RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We've been talking about elections all this week - the one last Tuesday, the presidential election a year ago and the midterms coming up next year. That's when 36 governors, 36 Senate seats, and the entire House of Representatives will be at stake. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson has this look ahead.
MARA LIASSON: Everyone agrees that, next year, Democrats will lose seats; the only question is how many. Here's Frank Donatelli, the chairman of GOPAC, which supports Republican candidates.
Mr. FRANK DONATELLI (Chairman, GOPAC): I'd say that the stage is set for a very strong Republican year in 2010. The combination of the president's unpopularity, high unemployment, poor economic conditions generally, give our party an opening to make major gains in Congress and the state legislatures.
LIASSON: Historically, the party that holds the White House almost always loses seats in its first midterm election. And when one party holds the White House, the House and the Senate, the losses tend to be bigger.
Political analyst Charlie Cook, who tracks all the races for the Cook Political Report, is predicting Democrats will lose between 15 and 25 House seats next year � a big dent in their 40-seat majority, but not as big as 1994 when Democrats lost control of the House.
Mr. CHARLIE COOK (Political Analyst, Cook Political Report): Keep in mind that in 1994, about 40 percent of the Democratic losses of the 52 seats that Democrats had, were in open seats. So, I think the key thing is, can Democrats keep their retirements down? The key variable is open seats, and the first filing deadlines start in December and January.
LIASSON: Since Tuesday's vote, Cook has changed his outlook on the Senate, moving more Democratic-held seats into the endangered column.
Stu Rothenberg, who also tracks the midterm election at his newsletter, agrees. Earlier this year, Rothenberg thought Democrats would hang on to their filibuster-proof 60-vote majority, but�
Mr. STU ROTHENBERG (Rothenberg Political Report): A lot of that has changed. Republican recruiting has improved. The Democrats are going to hold the Senate, continue to hold a significant majority in the Senate, but that 60 number really has been the key, although some would say that it hasn't been the key that they had hoped. Still, it is psychologically an important number. And now there's a chance that the Democrats could actually lose some Senate seats.
LIASSON: Although Tuesday's wins will certainly help Republicans raise money and recruit candidates, there are also warning signs for the GOP, because Republican conservatives and moderates could be heading into a season of fratricidal warfare. That's certainly what the Democrats are hoping.
Joel Benenson, President Obama's pollster, says the three-way special election in New York's 23rd Congressional District shows what happens when conservative grassroots activists rebel against a moderate Republican candidate - they split their vote and the Democrat won.
Mr. JOEL BENENSON (Pollster, President Obama): I think there's a cautionary note there, for Republicans as well, particularly if you're a moderate Republican � be very careful about letting that wing of the party come in and try to push you around, 'cause they may have paid a price for that in New York 23.
LIASSON: With an eye on the midterms, the White House and congressional leaders are trying to pass the president's health care bill as soon as possible so that next year they can focus almost exclusively on what voters on Tuesday said they cared about most � the economy and jobs.
But many Democrats from swing districts are more nervous than ever about following the president's lead. Mr. Obama's political adviser, David Axelrod, is trying to convince them to stay on board.
Mr. DAVID AXELROD (Political Adviser, President Barack Obama): I don't think anybody realistically, who understands politics, can believe that the route to re-election is to run away from the path that the president is charting. I don't think that's a prescription for success. And history, Mara, shows that's the case. I mean, there's a lot of chatter about '94. I don't think it's relevant, because there were a lot of Democrats then who thought walking away from health care and walking away from the president was a way to get re-elected, and they all lost.
LIASSON: Democrats now believe one of the reasons they lost the House in 1994 was because they didn't pass President Clinton's health care bill. And there's something else that's different now, says Axelrod. In 1994, the Republican Party had strong approval ratings � today they're at an all-time low, only 20 percent of voters identify themselves as Republicans.
But former Republican Congressman, Tom Davis, who used to run his party's Congressional Campaign Committee, says Republicans don't have to worry too much, next year, about their lousy image.
Mr. TOM DAVIS (Former Republican Representative, Virginia): The midterms are going to be all about Obama and the Democrats. It's not going to be about the Republicans. So, that gives the Republicans an advantage. People can vote for a Republican in a midterm, knowing they're not putting them back into power, they're just putting a check on Obama. And there is some comfort to a lot of voters.
LIASSON: And Davis, who's a close reader of political history, says voters often choose that comfort.
Mr. DAVIS: There's a reason, that over the last 60 years, three-fourths of the time we've had divided government. And that is that the public, and particularly independent voters, don't really trust either party. And they like divided government. We get a lot of good things happen � balanced budget act, welfare reform � when you have divided government.
LIASSON: The appeal of a check on the majority party, added to anti-incumbent anger, combined with a high unemployment rate will make next year's election a very difficult one for the Democrats.
Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
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