The Big Issues
The economy doesn't just top the list of issues shaping the political environment this fall. It dominates that list. Earlier, the administration came up with the phrase "recovery summer" to highlight the progress the economy has made since President Obama took office. Since then the economy has hit another rocky patch. The jobs report released Friday showed the unemployment rate ticking up to 9.6 percent. In the second quarter, the economy grew at a rate of just 1.6 percent, a downward revision from initial estimates and slower than in the first quarter. The administration's stimulus package prevented the downturn from becoming even worse, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But the public's view of the stimulus is far less positive. The economy's impact can be seen in races across the country. Nevada, hit hard by the foreclosure crisis, now has the nation's highest unemployment rate. In California, the downturn has contributed to the state's enormous economic and budgetary problems and affected statewide races there. In Ohio, anti-free-trade sentiment and the decline of manufacturing jobs color key statewide contests and a series of competitive House races.
Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) said her vote in March in favor of the health-care bill was "probably the most difficult" of her career -- and she could pay the price in November. Sen. Scott Brown's (R-Mass.) win in a special Senate election in Massachusetts early this year forced Democrats to rethink their health-care strategy, but they wound up getting the bill through the House and making changes afterward. Most recent polling shows that the law continues to be controversial, and a new Washington Post-ABC News poll has voters about evenly split on whether to trust Democrats or Republicans on health care. Just six months ago, Democrats had a double-digit lead on the issue.
"Reckless government spending" is a perennial issue for Republicans, but in a cycle in which candidates are being targeted for their votes on the Troubled Assets Relief Program, the stimulus plan and the health-care overhaul, incumbents in both parties are at risk -- and the ascendancy of the "tea party" movement only increases the pressure. Watch the Missouri Senate race, where Secretary of State Robin Carnahan (D) has hammered Rep. Roy Blunt (R) for his TARP vote. Will Blunt follow Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), who was ousted by his party earlier this year for supporting TARP?
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's signing of the nation's strictest immigration bill stirred a national debate about the issue. While Republican strategists fret that it could damage the party's relationship with Hispanic voters in the long term, the short-term political gains have all been on the GOP side, as polling suggests that a majority of voters back the Arizona law. Brewer is a prime example of how the bill has benefited Republicans: She went from deeply vulnerable to a solid favorite this fall in her race against state Attorney General Terry Goddard.
Races to Watch
Click a race to read more and to see a list of candidates, financial
information and election history.
Is history a predictor?
The president's party has lost House seats in all but two of the last 14 midterm elections. It tended to lose more seats when the president's September approval rating was less than 50%.
Obama's approval rating is 46%.
*For August before he resigned the presidency. Gerald Ford's approval rating in September of 1974 was 66%.
SOURCE: Gallup Poll for data 1954 through 1978; 1982 through 2010 from Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Indicators that Matter
The best way to measure which way -- and how strong -- the political winds are blowing nationally is the "generic ballot" question (would you vote for the Democratic or Republican candidate in your district?). A GOP tilt on this question is rare, and the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll has registered voters split 47 percent for Republicans and 45 percent for Democrats. Likely voters prefer the GOP by a 13-point margin.
In 2008, Barack Obama won independent voters, who made up nearly 30 percent of the electorate, by eight percentage points -- a critical piece of his national victory. Two years later, however, Obama's appeal among independents has faded badly, with most -- 57 percent -- now disapproving of the job he is doing, according to the new Post-ABC poll.
Traditionally, turnout in midterm elections is far lower than in presidential years. That dropoff puts the onus on both parties' political bases -- the most dependable voters -- to vote for their side. Polling conducted in targeted states and nationally suggests that Republicans have a significant enthusiasm edge and are therefore that more likely to vote in November.
Economists dismiss the unemployment rate as an overly simplistic assessment of the relative strength or weakness of the economy. But it is an easily consumable number that most Americans use to gauge how the financial ship of state is doing. The 9.6 percent unemployment rate -- a slight upward tick from July -- is worrisome for Democrats, who had hoped the economy might be showing signs of life as summer turns to fall.
Democrats have spent the past 20 months working to build a financial firewall that can protect them from the onrushing Republican challenges. At the end of July, the three Democratic campaign committees held cash-on-hand edges over their Republican counterparts. The central question is whether that money advantage can stem the GOP momentum as the fall campaign begins in earnest.
Candidates who have raised the most in competitive races
Looking for more information on campaign spending? Use this interactive table to track campaign spending by interest groups and political parties in the 2010 midterm elections.
Mid-term roundup: Print and save
Collected all in one place in the print edition, these pages give you everything you need to know. Click on the page to view.