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Is It the 2010 Election Yet?

Uncertainty of Next Cycle Intrigues Pols

OK, so we don’t know who the next president is going to be yet, but the 2008 election cycle otherwise is so yesterday.

For the insider’s insider, the 2010 election cycle is where all the real political excitement is these days.

And though that might be just a slight exaggeration, there’s no doubt that despite being 32 months away, the next next election seems to be garnering an unusual amount of attention these days in Congressional, lobbying, academic and, shockingly, media circles.

But with all the 2010 talk, there appears to be little consensus on just why it’s happening.

Of course, the House and Senate campaign committees of both parties have to give some thought to 2010 while still making 2008 their primary focus. Party committees always keep their eye out for potential recruits in case of unexpected retirements and they never want to leave themselves too much debt to dig themselves out of in the next cycle.

But for Republicans staring at another bleak November at the polls, 2010 perhaps also offers the next possible light at the end of the tunnel.

After a near-record number of House GOP retirements this cycle, this month’s loss of former Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R) northern Illinois seat in a special election was just another sign that the GOP job in 2008 will be more about stopping the bleeding than making up lost ground.

“Looking to 2010 is the Republican version of the ‘audacity of hope,’” said one House Republican staffer last week, stealing a line from Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.). “For Republicans, we don’t know when the pendulum is going to swing back our way, but our next best hope is 2010.”

Meanwhile, one theory that has been proposed for the Democrats’ early interest in 2010 is that it will be the cycle that will prove the staying power of the wave that surged in 2006 and appears to be cresting in 2008.

Will 2006 and 2008 go down simply as anomalies to the thesis put forward by Republican pollsters that the American electorate is still right of center? Or is there a fundamental realignment of American politics taking place? Is the high turnout of Democratic voters — and especially younger voters — in the presidential primaries something that will last? Or will all the excitement be attributed to an anti-President Bush fervor that will dissipate two years from now?

Perhaps all the talk about 2010 is simply a function of the excitement spawned by the unknown.

“There’s a consensus that 2008 is going to be a good year for Democrats. The only suspense is, ‘How many seats are the Democrats going to pick up in the House and Senate?’” said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political science professor.

But regardless of which party wins the White House this November, 2010 offers the tantalizing question of whether it will follow the usual pattern of the 20th century, where the president’s party loses ground in non-presidential election years. Or will it be like the exceptions seen in the 1998 and 2002 off-year elections, when the president’s party actually picked up seats?

“In an off-year, voters will make a correction if they think government isn’t performing as it should,” said retiring Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.). “If [Sen. John] McCain [R-Ariz.] is in the White House, 2010 will be a tough year [for Republicans] because the party with the presidency traditionally loses seats and never gains much. … [But] if you assume for a minute that the Democrats win the presidency and keep both houses of Congress, you usually get a pretty strong reaction to one-party rule.”

That off-year kickback could be particularly intriguing as Democrats look at some of the other possibilities that lie just over the horizon.

On a playing field this cycle where Senate Republicans have to defend almost twice as many seats as Democrats, a pickup of four to six seats will put Senate Democrats within striking distance of their first filibuster-proof majority since they ran the chamber with 61 seats from 1977 to 1979. In 2010, 19 Senate Republican seats will be on the line as opposed to 15 Democratic seats.

Hunter Johnston, a Democratic lobbyist from Louisiana, said that with so many important Senate races looming in three short years, the fundraising process is already well under way.

“It used to be that no one raised money out of cycle and now it seems everybody does,” Johnston said. “So you have to respond because raising money is so important and it’s such a time-consuming process that you really do need to spread it out of just the two years you are running for office. But of course that makes it harder for the people who are raising money in-cycle.”

For those keeping tabs on House numbers, 2010 brings the always-exciting political tug of war that comes after the decennial Census.

“It’s the last election before redistricting and the composition of state legislatures and Congressional delegations will set the table in terms of Congressional politics for the next decade,” said former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee official Greg Speed, who also worked for former Rep. Martin Frost (Texas) when Frost was the top House Democratic strategist on redistricting.

Bullock pointed out that just as news coverage of the presidential campaign seems to begin earlier and earlier every four years, redistricting stories are also likely to start coming out sooner rather than later.

So maybe all the 2010 talk is more media-driven than politically driven?

“If you go back 15 or 20 years, news essentially was 30 minutes in the evening. … That was about it, pre-CNN,” Bullock said. “So you could easily fill up your segment talking about what happened today if that’s all the news you had to generate. … [Today] there’s so many more opportunities to disseminate news and you need to have something to say.”

For Republicans, blaming the 2010 focus on the media might be a more palatable explanation than the idea that they’ve simply given up on this cycle.

“It seems sometimes that some Republicans, their strategy is we’re going to hand the ball off to Democrats and hope they fumble it,” Davis said. “That’s not a very a good strategy. I wouldn’t throw in the towel on 2008 at this point — we could still pick up seats. Eight months is an eternity in this business. So I would say keep the faith but dig in hard. It’s going to be a tough cycle right now, but once the Democrats have a nominee and we have ours, the face of the head of the party changes. … You can inch your way back up.”

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