This week's State of the Union was a policy speech but also, perhaps, the unofficial kickoff of a long election year… and for many of the senators who sat in the chamber, there'll be plenty of hot races to follow in the months to come.
To start by putting the 2010 elections in some context: Senate Democrats come into this year buffeted by the Massachusetts turnover, after being on quite a roll over the last two cycles.
In the last two elections Senate Democrats have gained 15 Republican seats, 14 at the polls plus Arlen Specter's switch -- the largest two-cycle gain in 72 years. And more immediately it made for a stunning reversal coming off the 2004 election, erasing a 10 seat deficit and (until last week) had produced a filibuster-proof Senate, at least on some issues.
Looking across the national Senate landscape, the polarization that has gripped the nation's politics of late is highlighted by the fact that 35 of the 50 states are represented by two senators from the same political party (counting the independents who caucus with the Democrats; and until Scott Brown's election it was 36)… 20 of those 35 are eastern or southern states, where one party has dominated in recent years.
After the 2008 election, the Senate map seemed quite foreboding for Republicans. 19 of the 41 Republican Senators (46 percent of the caucus) hail from southern and border states. Combining New England and the Mid-Atlantic, 19 of 22 seats there are held by Democrats, a +16 advantage that trumped the +8 seat advantage Republicans accrued in the southern and border states.
In the remainder of the country, where Republicans had been at parity, or even ahead of the Democrats, the GOP had sustained enormous erosion. In the Rocky Mountain and Pacific Coast states, Democrats gained six seats, and now hold a 16-10 advantage. Even in the rural Midwestern states (North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas), Democrats and Republicans both hold 5 seats, while the Democrats have dominated the industrial mid-west (Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Missouri) by a lopsided 11-3 margin.
Heading into 2010
But in the upcoming election, Republicans are challenging Democratic holdings in all sections of the country, including Delaware and Pennsylvania in East, Nevada and Colorado in the west, North Dakota and Illinois in the Midwest and Arkansas in the south.
At this point we see at least eight states that look like they'll host some of the hottest contests -- five of these eight are Democratic-held, three of them are Republican. Notable among the Democrats on this list are Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada, and recently converted Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania. Seats in Colorado, Arkansas, and Mr. Obama's home state of Illinois also look to be competitive races for Democrats this year.
But note that Republicans have Senate seats to defend too, including in states Mr. Obama carried (Ohio, New Hampshire) and will face a hot contest in Missouri as well.
Pending Republican retirements in Ohio (George Voinovich), Kentucky (Jim Bunning) and Missouri (Christopher Bond) could lead to close-fought contests. In Missouri, Democrats have recruited a top tier candidate, Secretary of State Robin Carnahan. Two Democrats are vying for the nomination in Ohio.
Here are 8 states that right now figure to see heated contests between the parties.
|Illinois||D-Open (Current: Roland Burris)|
|Missouri||R-Open (Current: Kit Bond)|
|Nevada||D - Harry Reid|
|New Hampshire||R-Open (Current: Judd Gregg)|
|Ohio||R-Open (Current: George Voinovich)|
|Pennsylvania||D - Arlen Specter|
Eight other states look either competitive or potentially competitive, depending on how candidates and campaigns shape up later this year. Four of these are Democratic and four Republican.
|Connecticut||D-Open (Current: Chris Dodd)|
|Kentucky||R-Open (Current: Jim Bunning)|
|Delaware||D-Open (Current: Ted Kaufman)|
|Florida||R-Open (Current: George LeMieux)|
|North Carolina||R-Richard Burr|
|North Dakota||D-Open (Current: Byron Dorgan)|
In some of these states, much may depend on the candidates and the primaries; who emerges and what if any scars or strengths they carry out of those battles. There's a competitive one in Kentucky on both sides, though this has become a fairly red state for national candidates and in the current environment it may be a slightly more uphill climb for a Democrat. This summer, eyes on Florida will focus a lot on the GOP primary between Marco Rubio and Charlie Crist in August, which could impact how the General Election then shapes up.
In North Dakota, a red (though not all-that-red) state where Byron Dorgan will retire, the GOP has very high hopes for a turnover, with popular Gov. John Hoeven vying. In Delaware, GOP Rep. Mike Castle enters the race as another solid chance for the Republicans to gain in a blue state, as Vice President Joe Biden's son Beau has declined to run for the Democrats.
Remember, it's early, and candidates - which aren't always known now - always matter in the end. There's still the chance, especially after a string of party victories, that strong would-be Republican candidates will feel a wave rising and jump in to catch it in states that the Democrats might not be expecting a contest now.
As the spring comes, keep an eye for candidates who might try to test the waters even in blue states like New York and Washington, or marginal Obama states like Indiana.
On the other side, if national factors like the economy are seen to improve, some of those states that Mr. Obama carried like Florida and North Carolina might get tougher for the GOP, again depending on the candidates. It's an election year, sure… emphasis on the word year.
Anthony Salvanto is CBS News Elections Director. Mark Gersh is Washington Director, National Committee for an Effective Congress, and a CBS News Consultant.