Archive for the 'CT-Sen' Category

Can the NRSC expand the Senate map? A look at 7 seats

Republicans have top-tier opportunities to pick-up 7 Senate seats: Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Nevada, North Dakota and Pennsylvania. Their prospects of winning most of these races have improved in recent months, but the overall number of seats they are contesting has remained the same since the summer. (While North Dakota was added following Byron Dorgan’s retirement, Connecticut was removed after Chris Dodd’s.)

But in the wake of Scott Brown’s upset in Massachusetts’s special election, the GOP is dreaming expanding the Senate map further. To take back control of the chamber, Republicans now need to pick-up 10 seats, which means they have to go after at least 3 additional races - and then hope to sweep all and not lose any of their own. While that is obviously a very tough feat, it doesn’t mean the NRSC shouldn’t try: In 2008, the DSCC was so determined to put 9 seats in play that it poured in millions in North Carolina’s Senate race before there was strong evidence that Kay Hagan could pull it off, and the party did pick-up a total of 8 seats.

Of course, not all map expansion efforts work - even in the most favorable of environments: Again in 2008, Senator Susan Collins was challenged by a top-tier Democratic candidate in a blue state in a very tough environment for her party and in a presidential year; she never even once looked like she would have to break a sweat. In short: Republicans might be able to win in many more places than is typical next year, but some incumbents will be out of reach no matter how big recruitment coups they pull.

Besides the 7 seats I listed above, Democrats are defending 11 seats: CA, CT, IN, HI, MD, NY-A, NY-B, OR, VT, WA, WI. 4 of those do seem to be off-limits: Mikulski’s Maryland seat, Schumer’s New York seat, Leahy’s Vermont seat, Wyden’s Oregon seat. That does leave 7 seats that we should keep track of - so let’s get right to them.

Connecticut

This race used to be a top-tier opportunity for the GOP, but now Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is heavily favored, and polls have been showing him crushing his well-known Republican opponents (the same who were leading Dodd) by margins ranging exceeding 20%. Furthermore, Blumenthal is a far more established presence than Martha Coakley was in Massachusetts and seeing his Bay State colleague’s downfall should ensure he doesn’t rest on his laurels. But the fact is that it is an open seat in which the GOP has well-financed candidates it is happy with. In short: it would be foolish for Democrats to act like Connecticut is in the bag. I find it unlikely we’ll end up spending much time talking about this race, but the surest way for Democrats to endanger their hold on Connecticut is to assume that to be true.

New York

This is arguably the most obvious seat on the list because it is the only one that should have been competitive by now: No one doubts that appointed senator Kirsten Gillibrand is vulnerable. Yet, the NRSC has met numerous recruitment failures here (Giuliani, King, Molinari) and the candidate they look like they might end up with does not look strong enough to mount that threatening a race. Does that mean Democrats are out of the woods? Certainly not, as there are several ways in which New York could join the list of highly competitive seats.

First, if the red wave is truly huge Blakeman could catch fire and become a threat. Second, Pataki could still enter the race; he is not expected to do so, but that would hardly be the cycle’s biggest surprise. Third, the Harold Ford factor could give the NRSC an opening: If he were to run as an independent, the GOP nominee could win a 3-way race with a plurality of the vote. In fact, Rasmussen just released a poll finding that in such a contest Ford would receive 10%, with Gillibrand at 39% and a generic Republican at 34%. (Also: If Ford beats Gillibrand, does that count as a Dem hold or a pick-up for Lieberman’s caucus-of-one?)

California

Boxer might be the first incumbent Republicans turn to in the hope of contesting another seat, and this for a very simple reason: they already have a field of credible contenders, which is more than they can say for the states I discuss below. Carly Fiorina, Chuck DeVore and new entree Tom Campbell are running hard for the GOP nomination, and while DeVore is probably too far to the right to compete in California the newest primary poll shows he is fading away since Campbell’s entry: The Field Poll has the former representative at 30%, Fiorina at 26% and DeVore at only 6%, which is excellent news for the NRSC.

Boxer looks more or less vulnerable depending on which pollsters we ask. This week alone, we received two California polls. Rasmussen had a pessimistic outlook for Boxer, who struggled to post a significant lead: She led 46% to 43% against Fiorina, 46% to 42% against Campbell ad 46% to 40% against DeVore. The Field Poll, meanwhile, gives Boxer stronger margins: 48% to 38% against Campbell, 50% to 35% against Fiorina and 51% to 34% against DeVore; the survey also has Boxer’s approval rating at a solid though not impressive 48/39.

Even the Field Poll finds that Boxer can’t be considered safe, since she does not clear the 50% threshold against Campbell, who is confirming expectations that he would be the GOP’s best bet to win a statewide race. As such, here’s the good news for Democrats: Boxer is fully aware she needs to take the race seriously. She has stockpiled millions of dollars - $8 by the end of 2008 - which is more important here than in most states, especially as GOP candidates wil have to concentrate on each other for many more months; and she has been talking about the possibility she faces a tough race for months, thus preparing a campaign infrastructure. This is one Democrat who won’t be taken by surprise.

Wisconsin

The GOP hasn’t been paying much attention to Russ Feingold, but they are now trying to recruit the one man who would make the race competitive: former Governor and former HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, who said this week that he was looking at the race. (Note: This is being covered as a sign that Brown’s victory has altered the landscape but Thompson has been saying exactly the same thing since November.) While Thompson would make the race a top GOP opportunity, he is no John Hoeven, by which I mean that Republicans shouldn’t expect an easy pick-up. An October University of Wisconsin poll found that Thompson would lead Feingold 43% to 39% but a November PPP poll reached different conclusions: Not only did Feingold have a 50% to 41% lead, but Thompson had a mediocre favorability rating and he was the only one of 3 Republicans to trail in gubernatorial match-ups. So would he really be that formidable a candidate? (Another potential Republican candidate is Rep. Paul Ryan, but he recently hinted once more that his ambition lies in challenging Senator Kohl in 2012.)

Indiana

That we are even discussing Evan Bayh as a Democrat who might potentially have to worry about his re-election race shows just how rough the landscape has gotten for his party. Yet, the NRSC is actively looking to recruit Rep. Mike Pence in the hope that the conservative congressman could give Bayh his toughest race in 20 years. Not only is Pence meeting with NRSC officials this week, but the Club for Growth is publicly urging him to take on Bayh; on the other hand, Pence-ally Tony Perkins just said it was unlikely Pence would get in. (Martin Stutzman and John Hostettler are both already challenging Bayh, but it’s hardly surprising that the NRSC is looking elsewhere.) My sense is that Bayh is just too established for Indiana voters to oust him no matter who he faces and no matter the state’s conservative bent; as such, I think a Bayh-Pence race would be the closest equivalent to Maine’s Collins-Allen. Yet, there’s no question that the last thing the DSCC wants is to worry about an incumbent that looked as safe as could be back in January 2009.

Washington

Republicans underestimated Senator Patty Murray in 2004, but the “Mom in Tennis shoes” had no trouble beating then-Rep. Neterhcutt in what wasn’t an easy year for her party. She’s now seeking a fourth term, and the GOP wasn’t expected to give the state much thought. But it will surely now take a look at whether it can recruit a credible candidate. The state has 3 Republican congressmen. Rep. Hastings is probably too old to run for Senate, Rep. McMorris Rodgers is very conservative; that leaves Rep. Reichert, who would probably be the NRSC’s best bet. While there hasn’t been much buzz surrounding Reichert, his spokesperson did not rule out the possibility. The other name that has been mentioned is Attorney General Rob McKenna; he’s been known to have gubernatorial ambitions, but the Senate wasn’t McCaskill or Warner’s priority either. The GOP’s highest-profile candidate at this point is former Washington Redskins player Clint Didier, but it would take quite a Democratic collapse for Didier to make this competitive.

Hawaii

Senator Dan Inouye announced in December 2008 he would seek another term in 2010. But since he will be 86 years old by Election Day, we cannot but ask whether he might still retire. (In the post in which I wrote about his statement, I wrote that an incumbent’s insistence that he should not retire should never be taken quite seriously, and I linked to a post I had just written expressing skepticism that Senator Bunning and Rep. Moore really meant their just-announced re-election plans; both have since then retired.) Hawaii’s filing deadline is July 20th, so it certainly is not too late for him to decide he wants to call it quits. At this point, it is late enough that this would be improbable, but it’s not impossible. If the seat were open, the GOP would have a good shot at convincing Governor Linda Lingle to jump in, which would make the race competitive no matter Hawaii’s blue bent.

An epic polling roundup to get our minds off Massachussetts

Research 2000 and ARG just released two of Massachussetts’s final polls - if not the final polls. ARG found a 7% lead for Brown (52% to 45%), up 4% from where he was just last week. Research 2000, meanwhile, found… a tie: Scott Brown and Martha Coakley receive 48% apiece, a testament to how unpredictable the contest remains heading into Election Day. While at this point any poll that doesn’t have Brown ahead is a relief for Democrats, I don’t have to tell you that even that survey is rough for Coakley: Just last week, Research 2000 found her ahead by 8%, which makes this yet another poll to found stunning momentum for the Republican.

Yet, Research 2000 also confirms the hypothesis I enunciated this morning, as an update to last night’s post: Coakley performs better in polls that include Libertarian nominee Joe Kennedy, who will be on the ballot tomorrow. Pajamas Media and PPP, which gave Brown large leads yesterday, did not include Kennedy at all; surveys that have the race within the margin of error do include Kennedy, who for instance receives 3% in Research 2000. There’s every reason to believe that Kennedy is drawing his voters from the conservative camp, so if the race is close his presence on the ballot could allow Coakley to shave off a few points off Brown compared to PPP’s survey. (ARG’s website appears to be down, so I cannot determine whether they included him.)

It’s hard to think of anything but Massachussetts, but let’s try to do just that: Over the past week, there was so much news to cover that I ignored an avalanche of polls, to which I’ll now get to. Now that we’ve entered 2010, there will be more and more surveys released weekly - even daily - so I will obviously not attempt to cover each one in as much detail as I did over the past year; I will however start with polls that are testing election we’ve seen little data on. Today, those consist in 3 House districts and 2 Western Governor’s races.

(Yes, this is a fairly long post… but I let polls accumulate without covering them for more than a week, so I wanted to get to them all at once to make sure I can focus on Massachussetts and other important news after this!)

Three House races find mixed results for Dems

NC-08: PPP managed to find a freshman Democrat from a swing district with solid standing! In NC-08, a district that swung from Bush to Obama, not only does Rep. Larry Kissell have a strong approval rating (45% to 30%), but he displays no sign of vulnerability in three match-ups against his challengers, leading Lou Huddleston 55% to 37%, Tom D’Annunzio 54% to 38%, Hal Jordan 55% to 39% and Harold Johnson 53% to 39%. Sure, none of these Republicans have much name recognition, but consider all the polls we have seen recently in which incumbent Democrats have struggled to mount any sort of lead against unknown opponents. Yet, not only is Kissell up big but he’s also topping 50%.

ND-AL: The DCCC is relieved Rep. Earl Pomeroy decided to seek re-election, but it doesn’t mean he is a shoo-in to win another term. A new poll by Research 2000 finds him solidly ahead of all of his competitors Kevin Cramer and Duane Sand, but he fails to clear 50% against either. (He’s ahead 46-24 and 47-22, respectively.) This is all the more problematic when you consider that Republicans are 5 times more likely to be undecided than Democrats, so the GOP candidates have a lot of room to grow once they introduce themselves, and the NRCC especially has hope in Cramer (North Dakota Public Service Commissioner). In short: Pomeroy has a good standing and he is clearly favored to win re-election, but he is not safe.

OH-01: If Kissell and Pomeroy look strong, Rep. Steve Driehaus is sinking according to a SUSA poll commissioned by FiredogLake. We already knew that this freshman Democrat was one of the most endangered of the cycle (he is facing a rematch against the Republican he ousted in 2008, and OH-01 is a district with a substantial African-American population, so a drop in black turnout compared to the past cycle would be particularly hurtful to his chances), but SUSA’s numbers are uglier than even optimistic Republicans surely expected: Driehaus trails 39% to 56% for former Rep. Steve Chabot. I don’t need to tell you the odds that an incumbent who trails by 17% might win re-election. (Coincidentally, this is the same exact margin SUSA found against Rep. Vic Snyder on Friday.)

An unexpected Dem opportunity in UT, door is closing in OK

Utah: Democrats were excited at Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Coroon’s decision to challenge Governor Herbert, and a Deseret News poll confirms that Coroon could make the race well-worth watching: Herbert leads 48% to 35%, down from his 56-32 lead back in November. There’s no question that Herbert is heavily favored, but Coroon does represent one third of the state’s population in a capacity that ensures he is a visible presence. At the very least, Coroon’s presence on the ballot could help Democrats ensure that Rep. Jim Matheson isn’t a victim of any potential red wave.

Oklahoma: Whatever Oklahoma’s staunchly conservative status, Democrats had enough of a bench they were expecting to mount a highly competitive bid to defend the state’s governorship. (Governor Henry is term-limited.) Yet, a Tulsa News poll finds that Lieut. Gov. Jari Askins and Attorney General Drew Edmonson are no match for Rep. Mary Fallin; despite their strong favorability rating (Edmonson’s stands at 51-31), they trail the Republican 52% to 36% and 51% to 39%, respectively. A former Lieutenant Governor, Fallin is well-known and popular (54% to 29%). Democrats shouldn’t entirely give up, but the race most certainly leans Republican.

Connecticut and North Dakota won’t be competitive

From the moment Senators Byron Dorgan and Chris Dodd retired two weeks ago, we have known that the races to replace them are unlikely to be competitive. Three new poll confirm that John Hoeven and Richard Blumenthal are very heavily favored to be sworn into the Senate come January 2011.

North Dakota: Richard 2000 finds Hoeven leading 56% to 32% against Ed Schulz, 55% to 34% against former AG Heidi Heitkamp and 56% to 32% against Jasper Schneider. Sure, Hoeven’s lead doesn’t quite reach “overwhelming” status, but looking at the internals it’s hard to see a path to victory for whoever Democrats nominate: There are few undecideds, including among Democratic voters; Hoeven enjoys near unanimous support among Republicans; and he has daunting leads among independents.

Connecticut: We’ve already seen a few surveys displaying Blumenthal’s dominance, but over the past 5 days Quinnipiac and Research 2000 both released surveys confirming it. In Research 2000, Blumenthal leads Rob Simmons 54% to 35%, Linda McMahon 56% to 34% and Peter Schiff 56% to 33%. In Quinnipiac, whose brutal numbers for Dodd were as responsible for driving the narrative of his doom than those of any other pollster, his leads are gigantic: 62% to 27% against Simmons, 64% to 23% against McMahon, 66% to 19% against Schiff. Everything can happen if Democrats aren’t careful (see neighboring Massachussetts), but Blumenthal isn’t Martha Coakley.

CO, NH, NV, OH: 4 key Senate races, 7 rough polls for Senate Democrats.

Ohio: Democrats led this open race for much of 2009, but Rasmussen’s new poll is its second in a row to find Rob Portman has grabbed the edge. He leads Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher 44% to 37% and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner 43% to 40%. These numbers are very interesting because the Democratic establishment holds Fisher to be a stronger candidate; yet, Portman increased his lead against Fisher whilelosing ground against Brunner! Overall, then, the two parties are roughly where they were in early December.

Colorado: This week, we received three surveys testing Colorado, which until this week an underpolled state:

  • Rasmussen has by far the worst set of results for Democrats: Senator Michael Bennet trails former Lieut. Gov. 49% to 37%, and he’s also behind lower-profile Tom Wiens (44% to 38%) and Ken Buck (43% to 38%). Former Speaker Andrew Romanoff trails Norton and Wiens by the same margin but is only behind Buck by 1%.
  • In response to these ugly numbers, Bennet released an internal poll, which might have found better results but he is still behind Jane Norton, 43% to 40%.
  • Finally, just this afternoon Research 2000 released the best news Bennet has received in quite some time: Bennet leads Norton 40% to 39%, Buck 41% to 38% and Wiens 42% to 38%; Romanoff trails Norton by 2% but leads Buck and Wiens by 1% and 2%.

There is quite a lot of disparity between these three surveys, and Bennet’s camp will be delighted that he finally manages a lead in a poll - even if it’s well within the MoE. That said, it is clear from all of these surveys that Bennet is stuck at 40% - a dismal place for an incumbent to be, even an appointed one. Colorado remains a major problem for Democrats.

New Hampshire: Another tough Rasmussen poll, since it shows that what once looked like a Democratic-leaning open seat might now be leaning Republican: Attorney General Kelly Ayotte leads Rep. Paul Hodes 49% to 40%. (This is roughly the same margin Rasmussen found in September.) Hodes does led lower-profile Republicans Ovide Lamontagne and Bill Binnie 45% to 38% and 43% to 37%, respectively. This is

Nevada: With everyone now aware that Harry Reid is one of the Democrats’ most vulnerable senators, there’s been speculation that the party might try to convince him to pull a Chris Dodd, as in retire for the good of the party. But a new poll released last week revealed that Democrats don’t have a Blumenthal-like savior:

  • PPP found Harry Reid trailing Sue Lowden 51% to 41% and Danny Tarkanian 50% to 42% - very ugly margins for a longtime senator against second-tier challengers. Yet, the Republicans enjoy similar margins against other Democrats! Rep. Shelly Berkley trails by 8% against both; Rose Miller trails by 10% and 11%, respectively. Only Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman manages to stay on an equal footing: he ties Tarkanian at 41%, leads Lowden 42% to 40%.
  • If PPP’s numbers were ugly, how can we describe Rasmussen’s? Here, Reid is crushed Lowden 48% to 36% and Tarkanian 50% to 36%! He manages to stay close to former Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, but even here he’s stuck at 40%, trailing 44% to 40%.

If polls showing other Democrats doing better than Reid started piling up, the party could hope to convince him to retire; but PPP’s survey cuts that hope short (Research 2000 will also soon release a similar poll), which allows Republicans to feel increasingly confident about picking-up Nevada.

OH, NV and MA: 3 key Governor’s races, three tough polls for Dems

Ohio: If Ted Strickland started 2009 as the clear favorite, he starts 2010 trailing former Rep. John Kasich. Rasmussen finds him trailing 47% to 40%, which is actually a 2% improvement over December’s numbers. Other surveys have found a closer race, but there’s no question that Strickland is in for a very tough battle.

Nevada: Rory Reid is in as much trouble as his father, only the position they’re vying for is different. Sure, Reid manages to lead incumbent Governor Jim Gibbons 43% to 36% in Mason Dixon’s poll, but considering that Gibbons is even more unpopular (his favorability rating is 18% to 53%) than David Paterson that doesn’t mean much; the favorite to win the Republican nomination, Brian Sandoval, crushes Reid 53% to 31%! In a three-way race involving Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, who is considering running as an independent, Sandoval and Goodman are close (35% to 33% for the former), with 20% for Reid. There’s no mystery as to why: Reid’s favorability rating is 25% to 35%, Goodman’s 43-15 and Sandoval’s 36-5. Hard to explain Reid’s numbers by anything but his last name.

Massachussetts: Two new polls confirm that Martha Coakley isn’t the only struggling Massachussetts Democrat:

  • PPP shows that Governor Deval Patrick has a dismal approval rating of just 22%. In three-way races involving Treasurer Tom Cahill (as an independent) and one of his 2 Republican opponents, Patrick is ahead but he receives less than 30% (!) and leads whoever is in second place by just 2% or 3%. In both match-ups, the 3 candidates are within 8%.
  • The Boston Globe poll is more favorable to Patrick: His favorability rating is a bad but not horrendous 39/50 and his leads over Cahill are a bit larger. If the GOP nominee is Charlie Baker, Patrick receives 30, Cahill 23% and Baker 19%; if the GOP nominee is Mihos, the numbers are 32, 23 and 19 for Mihos.

Much will depend on how Cahill positions his campaign. A former Democrat, he has been inching closer to the right since announcing he would run as an independent, for instance asking a conservative Republican state legislator to join his ticket.

Democrats’ silver lining is definitely Connecticut

Not only did Chris Dodd’s retirement all but guarantee Democrats will save Connecticut’s Senate seat, but Research 2000 shows they can look forward to in the Governor’s race - and also the 2012 Senate contest. Susan Bysiewicz, who just dropped out of the race last week, was in a very strong position: she led Lieutenant Governor Michael Fedele 52% to 33%, Tom Foley 51% to 35% and Mark Boughton 52% to 32%. But the Democrats left in the race look solid as well: Ned Lamont leads 46-36, 46-37 and 46-34 while Dan Malloney is up 44-35, 43-37 and 44-34, respectively.

Research 2000 also tested the 2012 Senate race. In a two-way general election match-up between Joe Lieberman and Chris Murphy, the representative leads the independent senator 45% to 26% - it’s quite stunning to see such a longtime senator fail to receive more than a quarter of the vote. Not only does Murphy crush Lieberman among Democrats (71% to 20%), but also among independents (41% to 22%). Democrats might fear a lot of losses in 2010, but at least Lieberman looks to have too low support to have much hope to win re-election in 2012.

Dems get still more ugly Senate numbers

The Boston Herald poll that was rumored to be coming today has not surfaced, which leaves us with no better idea of MA than this morning; while I did spend more time arguing that PPP should not be dismissed (this Blumenthal post is also worth reading), I agree with those who say the race is certainly Coakley’s to lose and that the poll’s release is one of the best thing that could have happened for her campaign. Unfortunately for Democrats, they have a lot more to worry about than Massachussetts since other polls released over the past few days find them in very tough spots in 3 key Senate races: AR, KY, NV. (These come on top of ARG’s NH poll, which I covered on Tuesday and which found Hodes trailing two Republicans outside of the MoE.) However, Democrats do get news from CT thanks to the combination of Dodd and Rell’s retirements and Lieberman’s unpopularity.

Nevada

Mason-Dixon paints quite an ugly picture for Harry Reid: He trails 50% to 40% against Sue Lowden, 49% to 41% against Danny Tarkanian and 45% to 40% against Sharron Angle. That latter result suggests Democrats can’t even root for Angle to win in the hope she’d be less electable, because there’s a good chance they would then find themselves with her as a senator. Here again, what’s striking is that none of the GOP nominees are particularly formidable or even high-profile, which makes their leads all the more telling of the huge trouble Reid is in. And as if those margins were not ugly enough, the Senate Majority Leader is plagued by a dismal 33% to 52% favorability rating. How can one envision winning re-election in such conditions?

This poll comes at a particularly troubled time for Reid, who is fielding a media firestorm since he admitted having told reporters during the 2008 campaign that Obama’s electability was helped by his light skin and his lack of a “Negro dialect.” The obvious parallel for Reid’s comments is Joe Biden’s 2007 remark on Obama, but the GOP is trying to tie them to the uproar that cost Trent Lott his leadership in 2002. I fail to see any similarity between Reid and Lott’s comments: The latter expressed regret that a segregationist candidate didn’t win the 1948 presidential election, i.e. he signaled support for racist policies, while the latter assessed the state of race relations. He used indefensible and insensitively anachronistic language, but that doesn’t change the fact that these two things have nothing in common. In any case, this episode will surely damage his standing in Nevada - and as the Mason-Dixon poll reveals he has no more room for any error.

Arkansas

Blanche Lincoln is sinking, according to Rasmussen’s latest poll. Make of his methodology what you will, but dismissing his samples as too skewed towards Republicans do nothing to diminish trendlines, which are also very worrisome for the senator. She trails 51% to 39% against Gilbert Baker (compared to 7% in December), 48% to 38% against both Curtis Coleman and Tom Cox (she trailed both by 4% in December), 47% to 39% against Kim Hendren. I don’t need to tell you how atrocious it is for an incumbent to be stuck under 40%, let alone when a challenger manages to cross 50%, let alone when opponents she is trailing by double-digits are low-profile and little-known. Ugly, ugly, ugly.

Kentucky

At least, Democrats have nothing to lose in KY as it is currently by the GOP; but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have high hopes for contesting it. According to Rasmussen’s latest survey, however, the two Republican candidates have for the first time grabbed healthy lead. Trey Grayson leads Jack Conway and Dan Mongiardo 45% to 35% and 44% to 37% respectively (in September, he was tied with the former and led the latter by the same margin); Rand Paul leads Conway 46% to 38% (he trailed by 4% in September) and crushes Mongiardo 49% to 35% (he led by 4% last month).

What’s most striking is that Paul is performing so well; it’s still hard to believe a general election featuring him could be as smooth for the GOP as one featuring Grayson, but there’s certainly little evidence at this point that the Texas congressman’s son would perform poorly against Democrats. The second striking fact is the very pronounced trendline, as the Republicans improve by more than 10% in three of the four match-ups. (I have a hard time believing that Rasmussen didn’t misreport its Grayson-Mongiardo numbers, which make little sense: Not only is is the only match-up to show no GOP improvement whatsoever, but it also has Mongiardo and Grayson performing better than their party rivals, something the other match-ups contradict.)

Connecticut

Thankfully for Democrats’ spirits, Rasmussen also released a poll confirming that Chris Dodd’s retirement immediately transformed a lean-GOP seat into a safe-Democratic seat: Attorney General Richard Blumenthal crushes Rob Simmons 56% to 33%, Linda McMahon 58% to 34% and Peter Schiff 60% to 24%. These margins are slightly smaller than the ones PPP found earlier this week, but they’re certainly very decisive and show no hint of vulnerability on Blumenthal’s part since he very solidly clears the 50% threshold.

In fact, Connecticut could cheer Democrats overall in November, since PPP also found the party is clearly favored to win a gubernatorial election for the first time since 1986. While all candidates have somewhat low name recognition, the bottom-line is that Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz leads the two Republican candidates (Lieutenant Governor Michael Fedele and former Ambassador Tom Foley) by 25% and 22%; Ned Lamont and Dan Malloy leads’ are less decisive, but they do reach double-digits.

On top of polling the senatorial and gubernatorial numbers, PPP also tested Joe Lieberman’s approval rating, and the numbers are brutal: While Lieberman managed to keep somewhat decent numbers after his endorsement of McCain, it seems like the health care debate did cost him whatever support he had left among Democrats. His approval rating stands at 25% (14% among Democrats), with 67% disapproving, which has got to make him one of the most unpopular senators in the country. Only 19% approved of Lieberman’s health-care related actions (versus 68%). Sure, Blumenthal can no longer be of service to dislodge Lieberman in 2012, but with numbers like this there are many other Democrats who’d have a strong shot.

The new open seats: One heir apparent is already running, the other is in no hurry

Good thing some airports still have free wifi, since it allows me to bring you the latest from the newly opened Senate seats.

Connecticut: Blumenthal is in

Any fears Democrats might still have had after learning of Chris Dodd’s retirement late last night were dissipidated early this morning: Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has already announced he will seek the 30-year lawmaker’s Senate seat.

And we already have a poll (courtesy of PPP) showing just how wonderful a swap this is for Democrats. (No, PPP isn’t fast enough to have managed polling the race within a few hours; rather, they already had a survey out in the field testing potential Democratic replacements to see what might happen if Dodd were retire. That’s what one calls good timing.) The results are as decisive as the DSCC could hope for: Boosted by a high name recognition and by a very strong favorability rating (59% to 19%), Blumenthal crushes all three of his Republican opponents: 59% to 28% against former Rep. Rob Simmons, 60% to 28% against Linda McMahon, 63% to 23% against Peter Schiff.

On the other hand, PPP does show Dodd in a stronger position than other recent polls have, as he only trails Simmons 44% to 40%; he ties McMahon at 43% and leads Schiff 44% to 37%. But this doesn’t mean the poll makes him look electable: How can incumbent with a 29% approval rating (with 57% disapproving) have secured re-election?

Just how formidable a replacement Democrats have in Blumenthal is underscored by PPP’s match-ups involving Rep. Chris Murphy: the congressman leads both Simmons and McMahon by 7%, a far cry from the Attorney General’s 31% and 32% margins. (Note: While some have suggested Murphy could still run, I find that unlikely. For one, the speed with which Blumenthal jumped in suggests Democratic leaders coordinated his and Dodd’s announcements; they would strongly push back against Murphy. Second, Murphy is only 36 years old; if he has Senate ambitions, not only would he have a better chance of defeating Lieberman in 2012 but he could easily wait for either Lieberman or Blumenthal to retire.)

Simmons and McMahon’s failure to break the 30% mark against Blumenthal is all the more dramatic considering that they’ve reached such high levels when matched-up against Dodd. In late December, the senator’s campaign itself leaked an internal survey showing Simmons at 51% - a formidable showing for any challenger, and that was supposed to represent good news for Dodd. Earlier in the winter, Simmons beat Dodd 48% to 35% in Rasmussen and 49% to 38% in Quinnipiac.

In the past day, then, Simmons has gone from leading by double-digit to trailing by 31%. It doesn’t get much worse than that in electoral politics!

So is Senator Richard Blumenthal as foregone a conclusion as Senator John Hoeven and Governor Sam Brownback? Well, I did I explain last night the GOP shouldn’t give up all hope: Blumenthal has never had to run in a highly partisan battle, so we have to see how he would hold up under attack. While the same could be said of Hoeven, the difference is that the anti-Democratic winds could help Simmons or McMahon get state voters to give them a chance, whereas that will be tough to do for whoever is charged with going after Hoeven. But this is speculative at best: For the GOP to have even a small shot at making this race competitive requires them to commit to contesting CT and pour in a lot of money at the expense of the dozen more competitive Senate contests.

That any of this might happen is also unlikely because Simmons and McMahon will be too busy demolishing each other to concentrate on relentlessly attacking Blumenthal, as they’d have to do to have any chance at the general election.

The bottom line: In the space of 24 hours, what was the most endangered Democratic seat has fallen off the map. It might not be in the same category as ultra-safe Vermont and New York (Schumer), but the NRSC arguably has a better shot at unseating Barbara Boxer than of picking-up Connecticut, which is saying a lot.

North Dakota: Hoeven is in no hurry

The situation in the other now-open Senate seat will take a bit more time to get clear, as Joe Hoeven is in no hurry to announce anything; he told Politico he would announce his plans some time in the next two weeks. Yet, reports do indicate that (as is expected) he will jump in. Politico says his allies are hearing he will run, though the state GOP Chairman’s comments make it sound like he’s just sprouting off conventional wisdom without any hard info (”I expect Gov. Hoeven to get in, and he’s going to work through personal issues relating to his family, but I would be shocked if he’s not in the Senate race soon. He’s been showing signs of running and getting things cued up in preparation for a decision. It’s inevitable.”).

On the Democratic side, Rep. Earl Pomeroy has already made up his mind: he will not run. He would undoubtedly have been the party’s strongest shot at keeping the seat, but for him to go after Hoeven would have been a kamikaze move that would have likely cost Democrats both a Senate and a House seat. Swing State Project rounds up other possibilities for Democrats: former AG Heidi Heitkamp, former state Senator Joel Heitkamp (Heidi’s brother) and even talk show host Ed Schulz.

Colorado: Will Salazar return?

There might be no heir apparent to Bill Ritter, but an unexpected development has occurred: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is now considering running for Governor, and the White House is apparently giving him its blessing. We’ll talk about this more if it comes to pass, but until then I would love someone to explain to me why Salazar would agree to resign form the Senate to join the Cabinet (thus endangering Democrats’ hold on his seat, since Michael Bennet isn’t, well, the strongest of contenders) if he was going to resign from his post within 12 months to run for another office?

What a night: Chris Dodd is ending Senate career!

That sound you just heard was Democrats’ collective sigh of relief: All is not lost in 2010!

Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd reportedly plans to call a press conference tomorrow to announce he won’t seek re-election in 2010. This means that within the space of just 6 hours, we will heave learned the retirements of two powerful Democratic Senators who have served in the chamber a combined 46 years. First it was Byron Dorgan, and now Dodd. These two developments tell the parallel story of a changing of the guard; but they also could hardly be more diametrically opposed. Dorgan’s announcement came as a surprise to Democrats - and it virtually guarantees that a seat that the party was still favored to keep will be taken over by Republicans.

Dodd’s decision, on the other hand, is delightful news for Democrats - and it turns what had come to look like the GOP’s best pick-up opportunity into a seat that Democrats are likely to hold.

As 2009 started, Dodd looked to be as safe as an incumbent can hope to be: What could possibly go wrong for a 5-term Democratic senator representing a reliably blue state? As it soon turned out, quite a lot: Damaged down by a 2008 scandal over overly favorable mortgage terms, weighed down by stories documenting his ties to the banking industry, hurt by a somewhat unfair controversy over his responsibility in the AIG bailout and ridiculed for moving his entire family to Iowa during the 2008 presidential campaign, Dodd woke up one day in the spring to find himself posting a dismal approval rating and facing massive deficits against a series of Republican challengers.

It became quickly evident that it would not be easy for Dodd to recover: When such a well-known politician loses voters’ trust, there is little he can do to easily regain their support. An early ad blitz did not help and the fall brought still more brutal polls for the Connecticut senator: It looked more and more likely that Dodd was headed towards a virtually certain defeat next year. The GOP was salivating at the prospect of adding a full Republican to Joe Lieberman, who’s already more of a help to them than they’re entitled to hope for from Connecticut.

While speculation soon started that the Democratic leadership would try to push Dodd out of the way, it’s not easy to treat the chairman of the Banking Committee the way Republicans tossed out Jim Bunning, and the fact that Joe Biden hosted a fundraiser for Dodd last month raised serious questions about whether anyone was even pressuring him out the door. But Dodd’s apparent decision not to seek re-election does suggest he realized that he was taking his party down with him.

All eyes now turn to longtime Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who is to Connecticut what John Hoeven is to North Dakota: A very popular politician who becomes the automatic favorite if he jumps in. And this time, this heir apparent is a Democrat.

Just like Hoeven, Blumenthal is likely to run: He has been transparently dreaming of the Senate for years. He has passed numerous opportunities to run for Governor, and in doing so again this fall he made it clear he would wait no longer for an open Senate seat and look to challenge Lieberman in 2012. (We’ll have ample time to discuss Blumenthal’s political profile if he gets in. The main thing he’s been known for outside of Connecticut was siding with gay marriage opponents in a high-profile 2004 suit.) Democrats would probably do all they can to clear the primary for Blumenthal, who would enter the general election in the position of clear favorite.

While there is no public poll of Blumenthal, PPP was coincidentally just in the field with a survey comparing his chances with Dodd’s. While they have not released the results yet, here’s what the polling firm tweeted this afternoon, hours before news of Dodd’s retirement broke: <"Our CT polling is confirming a Blumenthal/Dodd swap would make the seat uber safe for Dems."

Yet, the GOP isn't out of the game - not by a long shot. For one, Blumenthal might not run; he is known as something of a political Hamlet, and he is already 63 years old. Second, Connecticut is certainly not the most staunchly Democratic state in the country; it has elected its share of moderate Republicans and until 2006 the GOP controlled a majority of the House delegation. If a red wave submerges the country in 2010, the state’s powerful bloc of independent voters could throw the seat to Republicans.

Finally, the GOP already has top candidates running for the seat, so it’s not like there’s suspense as to whether they’ll contest the seat: former Rep. Rob Simmons had his share of electoral success and he’s been looking popular in 2009 polling, while former WWE CEO Linda McMahon had her huge fortune going for her. (I have had trouble believing McMahon is electable come 2010, but polls suggest voters would vote for her so what do I know?)

In short: the GOP has more of a chance in Connecticut than Democrats have at North Dakota - but then again it’s not like Byron Dorgan was safe, whereas Chris Dodd was all but gone. All in all, then, the two parties find themselves in the same position at the end of the day than they did this morning. Let’s call it even and go to bed?

Well, that would be delightful. But that other sound you just heard was the stunned gasp of political junkies everywhere: Could there any be any more major political news in the space of a few hours?! More happened today than ordinarily does in a month, which means I haven’t had a chance to even mention stories that I would typically be all over: Colorado Governor Bill Ritter is also set to announce he will not seek re-election, meaning that there will have been three major Democratic retirements today; Lieutenant Governor John Cherry threw the Michigan Governor’s race in turmoil by unexpectedly dropping out; Bill Thompson announced he would not challenge Kirsten Gillibrand in New York’s Senate primary; and Charlie Crist suffered yet another blow as a top ally of his had to resign from his position as state party chair. All of that on top of Dorgan and Dodd’s retirements!

What a way to start 2010! The problem: This is terrible timing for me. I am set to travel all afternoon and evening tomorrow, so I will not have a chance to cover to most of this. I will eventually get to that needs to be discussed but until I do please be patient!

Update: And the news continues to come tonight! (What is going on???) Politico reports that John Hoeven is telling political allies he’ll be running in North Dakota. No surprise, but still great news for GOP.

Poll watch: David Paterson enjoys uptick, Rand Paul grabs a decisive lead

For the third time this month, a poll suggests David Paterson’s fortunes have taken a turn for the better. First were Quinnipiac and Siena’s surveys, now is SUSA’s monthly look at the governor’s approval rating, which has risen to its highest level since January. Sure, it still stands at a dismal 32%, but that’s certainly an improvement over June’s 18%, October’s 22% and November’s 24%.

While this improvement is certainly not enough for him to be competitive against Andrew Cuomo, Paterson’s hope is that the Democratic establishment eases the pressure he faces to retire: He can now point to Giuliani’s decision not to run and to the uptick in his poll numbers to argue that he is electable after all. Paterson’s strategy is also to give Cuomo second thoughts by ensuring the primary doesn’t just like a formality. As such, the fact that his approval rating among African-Americans has risen from 25% to 43% in two months is excellent news for the governor: In 2002, Cuomo ran in a racially charged primary that proved a significant setback to his career, and he’d be likely to hesitate before getting in if there are any signs 2010 might prove a replay.

Dodd trails in internal poll

Another state, another Democratic incumbent who is trying to fight charges that he’s unelectable: Chris Dodd released an internal poll (conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner) this week that is supposed to reassure his party - but I’m unsure how it’s meant to do that. While he ties Linda McMahon at 46%, Dodd trails Rob Simmons 51% to 46%. The margin is smaller than what other polls’ have shown, but an incumbent will never get positive coverage for releasing an internal poll showing him behind. The desperation underlying such an act is so transparent that it can only raise eyebrows: This is the best showing the campaign has to release?

Is this poll a sign that Dodd is planning to dig, contrary to speculation that he’s open to retiring? Or is it a last-ditch effort to see if he can rally support from party officials? While we’ll only know the answer to this question in the next few months, the fact is that there’s still little evidence that national Democrats are trying to push the senator out. Joe Biden just hosted a fundraiser for his re-election race. Compare that with the treatment Jim Bunning received earlier this year.

Rand Paul seizes commanding leads in Kentucky Senate race

Democratic candidates in other open Senate seats have been able to resist the worsening environment, but Kentucky is too conservative for the shifting political winds not to have had a major impact: While in April PPP found the general election to be a toss-up, the two Republican candidates have substantially improved their performances to grab decisive leads. SoS Tray Grayson leads 40% to 33% against AG Jack Conway (he trailed by 4% in April) and 44% to 35% against LG Dan Mongiardo; Rand Paul leads both Democrats 42% to 36%, a stronger showing than what earlier polls have found.

Picking-up this seat hasn’t looked easy for Democrats ever since Jim Bunning announced he’d retire, and it does look like the party’s nominee will have to swim against the national and state tide. (In the Democratic primary, Conway leads 37% to 33%, which makes this the first public poll to have the Attorney General ahead.)

But PPP’s most stunning finding is that Rand Paul has grabbed a big lead against establishment favorite Grayson in the GOP primary: 44% to 25%. Other surveys have found Paul to be unexpectedly strong, but never to this extent. It’s hard not to see this as good news for Democrats: While Paul has outside of the MoE leads, he’s a far riskier proposition for Republicans than Grayson. An untested candidate (it showed this week), Paul could give Democrats the openings they need to make the race about him whereas Grayson could run the type of quite campaign that allows him to win on the sole basis of the national environment. (Another arguable reason for Democrats to root for Paul: Even if he wins the general election, he’d give the GOP leadership far more headaches than the presumably reliable Grayson would.)

Dorgan at the mercy of Hoeven’s entry

Senator Byron Dorgan has reason to be nervous: Not only is there continuing buzz that Governor John Hoeven might challenge him come January, but polls showing Hoeven would start as the clear frontrunner are piling on. We’d had Zogby (+19% for Hoeven) and Public Opinion Strategies (+17% for Hoeven), we now get Rasmussen’s first foray in North Dakota, which is the best yet for the Republican: He leads by a stunning 22%, 58% to 36%. Dorgan’s vulnerability entirely stems from Hoeven’s strength: While it pales in comparison to Hoeven’s 82% favorability rating, Dorgan’s 62% rating is very strong. Also, he leads the GOP’s 2008 House nominee (Duane Sand) 52% to 37%. In short, Hoeven’s decision is up there with Beau Biden’s as the biggest shoe left drop in the 2010 cycle.

Michigan’s governorship still looks out of Cherry’s reach

Many polls this year have shown that Lieutenant Governor John Cherry is in no position to win Michigan’s governorship, and Rasmussen confirms how large a deficit he starts with: Posting a mediocre favorability rating (39-35) whereas all his Republican rivals enjoy far stronger numbers, Cherry trails Attorney General Mike Cox 39% to 34%, Rep. Pete Hoekstra 46% to 32% and Sheriff Mike Bouchard 42% to 32%. In particular weighed down by Jennifer Granholm’s dismal approval rating (32-66), Cherry can’t even point to a name recognition differential to explain his large deficits.

Will Chris Dodd be Bunning-ed?

It’s unrealistic to think Democrats might subject Chris Dodd to the same treatment Republicans reserved for Jim Bunning. While the Connecticut Senator looks just as embattled, he is a central figure in the Democratic establishment and a 5-term incumbent who holds a prestigious committee chairmanship, once served as the DNC Chairman and has many close friends in the Senate. In short: Don’t expect Harry Reid or DSCC officials to make it explicitly clear they are hoping Dodd to retire, to undermine his fundraising efforts and to openly shop around for primary competitors.

And yet, Dodd’s standing is now so damaged that he can no longer escape calls for his retirement.

Just yesterday, a Rasmussen poll found Dodd trailing Rob Simmons by a massive 48% to 35%: he was also behind two other Republicans, albeit by lesser margins: 44% to 38% against Linda McMahon, 40% to 39% against Peter Schiff. The only positive spin Democrats can draw from these numbers is that Dodd’s ability to stay afloat against McMahon isn’t only due to a difference of name recognition between her and Simmons but rather to the former’s higher unfavorability ratings (McMahon is at 40-35, Simmons at 48-30). In other words, Dodd will be more or less endangered depending on the outcome of the GOP primary - but he will be highly vulnerable under any scenario.

The simple fact that the party would be better off if he wasn’t on the ballot is now impossible to deny, and it is increasingly part of the conversation. In fact, a reporter for the first time asked the senator this week-end whether party leaders had urged him to step down, to which Dodd responded he hadn’t direct conversations to that effect. Needless to say, that he even has to answer such questions demonstrates how tricky his re-election campaign has become: Once the possibility that an incumbent might retire, the pressure only mounts, the press is more insistent and donors grow reluctant to get involved.

In Bunning’s words, the expectation that an incumbent will end up retiring is a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” As I said above, Dodd is in a better position than Bunning because Democratic leaders are unlikely to take proactive action to ensnare him the way the NRSC cornered the Kentucky senator in the spring. That means Dodd should be able to fundraise enough that he will not have to drop out if he does not want to - not to mention that he does not face primary pressure, unlike Bunning who had to deal with Secretary of State Grayson’s exploratory committee.

Rather than to Jim Bunning, the most appropriate comparison perhaps links Dodd to Jon Corzine: As soon as the New Jersey Governor launched his re-election campaign, it was clear that his dismal approval ratings could help the GOP score an improbable victory in a Democratic state - and it was hard to dispute the fact that the party would have been better off with another contender. During the summer of 2009, there were a lot of rumors that Democrats were looking to push Corzine off of the ballot to replace him with someone like Dick Codey or Cory Booker; in fact, Codey said after the election that he had been approached by White House officials who wanted to gauge his openness to such a switcheroo.

Yet, Corzine did not lose all hope he could pull it off, and he was too respected in Democratic circles for the establishment to shun him out as they are now seemingly doing with Paterson and as Republicans did with Bunning. The rest, of course, is history. Will the New Jersey precedent make Democrats more aggressive in dealing with Dodd?

Complicating matters for Democrats is that Dodd seems to share Corzine’s confidence that he can improve his standing, most notably by using his position in the Banking Committee to be tough on Wall Street and by claiming credit for the 111th Congress’s accomplishment. Yet, in the absence of serious financial regulations how seriously will his efforts be taken? Significantly damaged by the controversy over the advantages he received when he took out a mortgage and by his proximity to banking interests, he will find it all the more hard to overcome those narratives in the midst of an economic crisis; and even if he manages to recover a bit, he’ll still have to deal with the cycle’s pro-GOP bent: CT is a blue state but it’s also competitive enough it could easily be submerged by a red wave.

Quinnipiac finds ugly results for Senate Democrats in Connecticut and Ohio

The Senate landscape has been getting progressively more complicated for Democrats, and two new Quinnipiac polls released this morning confirm that the time at which the party was dreaming up further expansions of its majority is long gone.

Ohio: Portman captures his first Quinnipiac lead

This change of fortune is nowhere more obvious than in Ohio. Ever since Senator Voinovich announced his retirement, Democratic candidates Lee Fisher and Jennifer Brunner have enjoyed a big lead in polls over Rob Portman - a lead ranging up to 15% in one survey. That wasn’t because Fisher and Brunner are overwhelmingly popular, nor because Portman has a bad reputation - in fact, neither enjoy a particularly impressive name recognition - but because Ohio’s electorate was still as Democratic-leaning as it had been in 2008. In a generic confrontation between relatively low-profile contenders, voters were decisively choosing Democratic candidates.

That is no longer the case. Quinnipiac, which in early September had found Fisher leading by 11% and Brunner leading by 9%, now finds Portman ahead for the very first time of the year. Sure, the margins are small (39% to 36% over Fisher, 38% to 34% over Brunner) but the trendline is not. Portman’s progression is due both to his solidifying his numbers among Republican respondents and to a 13% turnaround among independents.

Ohio is moving back to behaving like a swing state, and Democrats can no longer expect to coast to startlingly easy victories, as they did in 2006.

This isn’t a particularly mysterious phenomenon, of course. That year, Republican controlled the White House and Ohio’s governorships - two positions that are now in Democratic hands, which allows the GOP to run as the outsider party. That Barack Obama’s approval rating in Ohio is for the first time in negative territory - 45% to 50% - is as important a development in the Senate race’s context as any evolution to Fisher or Portman’s approval rating.

Democrats risk more than failing to pick-up this Senate seat, however: Quinnipiac also finds that they could lose the governorship, as Ted Strickland not only sees his approval rating decline (now 45% to 43%) but is for the first time tied (at 40%) with his Republican rival, former Rep. John Kasich. In September, he led by 10%; in February, by 30%. Those numbers are all the more ugly when we consider that Kasich’s name recognition is very low (67% have no opinion of him): For an incumbent not to lead a little-known challenger a year before the election is a sure sign of trouble.

Connecticut: Dodd suffers setback

Quinnipiac’s second poll of the day is just as brutal for Democrats. Ever since an April poll found him Rob Simmons trailing by 16%, Chris Dodd had managed to cut the gap to single-digits: He was only down 44% to 39% in September, a trendline that coincided with an uptick in his approval rating. But this new poll finds Dodd’s numbers back where they were in the spring: Despite his best efforts to address his image over the past six months, he remains in a deep hole.

His approval rating is stuck at a dismal 40%, with 54% disapproving of his action. Against former Rep. Rob Simmons, he trails 49% to 38%, hurt by a 29% deficit among independents and by his failure to break 68% among Democrats. He also trails former Ambassador Tom Foley 47% to 40%, Linda McMahon 42% to 40%. He ties state Senator Sam Caligiuri at 42% and manages to grab a 1% edge over Peter Schiff; even in that latter match-up, he receives only 74% of the Democratic vote and trails among independents by 13%.

In short, Connecticut confirms its place at the very top of next year’s endangered Senate seats - especially if Rob Simmons, who enjoys a 40% to 10% favorability rating, emerges as the GOP nominee. That means that Dodd’s biggest hope might reside in the Republican primary’s chaotic nature. Any of 5 candidates could clinch victory (Quinnipiac has Simmons leading McMahon 27% to 18%, with everyone else in single-digits); since Connecticut holds its primaries in August, a nasty intraparty fight could give Dodd an opening.

North Carolina: Burr receives the usual numbers

Dodd’s numbers might have gotten worse, but PPP’s monthly look at North Carolina’s Senate race finds little movement. Richard Burr’s approval rating is underwhelming but positive: 41% approve, 30% disapprove. In the general election, Burr might be under 50% but he leads by double-digits: 45% to 35% against Bob Etheridge, 45% to 34% against Elaine Marshall, 45% to 33% against Dennis Wicker, 44% to 32% against Kevin Foy, 45% to 32% against Kenneth Lewis and 44% to 31% against Cal Cunningham.

As has been the case in all polls released, there is no meaningful electability differential between the Democratic contenders. In particular, Marshall and Etheridge would enter the race in a comparable situation (Research 2000 last week had Burr leading Marshall by 7% and Etheridge by 8%). There was some discussion here as to whether that spoke ill of Marshall, since she’d presumably enjoy a notoriety edge, but most surveys have found her name recognition is as low as Etheridge’s.

On the other hand, both Etheridge and Marshall can hope to close part of their general election deficit once they introduce themselves to voters: In their match-ups against Burr, about 25% of Democratic respondents are undecided compared to only 12% of Republicans. That signals the race could certainly be competitive next year.

Yet, it also illustrates the contrast between vulnerable Democratic Senators’ situation (they are struggling to mount any sort of lead against little-known opponents) and vulnerable Republican Senators’ situation: Burr or Vitter might be stuck under 50%, but Democratic and independent voters aren’t committed to ousting them. That might change by next fall, but as of now it is further proof of the enthusiasm gap.

As McMahon enters Connecticut race, Dodd is climbing out of hole

A new Quinnipiac poll of the Connecticut Senate race has Chris Dodd slowly climbing out of the hole he found himself earlier this year, when a series of ethical controversies left him look like the most vulnerable senator of the 2010 cycle.

The poll finds that Dodd is still in trouble, and there is no reason for Democrats to breath a sigh of relief: Not only does he trail former Rep. Rob Simmons 44% to 39%, but he is struggling against Republican challengers with little name recognition. He leads state Senator Sam Caliguri 40% to 36%, former Ambassador Tom Foley 40% to 38% and Peter Schiff 42% to 36%. For any incumbent to be stuck in the high 30s-low 40s range is a sign of great vulnerability.

And yet, the poll finds quite a remarkable improvement in Dodd’s popularity: This is the third Quinnipiac poll in a row in which the senator is improving his favorability rating. An early March survey had him at a truly dismal level (33-58); he reached 38-53 by late March, 42-52 in July and 43-49 this week. Needless to say, it is possible to envision a senator winning re-election with a -6% rating; it is tough to take his prospects seriously if he is down 25%. Dodd’s numbers have also improved in his match-up against Simmons; in fact, this is the closest Dodd has gotten since early March; he trailed by 9% in July.

The remarkably dramatic ups and downs of Dodd’s standing speaks to the fact that his prominence is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it increased the visibility of stories like the one about his mortgage deal and voters’ familiarity with him makes it harder for him to change his image simply by launching a media blitz or an ad campaign. On the other hand, his role as the Chairman of the Banking Committee has allowed him to get some good press in recent months as he has sought to portray himself hard at work regulating the very industry with which his critics charge he is too cozy; he could thus improve his approval rating further once Congress starts discussing financial reform later this year or early in 2010.

Another development has muddied the spring narrative of the NRSC landing a top recruit (Simmons) to take on a vulnerable incumbent: The GOP primary has become a confusing free-for-all, so crowded that it’s hard to predict what might happen in August 2010. We already knew Simmons would face Caliguri, Foley and Schiff - the latter of which should raise plenty of money by relying on Ron Paul’s libertarian networks. He now also has to worry about Linda McMahon, the CEO of the Worldwide Wrestling Entertainment CEO!

Not only did McMahon just announce she will run, but it only took her a few days to buy a full-page advertisement in Connecticut papers, including the Hartford Courant:

A “different type of Senator” indeed. Hard to imagine Chris Dodd doing this - though it doesn’t look like that’s the type of difference McMahon is referring to: The ad tries to position her as a principled conservative who’ll go to Washington to reform it, the type of message most Republican candidates with no prior attachment to Congress will no doubt embrace in 2010. But McMahon could face questions based on her past donations to Joe Lieberman (2006), Rahm Emanuel (2008) and to a GOP group promoting pro-choice candidates - this might be Connecticut, but defending abortion rights is not be the best way to take on an establishment-backed candidate in a Republican primary.

McMahon’s most important weapon in the GOP primary is money: She is wealthy and should be able to use millions of her own money to fund her campaign. And she’ll at least be able to point to some experience in the public sector: Governor Jodi Rell appointed her to the State Board of Education earlier this year. She was easily confirmed in the state legislature.

That suggests she’ll have credibility in the general election - after Jesse Ventura’s victory in Minnesota in 1998, we certainly cannot dismiss someone’s electability based on their involvement in the wrestling industry - but I’m still having trouble wrapping my mind around the possibility that a vast fortune could be enough for the WWE CEO to defeat Dodd. But she would certainly not be the first person to buy herself a Senate seat despite flimsy evidence of an interest in public service, nor would she be the worst offender.

Rell’s approval remains strong - but it does slips

CT Democrats might also have some reason to smile in the gubernatorial race. Rell has resisted the downward slope that is plaguing many of her colleagues in this time of economic crisis: four Quinnipiac polls taken this year found more than 70% of respondents approved of her performance! Yet, that streak broken by a July poll that had her dipping to 65% and Quinnipiac’s most recent poll pegs her approval rating at 59% to 34%.

To be sure, that’s an impressive level for any politician, let alone a Republican governing a blue state during a recession; but this is the first time in years there has been any crack in Rell’s popularity and Democrats have a strong enough field of candidates that they could take advantage of any further slip.

Still very much vulnerable, Lincoln and Dodd enjoy two sunnier polls

For incumbents, the one good consequence of receiving dismal polls that show them in stunningly huge holes is that surveys that have them in a mediocre-to-worrisome position suddenly look like amazing news.

This is exactly what is happening this week to Chris Dodd and Blanche Lincoln. Both of them have seen their 2010 prospects collapse from the seemingly safe to the highly endangered in recent months - a fall punctuated by polls like this and this - but Research 2000 has a sunnier take on their electability.

Arkansas

Lincoln’s favorability rating is negative - 43% to 49% - but she leads all four of her potential contenders: 44% to 37% against state Senator Gilbert Baker, 45% to 37% against Safe Foods CEO Curtis Coleman, 46% to 29% against businessman Tom Cox and 47% to 28% against state Senator Kim Hendren.

Had this been the first poll to test Lincoln versus Baker and Coleman, I wouldn’t have bothered writing much that is positive about her prospects based on these numbers - and there is no denying that she remains in a precarious position. A two-term senator, she is well under 50% against all rivals and within single-digits against two of them. Worst still, all four Republicans have very low name recognition: Only 27% and 25% of respondents have an opinion of Baker and Coleman, only 15% have one of Hendren and Cox. Not only is her favorability rating negative, but fewer Democrats approve of her (66%) than Republicans disapprove (68%).

In short, this poll provides no reason to remove Arkansas from the map of sure-to-be-competitive Senate races. And yet, the numbers are incomparably better than August’s PPP survey, in which Lincoln narrowly trailed Baker and Coleman and could only muster a 1% lead against a Republican who is just as low-profile as Cox (former attorney Thomas Cotton).

That survey made it look like voters were only looking to oust Lincoln no matter her opponent, but this poll paints a very different picture. First, she leads outside of the MoE against all Republicans; second, she  manages to crush the lowest-profiles of them by nearly 20%. Sure, more Republicans are undecided in match-ups involving Cox and Hendren, but the point is that she is no so unpopular that just any Republican can be sure to get within a few points by virtue of his name recognition.

These two pollsters, then, paint two differing landscapes - one finds Lincoln so weak that around 40% of Arkansas are willing to back her ouster no matter what, the other finds her vulnerable but not enough that Republicans can win without running a very solid campaign. I believe no pollster other than PPP and Research 2000 has tested Arkansas, so we’ll wait to see what other surveys have to say about this.

Note that the R2000 poll comes in the heels of Lincoln’s becoming Chairwoman of the Agriculture Committee because of the game of musical chairs that followed Teddy Kennedy’s death. That might be worrisome news for cap-and-trade proponents, but it is certainly a boost to Lincoln’s reelection prospects. I’m not saying that voters are responding to that in this poll, as I doubt this news has spread around, but her newfound position of influence will give Lincoln a powerful campaign argument next year.

(Update: This poll also finds Arkansas voters favor a public option 55% to 38%. Worth keeping in mind the next time Lincoln addresses her health care stance: She is currently the only member of the Democratic Caucus to unambiguously oppose the public option. Joe Lieberman is also opposed.)

Connecticut

Quinnipiac and Rasmussen have both found veteran Democrat Chris Dodd trailing by double-digits against former Rep. Rob Simmons and struggling to grab a lead against lower-profile contenders. Research 2000 confirms that Dodd is one of the most vulnerable 2010 incumbents, but gives him many more reason to hope than earlier surveys.

While negative, Dodd’s favorability rating is not as worrisome as what other polls have found (43-47). At this point, the popularity enjoyed by his well-known opponent is just as worrisome as Dodd’s own numbers: At 43-17, Simmons needs no introduction to 60% of voters and he even has a positive rating among Democratic respondents! The other potential Republican nominees have far lower name recognition - though they have 11 more months to introduce themselves to primary voters.

In the general election, Dodd trails Simmons 46% to 42%. This comes from a daunting margin among independents, a powerful constituency in Connecticut (55-32) and from a less than impressive number among Democrats (72%). He does lead state Senator Sam Caliguri 46% to 37%, former Ambassador Tom Foley 44% to 40% and Peter Schiff 47% to 35%.

The good news for Dodd is that his margin against Simmons is not as daunting as that of other surveys - this is the first since March the Republican does not lead outside of the MoE! - and that he manages outside-the-MoE leads against 2 Republicans. The bad news, of course, is that he fails to break 50%, that it won’t even take a Simmons nomination for the NRSC to have a shot at this seat and that he fails to even get close among independents in any of these match-ups.

In short, there is no reason not to think of Connecticut as one of the Democrats’ most endangered state - but the party is also not marching towards a sure disaster, as some have predicted. For instance, calls that Democratic leaders pressure Dodd to retire are unlikely to get very far with numbers like this, as an incumbent trailing within the MoE is not unusual enough for the leadership to go to such unusual lengths to ensure a retirement.

Interestingly, Dodd’s re-election prospects are also tied to the chairmanship decision he made in the wake of Kennedy’s death. With the vacancy at the head of the HELP committee, he was in a position to take over as chairman - but he chose to keep his position as the chairman of the Banking Committee. (Harkin then took over at HELP, which allowed Lincoln to take over at Agriculture.) Why would Dodd do that, given that HELP is generally considered to have a higher profile? The hits Dodd has taken over his connection to the financial industry is the main reason he is now so endangered, so he might be thinking that the only way to improve his standing is to be perceived as fighting for meaningful reforms - and what better way to do that than to be at the helm of the coming regulatory bill?

R2000 also tested the 2012 Senate race, and found Joe Lieberman in big trouble. In a three-way race involving Republican Jodi Rell and Democrat Ned Lamont, Rell leads with 46%; Lamont and Lieberman are tied at 26%. If the Democratic nominee is AG Richard Blumenthal, Rell leads 40% to 32% for Blumenthal and 23% for Lieberman. (One issue: Just as in 2006, Lieberman’s prospects depends on the GOP nominating a low-profile candidate, which will allow the incumbent to pile up Republican support. Consider that, in the match-up with Blumenthal and Rell, Lieberman gets a higher share of the GOP vote than the independent and Democratic votes!)

Dodd once again in precarious position, Ritter once again trailing, Burr once again stuck in low 40s

I’m on record arguing that reports of coming Democratic doom are exaggerated, but it would be delusional to minimize the fact that a variety of pollsters (Mason Dixon, PPP, Rasmussen, R2000, Quinnipiac) are now showing the Majority Leader trailing a real estate developer and other incumbent Democratic Senators losing to city councilors and low-profile businessmen. Those who think that pointing this out is exhibiting a Republican bias are in denial - and yet another poll released today confirms that the DSCC will have plenty to defend in 2010.

Testing Connecticut for the first time this year, Rasmussen found the same result as Quinnipiac earlier this summer: Senator Chris Dodd trails former Rep. Rob Simmons by a substantial margin. While Quinnipiac had Simmons up 48-39, Rasmussen finds him ahead 49% to 39%, a showing made all the more worse for the Democrat by his dismal favorability rating (4o% to 59%) and by the fact that he struggles against other Republicans: He trails former Ambassador Tom Foley 43% to 40% while he leads state Senator Sam Caliguri 43% to 40% and the libertarian Peter Schiff 42% to 40%.

The poll’s most interesting finding is the confirmation that Dodd’s troubles have everything to do with his personal image. Barack Obama’s approval rating stands at a strong 59% to 39% and his 3 latter Republican opponents are competitive despite posting mediocre-to-bad favorability ratings of their own. As such, Dodd’s fall is not due to a deterioration in the Democratic brand but rather to months of controversy that have sapped voters’ confidence in Dodd’s ethics.

This is not comforting to the Senator, as it could be harder for him to climb back in contention if what he has to improve is his reputation rather than the national environment. But it could prove comforting to national Democrats, as it suggests Dodd’s misfortune should not be generalized as a sign that other veteran Senators could be vulnerable.

Democrats looking up in CA, in precarious position in CO

Indeed, another Democratic Senator has some reason to celebrate tonight: A new PPIC poll of California adds to the surveys (Field Poll, Research 2000) that found Barbara Boxer has little to worry about next year. While PPIC did not test any head-to-head match-up with Carly Fiorina, it found Boxer posting a strong approval rating - 53% to 32%. That’s roughly equal to the approval rating of her colleague Diane Feinstein (54-32), who no one would think of calling vulnerable. Given that Republicans often make a lot of empty noise about the Golden State, this Senate race is for now not one the DSCC should lose much sleep over.

Furthermore, the poll suggests that the Democratic brand as a whole remains popular in the country’s biggest state: Barack Obama enjoys a high rating (63% to 32%) and Nancy Pelosi’s numbers are positive as well (49-40). On the other hand, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is flirting with Bush-territory, with a 30% to 61% rating. With California set to host a large number of competitive House races (Democrats are at least targeting CA-03, CA-45, CA-48), these ratings could have a decisive impact on the 2010 landscape.

Yet, just as Democrats look to be in a strong overall position in California, it looks like both of their major Colorado incumbents are facing troublesome. To this afternoon’s poll finding Michael Bennet in trouble in the Senate race, Rasmussen added a gubernatorial poll as well. It has Governor Bill Ritter trailing former Rep. Scott McInnis 44% to 39%; he manages a 41% to 40% lead against the far lesser-known Josh Penry, the state Senate’s Minority Leader. It is somewhat surprising that Ritter does not enjoy better head-to-head numbers given that his approval rating is not particularly worrisome (49-49), nor is his favorability rating even negative (47-42).

Combined with the fact that McInnis is no unknown but a popular former congressman, those numbers suggest Ritter is not in as worrisome a situation as other governors (say Corzine) or even as Bennet. But there is no question that for any incumbent to be hovering around the 40% mark - let alone trailing any opponent by 5% - is a sign of great vulnerability. That’s all the more so the case given that Rasmussen’s numbers are confirmed by the Democratic firm PPP, which found Ritter tying Penry and trailing McInnis by 8% back in August.

As always, Burr fails to break out of low 40s

The day’s final statewide poll is a PPP survey of North Carolina. The poll finds North Carolina Richard Burr’s approval rating at 38-32. His closest competitor is not SoS Elaine Marshall, who just announced a race, but Rep. Bob Etheridge, who trails 41% to 34%. Burr leads Marshall and former LG Dennis Wicker 42% to 31%. He is up 42% to 30% against former state Sen. Cal Cunningham, 43% to 29% against Chaper Hill Mayor Kevin Foy and 43% to 27% against attorney Kenneth Lewis. The relatively small difference between the performances of Marshall/Wicker and that of the lesser-known Cunningham/Lewis suggest these numbers are more a reflection on voters’ perception of Burr than of the Democrats’ individual strength.

The poll leaves us with the same bottom line we have been repeating for months: Burr’s surprisingly low name recognition and his repeated failure to break out of the low 40s tag him as a clearly vulnerable incumbent - especially now that Democrats have gotten a highly credible candidate to commit to the race (as I wrote two days ago, Marshall’s entrance is great news for Democrats not because she is already in a strong position poll-wise but because she occupies a prominent enough position that her candidacy cannot but attract the DSCC and liberal groups’ attention.) However, he manages to post substantial leads; that’s more than we can say of Democratic senators who on paper are in a similar position.

The Rand Paul factor

It’s a testament to Ron Paul’s popularity among the conservative base that his son, an eye surgeon who has never before run for office, is within 11% of Secretary of State Trey Grayson in SUSA’s poll of Kentucky’s Senate race.

Ever since Jim Bunning announced his retirement, it has looked like a forgone conclusion that Grayson would easily win the Republican nomination. This poll is the first sign yet that he might have a fight on his hand and that the insider/outsider war that has been splitting the GOP in other states could make its way over to Kentucky.

Sure, Paul should be a different type of candidate than Steelman, Lamontagne and Toomey since his anti-establishment message should follow a libertarian strand rather than an all-conservative one. But he could emerge to be just the same - one big headache for the NRSC’s favorite candidate.

In 2008, Ron Paul failed to translate his huge financial haul and the fervor of his supporters into that many raw votes in primaries, he had to divide up his attention in many states, fight for attention against 5 serious Republican candidates and generally not look threatening enough to be taken seriously. But his son will be able to concentrate on a single state, develop a network of supporters and - most importantly - take on the establishment’s candidate in a one-on-one race. That should make him look like a legitimate threat since he’d be Grayson’s only competition.

(To have any hope of making this race even worth watching Paul will have to fundraise as successfully as his father did last year. He has a “money bomb” planned for August 20th, so we shall see whether he can revive at least some of his father’s network.)

One reason that Kentucky might be an ideal place for libertarians to stage an insurgent campaign is that the GOP electorate tilts far to the right. With the Democratic party competitive at the local level, registered Democrats vastly outnumber registered Republicans (in the 2008 exit poll, 47% of Kentucky voters described themselves as Democrats); yet, the state is clearly red. This means that many voters who typically vote GOP but consider Democrats in local races have stuck around with their habitual party, leaving Republican primaries to be decided by more conservative voters.

At least, the NRSC can tell itself that, as long as Grayson wins the nomination, having done so by facing surviving a competitive primary should not damage his general election prospects. I can think of three reasons for this:

1. Democrats are going through a competitive primary of their own, and the battle between Lieutenant Governor Dan Mongiardo and Attorney General Jack Conway is showing every sign that it will be a nasty affair. In early August, Mongiardo questioned Conway’s blue-collar credentials, accusing him of “choosing to fight for the silver-spoon issues preferred by the champagne-and-caviar crowd.” Conway issued a fiery response at a church picnic- but he then drew criticism for having described himself as a “son of a bitch.” Mongiardo’s spokesperson made sure to dramatize the incident: “He shouted profanities on a church lawn with church leaders and young children present.”

2. Coverage of Grayson’s race against Paul should allow the Secretary of State to get some easy media coverage at a time Mongiardo and Conway would otherwise be expected to dominate the airwaves.

3. Kentucky’s primary will be held in May, which is early enough that both nominees should have plenty of time to prepare for the general election, no matter how brutal the contests. (Compare this May date to Missouri, New York or Florida’s late August-early September contests.)

4. Kentucky is conservative enough that Grayson should not be meaningfully hurt if he has to move far to the right in running against Paul.

That last reason is arguably the most important, and it’s one that does not apply to the other major Senate race in which a libertarian candidate is threatening to make life difficult for the NRSC’s preferred candidate: Connecticut. Peter Schiff has been attracting buzz in Ron Paul’s network - the congressman himself has been helping him raise money - and the need to fend off this challenge could force former Rep. Rob Simmons to move far further to the right on economic issues that is a good idea for a Northeastern Republican.

Worst still for Connecticut Republicans: That primary will be held in August. By November, the wounds of an ideologically divisive battle might not be fully healed, nor can Simmons be sure he’ll have had time to move back to the center.



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