Republicans Seek Gains on Bailouts, Health Care: Races to Watch

With two weeks to go until the midterm elections, Bloomberg Businessweek takes a look at eight key contests

(Bloomberg) — With the Nov. 2 midterm elections less than two weeks away, political analysts are focusing on races that will help determine whether Republicans oust Democrats from control of the U.S. House and Senate and how the two parties fare in gubernatorial races. Bloomberg Businessweek takes a look in its Oct. 25 issue at eight key contests, from coast to coast, that illustrate some of the issues, trends and voter dynamics at work in the 2010 campaign. These factors include turnout concerns facing Democrats, public opposition to the Troubled Asset Relief Program and the health-care overhaul, and the role of spending by pro-Republican outside groups.

Indiana: Early Clue

When Democrat Baron Hill won his U.S. House race in 2006, he retook the Indiana seat from the Republican who had bounced him from office two years earlier. Hill's return signaled a national wave that put his party in control of Congress. This year, Republicans hope to once again defeat Hill in this competitive district in the state's southeast corner.

With polls closing at 6 p.m. Eastern, the outcome may provide an early glimpse of what's in store nationwide. Hill faces a new Republican challenger, local prosecutor Todd Young. A Hill loss could indicate "a really bad night for the Democrats," said Brian Vargus, a political scientist at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. The district — which includes Bloomington, home of Indiana University, and which Obama lost to John McCain by 1 percentage point in 2008 — "is the type Republicans should win in a wave," said Nathan Gonzales of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.

Virginia: Turnout Crucial

Buoyed by college students and blacks energized by Barack Obama's presidential bid, Democrat Tom Perriello two years ago won a U.S. House seat in Virginia by 727 votes — in percentage terms, the nation's closest congressional contest. This year, his race against Republican Robert Hurt, a state senator, tests whether Democrats can survive without Obama on the ticket and with their records including such unpopular votes as the health- care overhaul passed in March.

In the largely rural district that includes the University of Virginia, about 20 percent of 2008's voters were African American, and the college yielded 4,000 new Democratic backers. Many of those have graduated, while newcomer students don't seem as motivated. "Perriello would be lucky to get a third" as many to the polls, said David Wasserman of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Perriello raked in $3.1 million by Oct. 15 to Hurt's $1.7 million. Still, polls show him lagging Hurt, who excoriates government's growth.

West Virginia: Senate Control

Democrat Joe Manchin is the popular West Virginia governor vying for the Senate seat opened up by Robert Byrd's death in June. An Oct. 12 survey by Public Policy Polling, though, shows 47 percent of voters would prefer Manchin, who won re-election with 70 percent of the vote in 2008, remain as governor. He's also battling Obama's unpopularity in the state; the lost it in 2008 by 13 percentage points. The upshot may be a crucial Republican win that helps the party gain the 10 seats it needs for Senate control.

Republican businessman John Raese has turned the contest into a toss-up by urging West Virginians to do their part to put a check on Obama. To counter that argument, Manchin in one ad dons a hunter's outfit and, toting a shotgun, promises to "get the federal government off our backs." The ad ends with Manchin shooting a bullet through Obama-backed climate-change legislation — disliked in the coal-rich state — that's nailed to a tree.

Ohio: Obama Visits

Obama was back in Columbus, Ohio, on Oct. 17 for a get-out- the-vote rally on the Ohio State University campus. It was his 11th trip to the state since taking office — and his fourth to Columbus. One of his aims is to aid U.S. Representative Mary Jo Kilroy, a freshman Democrat battling for another term.

Obama himself, though, has plenty to gain from reminding Ohio voters why they backed him in 2008. He won Kilroy's district by 9 percentage points, while she eked out a 2,311-vote win. Polls show Kilroy trailing this year after supporting Obama's health-care bill, the economic stimulus package, and new rules for the nation's financial markets.

Some Obama voters are rethinking their support for the president and his party. "I just think we need a change," said Gordon Reis, a resident of Worthington, Ohio. He said he plans to vote for just one Democrat this year — a county commission candidate — after voting for Obama and Kilroy in 2008.

Texas: TARP Vote

There's no shortage of Democratic candidates under fire for having cast unpopular votes in the last two years. One of those is Texas Democrat Chet Edwards, a 10-term House incumbent who has hung onto his heavily Republican district, wedged between Dallas and Austin, in part by rejecting some of his party's biggest priorities. This term, he opposed Obama's health-care overhaul. He gave Republican challenger Bill Flores an opening with votes for TARP and the stimulus plan, which the lawmaker concedes might finally do him in.

"It may cost me an election," Edwards told the Dallas Morning News. "But it was the right thing to do." Analysts give Flores the edge, even though most Republican leaders in Congress voted for TARP, too. News that the bank bailout will cost about $50 billion, a fraction of what was initially projected, may be too late for Edwards.

Colorado: Outside Spending

Colorado may be Republican Karl Rove's next proving ground. Independent groups, two of which the one-time political strategist for former President George W. Bush helped start, are pouring money into the state. Between Sept. 1 and Oct. 17, outside groups reported spending $13.6 million in Colorado, more than in any other state, with $8.5 million helping Republican candidates.

"You can't have your television on for 10 or 15 minutes without seeing at least two or three ads saying that someone shouldn't have been born," said Kenneth Bickers, chairman of the University of Colorado at Boulder's political science department. The Rove groups, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, raised $56 million and spent $3.7 million through Oct. 17 to oppose Democratic Senator Michael Bennet, who is in a tight race with Republican Ken Buck, a favorite of Tea Party activists seeking reduced government. Colorado also has three House Democrats — Ed Perlmutter, John Salazar, and Betsy Markey — battling to survive politically, making them vulnerable to attacks. The outside money may tilt the balance.

Nevada: Tea Party Test

Even Las Vegas oddsmakers would be hard-pressed to pick this one. Polls show the contest in Nevada between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Sharron Angle, a Tea Party-backed Republican, is one of the nation's closest. It may well be the most important, too. The race has become a proxy for whether Tea Party insurgents who overcame opposition from many elected Republicans to win primaries can go on to triumph in general elections.

And in the case of Angle, she is trying to defeat one of the leaders of the party in power. Obama has rallied around Reid, with the president set to make his third appearance in the state tomorrow. Reid needs all the help he can get — Angle raised more than $14 million in the year's third quarter to his $2.8 million. Much of the spending has gone toward attack ads. When the candidates faced off in an Oct. 14 debate, Reid repeatedly called Angle extreme, while Angle called on Reid to "man up" in dealing with the long-term financing of the Social Security program.

Oregon: Governor's Race

The anti-politician mood evident in much of the U.S. is bolstering the prospects of Republican Chris Dudley in Oregon's gubernatorial race, as the political newcomer seeks to break the state's streak of six straight Democratic chief executives. If Dudley prevails, he would be part of a net gain in Republican governors that some analysts say could go as high as eight and may include replacing Democratic administrations in such major states as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

That would put the party in enviable shape as states prepare to redraw their political boundaries in the wake of the 2010 Census. Dudley, a former center on the Portland Trail Blazers basketball team, is in a tight race with Democrat John Kitzhaber to replace retiring Governor Ted Kulongoski. Kitzhaber, governor from 1995 to 2003, argues his experience will benefit a state with 10.6 percent unemployment. Dudley, literally a towering figure at 6-foot-11, said his lack of a political pedigree is an asset. Oregon's balloting is mail-in or hand-in by 8 p.m. local time on Nov. 2. Results are announced on Election Day after 11 p.m. Eastern.

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