March 10, 2010 -- When President Obama swept large Democratic majorities into Congress in 2008, the 2010 midterm elections looked as if they might be a snoozer.
But in the wake of Obama's declining poll numbers and the Democrats' shocking loss of the seat once held by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., the 2010 midterm elections are now shaping up as a critical showdown which could fundamentally alter the balance of power in Washington and in statehouses across the country.
Although Election Day 2010 is still 8 months away, here is an update on ten statewide contests -- three for governor and seven for the U.S. Senate -- that we identified as races worth watching in December.
Democrats got a boost in January when embattled Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., announced that he would not seek re-election in November after serving 30 years in the Senate.
The Democratic nominee will now be state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.
The Republican contest is a three-way race between Linda McMahon, the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment; Rob Simmons, a former congressman who narrowly lost his 2006 bid for re-election; and Peter Schiff, a libertarian Republican who advised Rep. Ron Paul's, R-Texas, 2008 presidential campaign.
McMahon, a multimillionaire who is spending heavily on her own race, is the favorite to win the GOP nod. Her campaign recently announced that she would have supported the bipartisan Senate jobs bill which was backed by newly elected Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass.
Democrats were dealt a major blow in January when state Attorney General Beau Biden, the son of Vice President Joe Biden, announced that he would not seek his father's former Senate seat.
The Republican nominee will be longtime Rep. Mike Castle.
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.
In Beau Biden's absence, the Democratic nominee will likely be New Castle County Executive Chris Coons (D).
Coons is working to position himself as an outsider even though his party controls both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. He recently told The Washington Post that as a local government official, he "saw a Washington that was often dysfunctional and more often part of the problem than part of the solution."
The Florida Senate race features the most high-profile primary in the nation. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a moderate Republican who backed President Obama's stimulus package, is being challenged by former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American who has been hailed by Rush Limbaugh as a "down-the-line conservative."
Crist has a big fundraising advantage but Rubio has harnessed the power of conservative Tea Party activists, landing himself on the cover of The New York Times Magazine and snagging the keynote speaking slot at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C.
The Crist campaign got some good news last month when Florida newspapers reported that Rubio had charged personal expenses to a credit card belong to the Florida Republican Party. Rubio repaid the funds and accused the Crist campaign of leaking the story as a way of distracting attention from the governor's poor political standing.
During his recent State of the State address, Crist voiced no regret for taking Florida's share of the stimulus money. "While not particularly pleasant for any of us, this step was the responsible thing to do for our people," said Crist. "I commend you for your maturity and responsibility."
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.
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 his health-care overhaul. Ferre is also calling on Meek to return contributions that he has received from Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., the former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee who stepped down from his powerful post earlier this month after coming under a House ethics probe.
The Missouri Senate race features two of the best-known families in state politics.
The Democratic candidate is Secretary of State Robin Carnahan. Her father is former Gov. Mel Carnahan, her mother is former Sen. Jean Carnahan, and her brother is Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-Mo. The Republican candidate is Rep. Roy Blunt, the former House Republican Whip, whose son, Matt, served as the state's governor from 2005-09.
Even though Democrats have lost statewide races in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts since President Obama took office, Democrats are hoping that Carnahan can use Blunt's many years of Washington experience against him.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (D.S.C.C.), has gone so far as to tell ABC's "Top Line" that Missouri is the party's best pick-up opportunity in 2010.
Republicans believe, however, that Carnahan will not be able to run as an outsider against Blunt given her family's long record of service in Washington.
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 a candidate against Reid. The top 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.
Reid enjoys a sizable war chest, as of Dec. 31, he had $8.7 million in cash on hand, but he has not yet turned around his poor political standing. On March 27, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is planning to inject herself into the Nevada Senate race when she travels to Reid's hometown of Searchlight, Nev., to address a "tea party" rally.
Facing a tough road to re-nomination as a Republican Sen. Arlen Specter shook up Washington in April 2009 when he announced that 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 (D), 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.
Sestak is aiming to appeal to Democratic primary voters by linking Specter and Toomey. "I'll debate Pat Toomey because it's the same as debating Arlen Specter," said Sestak recently. "They both voted to deregulate Wall Street to gamble with our savings. They both voted for the disastrous Bush tax policies that benefited the wealthy. . . . So I will be debating Arlen Specter under a different name."
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.
Although the three-time presidential candidate knows that he will be badly outspent by his Republican opponent, Brown is marketing himself as someone who has "insider's knowledge but an outsider's mind." He also is promising that there will be no tax increases unless Californians approve them at the ballot box.
On the Republican side, two candidates are vying for the nomination: former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner. (A third candidate, former Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Calif., recently ended his gubernatorial run and jumped into the Senate race for the seat currently occupied by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.).
Whitman, who worked under former presidential candidate Mitt Romney at Bain & Company, is the Republican frontrunner. She has a spotty record of voting but is seen as a potentially strong general election candidate with her tight focus on creating jobs, cutting spending, and fixing education.
Before Whitman can get to a race with Brown, she has to get past Poizner, a wealthy candidate in his own right, who is running to her right on cutting taxes, denying public benefits to the children of illegal immigrants, and public funding of abortion.
Before Whitman and Poizner went on the air with television ads, Mike Murphy, a Whitman strategist who guided John McCain's 2000 presidential bid, tried to get Poizner out of the race by promising that Whitman would get behind him in a 2012 run against Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Poizner alleged that Whitman was engaging in political extortion and asked law enforcement authorities to intervene. The Whitman camp responded to Poizner's criticism by portraying him as having come "unhinged."
New York Governor
After months of refusing to heed calls from the Obama White House to step aside, New York Gov. David Paterson (D) announced in February that he was ending his gubernatorial campaign amid a public uproar over his administration's intervention in a domestic violence case involving a close aide. Paterson's decision not to run for the office to which he ascended following the resignation of Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) is a big boost to Democrats who were worried that the scandal-tarred governor was unelectable.
The Democratic candidate for governor will now be state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. The son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo (D) has not yet formally entered the race but he has been quietly laying the groundwork for months by raising money, hiring staff, and lining up political support.
The Republican candidate for governor is Rick Lazio, the former congressman who is best known for his 2000 Senate race against then-First Lady Hillary Clinton.
During a recent appearance on ABCNews.com's "Top Line," Lazio called on Cuomo to appoint an independent special prosecutor to investigate the allegations surrounding Paterson. Lazio said Cuomo "or his agents" may have been behind stories "discrediting Paterson," and that the investigation needs to be conducted by someone without political ambitions that may present conflicts.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) was challenged in the March 2nd GOP primary by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) but he soundly defeated the veteran lawmaker by tying her to Washington. Perry now faces off against former Houston Mayor Bill White (D).
Democrats are hoping that Perry's primary run, in which he expressed sympathy with secessionists, will give them a chance of taking back the governor's office for the first time since future President George W. Bush knocked off Democrat Ann Richards in 1994.
Republicans, by contrast, think Perry will be able to hold onto the governor's office by portraying White as being too liberal for Texas. "Once Texans get a clear picture of Bill White's liberal record, I think they will collectively say, 'Houston, we have a problem,'" said Nick Ayers, the executive director of the Republican Governors Association, after White won his party's nomination.
The Ohio Senate race is a key test of whether an anti-Bush message retains any 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 because of the national environment plus Portman's fundraising advantage: the former Bush official has more than three times as much cash on hand as Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, his closest Democratic opponent.
Portman got some good news recently when wealthy car dealership owner Tom Ganley announced that he was dropping his Senate bid and switching to the 13th congressional district race.
Fisher does not have a free ride in the Democratic primary. He is being challenged by Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner. Despite her significant trouble raising money, Brunner is committed to the race and thinks Fisher, as the state's lieutenant governor, is vulnerable because Republicans will be attacking the "Strickland-Fisher economy" in both the gubernatorial and Senate contests.