Midterm Races Could Hold Key to White House, Congress in 2012

President Obama's name is not on the ballot Nov. 2, but his chance at a second term in the White House could be on the line.

As the president and top Democratic surrogates like Bill Clinton criss-cross the country to campaign for their party's gubernatorial candidates, party operatives are looking ahead to what this year's race will mean for 2012.

And so far, it's not looking good for Democrats.

Several peculiarities in the 2010 landscape could have great bearing on the next election. For starters, Republicans are projected to pick up several seats in the 37 governors' races being held next Tuesday. That could give whoever is running as the GOP presidential nominee in 2012 a powerful surrogate at the helm of a number of key swing states.

In addition, this year's governors' races coincide with the 2010 Census, the national head count that will be used as the basis for reshaping congressional districts nationwide. The governors, by virtue of their veto pen and other factors, have considerable sway over that process -- and if Republicans make the kind of gains forecasters predict, the party will be poised to redraw the congressional map to their advantage come 2012. This would help the party either build, or reinforce, a congressional majority two years from now, while having a more indirect impact on the presidential race.

Finally, projections show that when the districts are redrawn, red states will likely end up gaining seats in Congress while blue states will lose them. For Obama, this means a more grueling and challenging climb to the 270 electors needed to secure reelection in 2012 -- the number of electors each state has is based on the number of its congressional seats, and if deep-red states like Texas grow, that's bad news for the sitting president.

"The states that are going to gain congressional seats are the ones that John McCain won," said David Avella, executive director of Republican recruitment arm GOPAC.

All these factors are on the minds of Republicans who, in some cases, are plotting a two-cycle path to Washington domination. The Republican Governors Association publicly claims that its races in 2010 are the key to a 2012 wave.

"The RGA believes Republicans won't win back the U.S. Senate, House or presidency until first reclaiming a majority of governorships for the GOP," the group says on its website.

Democratic governors provided Obama a big boost in the 2008 presidential election in several battleground states -- Democrats were at the helm of nearly every "purple" state Obama won, from Colorado to Virginia to Ohio to Iowa.

But what if some of those seats change hands? Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland was an enthusiastic advocate for Obama's presidential campaign in 2008, but now he's fighting for his political life against GOP candidate John Kasich. Republican gubernatorial candidates are poised to take back Democratic seats in Obama-supporting Pennsylvania, Iowa and Michigan, among other states. The storied battleground of Florida is still a toss-up in the race between Republican Rick Scott and Democrat Alex Sink.

Avella said the outcomes play heavily into the 2012 presidential race.

"The governor controls the political machinery for his party," he said. He said Republican governors will be able to leverage fundraising networks in support of the GOP nominee as well as shape legislative agendas that could rally Republican voters in the next cycle.

Plus, most of the new governors -- as well as the state legislatures -- will have sway over the redistricting process, one of the biggest prizes to come out of the Nov. 2 midterms.

"That's why the governor's (seat) is so important at this particular time" said Jerry Shuster, political communication professor at the University of Pittsburgh. "It's a critical time for both parties and they know that."

Governors can help shape congressional districts for the benefit of their party's incumbents and challengers; for Republicans, this would mean upping their chances at a congressional takeover in 2012 if they fall short next month. This process also can have an indirect effect on the presidential race. Avella noted that a boost in the number of Republican-friendly congressional districts could give more momentum to GOP candidates, and in turn rally more GOP operatives and money to turn out the vote for the presidential nominee.

While Obama would not have to worry in most states about the shape of congressional districts -- presidential electors are divvied up based on the popular vote in each state -- the individual districts come into play in Maine and Nebraska. Those two states have a hybrid system where the votes in each congressional district factor into which presidential candidate wins their electors.

More importantly, a study released at the end of September showed that blue states stand to lose about a half-dozen districts while red states stand to scoop up about that many as a result of the redistricting process.

The analysis from Election Data Services projected that Texas, a GOP stronghold, would gain a whopping four congressional districts. New York, a Democratic powerhouse, would lose two, according to the data.

Shuster said the impact of those shifts on the White House race depends on a host of factors. If the economy starts to turn around, it's a "limited" issue, he said. But if Republicans field a strong candidate and the economy stagnates for another two years, "then it has the possibility of having an impact on the outcome of the election."