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First thoughts: The battle for the Senate

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** The battle for the Senate: Last week, we wrote that Republicans have history, the map, and the political winds on their side when it comes to next year's House races. But the first two definitely AREN'T advantages when it comes to the 2010 Senate contests. Since the end of World War II, the president's party has lost an average of just 2.6 Senate seats in that president's first midterm, compared with 26 House seats. The worst showing for the president's party was in 1946, when the Democrats lost 12 Senate seats. The second-worst showing was in 1994, when they lost 10 seats. The president's party's best showing came in 1962, when it gained three seats. In short, the party in control of the White House is much more likely to lose House seats in the midterms than it is Senate seats.

*** Democrats have the map advantage: What's more, as we head into next year, the map certainly isn't on the GOP's side. Currently, Democrats have a 60-40 advantage in the Senate (with two independents, Joe Lieberman and Bernie Sanders, caucusing with the Dems). So Republicans will need to win 11 Senate seats to take back control of the chamber. But much of the 2010 Senate battleground will be fought on GOP turf. For starters, there are 19 Republican-held seats this cycle, versus 18 Democrat-held seats. More importantly, there are already six GOP-held open seats (FL, KS, KY, MO, NH, OH) -- and there will be seven if/when Kay Bailey Hutchison leaves her seat to run for Texas governor -- while Democrats have two (DE and IL). To put the GOP's challenge with this map into perspective, the Cook Political Report identifies six toss-up contests (in CT, IL, KY, MO, NH, and OH), but even if Republicans win them all, they'll net just two Senate seats. Of course, that would be enough to end the Democrats' filibuster-proof majority, but it wouldn't be close to getting back control of the Senate.

*** Focus on Missouri and Ohio: Without a doubt, the two biggest Senate battlegrounds next year will be in the Show Me State and Buckeye State, and they'll give us a good read on the health of the two political parties. If the Democrats lose both, it will suggest that the party's successes in these states from 2006-2008 -- including gubernatorial and senatorial wins in both states, as well as Obama winning in Ohio and narrowly losing in Missouri -- might have come to an end. But if Republicans lose both -- with well-known figures from Bush years at the top of the ticket (Roy Blunt in Missouri and Rob Portman in Ohio) -- that would suggest that the Bush and GOP brands are still major problems for the party. Bottom line: The best way to judge who "wins" or "loses" the 2010 midterms will be in these two states, pure and simple. And they will be the most dominant races the media will focus on next year.

*** White House fights back: Another weekend, another spate of health-care debate nuttiness. The debate -- not the issue itself -- is now the story. Think about that... In fact, that may explain why it appears the White House is losing the message war. It is trying to fight back by unveiling two campaigns. One is a truth squad of sorts via the White House Web site. It's easily the most aggressive Web effort by any White House to date. Meanwhile, on the political front, the DNC is asking supporters to flood congressional district offices to voice their support for health-care reform. This is a big test for the Obama political machine, because one thing that has gotten lost in this debate over town hall protests: how the Obama supporters have been out-organized so far. 

*** When Bob Inglis is getting booed…: But is there a point at which Republicans will overplay their hands on these town halls? While most Republican leaders (both official and unofficial) are standing by these protests and even encouraging them, a few are letting their own frustration show. Conservative GOP Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina, went off on Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs for their tone. And what happened next? Inglis got booed out of his own town hall. The South Carolina Republican is not going to be someone who will support the president on any domestic policy. But if a Bob Inglis is getting fed up, how many other Republican elected officials will crack? And while the Obama White House is losing the message war on health care itself, it does seem to be getting traction with the media on a closer look at how these town halls are playing. And let's face it: Death threats, effigies, and swastikas usually don't help you on the PR front.

*** Obama's own town hall: By the way, it will be interesting to see what happens when President Obama holds his own town hall in Portsmouth, NH, tomorrow. One of us got our hands on an invitation from a conservative group planning a protest outside of Tuesday's venue. "There will be news media from all over the world at this event," the invitation reads, "and it will be the ideal opportunity for us to tell the rest of the country exactly how NH voters feel about Obamacare (taxed/rationed healthcare)." If anything, we'd bet some inside the White House are hoping for a confrontation, since they believe the president's demeanor alone will politically play well with the folks they care about most about right now: ACTUAL independents. 

*** Trouble in Afghanistan: Lost in all of this town-hall chaos is the very real problem developing in Afghanistan. It appears it's not a matter of IF U.S. commanders on the ground are going to ask for more troops but WHEN. This isn't going to be a very popular decision if Obama finds himself sending more troops. Right now, he may be asked for as few as another 10,000 to as many as 40,000 more. The Taliban apparently has made a LOT of inroads in Afghanistan, so much so, that the Wall Street Journal has this very scary headline today: "Taliban Now Winning."

*** What if government was the solution? Turning to the recent good economic news, a narrative is becoming to develop that the government rescued the country from a second Great Depression. While saying it's still too early to know for sure, the New York Times' David Leonhardt wrote on Saturday that "the evidence is now pointing pretty strongly in one direction: history books may conclude that the financial crisis of 2008 turned out to be far less bad than it could have been and that Washington deserved much of the credit." Adds Paul Krugman today: "Ronald Reagan was wrong: sometimes the private sector is the problem, and government is the solution." The debate over Obama's stimulus is still unsettled, but we have noticed that Republicans are no longer criticizing (or at least as much) the bank bailouts. Just askin', but if government was part of the solution to the country's economic woes, what does that mean for 1) the health-care debate and 2) the Republican Party?

*** Over the top? On Friday, Sarah Palin made this posting on her Facebook page regarding Obama's health-care plans: "The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil." Palin didn't cite anything from a bill, but rather a floor speech by Michelle Bachmann, which itself didn't quote from the House bill directly. NBC's Savannah Guthrie reports that when President Obama was told of Palin's comment, he said it was "unproductive" for Republican leaders to spread this kind of misinformation, according to a senior administration official. 

*** Is Creigh Deeds done? No, he's not done, but he sure is acting like a candidate who might be panicking just a bit. He's doing something that no Virginia Dem (Warner, Kaine or Webb) has done recently: He's deciding to wade into the culture war issue of abortion. This may have worked for Doug Wilder back in 1989, when it looked like the issue of abortion would find its way back to the states or be debated in the courts, etc. But how much do average abortion-rights supporters think they're under siege right now? Do casual voters in Northern Virginia really think abortion rights will get overturned now that Democrats control Congress and the White House? This appears to be the opposite strategy of Virginia Dems in recent elections, which was to avoid some of these red-hot culture war issues. Just how bad are Deeds' numbers with women and in Northern Virginia?

Countdown to Election Day 2009: 85 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 449 days

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