Ten months before the 2010 midterms, we apparently know this much for sure: Democrats face a doomsday scenario. They'll lose anywhere from 10 to 400 seats in the House and eight to 100 in the Senate. The landscape is just as dire in the all-important races for governor.
That's certainly one way to interpret the developments of Doomsday Tuesday, when embattled Democrats quit top races in Connecticut, North Dakota, Colorado and Michigan (although, actually, the only one of those races that now becomes more uphill for Democrats is in North Dakota).
Elections in November have a funny way of tossing aside conventional wisdom from January (or, for that matter, late October). Even more so this year, it seems, there are a slew of unknowns in races across the country that make it impossible, no matter how tempting, to write the story of 2010 just yet. Here are 10 key unknowns from top races that will have a decisive impact on the year in politics.
• Alabama: Can Rep. Artur Davis (D) be elected governor? Two years after a black man won the White House while carrying Southern states like Virginia and North Carolina, Democrats are closely watching Davis' campaign and asking: Will voters in the Deep South elect a moderate African American? But before Davis can answer that question, he needs to win a tough Democratic primary in June against state Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks (D). If Davis wins, look for a spike in African-American candidates around the country in 2012.
• Delaware: Will Beau Biden (D) run for Senate? It's been more than two months since Vice President Joe Biden's son returned from Iraq to heated speculation that he'll run to succeed his father in the Senate. Since then, popular Rep. Mike Castle (R) jumped into the race, throwing the younger Biden a curve. Has Biden opted to forgo a tough race against Castle or is he just, er, biding his time? The answer to that question will decide whether this race turns into a referendum on the Obama-Biden administration or a likely GOP pickup.
• Florida: Will ex-Gov. Jeb Bush endorse former state House Speaker Marco Rubio for Senate? The battle for the soul of the GOP is being waged in this race, where Rubio continues to gain traction against Gov. Charlie Crist. The primary won't take place until late August, but Rubio could receive an insurmountable boost before then if he secures the support of Bush, the state's most popular Republican. Bush has remained publicly neutral, but Rubio already has key backing from several Bush allies, including his two sons. If Rubio gains the endorsement and the nomination, the question becomes: Is he prepared to carry the Bush family name into the general election, in a state Obama carried in 2008?
• Massachusetts: How will state Sen. Scott Brown (R) fare in the Jan. 19 special election to succeed the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D)? Brown faces very long odds in the Bay State. But if he pulls more than 40 percent against Attorney General Martha Coakley (D), that could spell big problems this fall for embattled Gov. Deval Patrick (D). A new Rasmussen poll suggests that's possible: it shows Coakley leading Brown by just 50 percent to 41 percent (one key caveat -- the survey didn't mention a Libertarian candidate who could pull support from Brown).
• New York: Will Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (D) run for governor? National Democrats are banking on him doing so, whether or not Gov. David Paterson (D) bows out. Eight years after he was forced to withdraw from the governor's race due to poor fundraising, a Cuomo bid this year would give Democrats their best shot at holding the governor's office in one of the country's four most populous states.
• North Carolina: What kind of Senate candidate will former state Sen. Cal Cunningham (D) be? Cunningham is the latest Tar Heel Democrat to come out of nowhere to challenge a first-term Republican senator. The last two, John Edwards and Kay Hagan, prevailed. The state has tilted toward Democrats in recent years; will 2010 continue the trend? For clues, check out Cunningham's fundraising -- the reports he files this month and in April.
• North Dakota: Will Gov. John Hoeven (R) run to succeed retiring Sen. Byron Dorgan? Dorgan's surprise decision Tuesday to become the first Democratic senator to retire in 2010 has created the GOP's best pick-up opportunity so far this cycle. The big question now is whether the popular Hoeven will run in the middle of his third term. Even if he does, he will confront voters' tried-and-true resistance to sending their governors, no matter how popular, to the Senate in the middle of a term. Many have tried, but not since Richard Bryan (D) of Nevada was elected to the Senate in 1988 has anyone succeeded.
• Rhode Island: Will Steve Laffey (R) run for governor? Just two days after former GOP Sen. Lincoln Chafee kicked off his independent bid, conservatives are intensifying their push to recruit the former Cranston mayor, who narrowly lost to Chafee in the 2006 Senate primary. A lot has changed within the national GOP since 2006, but have those changes filtered down to Rhode Island? If Laffey runs, we may find out.
• Texas: Who will win the GOP primary for governor? This question became even more important when former Houston Mayor Bill White (D) decided to run, giving Democrats a serious shot for the first time in more than a decade. If Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) defeats incumbent Rick Perry (R), the race for her Senate seat could unleash another Texas brawl.
• Wyoming: Will popular Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) challenge the state's term limits and run for a third term? This much we do know: His campaign committee has hired Global Strategy Group to conduct his polling, and he said he won't announce a decision before the legislature adjourns in mid-March. If he runs, Freudenthal will help Democrats withstand a likely GOP assault on their western, Red State governorships (including Oklahoma and Kansas). If he doesn't, look for Wyoming to return to its more traditional reddish hue.