Political Landscape For 2010 Election

With a number of prominent lawmakers announcing they will not seek re-election, what does the political landscape look like for the 2010 congressional elections?

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

This election year has just begun and already the political world is abuzz. Just yesterday, news broke that three leading Democrats will be retiring: veteran Senators Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, along with Colorado Governor Bill Ritter. Yet Republicans have just as many open seats to defend at this point.

Joining us to talk about the 2010 political landscape is NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, let's start with the news. The in-party always loses seats in off-year elections like this one. Do yesterday's Senate retirements make the outlook for Democrats a bit more challenging?

MARA LIASSON: Doesn't make it more challenging, it just reveals how dire it already was. I think that Byron Dorgan in North Dakota was facing a very tough, if not, impossible race against the sitting governor, John Hoeven, if he had decided to run, and he is expected to run. Polls there show that he was running very far ahead of Dorgan. In Connecticut, where Chris Dodd decided he wasn't going to stand for election, that retirement, actually, is a relief to Democrats. He already was a goner, a dead man walking.

And at least at the White House they feel strongly that they have a good candidate in the State Attorney General Blumenthal who could win there. And even in Colorado where Governor Bill Ritter announced he wouldn't run, there are potentially some good Democratic candidates, maybe Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, maybe even Ken Salazar, the interior secretary. It's not clear who's going to run there. So the situation was already pretty difficult for Democrats. I don't think what happened yesterday changes it that much.

NORRIS: And Colorado was one of those purple states that...

LIASSON: Right.

NORRIS: ...really could tilt either way. What's the overall outlook for the Senate?

LIASSON: Well, the overall outlook is that I think there's no one who would say the Democrats will have 60 votes after 2010. I think that will be a distant memory. I think that North Dakota is almost an automatic pick up for the Republicans. Most handicappers think the Democrats could lose anywhere from two to seven seats, although, change of control in the Senate is probably unlikely at this moment. It's not impossible. Wave elections have a very particular dynamic of their own. The last one we had in 1994 developed pretty late and that caught the Democrats off guard.

NORRIS: Let's talk about the House. How are things looking now?

LIASSON: Well, the big question remains: How many total retirements will there be? This is the month where we're going to see a rush to the exits if there's going to be one. People have had a chance to go home, talk to their families, talk to their pollsters, kind of figure out what they wanted to do. The filing deadline in many of these states is months away, but most people want to give their party a heads up, so they can recruit another candidate.

Right now, retirements in the House have slightly more Republicans retiring than Democrats. But don't let that fool you because Democrats are the ones who are bracing themselves for big losses. The only question is how big. Forty-one would be a switch in control, that would be a tidal wave. Anything over 25 losses I think would seriously change the dynamic of the House, make it much more difficult to pass legislation. You know, anything under that, under 20 probably would be manageable by the Democrats.

NORRIS: The Obama administration has a lot riding on this, in one word, healthcare. And beyond that there are many other issues in climate change and the banking bill and other things. How is the Obama administration calibrating their legislative strategy to account for all this - and does he have coattails?

LIASSON: Well, whether he has coattails is a really big question. He certainly didn't in those off-year gubernatorial elections. He's going to try to rejuvenate his coattails and rejuvenate that network of ardent supporters of his who've gotten a little disenchanted with him. But the legislative strategy is fewer tough votes for Democrats. Don't make them walk the plank so many times. They also - the White House also is going to try to send a very important message to the voters they want to get back - what they call the expansion voters: the Obama voters, African-Americans, young voters, Latino voters, new voters.

I think you're going to see the White House talk a lot about transparency, also about earmarks, about Wall Street. For independent voters who care a lot about the deficit, you're going to see the president lay out a plan to reduce the deficit. He's going to talk more about earmarks, also. I think in general you're going to hear a more populist message trying to remind those voters about the kind of change that they voted for.

NORRIS: Is the Republican Party, overall, in position to take advantage of these developments, these retirements or the president's lagging popularity?

LIASSON: Well, they certainly think they are. They're quite thrilled with each one of these democratic retirements. And I think in a lot of places they are. I mean, their voters are more enthusiastic. We see that in poll after poll. Republican voters show more intensity. That's a key factor in turn out - in a low turnout mid-term election.

NORRIS: Seems to be, though, some disarray within the party (unintelligible).

LIASSON: Well, certainly a lot of turmoil. I don't know about disarray, but a lot of turmoil. In Florida just recently, the Tea Party activist base, which is a very energized group of conservatives, got their first scalp. They got rid of the state Republican chair, handpicked by Charlie Crist, who's the moderate Republican, who's really struggling there in a primary against Marco Rubio who is the choice of the tea party activists. So, that - we - it still remains to be seen whether the Tea Party movement will energize the party or push it too far to the right, we don't know yet.

NORRIS: Thank you so much, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you.

NORRIS: That's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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