Some Updates on the Upcoming 2010 Senate Showdown


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So much has happened recently in many of the 2010 Senate contests that you would think we were in the middle of the election year. We’re still seventeen months out from Election Day, yet the battles are turning white hot in many states.

Let’s take a look at what has occurred in recent weeks in more than a dozen states featuring the big showdowns of ’10. For a comprehensive outlook on Senate 2010, please see our earlier three-part series (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3).

It is important to start with what hasn’t changed. Democrats are nearly certain to maintain control of the Senate at the midterm election. At worst for them, Democrats will lose a couple seats from their current 59-member majority (soon to be 60 with the probable addition of Minnesota’s Al Franken over the summer), and at best they’ll gain several seats to reclaim the kind of majority they last enjoyed in the early years of the Carter administration. Republicans who hope for another 1994-style landslide are dreaming, absent a massive downturn in popularity for President Obama.

There are certainly Democrats in trouble:

  • Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut is still weak, despite somewhat improving poll numbers, a TV ad endorsement from Ted Kennedy, and favorable publicity in leading President Obama’s credit card company reform bill to passage. Former GOP Congressman Rob Simmons is the likely Republican nominee and will present Dodd with a first-rate challenge.
  • The Majority Leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, continues to be on shaky ground in some respects, despite an eye-popping show of financial force during President Obama’s May fundraising visit to the Silver State.
  • Sen. Roland Burris of Illinois is little more than a bad joke, and he has no chance of winning his own term.
  • Two other appointive senators, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, are politically frail and have not had time to entrench themselves.
  • The open seat in Delaware, which Vice President Joe Biden had hoped to bestow in royal fashion upon his son, state Attorney General Beau Biden, is proving to be potentially troublesome as many Delawareans rebel against the politics of dynasty.
  • The newest Democratic convert, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, is learning that many rank-and-file Democrats would prefer to have their own true-Blue senator rather than someone who often appears to mainly represent the Specter Party, whose slogan is, “What’s good for Arlen is good for America.”

This list may appear daunting for Democrats until the analysis goes further:

  • Connecticut is a deeply Blue state, and no one should count Chris Dodd out. He has already launched a vigorous rescue operation to save his career, and he has a year and a half to regain the trust of his constituents.
  • Harry Reid is a classic case of a theoretically vulnerable incumbent. You can’t beat somebody–and a Majority Leader is a big somebody–with nobody. The GOP has no strong candidate at present, and if Congressman Dean Heller gives the contest a pass, Republicans will be back to square one.
  • Similarly, Michael Bennet has hit the ground running hard in Colorado, and no heavy hitter will oppose him for the Democratic nomination. The GOP has come up with two little-known candidates who will battle it out in a primary. One of them might catch on, but the contest has become an uphill struggle for the Republicans.
  • Kirsten Gillibrand may or may not survive a contested Democratic primary, but even if she loses to someone like Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who says she is running, the Democratic nominee will be favored in November to hold the seat.
  • The effort to defeat Beau Biden will very likely fail unless the Republican nominee is Congressman Michael Castle. Even Castle isn’t a lead-pipe cinch in this strongly Democratic state, despite early polls showing him well ahead. While Castle could run for reelection to his House seat, it now seems likely that Castle will, in fact, run for the Senate. The next question will be whether Biden decides to wait his turn until the 70-year-old Castle retires. (The 2010 Delaware election is only for four years, the remainder of Joe Biden’s Senate term, and it is possible that a Senator Castle could hang up his spurs at age 75 in 2014.)
  • Democratic leaders may well be able to get Arlen Specter the party nomination for reelection, yet if he is defeated in the primary, the nominee will be Congressman Joe Sestak, who gives every indication that he will run. Whatever early polls may show, our bet is that either Specter or Sestak will dispense with former Congressman Pat Toomey, the likely inheritor of the GOP nomination who seems too far right to get elected statewide in the increasingly Blue Keystone State. Former Gov. Tom Ridge, a moderate, could have won this seat for the GOP, but he opted out. Would the right-wing party base have nominated Ridge? We’ll never know.

Still, with a few lucky breaks, the GOP might pick up a couple of these vulnerable Democratic Senate seats. That seems like good news for the GOP until one examines the other side of the ledger for 2010. Here are the Republican seats that are clearly endangered in November 2010:

  • With Sen. Judd Gregg’s retirement, his New Hampshire seat is ripe for the plucking by Congressman Paul Hodes (D). The GOP knows it, and has been desperately trying to get Gregg (R) to reverse course, to no avail. Former Sen. John Sununu (R), defeated by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) in 2008, also doesn’t want to run. Former Congressman Charles Bass (R), who lost his seat in 2006, is preparing to launch a bid, but he starts as the underdog. The same status awaits appointed state attorney general Kelly Ayotte (R), should she run and be the GOP nominee.
  • Sen. Christopher Bond (R) is leaving the GOP in the lurch in Missouri. So far, the near-certain Democratic nominee, Secretary of State Robin Carnahan is leading the likely GOP nominee, senior Congressman Roy Blunt, who at least appears to have avoided a nasty primary with former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman and ex-Ambassador Thomas Schweich. (Steelman still has not officially bowed out.)
  • It’s the same story in Ohio, where popular GOP Sen. George Voinovich is retiring. Republicans have a respectable candidate in former Congressman Rob Portman, but so far both possible Democratic nominees, Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, lead Portman outside the margin of error in most polls. Republican chances depend in part on the Fisher-Brunner primary turning vicious.
  • In Florida, national Republicans are doing everything possible to help Gov. Charlie Crist get the nomination for retiring Sen. Mel Martinez’s (R) seat. However, former state House Speaker Marco Rubio is a darling of Florida conservatives (including Crist’s predecessor, Gov. Jeb Bush, whose son has now endorsed Rubio) and Rubio is planning a no-holds-barred assault on the moderate Crist. Fortunately for the GOP, the Democrats appear set to nominate either Congressman Kendrick Meek or Congresswoman Corrine Brown, either of whom will have a difficult time winning a general election. If the Democrats find a more potent nominee, and Rubio should upset Crist, then the rating on this contest could change.
  • Sen. Jim Bunning (R) of Kentucky couldn’t be weaker, and if he persists in seeking a third term, then a reasonably moderate Democratic nominee should take the seat. Should Bunning end up retiring, then Republicans could hold this one with Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who has maneuvered into position as Bunning’s successor (with Bunning’s approval, apparently). The Democratic nominee will either be Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo or Attorney General Jack Conway, who are engaged in a close primary battle.
  • Louisiana’s hypocritical “family values” senator, David Vitter, has been lucky despite the revelations about his frequent visits to prostitutes over the years. So far, Vitter has no strong challenger in the GOP primary, and he has been shoring up his weakened right-wing flank with showy anti-Obama legislative pyrotechnics. Yet the first dark cloud has appeared on his political horizon for 2010. Congressman Charlie Melancon (D), a moderate Blue Dog, now appears likely to challenge Vitter in the general election. Vitter has shown continued weakness with women and independents after his scandal. While no Democrat has an easy time in the Bayou State, Melancon is a challenger of the first rank.
  • North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr (R) got an enormous break when state Attorney General Roy Cooper (D) decided not to challenge him. The Tar Heel State has been edging Democratic, and Cooper could have beaten the first-term Burr in this seat where no incumbent has won a consecutive term since Sam Ervin (D) finished his long tenure in 1974. Now Burr is much less shaky–though who had ever heard of state Sen. Kay Hagan (D) before she popped up to defeat the nationally known Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) in 2008? Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and other Democrats are considering jumping in.
  • Let’s not forget about the likelihood of an upcoming special election for U.S. Senate in Texas, where Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) will probably resign her seat sometime this fall or winter to run full-time for Governor. (She will face longtime Gov. Rick Perry in the 2010 GOP primary.) Most Republicans think of the Lone Star State as a slam-dunk for their side, and often it is, but this special election could be an exception. It is unclear whom Gov. Perry would appoint to the seat, or whether this Republican would even run in the special election that would be held in May 2010 after Hutchison’s resignation. This special election could be a wild affair, since all candidates meeting filing requirements would be listed on the ballot. Yes, this means that there will likely be multiple Democrats, Republicans, and Independents–perhaps a dozen or more candidates in total. A run-off would be held between the top two contenders from the first primary, assuming no one tops 50% of the votes. Already, Democrats have two strong contenders who are raising money and gathering support, Mayor Bill White of Houston and former state Comptroller John Sharp. Senate Republican leaders will tell you privately that they are genuinely worried about losing this seat.

Some of these Democratic opportunities will not materialize in the end, but Democrats in Missouri, New Hampshire, and Ohio are already threatening to capture Republican seats. It is simply impossible to see how the GOP could even reduce the Democratic margin by very much, much less recapture the Senate. And it is just as easy to plot a course for Democrats to add two or three seats to their already swollen total in 2012.

It’s still early, and we’ll keep watching the Obama poll ratings, but so far Republican fortunes seem very unlikely to be revived by the midterm Senate elections. The GOP will have to hope for more luck in the contests for U.S. House and the governorships.