Are the Democrats celebrating the right things?

The Democrats are excited. Not without just cause. But perhaps about the wrong things.

The present unpopularity of President George W. Bush is causing Democratic commentators to dream of capturing both Houses of Congress in 2006, as the prelude to a Democrat victory for the presidency in 2008. I'd say such forecasts are way premature, if not outright utopian.

Where the Democrats can take considerable satisfaction is in the three gubernatorial elections of 2005. I'm including the recounted and court-challenged Washington state election, as well as Tuesday night's more orderly elections in New Jersey and Virginia.

The was every reason to fear that the Republicans could win all three, one by judicial review (Washington), one because of scandals affecting local Democrats (New Jersey), and one by simply not having as good a candidate as the previous one (Virginia). This would have left the Democrats with 19 Governors to the Republicans' 31.

So 2005 is an excellent year for the Democrats in terms of containing the Republicans, given that there have been no opportunities for making electoral gains so far.

Next year's Congressional elections are unlikely to see any change of control for purely technical reasons. The House of Representatives is showing a falling number of truly competitive seats (28 according to Charlie Cook [see "Political Dashboard"]). The Republicans only need to win three (they currently hold 17 of them) to retain control of the House.

In the Senate, another bad tactical situation exists for the Democrats. Last year they were defending 19 Senate seats to 15 Republican, the Democrats promptly made a net loss of four seats. In 2006, the Democrats will be defending 17 Senate seats (plus the Independent seat of Jim Jeffords in Vermont). The Republicans will only be defending 15 seats and would need to lose at least a third of them to lose control of the Senate. At this stage, I don't see this as likely.

Where the Democrats really have chances are in the gubernatorial elections. No fewer than 36 States are due to elect a Governor in November 2006. Only 14 are Democrats, and a staggering 22 are Republicans. Here's were the opportunity to do some real damage lies.

California, Florida, New York and Texas are the big four states with 147 electoral college votes for the presidential elections in 2006 and 2010. All four presently have Republican governors who are up for re-election. Two of them, Jeb Bush in Florida and George Pataki in New York will not be seeking re-election. Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected in California during a special election in 2003, he would do extremely well at this stage to win a primary and general election. That leaves Texas.

Among the other states up for election there are plenty of chances for both sides. For the party in opposition nationally, this is the kind of scenario campaigners need.

A reasonable set of goals for 2006 would seem to be to make whatever gains in the House of Representatives are possible. In the Senate to come away with any increase would be a satisfactory outcome (the real chance for change will be in 2008, when 19 Republican senators face the voters). But in the gubernatorial contests the target has to be to win back at least California and New York, and pick off several other states. A majority of the Governors should be the goal of the Democrats for next year.

Meanwhile, of course we have the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel Alito. At this stage I can't see him failing to be nominated to the Supreme Court bench, replacing Sandra Day O'Connor. Judge Alito won't have to be a hardline conservative to tilt the balance of the court away from liberalism. In the long run, that may be the biggest election of the year.

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