By: Alex Isenstadt
November 10, 2009 04:53 AM EST
After struggling for two consecutive cycles on the Senate battlefield, Republicans seem poised to make a comeback in 2010. With 37 seats up for grabs — and Democrats defending 19 of them — the GOP is flexing its muscles in Democratic-leaning states like Delaware, Connecticut and Illinois. Recruiting coups by National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn of Texas are one big reason Republicans feel a new sense of confidence. Democrats, meanwhile, are taking on an increasingly defensive crouch as the party in power, which must defend President Barack Obama’s ambitious — and expensive — agenda.
Without further ado, here is POLITICO’s list of the 10 best pickup opportunities among next year’s Senate contests.
Republicans turned Delaware into their top pickup target when they nabbed Rep. Mike Castle, the state’s nine-term moderate congressman, to run for the open seat. Delaware remains a deeply Democratic state, with Vice President Joe Biden — the former occupant of the seat in question — as the state’s political godfather. But Democrats and Republicans agree that Castle is the only Republican in the state who could make this a real race. Now all eyes are on Biden’s son, Democratic Attorney General Beau Biden, who is said to be leaning toward a run.
Republicans would typically have no business contesting a Senate seat in deeply blue Connecticut, but given Chris Dodd’s still-tenuous political standing in his home state, Republicans see a possible pickup. Dodd has seen his approval ratings dip well below 50 percent as he has come under scrutiny for his ties to Countywide Financial. Former Rep. Rob Simmons once seemed to be the obvious GOP contender, but Simmons now faces an increasingly difficult primary against former Ambassador Tom Foley, anti-tax activist Peter Schiff and deep-pocketed former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon.
The White House and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee are circling the wagons around appointed Sen. Michael Bennet — a clear sign that the Washington Democratic establishment views former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff’s potentially divisive primary challenge as a threat to the party’s hold on the seat. Even with the support, Bennet might now be forced to move to the left on a series of tough votes — starting with health care — that could put him at a disadvantage in a tough general election campaign. Former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton is the likely GOP nominee, but she faces a contested primary.
Republicans missed out when Rep. Dean Heller and former Rep. Jon Porter — two potential contenders who could have put a serious scare into Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — passed on the race. The GOP is left with former state Republican Party Chairwoman Sue Lowden, a less-than-perfect nominee who is certain to come under a hail of fire from Reid, who has nearly $9 million in his campaign bank account. It’s Reid, more than any other 2010 incumbent, whose fortunes are tied to the national political environment, and his reelection will be viewed as a referendum on the Democratic majority and Obama.
While Democrats failed in their efforts to woo state Attorney General Lisa Madigan into the race, Republicans scored a major recruiting coup when they signed up Rep. Mark Kirk, a mammoth fundraiser known for his success in holding a tough suburban Chicago House seat. Both sides agree that Kirk will make the race for a Democratic seat competitive. Democrats, meanwhile, have struggled to find a candidate they are comfortable with — state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias has emerged as the front-runner in the Democratic primary field, though his background in banking may provide fodder for opponents.
Former GOP Rep. Pat Toomey, once regarded as an unelectable conservative in an increasingly Democratic state, is emerging as a strong contender. Toomey has raised a cool $3 million and has pulled even with or ahead of Sen. Arlen Specter in polls. Specter faces an uncertain path to the Democratic nomination, however, as he and Rep. Joe Sestak are headed for the kind of tough, expensive primary that always makes party higher-ups nervous.
With Ohio trending Democratic in recent years, the state has emerged as the top Democratic pickup opportunity in the country. Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher is the all-but-certain Democratic nominee in the race to replace retiring GOP Sen. George Voinovich, though Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner has stubbornly remained in the race despite raising less than $600,000. Former White House Budget Director Rob Portman, poised to run on the GOP side, has already raised more than $6 million for the contest — a hefty sum that has Democrats on edge about Fisher’s less-than-stellar cash figures.
The race to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Kit Bond offers Democrats one of their strongest pickup targets, as Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan is almost certainly the strongest Democratic recruit of the cycle. Carnahan — the daughter of former Gov. Mel Carnahan and former Sen. Jean Carnahan — has already taken in more than $3 million for the contest. Rep. Roy Blunt, a former House GOP whip, avoided a tough primary against former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, but he still faces an uphill general election battle.
The increasingly competitive GOP primary between Rand Paul, son of Texas Rep. Ron Paul, and Secretary of State Trey Grayson has created an opening for Democrats to compete in this Republican-friendly state. Paul is tapping into the base of anti-tax, conservative activists his father cultivated during his failed presidential bid to pad his campaign bank account, while national Republicans have lined up behind Grayson. On the Democratic side, Attorney General Jack Conway and Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo, who gave retiring Sen. Jim Bunning a scare in 2004, are locked in an increasingly bitter primary of their own.
Though Democrats are rallying around Rep. Paul Hodes in the race for the seat of departing GOP Sen. Judd Gregg, the second-term congressman has yet to establish himself as strong contender. Hodes has just over $1 million in his campaign bank account and came under fire over the summer for avoiding health care town halls. National Republicans, meanwhile, are placing their hopes on Kelly Ayotte, a former state attorney general. While Ayotte has revealed little about her platform, Democrats hope that the prospect of a primary battle with former State Board of Education Chairman Ovide Lamontagne and Republican National Committeeman Sean Mahoney, among others, could force her to the right.
© 2009 Capitol News Company, LLC