The midterm election is two weeks away - on Nov. 2 - with early voting under way in many states. So what's at stake for voters and what's driving them? Brian Gaines is a professor of political science at the University of Illinois, and also part of its Institute of Government and Public Affairs. He studies polling, public opinion and voting behavior, and also closely follows Illinois politics. Gaines was interviewed by News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
What's at the heart of the voter anger we keep hearing about?
"The economy" is the best two-word answer to why the electorate is edgy, but many are also angry about the size and scope of government. Tea party events have featured a lot of discussion of respecting the Constitution, reviving the 10th Amendment (regarding powers reserved for the states or the people), reining in government, and increasing transparency of the law-making process.
What's your take on the tea party and its influence? Where does it go after the election?
Much depends on whether prominent individuals who are embracing the tea party label actually win. Rand Paul, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Kentucky, is one example, but if Carly Fiorina can beat Barbara Boxer, then California, of all places, will have a senator who has been boosted by the movement.
I would not expect a full-blown third party to emerge, so I think the dynamics of tea party activism will play out within the Republican Party. GOP leadership has to walk a fine line between being responsive without being hijacked. Tea partiers have generated a great deal of energy, but they project impatience with compromise, and legislators cannot easily deliver on big demands, particularly under divided government.
In the 1994 midterm election, two years into Bill Clinton's first term, the Republicans famously swept into the U.S. Congress, wresting the majority from Democrats in both the House and Senate. So how much is 2010 like 1994?
One key difference is that the (possible) tsunami was visible much sooner this time. Even as late as October 1994, few disinterested observers were predicting a GOP takeover.
This time, by Labor Day, everyone seemed to agree that the Democrats are in for a pounding - pundits, the betting markets, most political-science forecasters, you name it. If I had to bet today, I'd say that 2010 will resemble 1994 in that there will be very substantial GOP gains across the board, from statehouses to the U.S. Senate, and John Boehner will be the speaker of the U.S. House come January.
Lest I turn out to be wrong, one reason to doubt the consensus is money. For the GOP to win more than 40 U.S. House seats, while losing only a handful, dozens of challengers must beat incumbents who will have out-spent them by more than 2 to 1. That's not impossible, and the huge swing of 1994 was not, in the main, created by unusually strong or well-funded challengers.
Still, I can almost persuade myself that many battle-tested Democrats who enjoy big edges in cash-on-hand and who have two weeks left to hammer their challengers, might yet succeed in redefining the election as a choice between individuals, not a referendum on their party's record.
What about the large spending by independent groups, reportedly favoring Republicans by a wide margin?
We won't know how much was spent until long after the election, but for all of the rumbling about Karl Rove funding shadowy groups with secret donors, Democrats will out-spend Republicans in 2010 - though the nation's top spending candidate will probably be Meg Whitman, the Republican candidate for governor of California. She might actually lose, however, even as she spends well over 100 million of her own dollars on the campaign.
Every 10 years, states must redraw their congressional and state legislative districts to deal with population changes, and next year will be the year for doing that. In many states, that process depends on which parties control the state legislature and the governorship. What does that mean for this fall's election?
Redistricting is beneath the radar for many voters and journalists, but is vitally important to the parties. The national and state party organizations are trying very hard not to get shut out of the process in any big state, whether that means putting extra money into a governor's race or into several targeted state legislative contests.
In Illinois, the Republican Party is desperate for a Brady (gubernatorial) victory, to prevent unified Democratic control and a quick Democratic gerrymander. Illinois law is quirky, insofar as a stalemate - as has usually occurred with divided government - is broken by a lottery to give one party the right to draw the map alone. The state GOP has suffered under a Democratic map two of the last three decades, including the one now ending, and they would love to get at least an even shot at drawing the next map.
What's your prediction for Nov. 2? And what are the races to watch?
I expect GOP gains in the Illinois General Assembly, but not control of either chamber. I also expect Brady to beat (Gov. Pat) Quinn, by a few points. At the national level, I'll say 226 Republicans to 209 Democrats in the House, and 50 Democrats and 48 Republicans in the Senate, along with two independents who are de facto Democrats.
Watch the Washington Senate race, where Dino Rossi, the Republican challenger to incumbent Patty Murray, lost the governorship in 2004 on a third recount that his supporters are still fuming was fraudulent. The Nevada contest between embattled and unpopular Harry Reid and tea party maverick Sharon Angle is going down to the wire, and will be consequential if only because the Democrats will need a new leader - probably still the majority leader - should Angle complete her improbable rise.
In Illinois, the two top-of-the-ticket races (governor and senate) are polling as near-ties two weeks out. A possible bellwether race is the 17th congressional district. I can't see Democratic incumbent Phil Hare losing to Bobby Schilling unless the Republicans comfortably take the U.S. House. For the impatient, Indiana's 9th congressional results will be announced early in the evening, and if Todd Young beats Democratic incumbent Baron Hill, expect a good night for the GOP and a good night for Democrats to turn off election coverage and go to the movies.