would guess. If the economy is still bad and Obama looks to be a one-term president, then Webb is probably toast, too.

However, under a different and plausible scenario, Allen could face serious obstacles. As long as the economy has recovered by 2012--a decent bet--Obama will be favored for reelection. Obama will put massive resources into Virginia again, just as in 2008, because he really can't afford to lose this state. He ran more strongly in VA (53 percent) than in NC (50 percent) or FL (51 percent), the other two Southern states he carried. That will help Webb since it's hard to imagine that there will be many Obama-Allen voters. Webb has also had a successful term so far, although it's only half over. He can tout major legislative accomplishments and significant clout. Allen is a better person-to-person campaigner than Webb, but Allen has the burden of "macaca" to overcome. Videotape lasts forever.

If Allen won, Democrats in Virginia would be left with a single U.S. Senate seat and a few U.S. House seats. It would be a complete reversal of much of the last decade. As a restored senator, Allen might well try to run for president again. There's no cure except burial for White House fever. But in an increasingly multicultural America, an Allen candidacy might be a tough sell. By 2016 minorities will comprise 30 percent of the national vote for President, maybe more. Just as important, there will be bright new faces on the national scene for the GOP--governors and senators unsullied by major controversy and elected since Allen was defeated. By the way, one of them is named Bob McDonnell. I doubt any of these new stars would step aside for Allen.

Predictions for the New Year

If you are old enough to remember Jeane Dixon, you'll appreciate my bold predictions.

  • For 2010 I see Mother Nature on a rampage, with terrible wildfires, some major earthquakes, multiple severe hurricanes and typhoons, heat waves that have people talking, some exceptionally destructive tornadoes, and blizzards and floods that will be called "once in a century". A volcano will erupt, or threaten to. Many of these events will lead the evening news shows night after night, especially on NBC which owns the Weather Channel.

  • Around the world, the visions of 2010 have me shuddering. There will be tragic bombings with great loss of innocent life, wars on at least two continents, historic rioting in several countries, religious hatreds that break out into open conflict, multiple coups and assassination attempts, and an embarrassing melee with fists and chairs flying-right inside the chamber of a foreign parliament.

  • People should prepare themselves for the recalls of several well known products in 2010. But on the brighter side of science and technology, there will be welcome new medical discoveries and drugs, though some will later be found to have unfortunate side effects and will be withdrawn from the market. At least twice in 2010 we will be startled by the release of new photos taken by the Hubble space telescope, and reminded of our insignificant position in the universe.

  • Domestically, there will be historic midterm contests that will reshape the entire political landscape, at least until the next election. I can see clearly that there will be far more losing than winning candidates, counting primary contenders. A fair number of the winners will eventually be found to be corrupt, having extramarital affairs, or involved in other categories of scandal. One more prediction is coming into focus: The November 2, 2010 results will be over-interpreted.

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

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