Senate VP Poaching: Move Along, Mitt

Last week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) opined that “it’s pretty obvious this nomination is essentially over.”

“I think we’d be a lot better off to begin to rally behind the almost certain nominee and begin to take the case against President Obama to the American people,” he said. “I think more and more members are going to be embracing our almost certain nominee, and I think this matter’s going to be wrapped up in a matter of weeks.”

That didn’t include an endorsement from McConnell, who said, “My view, so far, is that the Republican primary voters out around the country didn’t need any particular advice from myself.”

That embrace-sans-endorsement should have included a disclaimer: When Mitt Romney goes VP shopping, don’t stop at the Senate.

The two-week congressional recess over Easter is a time for lawmakers in both chambers to spend energy in their home states campaigning for their favorites and for their own re-elections.

Not up for re-election himself but on the shortlist for Romney’s No. 2 is Florida Republican Marco Rubio, in his first term and regularly followed by packs of reporters drawn like fireflies to his rising-star buzz. Swarmed by such a crowd at the opening of a new regional Senate office in Palm Beach Gardens today, Rubio offered his standard “pshaw, not me” assessment of his addition to a Romney ticket.

Having endorsed Romney last week, today Rubio also told the remaining Republican presidential hopefuls to pack up and go home.

“I’m not going to be the vice president but I do endorse Mitt Romney, who I think is going to be a great president,” said Rubio.

“What I take away from last night is what I took away last week, and that is, the primary’s over. Everyone may not agree with who won, but the primary’s over,” he added. “So I do believe it’s time now to concede that Mitt Romney has won the Republican nomination, that he’s going to be the Republican nominee, and that if we all get behind him he will be the next president of the United States.”

As the race solidifies we’ll know if this is a case of Rubio protesting too much, or even helping Romney gauge interest in a Rubio ticket by playing hard to get and watching the masses weep at the prospect of another veep.

But Rubio isn’t the only senator at risk of being poached from McConnell’s caucus just as Republicans are trying to eke out enough seats to make Harry Reid the new minority leader.

Sen. Rob Portman is leading some speculators’ shortlists as a reliable, steady choice from a swing state, Ohio. The 56-year-old succeeded retiring GOP Sen. George Voinovich just last year. Previously, he was director of the Office of Management and Budget and the U.S. Trade Representative under President George W. Bush. The state’s other senator, Democrat Sherrod Brown, seems like he’ll be safe in November. It’s the sixth highest state in terms of labor union population, but as of June 2011 Republican registration exceeded Democratic registration, 894,535 to 827,342, with the bulk of voters — more than 78 percent — now defining themselves as “unaffiliated.”

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), former president of the Club for Growth, is another mentioned as a possible Mitt pick. His hard-fought race against Democrat Joe Sestak in 2010, and victory by a 2 percent margin, though, would cause heartburn for the GOP if he was plucked up as a VP. The state’s other senator is Democrat Bob Casey, who whipped Rick Santorum by more than 17 points in 2006, and is favored to win re-election this fall. Democrats easily outnumber Republicans in voter registration, 3,748,030 to 2,834,928, according to the latest state figures.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) rose to fame by ousting then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle in the Democrat’s quest for a fourth term. He’s serving with Tim Johnson, a Democrat he narrowly lost to before taking on and defeating Daschle. It’s a safer state for Republicans in terms of party registration and the fact that they could always pull Rep. Kristi Noem, one of the two freshmen currently serving in the House GOP leadership, to run in a pinch. If Thune left, though, Senate Republicans would lose their conference chairman at a critical time when the minority is angling to become the majority — and wouldn’t likely be a filibuster-busting supermajority even if they crossed the first threshold.

Still, McConnell heartily backed the idea of a Thune presidential run a little more than a year ago. “I think John is an extraordinarily impressive individual,” he told MSNBC. “I hope he will run. I think he would make a great president of the United States.”

Like today, McConnell stopped short of an endorsement when pressed.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) is yet another senator whose name is floated as a VP possibility, particularly considering Romney’s current handicap with women voters. She replaced retiring Republican Judd Gregg by defeating Rep. Paul Hodes (D) by a wide margin in 2010. Republicans pulled out all of the party’s conservative weaponry to aid Ayotte’s campaign, securing both House seats in addition to her Senate seat in the process. She serves alongside Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, and the state has a majority of unaffiliated voters now.

On MSNBC today, Ayotte predicted that Romney can close the gender gap. “I think that women voters very much care about the state of the economy,” the senator said. “Part of this gap is a reflection of where we are in the primary, and now it’s going to turn around very much.” Whether Romney pulls a woman onto the ticket in an effort to close that gap is a question that remains to be answered.

Rubio won his seat with a 48.9 percent majority, with Gov. Charlie Crist stripping away nearly 30 percent of the votes as an independent and Democrat Kendrick Meek getting 20 percent. The other senator, Democrat Bill Nelson, is facing a challenge from Rep. Connie Mack (who is likely to win the GOP primary) but is leading the Republican in most polls. As of February 2012, there are 4,549,976 registered Democrats in Florida and 4,101,140 Republicans.

Poaching swing-state Republicans in an effort to turn a national race leaves Senate leadership with the prospect of state races for now-empty seats that could easily swing either way.

2012 Senate projections currently hang in a precarious balance, with 46 seats on each side either safe, leaning toward one party, or not up for re-election. There are eight toss-ups, including Republican incumbent Scott Brown’s face-off with Elizabeth Warren, and GOP appointee Dean Heller’s fight to fend off a challenge from Dem Rep. Shelley Berkley.

With the current balance of 53 Democrats and 47 Republicans, the GOP House can legislate all it wants but stands a snowball’s chance of making it through the Democratic majority.

You can almost hear McConnell: Nothing to see here, Mitt. Keep moving.

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