With Democratic Retirements, GOP 2010 Senate Prospects Brighten

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.