The 2010 midterm elections will be viewed as a critical barometer of President Obama's strength, and an important test of whether the Republican Party has recovered from the drubbing it took at the end of the Bush years.
Although Election Day 2010 is still almost a year away, here are ten statewide contests -- three for governor and seven for the U.S. Senate -- that are already shaping up as races worth watching.
Democratic officials view Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., as their most vulnerable Senate incumbent in 2010. Dodd, the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, is being tagged by Republican critics as someone who is writing rules for other people while accepting special perks for himself.
Dodd was buoyed in August when the Senate Ethics Committee determined that he and his wife did not violate Senate ethics rules when they refinanced their mortgages with Countrywide Financial.
But he hit a snag in mid-October, however, when Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., demanded a vote to subpoena the records of Countrywide's controversial Friends of Angelo mortgage program.
In addition to painting Dodd as the recipient of sweetheart deals who was asleep at the wheel during the Wall Street meltdown, Dodd's rivals are also planning to remind voters that he appeared to take them for granted when he moved his family to Iowa in advance of the state's 2008 presidential caucuses.
The Republicans running for the chance to take on Dodd include: Linda McMahon, the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment who is not denying reports that she is willing to spend $30 million of her own money to get elected; Rob Simmons, a former congressman who was narrowly defeated in his bid for re-election in 2006; and Peter Schiff, a libertarian Republican who advised Ron Paul's 2008 presidential campaign.
The GOP scored a major coup in Delaware when Republican Rep. Mike Castle announced that he would run for the U.S. Senate seat which used to be filled by Vice President Joe Biden and is currently occupied by former Biden staffer Ted Kaufman.
Castle, who has never lost a race, has run statewide 12 times: once for lieutenant governor, twice for governor and nine times for the state's at-large House seat.
Castle's likely Democratic opponent is state Attorney General Beau Biden, the vice president's son.
Biden, who just got back from a year-long tour in Iraq as a captain in the Judge Advocate General's Corps., told ABC's "Good Morning America" in October that he "absolutely" is thinking about running for the seat which his father occupied for 36 years. Biden has not yet, however, made a final decision.
If he were to pass on the race, Republicans will have the upper hand. If Biden is in, it could be one of the most competitive and closely watched in the nation.
Castle's advantage in the race is that some voters might not like the idea of a Senate seat being handed off like a family heirloom. Castle, who has a moderate voting record, will also be difficult to paint as a right-winger out of step with the state's voters.
Biden benefits from his youthful vigor, plenty of White House help, and the fact that Delaware is so small that many of the state's residents feel like they personally know "Joe" and "Beau."
Florida's Republican Senate primary features a fight for the heart and soul of the GOP. Moderate Republican Gov. Charlie Crist entered the race as a big favorite with a major fundraising advantage.
But he is facing a stiff challenge from former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio who is backed by the conservative Club for Growth and many of the state's TEA Party activists.
Crist's No. 1 conservative apostasy is that he embraced President Obama's economic stimulus package. Crist further complicated his situation by inaccurately telling CNN that he "didn't endorse" the stimulus. Crist's camp is fighting back, however, and is making a concerted effort to paint Rubio as less than a down-the-line conservative.
Two Florida Democrats are competing for the Senate nomination: Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Fla., and former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre.
Meek is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus who backed Hillary Clinton for president and is now being helped by former President Bill Clinton. The Meek camp, which was recently allowed to meet with reporters at the offices of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, thinks that Rubio would be tougher to beat than Crist. Although Meek would try to paint either Republican as wanting to take Florida back to "Bush-style" economics, the Meek camp thinks it can also paint Crist as walking away from the problems facing state government. Democrats also fear that Rubio, who is Cuban-American, would be able to cut into Democratic support among Latinos.
Ferre, who led Miami from 1975-83, was born in the American territory of Puerto Rico. He has come out against President Obama's troop build-up in Afghanistan and has accused Meek, who supports the president, of putting party ahead of sound judgment.
Next year's Missouri Senate race features two of the best-known families in state politics.
The Democratic candidate is Secretary of State Robin Carnahan. She is the daughter of Jean Carnahan, who served in the U.S. Senate, and the late Mel Carnahan, who was governor of Missouri.
The Republican candidate is Rep. Roy Blunt, the former House Republican Whip, whose son, Matt, served as the state's governor from 2005-09.
Democrats are bullish on Carnahan's chances: Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (D.S.C.C.), recently told ABC's "Top Line" that Missouri is the party's best pick-up opportunity in 2010.
Carnahan's strength in the race is that she holds statewide office and isn't burdened by a legislative voting record that she has to defend. She is currently driving Republicans in the state crazy by not staking out positions on controversial issues.
Blunt, for his part, has the national environment going for him. Both candidates will be well-funded: at the end of the third quarter, Blunt had $2.2 million on hand and Carnahan had $1.8 million. The outcome in Missouri will be closely scrutinized for clues about the 2012 presidential race: in 2008, the state went for John McCain over Barack Obama by a narrow 4,000-vote margin.
Republicans are hoping to turn Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., into the Tom Daschle of 2010. Back in 2004, Daschle, who was the Democratic leader at the time, was defeated in his bid for re-election by then-Rep. John Thune, R-S.D.
The GOP has not yet settled on candidate against Reid. The top four contenders are: Sue Lowden, the former chair of the state Republican Party who was the second runner-up in the 1973 Miss America pageant; Danny Tarkanian, a businessman who is the son of legendary University of Nevada, Las Vegas basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian; Mark Amodei, a state senator; and John Chachas, a New York investment banker with roots in Nevada who could self-finance his own campaign.
In a sign of the trouble he faces at home, Reid recently began running television ads in Nevada -- more than a year before voters go to the polls -- in an effort to introduce himself to the state's legions of newly registered voters.
While Reid appears to be more vulnerable than your typical fourth-term incumbent, he continues to benefit from his substantial war chest: at the end of the third quarter, he had $8.7 million in cash on hand.
Next year's Ohio Senate race will be a key test of whether an anti-Bush message retains its salience: the likely GOP candidate is Rob Portman, the former Ohio congressman who served as U.S. Trade Representative and budget director for former President George W. Bush.
Although Democrats are planning to tie Portman to Bush, Republicans currently have the upper hand since the former Bush official has more than three times as much cash on hand as his closest Democratic opponent.
At the end of the third quarter, Portman had $5.1 million in cash on hand. His closest Democratic rival, Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, only had $1.6 million. The other Democratic candidate is Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner. If Portman wins in November, look for him to end up on VP shortlists in 2012 as he did in 2008.
Facing a tough road to re-nomination as a Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter shook up Washington back in April by announcing he was becoming a Democrat.
The White House quickly lined up behind Specter, who had been one of only three Senate Republicans to support the $787 billion stimulus bill. .
Although Specter is backed by President Obama and Gov. Ed Rendell , he has not been able to clear the Democratic primary field and is facing a tough nomination fight from Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., a former three-star admiral who served as director for defense policy in President Clinton's National Security Council.
The likely Republican nominee is former Rep. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., the former head of the anti-tax Club for Growth. Toomey challenged Specter in the 2004 Republican Senate primary, losing by a narrow 1.7 percent margin after the Republican establishment closed ranks behind Specter.
The race to replace Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is barred from running again by term limits, promises to be one of the most fascinating in the country.
On the Democratic side, Attorney General Jerry Brown has cleared the field with strong fundraising and widespread name recognition. John Garamendi, the former lieutenant governor who just won a special election to Congress, and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom pulled the plug on their challenges to Brown and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa never got into the race after closely looking at it.
Brown, a three-time presidential candidate who was dubbed "Governor Moonbeam" when he held the state's top job from 1975-83, says the state's biggest problem is a lack of "imagination."
On the Republican side, three candidates are vying for the nomination: former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, and former Rep. Tom Campbell.
Whitman, who worked under former presidential candidate Mitt Romney at Bain & Company, is the Republican frontrunner. She has a spotty voting record but with gobs of money and a tight focus on creating jobs, cutting spending, and fixing education, she has a chance of being a strong general election candidate in a state that is strongly Democratic at the presidential level but has a history of electing GOP governors who are social moderates.
Before she can get to a race with Brown, she has to get past Poizner, a wealthy candidate in his own right, who is running as the "proven" conservative reformer. The strategy of the underfunded Campbell is to lay out detailed policy prescriptions and hope that he can win the nomination if the fight between Whitman and Poizner turns into a high-spending "murder suicide."
Campbell's hopes of benefiting from a slugfest are seriously complicated, however, by his embrace of higher taxes in addition to lower spending to balance the budget.
New York 's Democratic Gov. David Paterson finds himself in so much political trouble that the Obama White House has pressured him to abandon a 2010 run for re-election. But rather than nudge Paterson out of the race, the White House pressure only served to stiffen the governor's spine at least, so far. Paterson, who went on the air with television ads in November, is seeking to cast his unpopularity as flowing from having to make a series of tough but right decisions on closing the state's $30 billion deficit.
During a recent appearance on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put to rest rumors that she might leave Obama's Cabinet to run for governor.
The Democrat waiting in the wings is Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. The son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo rubbed some in the African American community the wrong way by challenging Carl McCall, then the state comptroller and the first black official elected statewide in New York, in 2002. This time, Cuomo is quietly reaching out to the African American community and has not yet formally jumped into the race. He is still hoping that Paterson will decide to pull the plug on his run for re-election.
The Republican candidate for governor of New York is Rick Lazio, the former congressman who is best known for his 2000 Senate race against Clinton. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani flirted with a gubernatorial run for months but announced in November that he would not enter the race.
The consensus is that the governor's seat is safely in Democratic hands, assuming that Cuomo and not Paterson is the nominee. But what it takes to get Cuomo the Democratic nod remains to be seen.
The Lone Star State, where Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is challenging fellow Republican Gov. Rick Perry, is home to one of the most closely watched primaries in the nation. For several months, Hutchison said that she would resign her Senate seat in the fall of 2009 so that she could focus full-time on her gubernatorial campaign. She then reversed course last month and said that she was going to stay in the Senate while continuing to challenge Perry because Texas needs her in Washington fighting "ObamaCare" and cap-and-trade legislation.
Hutchison, who enjoys the support of former Vice President Cheney, is continuing to aggressively challenge Perry. But her decision to remain in the Senate while running for governor is a sign that she is hedging her bets and that Perry, who enjoys the support of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, has the upper-hand.
Although Perry has improved his chances in the primary by running to the right, Democrats are hoping that they can knock him off in November with Bill White, the popular mayor of Houston. Texas continues to lean Republican and the GOP is favored to win in November but White's entrance gives Democrats a glimmer of hope that they might be able to take back the governor's office for the first time since future President George W. Bush knocked off Democrat Ann Richards in 1994.
White had been weighing a run for Senate when it looked like Hutchison was going to resign. When he got into the governor's race, he took a shot at Perry for expressing sympathy with secessionists. "Shouldn't we be the state that leads the nation, not that leaves the nation?" said White.