In a clear sign that 2010 could be just as brutal for Senate Republicans as the past two cycles, Missouri Senator Kit Bond just announced that he would not run for re-election.
This bombshell creates a big opening for Democrats and yet another headache for an already diminished Republican caucus.
Republicans can at least tell themselves that the Senate seat was already vulnerable. Bond was a vulnerable incumbent who had never garnered more than 56% in any of his four previous senatorial victories, so his retirement does not suddenly endanger a safe Republican seat. In fact, Missouri was listed as the fourth most vulnerable seat of the cycle in my latest Senate ranking.
On the other hand, Bond’s retirement further damages Republican prospects of holding on to this seat. It takes a very damaged kind of incumbent for a party to be better off defending an open seat than fielding that incumbent. (In this cycle, only Mel Martinez and Jim Bunning fit that description, and the former has already relieved Republicans by announcing his retirement. The NRSC is surely praying for Bunning to follow Martinez’s example.)
An open seat is inherently unpredictable. It can be highly competitive or it can be a blowout - and this does not necessarily depend on the quality of recruitment because the national environment can have a much greater impact on open races. Democrats would love to reproduce the scenario of Missouri’s 2008 open gubernatorial race, where Democratic nominee Jay Nixon cruised through the general election and crushed then-Rep. Kenny Hulshof by 18%.
The biggest factors in that election was the contrast between the two candidates’ level of preparation. Nixon had been preparing to run for years, and he faced token opposition in the Democratic primary; on the GOP side, however, State Treasurer Sarah Steelman and Hulshof faced off in a bruising contest that hurt Hulshof’s general election prospects. The fact that Missouri’s primary is held relatively late (in August) did not help Hulshof: Nixon already had a foot in the governor’s mansion by the time Hulshof turned his attention to the general election.
(The same thing happened in New Mexico, where Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce’s battle left the latter bruised and financially ruined once he got to face Tom Udall in the general election.)
Unfortunately for Republicans, a similar scenario could unfold in 2010: Democrats have one obvious candidate, Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, daughter of former Governor Mel and former Senator Jean. She was already mentioned as a candidate before Bond’s announcement, so today’s development dramatically increases the probability of her jumping in the race. Carnahan could probably clear her party’s primary field.
Republicans, meanwhile, have a deep bench in Missouri, but they lack a towering figure whose entry would be enough to clear the primary field. Steelman and Hulshof could both run for Bond’s seat; other potential candidates are outgoing Governor Matt Blunt, former Senator Jim Talent, Reps. Roy Blunt and Jo Ann Emerson. Most of these Republicans could run a competitive campaign against Carnahan, but could they survive the primary season? Have Talent and Blunt kept enough stature to force potential rivals out of the race?
The problem for Democrats, however, is that they do not have a particularly deep bench in the state, and there is no obvious candidate they can turn to if Robin Carnahan passes on the race. Her brother (Rep. Russ Carnahan) could perhaps make the race competitive.
Beyond Missouri’s Senate race, Bond’s retirement should worry Republicans that more Senators are finding prolonged life in the minority too unattractive to run for re-election; this could become even more of a problem when they realized just how painful it is going to be to only function with a 41-person caucus.
Bond’s retirement was somewhat unexpected. We were of course aware that Bond is a four-term Senator, but there were no obvious hints that he was about to forgo a 2010 run and Bond was nowhere near the top of the list of potential retirees.
That list still features Senators like Iowa’s Chuck Grassley and Ohio’s George Voinovich, who were deemed far more likely to retire than Bond or Martinez. For either Grassley or Voinovich to call it quits would lead to a nightmarish cycle for the NRSC, but Republicans should also start asking themselves how certain Senators like Richard Shelby or Judd Gregg are of running for re-election. I dare not even imagine the dreadful state in which their retirement would plunge the GOP.
Update: Potential Republican candidates are wasting no time positioning themselves for a run, and Politico reports that former Senator Jim Talent (who lost to Claire McCaskill in 2006 after serving only four years in the Senate) and former House Minority Whip Roy Blunt are both leaning towards a run. That would be quite a formidable clash in the Republica primary! It also looks very likely that Carnahan will mount a run for the Democratic nomination.