Conventional wisdom dictates that GOP prospects in 2010 hinge largely on President Obama. Judging from recent interviews with top congressional Republicans, that's exactly what they want. But a closer look at the post-Labor Day landscape reveals a more complicated picture of what could matter in 2010 and what role Obama could play.
In interviews over that August recess, which they're now calling a game-changer, the Republicans who chair the House and Senate campaign committees said they look forward to waging a national campaign against an increasingly unpopular president whose poll numbers have taken one of the biggest tumbles ever for a new chief executive.
Running against Obama could prove risky in states where Republicans are hoping to make gains -- states like Pennsylvania, Delaware and Illinois.
Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Obama and his party "have made the mistake of short-changing voters on campaign promises and over-interpreting their mandate." Voters, Sessions said, "are not interested in a radical, big-government agenda that kills jobs and diminishes the free enterprise system. The president is disengaged in the details. He's hurt his party by seceding power to Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank and Charlie Rangel."
"Someone has to stop this reckless agenda in Washington before our children and grandchildren are forced to pay the price for these mistakes," he added.
Echoing Sessions was his Senate counterpart, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who said Democrats "have no one to blame but themselves for this massive overreach." In 2010, Cornyn said, Republicans "will use the argument of returning a system of checks and balances to Washington, and I expect it will resonate with the American people who are already souring on President Obama and his policy initiatives."
But whether that GOP argument gains traction will largely depend, of course, on where the top races take place. And while big gains are possible for Senate Republicans, running against Obama could prove risky in states where Republicans are hoping to make gains -- states like Pennsylvania, Delaware and Illinois.
Or, for that matter, Connecticut. Perhaps the GOP candidate who best represents his party's rise and fall, and potential rise again, is Rob Simmons, a former CIA-officer-turned-congressman from the bluest of blue states. Simmons, 66, was elected to Congress in 2000, as the GOP assumed control of the White House and both chambers, but he was thrown out of office in the bloodbath of 2006. "The anti-Bush sentiment, which became the anti-Republican sentiment, was too much for me to handle, so I was sent home," he said recently.
Three years after his defeat, Simmons is now running to oust five-term Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and early polls show the Republican enjoys a significant lead. "There's been a dramatic shift," Simmons said. "With the economic difficulties we're confronting and the policy approaches we're discussing, Republican values are re-emerging as the appropriate values for this time. Free enterprise, personal responsibility and concern about the deficit are now foremost in people's mind. They're traditional Republican values."
One word Simmons never used during a 20-minute interview, at least negatively, was "Obama." That's because Obama carried his state by 23 points and remains wildly popular there.
On the other side of the aisle, the key is making the case that the era of all-Democratic Party rule has moved the country in the right direction -- and Republicans deserve none of the credit.
"You may be surprised to hear this, but I think the past seven months have helped," said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. The most important issue in 2010 will be the economy, he said, and while the country's economic climate is still dire, the situation has improved dramatically over the past eight months. "And that's due to a number of factors, but a big part of it was the economic stimulus plan, and Republicans made a big mistake in aligning themselves against the bill," he said. "These guys were rooting for failure. It's very cynical to campaign on the 'bad news for America is good news for Republicans,' but that's what they did. They've become the great champions of the status quo."
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., Van Hollen's counterpart in the Senate, went even further. He said 2010 should be a referendum on presidential popularity, but not Obama's.
"One challenge Democrats have had is reminding the American people why we're in this mess in the first place -- because of George W. Bush and congressional Republicans' irresponsibility," he said. "The good news is, voters are smart and they know this. They know the record deficit spending wasn't our doing. It was brought to you by George W. Bush and his Republican allies in Congress -- some of whom are running for Senate seats."