Monthly Archive for January, 2010

Weekly 2010 update: The Delaware blow

The series of nightmarish developments that recently befell Democrats prolonged itself through Monday, with Rep. Marion Berry retiring and Attorney General Beau Biden all but handing Delaware’s Senate seat to Republicans. The rest of the week gave Democrats some breathing room, from Rep. Mike Pence’s decision not to challenge Evan Bayh to a number of Democratic congressmen taking themselves off retirement watch.

Yet, the landscape could still get more brutal for Democrats in the coming weeks, as we shall soon know how successful the GOP will be in expanding the map not only at the House level but also in Senate races. All eyes are now on Wisconsin’s Tommy Thompson and Mark Neumann, Washington’s Dave Reichert and Indiana’s Todd Rokita. Meanwhile, Democratic congressmen who are still trying to figure out whether they want to run for re-election will be making up their minds soon, and their decisions will help determine just how rough a cycle Democrats are facing. One person to keep track of right now is Indiana Rep. Baron Hill: While he’s been considered unlikely to retire; the state’s filing deadline is looming in just 3 weeks so we shall soon know for sure.

In New York, reports that Andrew Cuomo is finalizing plans to announce a gubernatorial run in March should reassure Democrats and make it harder for the GOP to recruit a new candidate. Indeed, many Republicans seem unsold on Rick Lazio’s ability to make the race competitive and at least to hold down Cuomo’s coattails; one name who was mentioned, Erie County Executive Chris Collins, ruled out running this week.

Also in New York, but this time in the Senate race, Rep. Steve Israel for the second time ruled out challenging Kirsten Gillibrand. While he had already done so in May, Gillibrand’s continued vulnerability combined with Harold Ford’s apparent entry in the race had made him reconsider and reportedly even poll his viability. His repeat exit leaves Ford and Jonathan Tasini as Gillibrand’s only primary opponent.

In Michigan, Rep. JoeBart Stupak closed to door to his flirtations with the gubernatorial race. While he had already declared he was unlikely to run, the DCCC will be happy that his probable became a definite since an open seat in MI-1 would have been tough to defend. Also in Michigan: While Republicans have been increasingly confident about picking-up this Governor’s Mansion, they received somewhat worrisome news this week: former Republican Rep. Schwarz, who was ousted by a Club for Growth-backed candidate in 2006, said he might run as an independent. Depending on who wins the GOP nomination, Schwarz might be able to peel away some moderate Republican voters.

In Arizona, Democrats will be relieved that Attorney General Terry Goddard finally made his gubernatorial campaign official. While he was always expected to do so, the week did start with another Democratic Attorney General (this one in Delaware) bucking expectations. One reason Goddard waited so long to make his intentions clear is an Arizona law that forces state officials who want to seek another position to first resign from their position unless they are in the final year of their term. Had Goddard announced in 2009, he would have been out of a job in 2010 whereas he can now continue to serve as Attorney General until January 2011.

In Connecticut, former Rep. Chris Shays voiced interest in running for Governor, which comes as a surprise given that last year he had categorically ruled out running for Senate, explaining that he was not interested in seeking office so soon after the three very tough re-election campaigns he went through from 2004 to 2008. Shays’s moderate profile would probably make him a stronger general election contender than Lieutenant Governor Michael Fedele, though voters might not be eager to elect a man who was so recently ousted by his district by more than 20%. Furthermore, the certainty of a tough primary could also dissuade Shays from entering.

In Alaska, Governor Sean Parnell got rid of one primary challenger as state Rep. John Harris, who served as state Speaker from 2005 to 2008, announced he was dropping out of the race. While another former Speaker (Ralph Samuels) is still challenging Parnell and now will not have to worry about another contender dividing the anti-incumbent vote, Parnell doesn’t have any obvious vulnerability among Republican voters so this primary is unlikely to yield many surprises.

In Alabama, Richard Shelby landed his first Democratic challenger, but attorney William Barnes is more than unlikely to make the senator tremble much. At the very least, it can’t hurt Democrats to have a complete ticket.

As always, I list all the changes I have logged in during the week to the retirement and race-by-race pages.

First, updates to Retirement Watch:

Will retire Rep. Marion Berry (D, AR-01)
Rep. Steve Buyer (R, IN-04)
Will not retire Rep. Bart Stupak (D, MI-01)
Rep. Tom Bishop (D, NY-01)
Rep. Rick Boucher (D, VA-09)
Added to retirement watch Rep. Jackie Speier (D, CA-12)

Second, updates to the Senate recruitment page:

AL-Sen, Dem attorney William Barnes announced run
AR-Sen, GOP former football player Jim Lindsey added
DE-Sen, Dem Attorney General Beau Biden will not run
former Lieut. Gov. John Carney will not run
Lieut. Gov. Denn will not run
IN-Sen, GOP Governor Mitch Daniels added
Rep. Mike Pence will not run
Secretary of State Todd Rokita added
KY-Sen, GOP Former Superintendent of Public Instruction John Stephenson announced run
NV-Sen, Ind/Dem Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman will not run
WI-Sen, GOP former Rep. Mark Neumann added

Third, updates to gubernatorial races:

AK-Gov, GOP state Rep. John Harris dropped out
AZ-Gov, Dem Attorney General Terry Goddard is running
CT-Gov, GOP former Rep. Chris Shays added
MI-Gov, Dem Joe Dumars ruled out run

Rep. Joe Stupak ruled out run

MI-Gov, Indie former GOP Rep. Schwarz added to list
MN-Gov, IP public-relations executive Tom Horner announced run
NV-Gov, Indie Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman will not run
NY-Gov, GOP Erie County Executive Chris Collins will not run

Rep. Boozman set to become Blanche Lincoln’s most prominent challenger yet

Republicans have pulled yet another recruitment coup that would have been unthinkable in the pre-Brown landscape: Arkansas Rep. John Boozman is set to announce he will challenge Senator Blanche Lincoln, though he will reportedly wait until February 6th to do so officially.

By far the most prominent GOP official in a state whose statewide officials are all Democrats, Boozman was never mentioned as a potential Senate candidate until last week: It would have seemed suiscidal for him to challenge a sitting incumbent given that the number of Arkansas Republicans who have won federal office can be counted on one hand. But circumstances have obviously changed since last year - let alone since 2008, when Mark Pryor didn’t face any Republican challenger in his re-election race: The environment has become dismal for Democrats and Lincoln has emerged as one of her party’s most vulnerable incumbents. Once Brown managed to snatch Massachusetts’s Senate seat, passing on the Arkansas race came to look like a terrible career move for Boozman.

And thus he is jumping in - a move that makes it far tougher to see how Democrats could keep their hands on a Senate seat they have held since Reconstruction: If she is trailing unknown challengers like Tom Cox and Curtis Coleman, what will her situation be when she finds herself confronted to Boozman?

That said, Boozman should face a rocky road to the Republican nomination. Not only might he get damaged on the way, but we should not proceed as if he is certain to be Lincoln’s general election opponent.

Indeed, he joins a very crowded field. By my count, he is the 9th Republican to announce he is running for Senate! Those include two state senators, a businessman who is close to former Governor Mike Huckabee and a former state senator who was the GOP’s Senate nominee in Lincoln’s 2004 re-election race.

Before Boozman’s entry, most of these candidates could claim a legitimate shot at the nomination. While the contest will be decided in a June 8th runoff, all contenders could have hoped to place in the top two by receiving just 15-20% of the vote. The congressman’s entry changes this equation: his superior ground game, broader geographical base and establishment credentials should guarantee he places first on May 18th and moves on to the runoff. It will still be a free-for all to determine who will move to the runoff with him, however.

The expectation was that some of these candidates might choose to drop out to pursue other opportunities upon Boozman’s entry. On particular, there has been speculation that state Senator Gilbert Baker, who was until recently perceived as the Republican front-runner, might drop down to run for the House. Yet, Baker has repeatedly made it clear over the past week that he would do no such thing; what makes this scenario particularly complicated is that Baker lives in AR-02 rather than Boozman’s AR-03, so a House run would put him on the way of Tim Griffin, the former U.S. Attorney who has been in the race since the summer. In fact, Politico reports that Baker’s camp is already broadcasting the hard-hitting strategy he would use against Boozman: Highlight the congressman’s vote in favor of the 2008 bailout and contrast raw a stark contrast between Boozman’s Washington background with his legislative work in Arkansas.”

It remains to be seen whether Baker is just trying to scare Boozman out of the race (he hasn’t yet announced, after all) or if he is serious about going all-out against the congressman. Yet, there is something to the state Senator’s plans to attack Boozman over his role in the federal government - something that could also serve Democrats if Boozman emerges as the Republican nominee: While the electorate are first and foremost in an anti-Democratic mood, there is a general distrust with Washington and with insiders. That could play against Boozman in both the primary and the general election.

Regarding the primary, GOP insiders have had trouble securing Republican nominations in countless states; this could cause Boozman even more trouble against Curtis Coleman and Jim Hol than against Baker, who remains an establishment-backed insider, whereas Coleman hasn’t held public office and could self-fund while Holt has a strong following among the state’s social conservatives, which could help him remain competitive in the primary.

Regarding the general election, one could argue it could be easier for Blanche Lincoln to tarnish Boozman’s reputation (and thus turn the spotlight away from herself) than her other potential opponents’: Not only does Boozman have a far longer public record the Democrat can dig into, but the type of attacks she could wage against him are exactly what voters are most likely to react to this cycle. In short, it could be easier for Lincoln to turn the spotlight away from herself if she were to face a fellow congressperson than a low-profile challenger who might remain nothing more than a generic Republican all the way to November.

I’m not saying I am convinced of this, but it’s certainly something Boozman’s GOP rivals will argue in the coming weeks, and also something Democrats might take comfort in. In any case, Republicans seem to be believing this since the field has gotten even more crowded since Boozman’s name first started circulating! Former University of Arkansas football player Jim Lindsey said this week that he was mulling entering the race; he has the ability to self-fund and his entry would make the GOP primary even more of a head-scratcher.

An open House seat

Boozman becomes the 16th Republican representative who will not run for re-election, but the NRCC should have as little to worry about in his AR-03 than it does in IN-04, which also became open just recently.

Looking at the 2008 presidential results, AR-03 is not that much more Republican than AR-01, which Democrats have to defend: If the latter gave John McCain 59% of the vote, the Arizona Senator won AR-03 64% to 34%. Yet, Democrats have very little hope of picking-up this district whereas they can legitimately aspire to defend Berry’s. Why? AR-03 is not only conservative, but it is also the state’s only district that is historically Republican: In 2000, Al Gore got between 48% and 50% in each of the other 3 district but he was crushed 60% to 37% in this one. Furthermore, AR-03 has been in GOP hands since 1966; compare that to the fate of AR-01, which Republicans have never won, and AR-02, which the GOP only held for a few years in the early 1980s.

Facing an ethics probe, GOP Rep. Buyer retires

In a surprise move, Indiana’s 51-year old Rep. Steve Buyer announced today that he would not seek re-election in November. Best known as one of the 13 House managers of Clinton’s impeachment trial, Buyer is the ranking Republican on the Veterans Affairs Committee. He was first elected in 1993, which explains why he has a lot of seniority at a relatively young age.

In an emotional press conference, Buyer explained that his wife, whom he has known since 3rd grade, had just been diagnosed with an incurable disease.

His retirement comes at a time Buyer is facing probes by the Office of Congressional Ethics and the IRS over The Frontier Foundation, a scholarship fund he founded in 2003. The Indianapolis Star reported this fall that the fund had yet to award a single scholarship but that it ha been used to finance the congressman’s golf outings with wealthy donors at places like the Bahamas and Disney World.

Further questions were raised about whether Buyer was using the Foundation to trade legislative assistance for personal favors when it was discovered that the drug lobby group PhRMA had not only donated hundreds of thousands to Buyer’s foundation but had also hired Ryan Buyer, the congressman’s son and a director of the foundation. As you would expect, Rep. Buyer sits on the House Energy Subcommittee on Health.

“No good deed goes unpunished, that’s how I feel at the moment,” Buyer answered at the time, but the fact that his committee had failed to give out a single scholarship in six years led the IRS to open a probe into whether The Frontier Foundation mischaracterizes itself to benefit from a favorable tax status. In investigators’ cross hair, Buyer cut a CBS interview short in November when he proved unable to answer journalists’ questions and he was recently profiled on CNN.

Best known as one of the 13 House managers of Clinton’s impeachment trial, Buyer is the ranking Republican on the Veterans Affairs Committee; he also attracted attention by calling for a nuclear attack on Afghanistan.

Buyer is the 15th Republican to announce he will not seek re-election, a number that is expected to grow perhaps within hours as Rep. John Boozman is preparing to announce a Senate run in Arkansas.

Yet, Buyer’s retirement gives Democrats little to no opening: IN-04 is Indiana’s second most Republican seat, which is saying a lot since the state is undeniably leans conservative. In 2004, George W. Bush got 69% of the vote; in 2008, Obama dramatically cut the margin but he still lost 56% to 43%. Furthermore, Indiana is not one of those GOP-voting states in which Democrats are dominant at the local level, so Republicans have a stronger bench to choose from.

Buyer was accompanied at his press conference by state Senator Brandt Hershman; while Hershman did not say anything, the significance of his presence was unmistakable. Former State Rep. Matt Whetstone has said he is interested in running. Another politician who could jump in is Lieutenant Governor Becky Skillman. At the moment, I have seen no Democrat’s name mentioned. The filing deadline is coming up in less than three weeks, so the many Republicans have little time to make a decision and the DCCC has just as little time to find someone to field.

VA-09, NY-01: Strike two Democrats off the retirement list

One name we keep hearing as a potential Democratic retiree is Rep. Rick Boucher, a 63-year old who has represented VA-09 for 18 years. An open seat would be a catastrophe for Democrats: the district voted for John McCain by 19%. Yet, the Virginian released a statement yesterday saying he is “planning to seek reelection.” He continued: “I have given no consideration to retiring. While I never make political announcements this early in the year, due to the press inquires we are receiving, it is time to remove any doubt anyone has about my intentions.”

The statement appears worded in such a way that Boucher can later justify a retirement (he finally got around to considering it, his intentions changed); the filing deadline is not for another three months, which would leave him time to backtrack; and Dennis Moore and Marion Berry had also said they would run. Yet, we’re getting late enough in the cycle that we can start trusting such declarations can be trusted - especially since they come in a statement his office chose to release rather than in off-the-cuff remarks, as was the case with Berry.

Boucher might also be affirming his intentions loud and clear to ensure potential Republican challengers don’t get in the race thinking he is heading out. As I wrote about earlier this month, VA-9 is one district in which the NRCC has suffered recruitment failures. They’re now hoping to convince State House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith, but at the moment VA-9 is not vulnerable.

Another Democrat who confirmed he would run is 59-year old Rep. Tim Bishop (NY-01), who said he “sure as hell” isn’t retiring. While there’s been nowhere near as much speculation surrounding him as there has been around Boucher, but at this point any incumbent from a marginal district who clarifies his plans is worth pointing out.

NRSC smiling: Giannoulias undercut by family bank, Thompson & Grassley lead, Boxer struggles

Illinois: Giannoulias leads Kirk but is damaged by family bank’s woes

Democrats have been getting so many dismal Senate polls lately that PPP’s Illinois survey must have come as a breath of fresh air: Alexi Giannoulias has a 42% to 34% lead over Mark Kirk, an advantage that’s all the more significant since the two have comparable name recognition. While in normal circumstances it would be nothing unusual for a Democrat to lead by 8% in IL, the rare surveys that have been completed of this match-up have found a virtual tie. Kirk has slight leads against the two other Democrats in the race,  (38-36 over Cheryle Jackson, 37-36 over David Hoffman) but both have low name recognition and thus have room to grow among Democrats. Finally, Kirk’s favorability rating is weaker than I would have expected (27-22).

Yet, the Kirk campaign has reason to smile today: Giannoulias, who has always been surrounded by ethics questions, is now finding himself connected to a story that could easily have repercussions on his general election prospects. Financial regulators are clamping down on Broadway Bank, the bank owned by Giannoulias’s family at which he himself worked as a manager:

Broadway Bank… has entered into a consent order with banking regulators requiring it to raise tens of millions in capital, stop paying dividends to the family without regulatory approval, and hire an outside party to evaluate the bank’s senior management… [Giannoulias has] faced criticism for his past role at the bank and the $70 million in dividends the family took out of the bank in 2007 and 2008 as the real estate crisis was becoming apparent.

In a cycle in which voter anger over politicians’ unwillingness to punish the financial sector’s irresponsibility is threatening to submerge Democrats, this story risks connecting Giannoulias to the very industry the electorate has turned against. Even if the controversy does not grow any more, this could give his opponents efficient ammunition to use in their ads - though this is more likely to profit Republicans than his Democratic rivals: the primary is taking place in only 5 days. If this story gets a lot of play in the coming days, it could cost Giannoulias but his opponents don’t have much time to take advantage.

On the other hand, Hoffman and Jackson had already been attacking Giannoulias over his banking background, so they could easily integrate this latest round of Broadway Bank questions in their campaign. In fact, Jackson called for Giannoulias’s withdrawal tonight, while Hoffman indicted his electability, saying that this story “provides further evidence of what a disaster Mr. Giannoulias would be as the Democratic nominee for Senate.”  At the very least, Kirk’s campaign will be watching to see how it can best take advantage of the Treasurer’s woes.

Wisconsin: Thompson leads Feingold as GOP looks for new options

In testing a match-up between Russ Feingold and Tommy Thompson, Rasmussen found the Republican leading 47-44; Feingold is weighed down by Obama’s mediocre approval rating (46%) and by his own rating’s dip in negative territory (47-48). It’s not the numbers that are remarkable (no one really doubted the race would become competitive if Thompson jumped in), but the fact that Thompson might actually run. In fact, the GOP is growing so confident it is now looking for back-ups: the latest rumor concerns the possible entry of Rep. Mark Neumann, who is currently in a contested gubernatorial primary. Yet, I believe Neumann wouldn’t be allowed to transfer his fundraising haul from one race to the other and he presumably would be reluctant to give up what he’s already raised.

California: Boxer struggles against Campbell

Last week, The Field Poll and Rasmussen gave us contrasting findings on Barbara Boxer’s vulnerability, with the latter showing the California senator managing only small leads against her Republican competitors. PPIC came out with its own poll today, and their results are in between Rasmussen’s an Field’s: Boxer only leads Campbell 45% to 41%, which is actually outside of the margin of error, and she is ahead of Fiorina and DeVore by 8%. In the GOP primary, Campbell leads 27% to Fiorina’s 16% and DeVore’s 8%. It is becoming increasingly obvious that Democrats have to start worrying about their California standing, especially if Campbell wins the Republican primary (we still have to see whether he can compete enough financially to do that).

Indiana: Pence was not the end the road

I proclaimed that the GOP was left in Stutzman and Hostettler’s hands too early, and Democrats breathed a sigh of relief too soon: Rep. Mike Pence’s decision not to run for Senate did not put Republicans off of Evan Bayh’s trail. They are now courting Secretary of State Todd Rokita, who has held statewide office since 2004. Rokita said yesterday that he was considering the race, which goes to show just how dramatically recruitment prospects can improve when the national environment looks so promising.

This reminds me of what happened in NC in 2008. After May polls found Kay Hagan with a surprise post-primary lead over Elizabeth Dole, the senator managed to grab large leads over the summer but Democrats had smelled blood and did not let go, committing millions to the state before seeing evidence the race would be competitive. Similarly, the GOP has smelled blood in Indiana. But there is a catch: The filing deadline comes in just three weeks (February 19th) and signatures have to be collected. This means Rokita will have to make up his mind quickly one way or another and that the NRSC will have little time to search for back-ups if he passes.

Iowa: Grassley crushes Democrats

If Democrats had some hope of challenging Senator Chuck Grassley, it has long become obvious that the perfect storm they would need to pull off such an upset cannot happen; the national environment makes it tough for Democrats to compete against unquestionably vulnerable incumbents like Burr, let alone against veteran lawmakers like Grassley. Today, Rasmussen gave us confirmation that there is next to nothing to see in this race: Not only does Grassley lead Bob Krause and Tom Fiegen 59% to 26% and 61% to 25%, respectively, but his margin against Democrats’ most touted candidate (attorney Roxanne Conlin) is almost as wide: 59% to 31%. We can’t not contrast those numbers with those of Democratic incumbents who are trailing challengers who are just as low-profile as Krause or Fiegen.

Five crucial House races taking shape

AR-02: Democratic candidate jumps in

Democrats have deep benches in the newly open Arkansas districts, which means their primaries are likely to be heated showdowns between some of the state party’s biggest name. The possibility that Lieutenant Governor Brian Halter and Wesley Clark might run in AR-2 did not dissuade House Speaker Robbie Wills to announce his candidacy yesterday. He joins state Sen. Joyce Elliott, who is likely to be the primary’s more liberal option; Wills, meanwhile, seems to be a mainstream Arkansas Democrat, which also means he is not as conservative as Senate Majority Leader Bob Johnson, who is also mentioned as a potential candidate.

At this point, there is no buzz that Republicans might try to find an alternative to former U.S. Attorney Tim Griffin. While I know some of you don’t think his prominent role in the U.S. Attorney’s scandal could hurt him, the GOP could try to find a candidate with less baggage; last year Griffin looked as formidable a challenger as the GOP could dream of, but it’s a whole new ball game by now.

PA-10: Carney lands additional challenger

Speaking of former U.S. Attorneys, yet another decided to put his name on the ballot this fall: Thomas Marino announced he would challenge Rep. Chris Carney. Just like Griffin, Marino was forced to resign in 2007, though his exit was not caused by the scandal that erupted around the Bush administration but rather by his ties to Louis DeNaples, whose aggressive efforts to secure a casino license made him the target of a government probe. That is sure to haunt him on the campaign trail; in fact, Democrats have already gone all-out on the issue. (Marino also faces a competitive primary, most notably against Snyder County Commissioner Malcolm Der.)

Carney is apparently very happy letting Democratic Party officials do the dirty work while he portrays himself above the fray. In the statement he released following Marino’s entry in the race, Carney chose instead to highlight the fact that Republicans tried to convince him to switch parties back in December as proof of his independent streak. “Congressman Carney is proud of his bipartisan record in Congress and was flattered to have recently been approached by Sen. John McCain and other Republican leaders about switching parties,” the statement said. “He believes, however, that his job is not about a political party.” This was something everyone saw coming as soon as we read reports about the GOP’s outreach; Republicans really shoot themselves in the foot on this one.

AR-08: Giffords lands her first one

It looked like Rep. Gabrielle Giffords would be one junior Democrat who would not face too difficult a re-election race, but the GOP has put competitive AZ-08 on the map by recruiting state Sen. Jonathan Paton. The 38-year Paton has only been serving in the state Senate for a year (he was in the state House before), but his decision to run suggests he is really confident he can pull victory: Arizona law requires state politicians to resign if they want to seek another office, so Paton will now have to leave his job in order to challenge Giffords.

Yet, Giffords has won her first two races with surprising ease - both were double-digit victories, which means she considerably overperformed relatively to Barack Obama’s performance - and she’s one of House Democrats’ most successful fundraisers. Furthermore, Arizona could be more or less susceptible to a red wave depending on who wins the GOP’s gubernatorial primary.

SC-05: PPP confirms a veteran congressman is vulnerable

One of the most powerful House Democrats, Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt has served for 28 years, which makes him as entrenched a congressman as it gets and which means he has survived tough national environments before. Yet, a new PPP survey finds that he is vulnerable to losing his red-leaning South Carolina district: Not only is his approval rating in negative territory (41-42) but he is under 50% against both of his Republican opponents; he tops state Senator Mick Mulvaney 46% to 39% and leads Albert Spencer 46% to 37%.

Given the number of Democratic incumbents who have been trailing by decisive margins - think Reid, Lincoln, Snyder, Driehaus, Hill - for Spratt to post a 7% lead against a state Senator does suggest his standing is better than that of other congressmen; but the fact that such numbers might in any way be spun as good news for Democrats speaks to how rough a landscape they are facing. On the other hand, the poll also finds that Obama has a stronger approval rating than you might expect in districts that voted for John McCain by 7% (46-49).

KS-04: The best defense is offense

Given the environment, a staunchly red Kansan district that voted for Bush by 32% and for McCain by 18% is the last place you would expect Democrats to try and mount an offense. Yet, the DCCC has been so excited by state Rep. Raj Goyle’s candidacy in the open KS-04 that they’ve included the district in the list of their 16 top offensive targets! Goyle has been raising large sums of money for a House challenger; he just reported more than $250,000 in the fourth quarter, and he outraised the most prolific Republican 4:1 in the 3rd quarter. But is this a case in which national parties’ obsessive focus on fundraising strength makes them overstate their chances?

Whatever Goyle’s merits, he has been in the state legislature for only 2 years (so it’s not like he is an entrenched political figure) and if he picked up the seat KS-04 would become one of the most conservative districts represented by a Democrat; is that likely to happen in 2010, especially in a state in which the GOP will enjoy huge victories in statewide elections? It’s good of the DCCC to seek to counter  the narrative that it is stuck playing defense, but it would certainly be a huge surprise if Goyle can make the race close.

Poll watch: Rubio edges ahead for the first time, Castle and McCollum grab decisive leads

For the first time, Marco Rubio leads Charlie Crist in Florida’s Republican primary - and it’s not even a Rasmussen poll! He has a 47% to 44% over the Governor in Quinnipiac’s latest poll of the race.

The surprise isn’t necessarily that Rubio has edged ahead (while Crist looked truly formidable when he jumped in the Senate race in May, the primary always looked like it could get very tricky) but that he has done so effortlessly. In June, Crist had a 54% to 23% lead, which he maintained in August; by October, his margin was cut by half (50-35) and Rubio gained another 20% since the fall. There are still 9 months to go before the election, Rubio has yet to air any ad or deploy the heavy artillery but Crist has already collapsed! What will it be once the former Speaker has spent his money introducing himself to all voters? After all, 42% of Republican respondents say they do not know him well, versus only 6% who say the same of Crist.

This is not simply due to conservatives turning against Crist, far from it. Like so many of his colleagues, the Governor has seen his approval rating melt during the economic crisis. Back in June, it stood at 62-28; now, at 50-38. What this means is that Democrats might be better off facing Charlie Crist in the general election - something I frankly never thought I would say.

For now, both Republicans have a commanding lead over Rep. Kendrick Meek: Crist is up 48% to 36%, Rubio is up 44% to 35%. But this does not mean Democrats should give up on this race. For one, 72% of respondents say they know little about Meek, which makes his name recognition far weaker than either of his opponents’. As importantly, what might these numbers look like after Crist and Rubio have spent their millions (both are very prolific fundraisers) blasting each other throughout the summer? (The primary won’t be held before August 24th.) Their favorability rating should be far lower, while Meek is also a well-financed candidate who might have been able to use that time to air unchallenged positive ads.

Meanwhile, in other Senate polls…

Delaware: No Beau Biden, no Ted Kaufmann, no Matt Denn, no John Carney - the highest-profile candidate Democrats can hope for at this point is Newcastle County Executive Chris Coons. Always eager to crush Democrats’ spirits, Rasmussen wasted no time before coming out with a poll pitting Coons to Rep. Mike Castle and the results are rather brutal for the defending party: Castle leads by a massive 56% to 27%! Research 2000’s October survey had Castle up 51% to 39% over Coons, which is 17% more optimistic for Democrats, so we’ll say what other surveys have to say, but there’s no question that Republicans have now become very likely to pick-up this seat. Most stunning is the 31% of Democrats who say they are voting for Castle; sure, that means Coons has some room to grow, but if these respondents are willing to support the Republican outright rather than say they are undecided, it says much more about the congressman’s popularity than Coons’s lack of name recognition.

Nevada: No surprises in Research 2000’s latest Nevada poll: Harry Reid is still in a terrible position. Weighed down by a 34-55 favorability rating, he trails his opponents by brutal margins: 52-41 against Danny Tarkanian and 51-42 against Sue Lowden. Research 2000 tested potential replacements and found that Nevada Democrats cannot hope to pull a Dodd: Rep. Berkley trails 46-40 and 45-40 and Secretary of State Rose Miller is down 44-36 and 43-37. That such well-known Democrats are polling this weakly against such low-profile Republicans suggests NV is very determined to vote Republican in November. One candidate who manages small leads is Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, but he just announced he wouldn’t seek statewide office - not that Democrats had much reason to rest their hopes on him, since he is over 70!

New York: The third poll to test Harold Ford Jr.’s primary prospects is also the one to found him closest: Research 2000 shows Kirsten Gillibrand leading 41% to 27%, with 3% for Jonathan Tasini. Ford is surprisingly well-known among New York Democrats (his favorability rating is 40-13), while Gillibrand has more than avoided David Paterson’s fate (her rating is 46-26). Whatever Ford’s baggage, there is no denying that he still has plenty of room to grow and this will be a real race if he jumps in but that has more to do with Gillibrand’s vulnerability than anything else - remember that she’s been in trouble in primary polls no matter who she’s been matched-up against, and she did trail repeatedly against Carolyn Maloney over the summer.

Meanwhile, in other gubernatorial polls…

Florida: If Alex Sink and Bill McCollum were within the margin of error throughout 2009, how long could that have lasted in the current environment? While the conventional wisdom has been that McCollum comes with electability issues, the bottom line is that we are talking about an open seat race between two credible candidates in a swing states, a situation which in 2010 is bound to favor the GOP. Indeed, the new Quinnipiac poll finds McCollum grabbing a decisive 51% to 41% lead, up from the 4% edge he held in October; at this point, it goes beyond name recognition, though Sink should at least be able to somewhat get closer once she reduces the notoriety gap. One good news for Sink in the poll: 22% of Democrats say they are undecided, but only 11% of Republicans.

Illinois: Attacked from all corners and seeing his primary fortunes sink, Governor Pat Quinn is also in a bad position in the general election according to a new PPP poll. He trails former AG Jim Ryan 42% to 35% and trails former state party chair Andy McKenna 42% to 36%; Dan Hynes, however, leads both Republicans (40-35 against Ryan, 38-36 against McKenna). This is quite a decisive

Arizona: This has been one of Democrats’ top opportunities of the cycle because of Governor Jan Brewer’s unpopularity, but a new Rasmussen poll shows that the GOP is in a position to nominate someone who can perform much better: Treasurer Dean Martin has a 31% to 29% edge over Brewer, with John Munger at 7% and Vernon Parker at 5% (Parker has dropped out). The swap would be helpful to Republicans: Not only does Brewer have a dismal approval rating (37-60) but she trails Democratic front-runner Goddard 43% to 41% whereas Martin leads 44% to 35%. That’s a turnaround from Rasmussen’s last 2009 poll, in which Goddard had a lead against Martin. The shifting landscape is affecting Democratic candidates everywhere.

Ohio: The University of Cincinnati found yet more confirmation that the once mighty Ted Strickland is facing a very tough re-election race: he trails former Rep. John Kasich 51% to 45%. Interestingly, his rating is positive - 50% to 45% - so voters looking for a change are not necessarily doing so because they disapprove of the governor’s performance. This is further supported by the survey asking who respondents blame for the economic crisis. 24% say Bush, 23% say Wall Street and 19% say Congress; only 13% say Obama and 3% say Strickland. Yet, it’s Democrats who are preparing to lose a lot of seats.

Utah: Last week, a Deseret News poll found Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon was holding Governor Herbert under 50%, but Mason Dixon shows Herbert in a stronger position, crushing Corroon 55% to 30%. While Coroon is popular (his approval rating is 47-17), Herbert is showing no sign of vulnerability, with 62% of respondents approving of his job.

New York: No miracle for David Paterson in Research 2000. His favorability rating stands at 34-54 (and yes, that’s just among Democrats) while Andrew Cuomo’s is a formidable 71-15. The trial heat results would be stunning if we hadn’t already seen it dozens of times: Cuomo crushes Paterson 63% to 19%. I’m still at a loss as to how the governor hopes to win the Democratic nod.

Republican Internal polls

NH-Sen: Conservatives have failed to derail Mark Kirk’s candidacy, but we have gotten no look at the primary situation in New Hampshire, where Kelly Ayotte’s situation has seemed a bit more precarious than Kirk’s. (Of course, Democrats would love nothing more than to see the A.G. crash out.) Ayotte sought to remedy the situation by releasing an internal poll that has her dominating the GOP field: Ayotte has 43%, Ovide Lamontagne 11%, Bill Binnie 5% and Jim Bender 3%. Last spring, Lamontagne’s allies claimed he remained well-known among state Republicans so a 32% margin is disappointing but there is a very long way to go until the September primary; given the name recognition gap, Lamontagne has room to grow - not to mention that this is an internal poll.

PA-15: Rep. Charlie Dent is one of the few Republican incumbents who are considered vulnerable at this point, which must not be an enjoyable position. The congressman’s camp sought to counter that perception by releasing an internal poll showing him with a dominant lead over Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan. Conducted by The Tarrance Group, the survey has him leading by a massive 56% to 27%. Take the results with a big grain of salt (it’s an internal, and the polling memo doesn’t even include exact wording questions) but the numbers are obviously tough for Democrats; it would be nice to see a public survey from this district.

A Massachusetts post-mortem

8 days have passed since the Massachusetts special election, and there are still as many questions as to what exactly happened that made one of the Democratic states in the country sent a Republican to the Senate. Many explanations we have been hearing concern national factors (Washington Democrats’ unpopularity, health-care reform); others concern Martha Coakley’s hapless campaign. To make sense of these confusing explanations, a friend who volunteered for Coakley in the campaign’s final week wrote a little essay based on what he saw on the ground.

What exactly went wrong with Democrats’ efforts? Where they really so unprepared, and why did they fail to catch up once they did awaken to the fact that this was a competitive race? His observations document the extent of Coakley’s unpreparedness - the lack of information about Brown, the amateurish nature of the ground game (one office in Boston, really?) - and also confirm what we have been seeing for the past few months: a depressed liberal base is sure to mean trouble for the party come November. So the rest of this post is written by Hugh Baran:

1. Little attention to issues voters are intimately concerned with

What drives people to vote and be engaged in the democratic process are their own issues. Whether or not someone cares about the outcome of an election has more to do with his or her sense of how their daily life is affected by the outcome than anything else. The Coakley campaign was ultimately unable to make a strong case to its potential voters that a Scott Brown victory would have a direct and detrimental impact on their daily lives.

These are generally two approaches campaigns can take - fear vs. hope. To me, the way you bring low-income voters who have been traditionally shafted by public policy out to the polls is by inspiring hope that their lives can change around a clear set of concrete issues. Coakley’s campaign was instead mired in vagaries. A key talking point of the final weekend was that Coakley would “fight for working families” - but what did that mean to anyone, concretely? Whenever I asked people what their message about that was, nobody knew. Occasionally people talked about her support of the new banking taxes, about fighting for Main St vs Wall St, but it was hollow. This kind of messaging is fundamentally rooted in an idea that voters are stupid, that you can’t actually address or draw them out around concrete issues because it’s just too complicated. Unless campaigns treat working people seriously, as individuals who are intimately aware of the issues they’re facing in their daily lives, they’re doomed to fail.

The flip side of all of this is that the campaign lacked solid information about Scott Brown. What I realized in the course of talking to activists throughout the final weekend is that traditional non-partisan organizations that get involved in electoral politics via issue guides and assessments via questionnaires, fora, etc did absolutely none of that work. This is particularly true of groups that work on progressive issues. Thus there was no ability for Martha Coakley’s campaigns - or volunteers - to cite information on Brown from those questionnaires, or for independent nonpartisan issue sources to give Coakley credibility in attacking Brown on his right-wing views. Thus, the attacks on Brown came across as baseless and rooted in little more than a desperate desire to win.

2. The importance of activist engagement

Not only were progressive organizations not engaged on an issues-level, but progressive activists were simply not engaged. They were, on the one hand, caught deeply off guard. Almost everybody believed the real race was in the primary, particularly for progressives.

On the other hand, progressive activists also hardly came out of the woodwork once it became clear that Coakley was in trouble. In a city like Boston with such a strongly developed progressive apparatus, activists were hard to come by at the Coakley field office. That only one field office was used for all of Boston was another sign of how low-energy people were.

I would argue that this was the real impact of national politics on the race. Progressives have been deeply disheartened about the Obama agenda (or lack thereof) and particularly about the failure of health-care reform to include a public option. Indeed, I found myself physically unable most of the time to talk about the health-care vote as one of Coakley’s virtues, and I have no doubt many others did as well. Coakley didn’t do the hard work of convincing Capuano activists to rally behind her - it’s not as though they didn’t vote for her, but what she needed was an organization - but at the end of the day, how are you to build an organization if activists don’t want to be part of one?

3. An unprepared campaign with a bad field strategy

Bad campaigns have bad strategy. We can argue that there are races that just have underlying dynamics, that move one way or another because of voting trends, national politics, or other factors, but I think that’s a hard statement to make here. Martha Coakley’s campaign ultimately just did not have the right strategy to win. The second it became clear several weeks ago, when the first competitive polling appeared, that this race had become nationalized, it should have prompted a dramatic re-thinking of field strategy. Instead, Coakley’s campaign (and our canvasses throughout Election weekend) focused almost exclusively on regular, prime Democratic voters. Yet once this went from being a sleeper election to a heated national race, Democrats should have expanded the target group to include more first-time Obama voters, particularly in low-income communities of color in Boston.

While OFA did organize millions of phone calls from around the country to these groups of voters, what was ultimately needed was an intense door-knocking focus with an issue-based ask. Such a strategy might have emerged had progressives with long-time experience in these communities been engaged in Coakley’s campaign at higher levels. Even on Election Day, when OFA had taken over the field operation from the campaign, neighborhoods with low-turnout Obama voters were not a priority focus for the campaign - even though it was clear that every such voter who was turned out would be a Coakley voter. Volunteer resources were clearly an issue, but in that case the campaign should have anticipated this and spent some money on paid canvassing. It is not at all hard to imagine another 100,000 votes coming out of Boston.

With one week to go, Illinois primaries get heated

Governors across the country better be paying attention to what is happening in Illinois because Pat Quinn’s primary troubles are a testament to the many ways in which the economic crisis has endangered incumbents’ standing. Forced to take budget-cutting measures to adjust for declining revenues, most governors have gone down routes that can easily be attacked by their opponents. While targeting programs for the poor is often the easiest way out politically since the lower-class tends to not be organized, one of the solutions Quinn implemented - reducing prison costs - was bound to be exploited by his rivals.

Aimed at prisoners with short sentences, the Meritorious Good Time Push program allowed them to be paroled before their term ended, thus reducing the number of inmates incarcerated at any one time and by extension the costs associated with them. Yet, controversy erupted last month as the AP reported that many prisoners had received credit for time they served in county jails and were thus released from the state penitentiary weeks before the 61 days they were required to have served before qualifying for the program.

Quinn’s primary challenger, Comptroller Dan Hynes, immediately recognized the issue’s potential. Not only did he indict the governor’s responsibility in the mix-up, he also made the very existence of the program his main angle of attack, accusing Quinn of having failed to protect Illinois residents. Hynes has relentlessly attacked the governor over these issues in recent weeks, including at debates, which has put Quinn on the defensive - the governor ended up calling the early release program a “mistake” and tried to pin the blame on the state’s prisons director.

Taking pages out of George H. W. Bush’s playbook, Hynes is airing an ad that accuses Quinn of being indirectly responsible for a crime committed by an inmate who was released early. “This man was let out of prison early by Pat Quinn. He’s now been arrested for assaulting a woman for four hours, choking and beating her,” the narrator says. “A governor’s bad judgment does have consequences. It’s time to release Pat Quinn from his job.”

However successful Hynes’s relentless focus on the prison program, none of his attacks has been as brutal, and none could come to define the primary as much as, his ad featuring former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, a hero not only in the African-American community but also among reformers. The ad features 20-year old footage of Washington saying that he wish he had not hired Quinn as the city budget director; “Pat Quinn is a totally and completely undisciplined individual who thinks this government is nothing but a large easel on which to do his PR work,” Washington is heard saying.

This ad has dominated exchanges in the final days of the campaign past few days, making Quinn’s camp even more apoplectic as it was over the prison release attacks. Their response: This is a ludicrous attack considering the comptroller’s father Tom Hynes went all-out to oust Washington in the 1987 mayoral race. But there is no question that this is quite a damaging attack; if any readers follow Illinois politics closely, I would be interested in knowing whether this footage is new or whether it had already surfaced in past cycles.

Smelling blood, Hynes has been blasting Quinn on many issues, and This Sun-Times column captures the spirit of the race; it’s certainly not surprising Hynes has been so successful at demolishing Quinn’s reputation given his family’s prominent role in Illinois’s Democratic machine, which surely gives his camp experience in taking care of political business. In fact, Quinn seems to be thinking about his opponent’s father quite a lot these days, as the governor went afterTom Hynes directly in their latest debate. “I think Pat Quinn has become disoriented,” Hynes responded. “He thinks he’s running against my father. I know you’ve been in politics 30 years, but my father retired 15 years ago. Maybe you should, too.” You can sense these two Democrats will be great friends once the primary is over.

Hynes’s attacks have taken their toll: What two months ago looked like it would be an easy victory by the new governor has turned into a toss-up, and it is likely that Hynes is pulling ahead.

This morning, PPP released the first poll to find Quinn trailing; while the margin is only 41-40, the momentum is all on the comptroller’s side. Yesterday, a new Chicago Tribune poll already had found Quinn sinking, since his 44-40 lead compared very unfavorably to his 49-23 early December lead; of course, Quinn is particularly vulnerable because he was never elected governor, but that is still a brutal turnaround. Seeking to drive the narrative of his momentum, Hynes released an internal poll of his own finding Quinn with a 44% to 37% lead, as well as a dismal 36% to 60% approval rating among Democrats. (The Chicago Tribune’s numbers were much better for Quinn, 43-31, though the topline results are worse.)

On the Republican side, the primary is totally impossible to predict with no less than 6 candidates having a credible shot at the nomination. PPP’s survey finds Kirk Dillard, Andy McKenna, Bill Brady, Jim Ryan, Adam Andrzejewski all within 19% and 11%, with Dan Proft at 7%; the Chicago Tribune finds a similarly confused situation. (The primary does feature one ad worth seeing, as McKenna is now attacking Dillard’s Republican credentials because the state senator featured in an Obama ad during the 2008 Iowa caucuses.)


While it hasn’t gotten as personal as the Quinn-Hynes showdown, the Democrats’ Senate primary has gotten competitive as well. Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias was seen as the front-runner as soon as he entered the race, thanks in part to his statewide post and to the large fundraising muscle he demonstrated within weeks of his entry, and the latest surveys suggest he has managed to maintain his position. The Chicago Tribune has him receiving 34%, with 19% going to Cheryle Jackson and 16% to former Chicago inspector general David Hoffman; PPP has similar results, with Giannoulias at 32%, Hoffman at 20% and Jackson at 18%.

The airwaves have primarily been used by Giannoulias and Hoffman’s campaigns, since Jackson did not raise enough money to mount a major advertising offensive. (Note that Jackson is one of just a few candidates nationwide upon which rests the hope that the Senate will have at least one African-American member come 2011.) The challenge these candidates have faced is fairly simple: which candidate can best distance himself or herself from Rod Blagojevich’s shadow?

Hoffman has been particularly aggressive in attacking Giannoulias, tying him to Blagojevich by indicting his ethics and relating him to Tony Rezko, whose name you surely remember from the presidential race. “Who will take on Washington’s spending and Wall Street abuses? Not Alexi. He was chief loan officer when his family’s bank gave a million dollars to Blagojevich crony and convicted felon Tony Rezko, then let Rezko bounce a half-million in checks,” argues a recent ad:

Giannoulias answered with the usual shame-on-my-opponent-for-going-negative ad. Giannoulias has spent more time attacking on issues, notably going after Hoffman’s support for free trade and his stance that the Bush tax cuts should not expire until the economy improves. Is that enough to conclude that Hoffman is more of a moderate while Giannoulias is ideologically a mainstream Democrat? Well, Giannoulias has a corporate background, which got him a seat on the board of the Edgewater Chamber of Commerce, certainly not what progressives dream of in a senator; interestingly, Jackson has served on the board of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce.

Yet, it would be a surprise if the election is decided by any substantive difference between the candidates. Given Giannoulias’s background and the fact that Hoffman has constructed his entire career on building good government credentials, the former Chicago inspector general is clearly banking on Democratic voters wanting to throw out any suspicion that might befall them that they have not turned the page of the Blagojevich era; given Illinois’s recent history, we can sure forgive these voters if they’re having a hard time trusting any politician is clean, let alone a former bank manager as Giannoulias is. Jackson faces her own problem: she was Blagojevich’s spokesperson.

That said, I am not convinced that there is a clear electability difference between these 3 Democrats, though that is something we shall have a better idea of as the general election unfolds since it does not look like Democrats will avoid facing Rep. Mark Kirk. They would have liked nothing more than seeing conservative activists Pat Hughes upset Kirk in the GOP primary. Yet, Hughes never managed to become the new coming of Doug Hoffman, the best sign yet that Democrats’ post-NY-23 hope that Tea Partiers would give Republicans major headaches hasn’t materialized just yet. PPP showed Kirk crushing 42% to 9%; the Chicago Tribune had him leading 47% to 8%.

Rep. Pence will not challenge Senator Bayh

Could it be? Good electoral news for Democrats? Well, if I had told you at the beginning of the month that Senator Evan Bayh dodging a major threat to his re-election would be considered news, you probably would not have believed me, but that is the situation the party finds itself in. The mere fact that Democrats breathed a sigh of relief when Rep. Mike Pence announced he would not challenge Bayh this morning tells us all we need to know about just how much the landscape has deteriorated over the past week alone - and how anxious Democrats have grown about any of their incumbents.

Indiana’s Senate race was one of seven I highlighted Friday as contests to watch, as in Democratic-held seats the GOP is hoping to contest to put itself in shooting distance of regaining a majority. After Massachussetts’s special election, the NRSC got Pence to actively consider the race and Rasmussen wasted no time before testing him: The results, which were released yesterday, showed Pence enjoying a shocking 47% to 44% lead. Nothing for Bayh to retire over, but for a politician who has not broken a sweat winning statewide races for the past two decades, the sight of a survey finding him under 60% - let alone trailing! - must have been jarring.

Yet, Pence closed the door on a run this morning. “I am staying for two reasons,” he wrote in a letter sent to his supporters. “First because I have been given the responsibility to shape the Republican comeback as a member of the House Republican Leadership and, second, because I believe Republicans will win back the majority in the House of Representatives in 2010.” There is another reason this leading figure of the conservative movement passed on the race: He has ambitions for 2012. Whether those include a presidential run as some are murmuring or simply a gubernatorial run, they would have been endangered by a loss against Bayh.

Pence’s decision comes as a relief to Democrats, who were getting worried as to whether the series of terrible news they’ve been receiving would ever end. The GOP needs a perfect storm to endanger incumbents who are as entrenched as Bayh, so it will be hard for them to put this Senate race in play without Pence’s candidacy.

(While Bayh has emerged as one of the leaders of Senate Democrats’ centrist caucus, liberals should not dismiss the importance of ensuring he does not face a tough race: The senator has been under pressure to cooperate with the leadership on many of the year’s important issues, and he wasn’t the toughest vote for Harry Reid to win over during the health-care debate. Yet, Bayh has been making a lot of noise about his party’s 2009 mistakes in recent weeks; had Pence jumped in, it would give Bayh perfect cover to move further right, ruling out supporting any more Democratic priorities. Not that the Senate achieved that much in 2009; I just realized the chamber has yet to pass the college loan bill, which I had believed had been adopted.)

The one other formidable candidate the NRSC could potentially field is Governor Mitch Daniels; yet, the only place I read the possibility he might run even mentioned is Marc Ambinder’s blog and he walked it back this morning. While Daniels would not have to give up his job to run for Senate since his term is not up until 2012, he is said to have presidential ambitions; not only would running as Indiana Governor suit him better than mounting a campaign from the Senate, but he would needlessly open himself to electability attacks if he were to run and lose. In short: the GOP will most probably go no further than the two candidates already have in the race: state Senator Marlin Stutzman and former Rep. John Hostettler.

Rasmussen actually polled both of them, finding Bayh leading Hostettler 44% to 41% and Stutzman 45% to 33%. Needless to say, those are strikingly underwhelming numbers, not only because he fails to break 50% against a low-profile state Senator but also because he is within the MoE against a former congressman who lost his re-election by more than 20% in 2006.

I have trouble believing that the situation is quite as bad for Democrats and hope that another pollster soon takes a look at the race so we can double-check the extent of Bayh’s vulnerability; after all, Rasmussen typically represents the most GOP-friendly extreme of the polling universe. Furthermore, it would take a far more toxic environment for either Stutzman or Hostettler to catch fire: Bayh, who was planning a presidential run until 2007, has nearly $10 million stocked up, a daunting total given that neither of his challengers are well-connected with the national party.

And yet, Republicans’ interest has been awakened, and Indiana cannot be expected to ever be considered safe again. Pence or no Pence, the DSCC would be well-advised to check-in the state come the summer to make sure the Hoosier State isn’t preparing a Massachusetts-like surprise.

Coleman exit and threat of late Dem primary shake up Minnesota race

Democrats desperately looking to find some good news to latch unto among the recent avalanche of bleak developments could do worse than look at Minnesota’s gubernatorial election, a rare open seat race in which things have tended to break Democrats‘ way. The past month alone has shook up the race.

Last week, Norm Coleman announced he would not run as Governor. Since the former senator had appeared to be preparing himself for a run, including conducting polling and considering the choice of a running-mate, his decision took his party aback. While Coleman faced clear electability questions (he has lost 2 out of 3 statewide races and 2008 Senate race made his unfavorability ratings soar very high), many Republicans were eager to see him run because they do not have that many options in the state: The party’s first choice, moderate former Rep. Jim Ramstad, announced he would not run in the summer, perhaps because his moderate reputation would have made it tough for him to win the nomination through the state’s convention system.

Worse still, Coleman pulled a Beau Biden: He waited so long to make up his mind that he sucked up all the oxygen and made it tough for other Republicans to mount credible campaigns. Just a few days before Coleman’s statement, former Auditor Pat Anderson dropped out of the race, citing the difficulty she had experienced in raising money given that Republican donors were waiting to see what Coleman was up to. “I think the shadow is real,” she said. “And it’s affected us all as candidates.”

This leaves a somewhat underwhelming field headlined by state Reps. Marty Seifert and Tom Emmer, both of whom are part of the party’s conservative wing. With the first caucuses just a few weeks away - and the full convention just three months away - the two are engaged in a heated effort to portray themselves as being furthest to the right. Whatever the environment in 2010, that’s not exactly the recipe to win statewide victory in a blue-leaning state; while a red wave could carry Seifert or Emmer through the finish line, the GOP could have put itself in a better position.

The GOP’s drive rightward is giving the Independence Party hope it could pull a remake of its 1998 upset, in which Jesse Ventura pulled of an unlikely 3-way victory. “Because the Republicans will now likely endorse a more extreme candidate, this makes it even more likely that the Independence Party’s candidate will regain the governor’s office in 2010,” said the IP chairman last week. The IP has not been able to get close to repeating its 1998 feat, and it’s not like it has even tried to do so in every major race; the 2008 Senate race did see a major IP push, however, with Dean Barkley receiving close to 20% of the vote. If the party does field a competitive candidate in the coming months, it could obviously affect the contest’s dynamics.

This week, a candidate stepped up to asked for the IP’s support: public relations executive Tom Horner, who has long been involved in Republican politics, announced he is launching an exploratory committee and would run if he can translate his GOP contacts into contributions. For a candidate like Horner to make it to the general election ballot would probably help the Democratic nominee. (Interestingly, the second IP candidate who emerged this week - Joe Repya - is also a former Republican.)

Not that Democrats are anywhere close to figuring out who will represent them in November. In fact, the party has a problem of its own, namely the possibility that it will not figure out its nominee until months after Republicans and Independents do.

In Minnesota, nomination fights are typically decided in conventions that are held in the spring; losing candidates are expected to bow to delegates’ will and not pursue their party’s nod all the way to the mid-September primary. This field-thinning is all the more certain to take place when candidates are low-profile politicians whose main hope to gain the nomination is to appeal to party activists; for instance, it is tough to see how Tom Emmer could win the GOP primary if the entire party apparatus rallied behind Marty Seifert following his eventual convention win. As such, Republicans are likely to go into the summer with an undisputed front-runner.

That’s more than we can say of Democrats. In officially announcing his long-certain candidacy this week, former Senator Mark Dayton announced that he would include his name in neither the February straw polls nor in the April convention ballots. In short, he is bypassing the usual nominating route and moving straight to the primary ballot. What this means: Whoever wins the delegates’ endorsement in three months (Minneapolis Mayor Rybak is the favorite, though there are other credible contenders like Speaker Margaret Anderson) will need to follow up the convention fight with a very tough interparty campaign that will not be resolved until September 14th, less than 2 months from the general election!

While Dayton brings major electability problems to the race - he retired from the Senate in 2006 largely because he was considered one of the cycle’s most vulnerable incumbents - it’s hard to deny Democrats have more formidable candidates heading into convention season. Might their edge be endangered if the GOP nominee gets a head start to prepare for the general election, soften his conservatism and build-up his profile?

Just brutal: Beau Biden passes on Senate run

[Updated below with Kaufman and Carney statements] It was one of the cycle’s biggest shoes left to drop, and it is an unspeakably brutal development for Democrats: In an e-mail he just sent to his contact list, Attorney General Beau Biden announced he will not run for Senate in 2010. His decision all but hands Delaware’s Senate seat to Republicans.

For those keeping count, this means there are now four Democratic Senate races that we would be hard-pressed to not label at least lean takeover: Delaware, North Dakota, Nevada and Arkansas.

Democrats could have easily avoided this situation. When Joe Biden resigned his Senate seat to become vice-president, Governor Ruth Ann Minner was tasked with appointing a successor. Outgoing Lieutenant Governor John Carney lobbied for the job; had he been chosen, he would have been sure to run for a full term in 2010, and the aging Rep. Mike Castle would have been highly unlikely to seek a promotion. Instead, Minner chose a placeholder who had made clear he would not run in 2010 (Biden staffer Ted Kaufman) in order to keep the seat warm for Beau Biden, who could not be directly appointed both because he first had to complete a tour of active duty in Iraq and because the nepotism would have been too transparent.

This ugly maneuver is now backfiring on Democrats. For the sake of the Bidens’ ambitions, the seat was left open (thus enticing Castle to run) but the Attorney General didn’t hold his end of the bargain. He was surely frightened by Castle’s strong poll numbers and by Martha Coakley’s loss in typically-solidly blue Massachusetts. Thankfully for Democrats, Biden was the party’s last major politician from whom a Senate decision was expected: the field has already been set in MO, NC, OH, LA, KY, NH and CT. But in Delaware, Biden leaves his party in a terrible situation.

Mike Castle has held statewide office since 1980: He was Lieutenant Governor from 1981 to 1985, Governor from 1985 to 1993 and he has been Delaware’s sole representative since that date. He has won each and every one of his 9 House races by double-digits; in 6 of them he prevailed by more than 30%. Since he has already represented the entirety of Delaware in Congress (a strange peculiarity of those states that have fewer representatives than Senators), he is running as a quasi-incumbent - and a popular one at that. Needless to say, Democrats need a formidable candidate of their own to stop Castle - a candidate they will be hard-pressed to find now that Biden has ruled out the race.

All eyes will be on Carney, the very same man who lobbied for the Senate seat last year; but the former Lieutenant Governor is now running for the House seat left open by Castle. Carney is all-but-certain to win that race, so now that he has found a way to prolong his political career after the tough 2008 he endured, why would he embark himself on an uphill race Democrats pushed him away from in the first place? Another name that is floated is Newcastle County Executive Chris Coons, who would not have to give up his position to run since he was just sworn in a second term.

Finally, Democrats could try to convince Kaufman to run for a full term. Since he would run as an incumbent, Kaufman could at least hope voters would consider him - something other Democrats cannot be sure of. The problem is that Kaufman was chosen precisely because he was trusted to get no ambitions of his own besides keeping the seat for Beau Biden. He will 71 by November, the same age as Castle. Democrats have a deep bench in Delaware, so even if none of these options work out they are still likely to field some elected official or another; but the Republican sure is favored to win the seat.

Back in October, Research 2000 polled alternatives to Biden. While the Attorney General was within the MoE (46-45), Castle led Carney 49% to 41%, Coons 51% to 39% and Kaufman 51% to 37%. Those numbers certainly don’t guarantee Castle would be sure of winning the seat; Carney in particular keeps him under 50% and within single-digits. But they are daunting enough to make Carney or Kaufman unlikely to take the plunge, not to mention that the environment has deteriorated further for Democrats since October.

The fact that Biden took so long to make up his mind make it that much harder for his party to mount a competitive race at this point: While Castle has been stockpiling money and preparing for the Senate race, no Democrat but Carney have been preparing themselves for a federal race and there is little time left for a low-profile candidate to emerge, introduce himself and hope to compete with the Republican.

The main silver-lining for Democrats: Losing this seat would only be a 4-year setback. The 2010 race is meant to determine who will fill the remainder of the term for which Joe Biden was elected in 2008, so the winner will be up for re-election in 2014. Yet, Democrats who are hoping Castle will retire by then are perhaps being too optimistic. Yes, Castle has long been considering retiring from the House - in fact, he was almost going to leave politics this year - and he will be 74 by the fall of 74. Yet, if that might be an advanced age by House standards, it is certainly not strange to have septuagenarian senators.

Update: Ted Kaufman has already announced he will not run for a full term come November, so one of the few options Democrats had has already been ruled out.

Update, part 2: A few hours after current Lieutenant Governor Denn announced he would run for federal office, former Lieutenant Governor John Carney also made it clear he would not switch from the House to the Senate race in a statement he released. That might be tough for Democrats to hear, but then again how could they pressure Carney to sacrifice his shot at a safe Senate seat given that just last year they were willing to see his career end just so they could keep the Senate seat warm for Beau Biden? All of this leaves us with Newcastle County Executive Chris Coons, who acknowledged this afternoon that he was “considering” the race. So is Castle-Coons Democrats’ best hope?

Yet another GOP opening: Rep. Marion Berry retires

Democrats can be grateful Arkansas only has 4 House seats, because the state has become a source of unending good news for the GOP. Just a week after Rep. Vic Snyder announced he would not seek re-election, Marion Berry joined the ever-growing list of Democratic retirees, giving the GOP yet another golden opportunity at picking-up an open seat.

While AR-1 has never sent a Republican to the House, it gave John McCain 59% of the vote last year. Needless to say, Republicans are salivating at the prospect of contesting it incumbent-less. Despite the GOP’s confidence, it will be no slam-dunk; but given the national environment this gives Republicans as good a shot at gaining a foothold in Northeastern Arkansas as they can hope for.

AR-1 is Democrats’ twelfth open seat, 10 of which are vulnerable. That compares to only 2/3 competitive Republican open seats, though the party is defending a total of 14. Given that waves make themselves felt the most sharply in open seats, this widening discrepancy has become a major source of anxiety for the DCCC. If incumbents from marginal districts continue to retire, it will be time for Democrats to start worrying about losing their majority, a possibility I have for now not seriously entertained.

Berry’s decision is brutal for Democrats because the 7-term representative did not face a tough rough re-election race: His retirement single-handedly creates an additional vulnerability for his party, which was not the case with Snyder’s exit. It is hard to fault a 67-year old with wanting to retire, but so many veteran Democrats’ willingness to leave their seat vulnerable when they could have easily defended it and left office in 2012 instead has to be tough for the DCCC to deal with (Berry, Brian Baird, John Tanner, even Dennis Moore).

On the other hand, the potential loss of AR-1 is less damaging to Democrats in regards to having a working majority. While Snyder has a fairly liberal voting record, Marion Berry is one of House Democrats’ more conservative members. A member of the Blue Dog Coalition, he was one of a few dozen Democrats to support the Federal Marriage Amendment, the Real ID Act and permanent repeal of the estate tax. He also supported the Patriot Act, the trade deal with Peru, the Iraq War Resolution and the FISA Amendment, all measures opposed by a majority of his party. In 2009, he did vote for the health-care bill, a somewhat surprising decision that came a few months after his opposition to the cap-and-trade legislation.

That Arkansas is giving Democrats so many headaches is hardly surprising. Unlike many other Southern states, Arkansas underwent little realignment in 1994 and in 2002 (in fact, Democrats picked-up a Senate seat that year, even as countless of their incumbents unexpectedly fell in GA, SC or AL). While Republicans now have solid majorities in most Southern states’ congressional delegations, 5 out of 6 of Arkansas’s congressmen are Democrats. In a cycle that has become the GOP’s third opportunity in 16 years to take over the South, Arkansas was bound to produce numerous Republican opportunities.

The other Southern state in this position is Tennessee, and it’s no coincidence that AR and TN are the two Southern states in which Al Gore competed in 2000. Indeed, AR-1 has come a long way since 2000, when it gave Gore a 2% victory; four years later, it voted for George W. Bush over John Kerry by 5%; in 2008, John McCain pulled off a dramatic 16% swing as he carried the district 59% to 38%. In short, the district has been quickly trending Republican over the past decade alone - and this is the first time Democrats will have to defend it since this transformation.

All of this said, Democrats have no reason to be discouraged: they have a good chance at defending AR-1. Arkansas has remained as blue as it gets at every level but the presidential one, which means the party have a very strong bench from which to choose a candidate, whereas Republicans might struggle to field a top-tier contender. It also means district voters have not given up their loyalty to the Democratic Party (it’s probable many AR-1 residents have never voted for a Republican in a non-presidential federal race other than in the 1996 Senate race); the fact that the party should be able to nominate someone who voters already know will help them carry that loyalty to the AR-1 race.

Democrats’ strongest potential candidate appears to be Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, though McDaniel has been said to be interested in the Governor’s Mansion. Other potential contenders are state Senator Robert Thompson, state Rep. Keith Ingram and many other state legislators. On the GOP side, the one candidate already in the race - Rick Crawford, who owns a local radio channel - hadn’t gained much traction for now, so the NRCC will be looking elsewhere, but it has far less state legislators to choose from; state Senator Johnny Key and state Rep. Davy Carter are mentioned.

Interestingly, we could soon still have a third open seat in Arkansas: Republican Rep. John Boozman is now actively contemplating a Senate run. That leaves Democratic Rep. Mike Ross as the only member of the state’s House delegation who does not look on the brink of retirement. Democrats should be rather depressed that this is the case, since Ross is arguably the most conservative of the group, and one of those who holds the most responsibility in the health-care bill’s trouble since he led Blue Dog efforts to postpone debate on the legislation from July to October, a delay that has now come back to haunt Democrats. In any case, Ross is only 49, so it would be a surprise for him to follow Snyder and Berry out the door. At this point, however, Democrats would be foolish to take anything for granted.

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