It's impossible to know what a midterm election will be about 17 months before it happens, but it's safe to say that 2010 is likely to be a referendum on President Obama's performance and policies. Having punished Republicans in two consecutive elections already, Democrats are unlikely to make repudiation of the GOP next year's dominant theme.
Indeed, one could argue that the election will be a split decision, with Republicans picking up a few House seats but losing a Senate seat or two. The difference is that Democrats have the larger number of vulnerable House districts, while Senate Republicans have more seats that are in serious jeopardy. The post-World War II historical average for a midterm election in a president's first term is a loss for his party of 16 House seats and a wash in the Senate.
Absent any national tide, Democrats might be expected to lose a dozen or so seats in the House and pick up a seat or two in the Senate.
Having gained 54 House seats over the past two elections, Democrats now represent 49 districts that GOP presidential nominee John McCain won last year. By comparison, Republicans represent 34 districts that Obama won. Simple arithmetic indicates that in the absence of overwhelming hostility toward the Republican Party, the GOP ought to gain a few, maybe even a dozen or so, House seats.
The only midterm election I can recall that revolved around the party not occupying the White House was in 1998, when the Republican congressional majority had sought to remove President Clinton from office for L'Affaire Monique. That the GOP will be the focus of the 2010 campaign is hardly a foregone conclusion, given that House Democrats, as the members in power, are entering this election overexposed.
On the Senate side, the math is a bit different and is not driven directly by the results of the past two elections. In 2010, Republicans will be defending 19 seats, only one more than Democrats will. Originally, Republicans would have had 20 seats to defend versus 15 for the Democrats, but that changed with Joe Biden's election to the vice presidency and Hillary Rodham Clinton's selection as secretary of State. Two Democratic seats that would not have been up again until 2014 and 2012, respectively, will be in 2010. Add in Arlen Specter's party switch, and next year's lineup brings almost complete parity in the parties' exposure.
More relevant is that five Republican senators will be retiring: Christopher (Kit) Bond of Missouri, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Mel Martinez of Florida, and George Voinovich of Ohio. The Florida and Kansas seats are the only ones that are not in the toss-up column. Democrats have just one seat in that category at this point, that of appointed Sen. Edward Kaufman of Delaware. But another is fairly likely because Roland Burris of Illinois will probably retire, unless he decides to enter the primary instead and face certain defeat.
Each side has an incumbent in potentially mortal danger: Christopher Dodd of Connecticut for Democrats and Jim Bunning of Kentucky for Republicans. Republicans are eyeing challenges to appointed Sen. Michael Bennet in Colorado and to Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada, while Democrats would like nothing more than to take out David Vitter in Louisiana and Richard Burr in North Carolina. But none of those races today is highly competitive; the real action is about the open seats and Burris, Dodd, and Bunning.
These numbers would suggest that absent any national tide or trend, Democrats might be expected to lose a dozen or so seats in the House and pick up a seat or two, possibly three, in the Senate. Again, this forecast presumes the lack of any dynamic that would push either party forward or back -- essentially an "all politics is local" election.
With so much going on, how likely is such a scenario to play out? This election's overarching dynamic will probably be whether voters are happy with the country's direction and the leadership of Obama and congressional Democrats, or whether voters will want a check on the president's far-reaching agenda.
Given the state of the economy and the administration's aggressive moves in the financial and auto sectors, as well as its pursuit of health care reform and cap-and-trade energy proposals, voters will have plenty to mull over. They are unlikely to be ambivalent by the end of next year. Voters sought change in 2008, and 2010 will determine whether the results of the past two years were what they had in mind.
This article appears in the June 6, 2009, edition of National Journal.