WASHINGTON -- Despite a badly damaged Republican brand that won't be in the majority anytime soon, independent campaign analysts say the GOP may make gubernatorial and House gains during the 2009-2010 election cycle.
The reasons have more to do with political geography than with any forecasts about what the economic climate will look like this year and next, when the off-year and midterm elections will be influenced by whether the nation's economy responds to President Obama's stimulus programs.
Republicans will just have more opportunities than the Democrats next time around in the congressional and gubernatorial races.
Little attention is being paid to the governorship battlegrounds right now, but in the next two years, 38 states will hold gubernatorial elections. More Democratic seats will be at stake (21) than Republican seats (17).
More important, there will be more vulnerable Democratic governorships in this cycle in heavily Republican states than vulnerable Republican ones in Democratic states.
"It's way too early to handicap overall prospects, but Republicans could make significant gains in governorships in 2010," elections analyst Nathan L. Gonzales wrote in the Rothenberg Political Report, which tracks the elections.
"Democrats must now defend in a number of GOP-leaning states (such as Kansas, Oklahoma, Wyoming and Tennessee) that they've held for six years but are coming open because of term limits," he says.
On the other hand, Republican chances of holding state houses appear bleak at this point in heavily Democratic California and smaller Democratic states like Hawaii and Rhode Island.
According to Rothenberg's preliminary count, three Democratic-held governorships leaned toward GOP takeovers (in Kansas, Oklahoma and Wyoming), and four other open Democratic seats (Michigan, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Virginia) were rated tossups.
On the Republican side, only five appeared up for grabs, including two tossups: South Dakota (open) and Nevada, where Gov Jim Gibbons "looks like he'll lose either in the primary or general election," Gonzales said.
In GOP-heavy Kansas, for example, the likely Republican nominee will be Sen. Sam Brownback, who is expected to be its next governor.
But Democrats have trouble elsewhere, too, in this year's only two gubernatorial contests in Virginia and New Jersey.
Democrats have had a good run in Virginia, winning back-to-back state house races, both Senate seats and two House elections, and putting the state in Obama's electoral column. But GOP prospects of winning the governorship this year look good.
Virginia Democrats are facing a bitter three-way primary fight, while former state Attorney General Bob McDonnell has clear sailing for the GOP nomination and a pile of campaign cash.
In New Jersey, Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine has grown increasingly unpopular -- 38 percent favorable and 48 percent unfavorable, according to a recent Fairleigh Dickinson poll. Republicans are rallying their party behind former U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie.
Corzine, who made millions on Wall Street as head of Goldman Sachs and spent $43 million on his last race, will plow whatever it takes into his re-election campaign. Veteran election trackers there say anyone with that much cash should not be underestimated. But Democrats this time around are worried that, even with his vast wealth, he could be pulled down by a worsening recession that has hit the state hard.
Meanwhile, the House remains firmly in the Democrats' grip. The GOP holds 178 seats and would need to win an insurmountable 40 more to put them into the majority.
But Republican prospects appear brighter in some districts they lost last year because of President Bush's unpopularity, the high Democratic Party energy level fueled by Obama's campaign and a severe recession.
Democrats do have better fundraising resources this time, because the party in power draws more money from special interests seeking influence on Capitol Hill.
But House Democrats face drawbacks, too. "They also currently hold many Republican-leaning, conservative districts, making those incumbents vulnerable to a likely drop-off in turnout in a midterm year," election tracker Stuart Rothenberg reported in his House Outlook for 2010.
"While it's far too early to put a number on net changes this cycle, Republicans simply have more opportunities for pickups than do Democrats," he said.
It goes without saying that the Senate is all but a lost cause next year for Republicans. Four GOP seats are at best tossups right now: Sen. Jim Bunning in Kentucky, who barely squeaked by in his last election, and three open seats in Florida, Missouri and Ohio, where Democrats have shown increasing strength.
Several other GOP incumbents face tough races in North Carolina, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and especially in Louisiana, where Sen. David Vitter is in trouble over his connection to a prostitution ring.
It's not a pretty picture for Republicans overall, but gains among the state governorships and in the House next year would show there is still life left in the GOP and that last year's obituaries were a bit premature.