Friday Senate Line: Two Old Bulls in Trouble
The last several weeks have not been kind to two senators — one Democrat, one Republican — who came to Congress together nearly three decades ago.
The Democrat is Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.) who found himself caught up in the furor over bonuses granted to AIG executives, the latest in a string of negative stories for Dodd — Countrywide, the Irish cottage — that have badly imperiled his chances at reelection. And, Republicans have recruited a top-tier candidate to challenge Dodd in former Connecticut Rep. Rob Simmons.
The Republican is Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) who, as recently as a month ago, appeared to be headed to his easiest reelection race in recent memory. But, that was before his vote for the $787 billion economic stimulus bill drove former Rep. Pat Toomey (R) into a near-certain primary challenge. Specter, who narrowly defeated Toomey six years ago, quickly moved to shore up his ideological right flank — flip flopping to oppose the Employee Free Choice Act. Should Specter win the primary — and that is very much up in the air — his change of position on EFCA could hurt his general election appeal in a state as labor-heavy as Pennsylvania.
Both races crack the top five in our latest Senate Line. The number one ranked race is the most likely to switch parties in 2010.
To the Line!
10. Illinois (D): Trying to predict what appointed Sen. Roland Burris (D) will do tomorrow much less next fall is a fool’s errand. But, whether or not Burris decides to run for a full term, there are several heavyweights lining up to get into the race. Former commerce secretary Bill Daley is all-but-in and we hear that state Attorney General Lisa Madigan is leaning toward a bid as well. And, don’t forget Alexi Giannoulias, the youthful state treasurer who is also very interested in running. Republicans’ best (only?) chance at winning this seat rests in Rep. Mark Kirk who is expected to make a decision on the race next month. (Previous ranking: 9)
9. Colorado (D): Appointed Sen. Michael Bennet has made a solid debut so far although his wishy-washiness on the Employee Free Choice Act has turned him into something of public punching bag on the right and the left. Bennet, a virtual unknown before he was named to replace Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, is clearly vulnerable in 2010. But, there doesn’t appear to be a serious primary challenge in the offing (does former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff really want to risk his “rising star” status on a race against a sitting senator?) and the Republican field has been slow to take shape. The most likely GOP candidate seems to be former Rep. Bob Beauprez but his disastrous 2006 run for governor raises questions about his political strength. Some within the GOP are excited about the possible candidacy of Ryan Frazier, a 31-year old African American member of the Aurora City Council. (Previous ranking: 10)
8. Louisiana (R): Sen. David Vitter dodged a major hurdle earlier this month when Family Research Council president Tony Perkins decided not to challenge him in the Republican primary. Perkins had run for the Senate once before (in 2002) and his social conservative platform would have highlighted the foibles in Vitter’s personal life. Secretary of State Jay Dardenne remains a potential primary challenger to Vitter but the longer he waits, the more money and establishment support Vitter can stockpile. The Democratic side is bereft of candidates at the moment with former Rep. Don Cazayoux and state Sens. Rob Marionneaux and Eric LaFleur mulling at the moment. If no Democrat announces in the near term, watch for Shaw Group CEO Jim Bernhard, who has been itching to run statewide for several years, to make a move. (Previous ranking: 7)
7. Florida (R): We keep hearing whispers that Gov. Charlie Crist (R) is going to run for the open Senate seat — although his people remain mum on the subject. The race makes sense for Crist, who wants to run for president in 2012, on two levels: first, it gets him out of an impossible budget situation in Florida and second, it allows him to joust with President Obama on federal issues on a daily basis. If Crist runs, it’s hard to see Democrats winning. Rep. Kendrick Meek (D) continues to draw kudos on the campaign trail although it’s not clear what the shape of the Democratic primary will be just yet. (Previous ranking: 5)
6. Ohio (R): To date, the Ohio race may be Republicans’ biggest success story this cycle. Former Rep. Rob Portman (R) got into the race early and managed to clear the primary field. Since then he has stayed below the radar, presumably to focus on fundraising in order to show a huge amount of money raised in his first quarter report. Democrats, meanwhile, seem headed to a primary between Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner — among others — that will deplete the eventual winner’s resources and allow Portman to define himself in the absence of a Democratic opponent. Democratic strategists argue that the primary isn’t a sure thing — noting that a primary fight dissolved in 2006 in Ohio — but we don’t see either Fisher or Brunner blinking in the near future especially with polling that shows the primary to be a total jump ball. (Previous ranking: 4)
5. Pennsylvania (R): Arlen Specter has proven political handicappers wrong more times than we like to recall but his path to a sixth term is extremely difficult. Pat Toomey is running and is a well-known and well-liked presence among conservatives in the state who will play an outsize role in the primary. Specter’s decision to oppose EFCA was something of a lose-lose for him; if he hadn’t switched positions, it was hard to see him winning the primary but is it plausible to think he won back a big swath of skeptical conservatives by coming out against it? Sensing vulnerability, several Democrats who seemed disinterested in the race as recently as last month — including Reps. Joe Sestak and Allyson Schwartz — are apparently reconsidering. (Previous ranking: 6)
4. Connecticut (D): Even Democrats acknowledge now that Dodd is in for a very tough reelection race in 2010. Several independent polls have shown Dodd and Simmons running in a statistical dead heat — never a good sign for a five-term incumbent. Dodd must strike early and often to turn this race from a referendum on his ties to Countrywide and AIG into a debate over Simmons’s bad votes during his three terms in Congress. Can it be done? Absolutely. (Look at Sen. Tom Harkin’s success in his campaign against then Rep. Greg Ganske in 2002 as evidence.) Is it easily done? No.
(Previous ranking: N/A)
3. Missouri (R): When Rep. Roy Blunt (R) announced his candidacy in this open seat race, establishment GOPers in the state and nationally quickly lined up behind him. But, by all accounts, Blunt has gotten off to a very poor start that includes the decision not to sign on his campaign manager in waiting. It’s also wishful thinking on Republicans’ part to assume that former state treasurer Sarah Steelman isn’t going to run; every conversation we’ve had with her has led us to the exact opposite conclusion. Secretary of State Robin Carnahan (D) is widely touted as a rising national star and a new poll shows her ahead of both Blunt and Steelman. (Previous ranking: 3)
2. Kentucky (R): Sen. Jim Bunning’s (R) all-out war on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) is one of the funniest — and most fascinating — storylines of this young campaign season. It is also a HUGE problem for national Republicans as the subtle attempts to urge Bunning not to seek reelection appear to have only stiffened his resolve to do just that. Bunning, a conservative darling, may be tough to beat in a primary but if he keeps on his current path it’s hard to see him winning a general election. Rep. Ben Chandler, smelling blood, is reexamining the race and would be Democrats’ strongest candidate. (Previous ranking: 2)
1. New Hampshire (R): Democrats’ chances of winning this open seat improved dramatically when Rep. Carol Shea Porter (D) abruptly announced she would not seek the post, leaving Rep. Paul Hodes as the odds-on nominee. Cornyn is trying to convince Sen. Judd Gregg (R) to reconsider his decision to retire but after Gregg’s high profile acceptance than rejection of an offer to serve as commerce secretary in the Obama administration, it’s hard to imagine him going back on his word again. Republicans seem to be at a stand still in terms of candidate recruitment. (Previous ranking: 1)
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