We had seen it coming, but that doesn’t make Jodi Rell’s announcement that she will not seek re-election next year any less surprising.
Despite the ignominious circumstances in which she came to occupy the position in the summer of 2004, Rell’s approval rating quickly attained stratospheric levels and she crushed New Haven Mayor John DeStefano in the 2006 midterms. Heading into 2010, her popularity was on the decline but she was still heavily favored to win her second full term.
Instead, we get confirmation that few executives want to extend their tenure - a striking contrast with congressmen, who tend to never retire. Sure, most states have term-limits but even those governors who are not subjected to them typically call it quits: Of the 4 governors who were entitled to prolong their tenure beyond eight years in 2010, three chose to retire: Rell, Tim Pawlenty and Jim Douglas. Only Rick Perry is seeking re-election. All of that adds up to an astonishing number: There will be 20 open gubernatorial races in 2010!
Rell’s decision hands Democrats a golden opportunity to reclaim a position that has escaped them since 1990: Connecticut is blue-leaning enough that they have to be considered slight favorites in the early going.
Of course, the GOP has had its share of success in the Nutmeg State, as they have throughout New England in non-federal races: Connecticut, Massachussetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island all had a Republican Governor at some point this decade. Add to that the fact that the GOP has a decent bench to choose from, and the contest will be anything but a slam dunk for Democrats.
Republicans already have a candidate: Lieutenant Governor Michael Fedele wasted no time before making it clear he would jump in the race, adding that the governor had promised him her support no matter who else runs on the GOP side. As such, Fedele could quickly gain a secure hold on the Republican nomination. A former state representative, he narrowly lost a state Senate race in 2002. He has never won statewide on his own name (he ran on a ticket with Rell in 2006), but his position should help him secure institutional support and a level of credibility Republicans can never be sure of having in a New England race.
Other Republican names are circulating, starting with the Republican leaders of the state legislature’s two chambers - state Rep. Lawrence Cafero and state Senator John McKinney. One intriguing politician who might receive some phone calls: former Rep. Chris Shays. Yet, Shays strongly hinted he was not interested in a political comeback when he ruled out challenging Chris Dodd in 2010.
All of this said, today’s news is undoubtedly a reason for Connecticut Democrats to celebrate: They had not had a shot at an open Governor’s race since the 1994 cycle, when John Rowland narrowly won a 4-way race with just 36% of the vote. Whatever the political environment next year, it will be tough for any Republican to win in a state Obama won with 61% of the vote - especially since the party won’t be able to focus the spotlight on an unpopular Democratic incumbent.
For all the talk of potential red wave next year, there is no denying that Democrats are in a great position to limit their losses thanks to the far larger number of Republican retirements; this holds true at the gubernatorial level (Minnesota, Vermont, Connecticut), at the Senate level (Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio) and at the House level (IL-10, PA-06, DE-AL).
The Democratic field had already attracted high-profile contenders before today’s announcement: Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, Secretary Stamford Mayor Dannel Malloy, former state Speaker James Amann, state Senator and Gary Lebeau have long already jumped in the race. This week, former Senate candidate Ned Lamont formed an exploratory committee, and the thought of an incumbent-less general election will presumably make him more eager to jump in the race.
The question now is whether Democrats who were not considering challenging Rell will consider running. In particular everyone’s attention turns towards Attorney General Blumenthal, a major political figure in Connecticut who has repeatedly passed on opportunities to run for Governor. Yet, this is the first time he has the opportunity to run in an open race. My sense is that Blumenthal has been eying the Senate and that challenging Joe Lieberman in 2012 should be a far more attractive proposition for him than running for Governor.
Yet another reason for Democrats to celebrate is that Rell’s retirement could help Chris Dodd’s re-election prospects. For one, the GOP’s Senate nominee will not be able to count on Rell’s coattails. Even if the party keeps the Governor’s Mansion, it will surely not be the type of margin Rell was entitled to hope for - and there is the possibility that the Democratic nominee piles up a big lead, driving Dodd along with him.
Second, the senator can now be sure that he won’t be the only Democrat responsible for turning out the party’s base: many Democratic voters might be too dejected to bother going to the polls just to save Dodd, but if they’re going anyway to elect Bysiewicz, Malloy or Lamont to the Governor’s Mansion, they would also pull the lever for the Senator.