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Slow Start To Midterm Races

Possible Challengers Are Waiting To See Where The Economy And The Political Winds Are Heading

Congress might be coming back this week for a five-week legislative haul before the Memorial Day recess, but the political calendar works at a somewhat different pace.

By necessity, Senate races tend to develop earlier in the election cycle, since these campaigns require substantially more money and are greater organizational challenges. As a result, party leaders tend to urge members contemplating retirement to make, and announce, their decisions earlier to give the party more time to get a replacement lined up and prepare to defend the seat.


House campaigns -- with somewhat smaller price tags and usually smaller areas where it is less difficult to build name recognition -- are manageable organizational challenges and tend to need a shorter gestation period. So, logically, they develop somewhat slower and later.

True to form, the Senate picture has developed much more quickly, with early retirements by five Republican senators -- Sam Brownback in Kansas, Mel Martinez in Florida, Christopher (Kit) Bond in Missouri, Judd Gregg in New Hampshire and George Voinovich in Ohio -- a sure recipe for a fast-developing cycle.

After all, open Senate seats do not come up very often. In some cases, downballot statewide officials, state legislators and House members have spent a lot time plotting for this shot to move up to the Senate without having to knock out an incumbent.


On the Democratic side, the only open seat at this point is in Delaware, where Sen. Ted Kaufman, a longtime aide and confidant of Vice President Joe Biden, was appointed to the seat to replace Biden and immediately announced that he would not seek a full term in 2010.

Conceivably there could be at least two or three more retirements before it's all over with. On the Democratic side, there is considerable betting that appointed Illinois Sen. Roland Burris or Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd might decide down the road to step aside if the odds look too long. A similarly uphill struggle for Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., might prompt another open seat contest. Finally, Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn has not committed to running for a second term.

In each of these cases, there is no denying the tenacity of the incumbents involved, but at some point, the magnitude of the re-election challenge and, more pointedly, the financing of an uphill re-election campaign can deter even the most determined incumbent.

So in the Senate, you can say that there is a whole lotta shakin' goin' on, some caused by party leaders urging incumbents contemplating retirement to make and announce a decision as soon as possible so the party is not faced with a looming filing deadline unable to field a strong candidate.


But in the House, there has not yet been that exodus of incumbents from either party, and recruiting has barely started.

Swing House races tend to be buffeted by the national winds and tides more than the Senate, where the candidates are usually better known and defined and get greater press coverage. With neither side sure whether the wind will be at their backs or in their faces, or if there will be a partisan wind at all, there seems to be some hesitancy on the part of incumbents contemplating retirement.

Challengers are also wondering whether this is the right year for someone of their party to take on the usually long-shot effort to unseat an incumbent.

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So with neither party sure whether they will be playing offense or defense, and an economy so lousy that no one is looking forward to the onerous task of raising money, there has been a delayed development in the House -- even slower than it's normally unhurried pace.

So we wait to see if President Obama will be a liability for Democrats, as presidents going into midterm elections often are, or if the momentum that Democrats built in 2006 and 2008 carries through.

We wait to see if Republicans either effectively regroup from their massive losses and mount a strong counterattack or if they are positioned to take advantage of political misfortunes and win simply because they are not Democrats.

And finally, we wait to see whether the "green shoots" -- the encouraging mix of favorable economic news that we have seen over the last six weeks -- really means that the bottom of this recession is in sight, whether the economy is poised to begin a very gradual recovery next year or, even if it improves some, it falters and we suffer a double-dip between now and the election.

With so many imponderables this early, it is little wonder that so many incumbents and potential challengers are holding back before committing to run or retire, waiting for some of this haze to clear in order to make a better decision.

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