This Memorial Day weekend marked the (almost) half-way point of 2011, a time when the rubber begins to hit the road for the Republican presidential primary and the battles for control of Congress.
To commemorate the unofficial beginning of the summer, here are five pressing questions that will be answered before the beginning of next year.
1. Who will emerge as the GOP presidential frontrunner? The smart money is on former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who orchestrated an impressive rollout last week and is the one candidate who has the ability to win support among all elements of the Republican coalition—fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, and foreign policy hawks. His campaign settled on an effective narrative—speaking hard truths in tough economic times. And his plainspoken style and Midwestern background should help him in a process that breeds familiarity with the candidates.
The early Republican primary map also plays to his advantage. His evangelical faith should help him win Christian conservatives in Iowa, where they hold disproportionate influence in the state’s caucuses. And in New Hampshire, his “straight talk” message could play well in a state where Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., experienced great success in 2000 and 2008.
2. Who are the brightest Senate recruits? There are many members of the House looking for a promotion, but some of the brightest stars hail from outside Washington. Republicans are bullish on Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, who has just begun to challenge Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown. A Jewish Iraq War veteran, Mandel got his political start in his 20s, winning a solidly Democratic legislative seat around Cleveland. Last year, he was elected state Treasurer, tallying more votes than any other partisan candidate on the Ohio statewide ballot. Mandel hasn’t gotten much national buzz yet, but his biography ensures he’ll be a formidable opponent.
Another potential candidate to watch: John Crowley, a biotech executive who successfully sought a cure for his children’s rare genetic disorder, is considering a challenge to Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. His story was made into a movie, “Extraordinary Measures.”
For Democrats, keep a close eye on retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who is running for Texas’s open Senate seat. Democrats believe his military background and Hispanic heritage gives them a fighting chance to compete in a state where they have badly struggled
3. What’s the matter with Massachusetts (for Democrats)? It’s remarkable that Democrats have flailed in landing a serious opponent against Republican Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts, and are floating the name of Elizabeth Warren, the unofficial head of the fledgling Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Brown won last year’s election to replace the late Sen. Edward Kennedy by winning the support of many working-class Democrats, who identified with his everyman biography. Polls show him still holding strong favorable ratings, and he’s been politically savvy in breaking with his party on several key issues—most recently, the House GOP budget spearheaded by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Brown is vulnerable, given the Democratic lean of the state, and whoever emerges as his challenger will be aided with President Obama fueling party turnout next year. With Senate Democrats on the defensive in many Republican-leaning states, flipping this seat is the surest way to help retain their majority. But the way things are shaping up in Massachusetts, they might have a better chance at competing in more GOP-friendly turf.
4. Can Democrats retake the House? If there’s been a lesson from the last three election cycles, it’s to expect the unexpected. We’ve been through three wave elections in a row, and with congressional approval still near rock-bottom, it’s reasonable to expect another volatile one. The factors fueling voter dissatisfaction have only intensified: a weak economy, increased polarization, and legislative gridlock.
The special election in New York last week underscored how much the political environment has changed in the last six months. In 2010, upstate New York was at the center of the House GOP renaissance. Republicans picked up five Democratic-held seats in the region, thanks to economic anxiety and deep dissatisfaction with the health care overhaul.
That anxiety hasn’t gone away, and now it’s Republicans who have proposed their own controversial legislation to alter how Medicare is administered, a dangerous proposition given how important seniors are as a voting bloc. That doesn’t mean Democrats will be able to capitalize as much as they did in the off-year election, but it does suggest the boom-and-bust cycle we’ve seen lately won’t be going away.
5. Will Republicans end up gaining seats from redistricting? The Democratic-controlled redistricting in Illinois, unveiled last weekend, underscores how challenging it is for Republicans to add to their House majority through redistricting. In Illinois alone, Democrats could reasonably end up gaining six House seats, one quarter of the 24 they’ll need to retake the House. By contrast, Republicans are focused on protecting the gains they achieved in the 2010 midterms. One state where they’re going on offense: Texas, where, among proposed changes to the congressional map, Republicans want to divide Austin five ways to dilute Democratic areas.
This article appears in the June 1, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.