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2010 Midterm Elections Will Reshape the Political Landscape

A week before the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans are poised for major gains, while Democrats are waging a defensive battle on their own turf.

The outlook is clearest in the House of Representatives. Barring major surprises in the waning days of the campaign, Republicans are odds-on favorites to regain a majority. Political scientists and pundits with good reputations for accuracy are predicting Republican gains in the neighborhood of 50 seats (roughly equaling their gains in 1994), which would bring them close to 240 and reduce Democrats to a minority of 205. But because so many districts now controlled by Democrats are in play, a surge of historic proportions remains possible.

The situation is murkier in the Senate. During the past two weeks, numerous races have tightened, and the possible outcomes now range from modest Republican gains to a new Republican majority. With but one exception, the contested seats—California, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Nevada , Nevada, Pennsylvania, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin—are now in Democratic hands.

Although the tea party insurgency has added energy to Republicans nationwide, it could end up costing the GOP control of the Senate in 2011. The uprising in Delaware that deprived popular veteran Mike Castle of the Republican nomination shifted that Senate seat from a probably Republican victory to all-but-certain defeat. Kentucky, normally safe territory for establishment conservative candidates, is competitive this year, largely because tea party favorite Rand Paul is seen as outside the mainstream. In Nevada, the nomination of Sharron Angle has given Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, given up for dead six months ago, a fighting chance to hold his seat.

If each of these races were an independent local event, Republican chances of regaining control of the Senate would be minute. But because they are affected to some extent by national currents, they will tend to move in tandem. In “wave” elections—1980, 1986 and 2006 are recent examples—the most closely contested Senate seats all fall in the same direction by small margins. If 2010 is another such year, a Republican victory in a normally Democratic West Coast state could put them over the top. Nonetheless, Republican strategists are saying—as they have from the beginning—that their party is more likely to regain control in 2012, when Democrats will have to defend twice as many seats as do Republicans.

In the states, Republicans are likely to gain a number of governorships and hundreds of seats in state legislatures. They appear especially strong in the Midwest: when the votes are tallied, they could end up seizing governorships in six states—Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa—now in Democratic hands. The Republican tide is especially significant because congressional redistricting will begin in 2011, and many Midwestern states are predicted to lose seats as population continues to shift to the south and west. (Texas alone may gain four House seats.) If so, long-established boundaries must be redrawn—a highly politicized process in which control of state houses makes a big difference.  

Details aside, it seems all but certain that the 2010 midterm election will reshape the political landscape. Republicans will have to decide how to use their increased power, and Democrats must determine how best to defend what they accomplished in the 111th Congress. Whether the 112th Congress will yield only confrontation and gridlock, or a measure of compromise and achievement, depends substantially on how the American people will judge what they see in Washington next year.

  • William A. Galston holds the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, where he serves as a senior fellow. A former policy advisor to President Clinton and presidential candidates, Galston is an expert on domestic policy, political campaigns, and elections. His current research focuses on designing a new social contract and the implications of political polarization.