In the space of a few hours, two incumbent Democratic senators facing reelection battles in 2010 announced their retirement — Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Chris Dodd of Connecticut.
The news is a mixed blessing for both parties. The GOP is almost certain to pick up Dorgan’s seat, especially with all indications that Governor John Hoeven (with an 87% approval rating) will run for the seat. Democratic Representative Earl Pomeroy, the strongest potential Democratic candidate to replace Dorgan, has indicated he will not run.
On the other hand, Dodd’s retirement is very good news for the Democrats. Despite a huge campaign war chest, and a name known in state politics for decades, Dodd trailed potential GOP opponents by a few points and was considered highly vulnerable. He may have been nudged out of the race by the White House. In his place, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who is popular in the state, will now run for the Democrats.
A poll by a Democratic polling group conducted before the announcement by Dodd, but released on Wednesday, shows Blumenthal 30 points ahead of potential GOP opponents. This likely overstates his lead, but it is an indication that he is in very good shape for the race.
It is not clear if other Democrats will retire. Age and health could be a factor for West Virginia’s 92-year-old Robert Byrd (term expiring in 2012). Both of Hawaii’s senators are 85: Daniel Inouye, up in 2010, and Daniel Akaka, up in 2012. If any of the three retire, that would make their seats very competitive in an open seat contest.
Several other Democratic-held seats are also in danger. These include open seats in Illinois and Delaware. These seats belonged to Barack Obama and Joe Biden prior to the 2008 presidential race and were filled by placeholders Roland Burris and Ted Kaufman. Now the Democrats must defend the seats with likely nominees Alexi Giannoulias in Illinois (the state treasurer) and Beau Biden, the son of the vice president, in Delaware.
Republicans recruited the strongest possible candidates in each state: Congressman Mark Kirk in Illinois and Congressman Mike Castle in Delaware (who has won Delaware’s only House seat in statewide races for many terms). While both states have been very blue in recent years, the national climate and state-specific issues have made these seats tossup races.
In Illinois, corruption (this is the “Blago seat”), mountains of wasteful spending, enormous deficits, rising sales and property taxes, and unfunded pension liabilities make anyone associated with the state government part of the problem. Kirk is squeaky clean. Giannoulias, on the other hand, is part of the state’s Democratic machine and may also have to deal with the prospect of the failure of his father’s bank, which enriched him with millions in dividends and salary over the past few years while taxpayers may have to cover hundreds of millions in losses.
Several incumbent Democratic senators are also in trouble. This list includes Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas, a state where John McCain won by 20% in 2008; party switcher Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania; and Harry Reid in Nevada.
Lincoln has trailed or tied a few potential GOP opponents in recent Rasmussen surveys. Her vote for the health care reform bill has not gone down well in the state. Specter faces a party primary with Congressman Joe Sestak and then a rematch with Pat Toomey, whom he barely beat for the GOP nomination in 2004. Specter would likely have lost a GOP primary to Toomey — the reason for his party switch (his real party, of course, has always been the Party of Specter). But Specter was a strong general election nominee as a Republican. He expanded the GOP ranks, winning independents and many Jewish Democrats. As a Democrat, he may have less success with independents this year, since they are turning away from the Democrats in every survey (and did so decisively in the recent Virginia and New Jersey governors’ races). He and Toomey are even in recent polls.
Reid is in very big trouble, with poll numbers even worse than Dodd’s before Dodd announced his retirement.
Finally, there is Colorado, where appointed Senator Michael Bennet has fared poorly in polls matching him against several GOP challengers. The retirement of Democratic Governor Bill Ritter will also hurt Bennet’s chances.
In summary, the GOP seems near certain to win North Dakota and has a 50-50 shot in Arkansas, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. The GOP is a slight favorite to win the Delaware, Nevada, and Colorado Senate races. Connecticut is likely off the radar as a pickup opportunity.
A few longshot opportunities for the GOP are New York, California and Wisconsin. In New York, Long Island Congressman Peter King may enter the race against Senator Kirsten Gillibrand after deciding last summer to pass on the contest. Gillibrand may also have to fend off a party primary against former Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford, Jr. In California, Barbara Boxer has held about a ten point lead in surveys so far against former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. Senator Russ Feingold seems in good shape in Wisconsin, unless former Governor Tommy Thompson decides to challenge him.
Overall, the chances of the GOP winning back control of the Senate in 2010 (picking up 11 seats) appear to be negligible. But gains are pretty certain. A few GOP-held seats are also vulnerable due to retirements. In Missouri, Democrat Robin Carnahan is a slight favorite to win the seat of Kit Bond against GOP Congressman Roy Blunt. Missouri was the only one of ten Bush states targeted by the Obama campaign that McCain won.
Two GOP contenders — Trey Grayson and Dr. Rand Paul — are currently running ahead of potential Democratic challengers Jack Conway and Daniel Mongiardo for Jim Bunning’s open seat in Kentucky. In New Hampshire, Republican Kelly Ayotte is running ahead of Congressman Paul Hodes, the likely Democratic nominee for Judd Gregg’s seat.
Both Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio are well ahead of likely Democratic nominee Kendrick Meek in Florida, and former GOP Congressman Rob Portman is ahead of Jennifer Brunner in Ohio to retain George Voinovich’s seat. Democrats have so far not found good challengers against Richard Burr in North Carolina or David Vitter in Louisiana. If the GOP can win Missouri and hold the other open seats, it could net four tosix seats in 2010.
The real opportunity for the GOP to take back the Senate will be in 2012, assuming they make solid gains in 2010. President Obama’s coattails may be a good bit shorter in 2012 than they were in 2008, when the Democrats picked up eight Senate seats. Democrats will have to defend 24 seats in 2012, the GOP only nine.
Many of the Democrats running that year are vulnerable: Sherrod Brown in Ohio, John Tester in Montana, Jim Webb in Virginia (George Allen may show up for a rematch), Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Ben Nelson in Nebraska, among them. Joe Lieberman could run as a Republican rather than an independent in 2012.
Other Democrats who might be vulnerable include Kent Conrad in North Dakota, Herb Kohl in Wisconsin, Robert Menendez in New Jersey, Bill Nelson in Florida, Debbie Stabenow in Michigan, and Amy Klobuchar in Minnesota, though all start out in good shape. Among GOP incumbents in 2012, only John Ensign in Nevada seems in jeopardy.
After picking up 15 Senate seats in two cycles, including the Specter switch, the Democrats could be facing two bad cycles in 2010 and 2012. President Obama has the highest disapproval rating for a president entering his second year since Eisenhower. Rasmussen’s generic ballot test shows Republicans ahead of Democrats by 9%, after trailing by 6% a year ago.
It is amazing what a difference a year makes.