Archive for the 'MO-Sen' Category

Senate ratings changes: Dems catch a break in California, give it right back in West Virginia

6 rating changes at the Senate level - and all but one favors the GOP. Democrats have caught a major break as Barbara Boxer has created some breathing room in California, but that doesn’t mean they should feel much comfort since West Virginia has gone the opposite way, unexpectedly entering toss-up status.

Keep in mind that Governor Joe Manchin voluntarily scheduled this special election this November when it was supposed to be held in 2012; and he did this knowing just how rough the political environment would be for his party. He thought his popularity would get him through, but enough West Virginia voters seem to prioritize turning Congress Republican that all bets are now off in a state that has turned sharply against Democrats over the past decade.

Meanwhile, Democratic hopes of picking-up a GOP-held Senate seat continue to fade, with Missouri, Ohio and North Carolina all shifting one column towards Republicans.

And as if the landscape wasn’t bad enough for Democrats, I was tempted to downgrade their chances in several more races (Wisconsin, Connecticut, New Hampshire) rather than upgrading them anywhere.

Safe GOP Likely GOP Lean GOP Toss-up Lean Dem Likely Dem Safe Dem
Dem-held ND AR IN

GOP-held AL

This gets us to the following breakdown:

  • Safe Democratic: 45 (-1)
  • Safe/Likely Democratic: 47 (-1)
  • Safe/Likely/Lean Democratic: 50
  • Toss-ups: 6 (-1)
  • Safe/Likely/Lean Republican: 44 (+1)
  • Safe/Likely Republican: 39 (+2)
  • Safe Republican: 34

California, toss-up to lean Democratic: This is one of the only statewide races in the country that has been trending towards Democrats over the past few weeks - and what a relief for Democrats. Sure, the whack-the-mole game that the Senate landscape has become (hat-tip to Swing State Project for suggesting that metaphor) means that Barbara Boxer’s improving fortunes don’t cement her party’s majority since the state has been replaced by West Virginia as the site of a potential upset, but Democrats will get any positive development they can get - and there is no doubt Boxer has been gaining: Rasmussen and SUSA have both shown her bouncing back from a deficit to take a substantial lead, while PPP, CNN/Time, the Field Poll and the Los Angeles Times have her up between 6% and 9%. CNN/Time even has her leading by 19% among registered voters!

Add to that the fact that the NRSC has canceled the time it had reserved on California airwaves in the final week before the election, and Carly Fiorina sure isn’t feeling the momentum. (On a more positive note for the GOP, that’s more airtime for Meg Whitman to saturate.) The race remains competitive, however; Boxer has been outspending Fiorina on the airwaves, so we’ll have to see what happens once (if?) the Republican manages to hit back. Also, the turnout gap seems less dramatic in California than elsewhere but any improvement in the GOP’s fortunes could be fatal to the 3-term incumbent.

Missouri, toss-up to lean Republican: I should have put this race in the lean Republican column weeks ago, but Robin Carnahan has looked like a strong enough candidate all year that I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt for a while longer. After all, Roy Blunt seems in many ways to be the type of candidate voters are looking to oust this year - longtime incumbent, party leadership, bailout architect, not to mention the father of an unpopular former Governor - but his party affiliation is enough to give him a narrow but consistent lead. Carnahan remains within striking distance, but she is acting too defensively for now.

New York, safe Democratic to likely Democratic: Joe DioGuardi might be a former representative, but his entry wasn’t a recruitment coup for Republicans who were long hoping for Rudy Giuliani. Still, New York’s suburbs look so intent on punishing Democrats that statewide upsets can no longer be ruled out. Polls have shown conflicting results in this race; Marist and Siena have recently come out with big Gillibrand leads, Rasmussen has shown her advantage cut in half to a 10% lead; and Quinnipiac and SUSA claim she is only leading up 6% and 1%, respectively. Call it likely Democratic for now, but the race could still shift towards the GOP.

North Carolina, lean Republican to likely Republican: In 2008, Richard Burr would probably have been a goner. Few voters seem to feel affection for him and his poll numbers have long been remarkably low. But Democrats are having trouble enough winning even their safest seats of the year to have much hope of ousting an incumbent in a state that, even in the friendliest of years, is no better than swing. And if that’s not enough, the DSCC sent clear and loud signals it puts no trust in Elaine Marshall from the day she announced her candidacy. That attitude was unexplainable since Marshall was polling competitively and since she always looked like the party nominee (sure, don’t give her support but at least don’t make it clear you think she’ll lose) and it undermined her bid: Why would the press and party donors take Marshall seriously if her national party isn’t? Any chance Democrats had of taking advantage of Burr’s massive vulnerability was destroyed with the DSCC’s behavior.

Ohio, lean Republican to likely Republican: One of Democrats’ top pick-up opportunities just a year ago, Ohio’s Senate race long resisted the GOP trend we were seeing in other races; at a time Blanche Lincoln, Robin Carnahan and Harry Reid were already dipping, Lee Fisher remained on top of Rob Portman. But Ohio has turned hard against Democrats - and the party is bound to feel the consequences in an open seat race: Democrats were hoping to use Portman’s close association to George W. Bush to their advantage, but Portman looks and acts too much like a generic Republican for him not to benefit from the Midwest’s shift to the GOP. This contest is way over-polled; many surveys have been released over the past two weeks with Portman up double-digits.

West Virginia, likely Democratic to toss-up: In a week full of bad news for Democrats, the worst is undoubtedly West Virginia’s sudden entry in the ranks of competitive Senate races. Remember that the state party chose to hold this election this year rather than in 2012, under the belief that Governor Joe Manchin is popular now and would stand a good chance at being elected. With West Virginia voters clearly turned against Democrats, that is now looking like a disastrous calculation. It’s not just that PPP and Rasmussen suddenly released polls showing wealthy Republican nominee Joe Raese narrowly ahead leading, but there’s also clear indication that the party’s internal information points to a close race: The NRSC just poured in $1,2 million in a 2-week ad campaign, something they would not have done if they weren’t confident this is a winnable race.

Poll watch: Bayh crushes Coats, Pomeroy & Shea-Porter struggle, GOP solid in PA

Less than three weeks from Texas’s primaries

Earlier this week, PPP shook up our expectations as Kay Bailey Hutchison suddenly looked in danger of being knocked out of the runoff by libertarian Debra Medina. Since then, three new Texas surveys have been released, all with a differing take on what is likely to happen on March 2nd. Research 2000 finds a likely runoff between Rick Perry and Hutchison, who come in at 42% and 30% with Medina at a still-impressive 17%. The University of Texas has Rick Perry closer to a first round victory (he is at 45%, with 16% still undecided) and a stunningly close race for second, with Hutchison at 21% and Medina at 19%. Finally, a poll conducted by two partisan firms shows Hutchison in front of Medina (27% to 19%) but Perry so close to 50% that it might not matter.

But all of these surveys were conducted before Medina attracted fire not only from the mainstream press but also conservatives like Glenn Beck for expressing openness to the possibility that the government was involved in bringing down of the World Trace Center. “I think some very good questions have been raised in that regard,” she said. “There are some very good arguments, and I think the American people have not seen all of the evidence there, so I have not taken a position on that. I’m certainly not into mind control or thought policing people.” This has gained a lot of coverage and should negatively affect her numbers. The question is: Does it help Perry cross 50% on March 2nd?

Two of these surveys also tested the general election, both finding Houston Mayor Bill White well within striking distance. In R2000, he trails Perry only 46% to 42%; he’s down 47-41 against Hutchison and 44-43 against Medina. The margins are larger according to the University of Texas, but both Perry and Hutchison are well under 50% (they lead 44-35 and 43-34, respectively); Medina and White are tied at 36%.

Bayh might not be that vulnerable after all

The week’s other very interesting poll comes from Indiana, where Research 2000 is the first pollster to test former Senator Dan Coats since he announced he was planning a political comeback two weeks ago. And the result is far less favorable than what the GOP was hoping to see: Coats’s favorability rating is only 38-34, weaker than former Rep. John Hosettler’s, which stands at 40-33. Evan Bayh, whose favorability rating stands at a solid 61-33, demolishes Coats 55% to 35%; against Hostettler, he is up by a narrower yet solid 53% to 37%.

A major reason Bayh has been painted as vulnerable in recent week is a Rasmussen survey showing him struggling against Mike Pence and against Hostettler; R2000 paints a very different situation, so it will certainly be interesting to see where other polls pit the race. Yet, Coats sure doesn’t look like a game-changer - and perhaps we should not be surprised at that: remember that he has not had his name on a ballot since 1992. The past 10 days have marked the first time most Indiana residents have heard about him in over a decade, and the coverage has been remarkably negative, which explains the rough welcome Coats has gotten as he has started to hit the trail.


VA-05: Given the number of House surveys that have found Democratic incumbents sinking (SUSA in AR-02, IN-09 and OH-01, most notably), we could have expected Rep. Tom Perriello to be in far worse shape than PPP finds him in. One of the NRCC’s top targets, Perriello is tied against state Senator Robert Hurt, 44% to 44%; the Democrat manages leads ranging from 4% to 10% against other GOP candidates. (While they might have a lower-profile, don’t forget how often we have seen unknown Republicans grab leads against incumbent Democrats lately.) Making matters more complicated is the prospect that former Rep. Virgil Goode, whom Perriello defeated in 2008, run as an independent: Boosted by a 57-28 favorability rating, Goode ties Perriello at 41%, with Hurt at 12%.

ND-AL: Tom Pomeroy might be keeping his head above water, but Earl Pomeroy is more vulnerable than is commonly believed, at least according to Rasmussen’s new poll. Like many of his colleagues, the 17-year incumbent finds himself trailing against Republicans he probably would have crushed in most cycles: against state Rep. Rick Berg, he is down 46% to 40%. While he maintains a 45-44 edge over Kevin Cramer, he has defeated him twice before, making this result underwhelming. Pomeroy does have a 47-38 edge over low-profile Paul Schaffner, but even then he remains under the 50% threshold. Put ND-AL in the column of truly endangered districts few expected would be vulnerable as 2009 started.

NH-01 and NH-02: In addition to releasing a Senate race (see below), UNH conducted a poll of both of New Hampshire’s districts, finding a very tough landscape for Democrats. (An important caveat: the margin of error is a large 6.2%.) In NH-01, Rep. Carol Shea-Porter is in a truly terrible position, failing to garner more than 33% whoever she faces and leading 43% to 33% against former Manchester Mayor Frank Guinta. In NH-02, left open by Democrat Paul Hodes, former GOP Rep. Charlie Bass would be favored to regain his old seat if he runs: He leads Ann McLane Kuster 39% to 28% and Katrina Swett 37% to 30%. Sure, Bass’s name recognition is higher but New Hampshire does seem fertile ground for Republicans this year.


New Hampshire: Two different polls found remarkably similar results and confirmed what surveys have found over and over again since last fall, namely that Attorney General Kelly Ayotte has built a comfortable but stable lead over Rep. Paul Hodes. UNH has her ahead 41% to 33% while Rasmussen pits it at 46% to 39%. However, other Republicans are weaker: Hodes leads decisively against Ovide Lamontagne (38-29 in UNH, 44-38 in Rasmussen), while it is closer against William Binnie (he’s up 34-30 in UNH, trails 42-41 in Rasmussen). A recent Research 2000 poll showed that Ayotte is far from certain of winning the primary, but the fact that Hodes is trailing against a relatively unknown businessman is a bad sign for voters’ willingness to vote Democratic.

Missouri: Rasmussen might be the only pollster to find Robin Carnahan trailing outside of the margin of error, but today marked the second poll they have released with such a finding: Weighed down by Barack Obama’s 40-59 approval rating, Carnahan trails Rep. Roy Blunt 49% to 42%. Though Carnahan would likely have an edge in normal circumstances, Missouri is conservative enough that it should not surprise us to see Blunt carried by the GOP currents.

North Dakota: No miracle for Democrats in North Dakota, where Governor John Hoeven looks even more formidable than conventional wisdom dictates according to Rasmussen’s latest poll. Not only does he enjoy an eye-popping 85% approval rating, but he crushes state Senator Potter and former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp 71-17 and 65-29, respectively. This has got to be all the more frustrating for Democrats that Heitkamp’s has a respectable favorability rating (54-36).

Louisiana: Here’s one race Democrats will not be contesting come November. It’s been obvious for weeks that Rep. Charlie Melancon’s hopes of pulling off an upset have been fading, but the Rasmussen survey with Senator David Vitter leading 57% to 33% is brutal for Democrats. With a 67% to 26% favorability rating, Vitter’s standing bears no trace of the D.C. Madam scandal.

Pennsylvania: With Senate Democrats in bad shape in Delaware, Arkansas or Nevada, they cannot afford to lose but Rasmussen finds Pat Toomey leading Arlen Specter and Joe Sestak by decisive margins: 47-38 and 43-35, respectively. I’ve said it before, and I’ve said it again. I am not sure how a five-term senator can survive trailing by 9% and struggling to break 40%, while Pennsylvanians should be more open to voting for the lesser-known Sestak; that also explains why Toomey is further from 50% in the latter match-up. Yet, Specter manages to keep a comfortable lead in the primary: 51% to 36%. That might have been an encouraging back in the fall, but three months from Election Day, the time has come for Sestak to gain traction.


Colorado: Rasmussen confirms that replacing Governor Bill Ritter with Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper has improved Democratic prospects. While Ritter was weighed by a negative approval rating, Hickenlooper is popular (his favorability rating is 56-36); while Ritter trailed Scott McInnis in most late 2009 surveys, Hickenlooper leads 49% to 45%. That might not be anything for Democrats to celebrate, but it does leave them in a better position not just to defend the Governor’s Mansion but perhaps also the Senate seat.

Ohio: The good news for Ted Strickland is that his numbers are no longer in free fall. The bad news is that he stopped the bleeding too late not to look highly endangered. Weighed down by a negative approval rating (46-53) and facing a challenger that appears popular (John Kasich’s favorability rating is 47-30), Strickland trails 47% to 41% according to Rasmussen; that’s slightly less than in January, but it leaves him in a rough spot. Might Ohio Democrats have something to learn something from Colorado?

Illinois: The first poll taken since the Illinois primary found Governor Pat Quinn in a stronger position than he looked to be a few weeks ago, perhaps due to a bounce resulting from the coverage of his victory. Against state Senator Bill Brady, Quinn leads 42% to 31%, with 4% going to Green Party nominee Rich Whitney; against state Senator Kirk Dillard, who trails the GOP primary by 400 votes and has not conceded, Quinn is up 41% to 35%. An important caveat: The poll was conducted by Victory Research, a group I had never heard before.

Pennsylvania: Now that he has gotten rid of Jim Gerlach’s primary threat, Attorney General Tom Corbett looks unstoppable in Rasmussen’s latest poll: He crushes Jack Wagner 49-29, Joe Hoeffel 51-29 and Dan Onorato 52-26. While this is nothing we haven’t seen before, and even if we account for Rasmussen representing the GOP-friendly end of the polling spectrum, the margins by which Corbett is demolishing his opponents bode ill for other Pennsylvania Democrats.

Michigan: Rasmussen’s poll of this wide open race confirms the GOP can be optimistic since Republican candidates lead 11 of 12 trial heats. Only Speaker Andy Dillon  manages a 36-35 edge over Attorney General Mike Cox, though he trails 40-32 against Sheriff Mike Bouchard and 41-34 against Rep. Pete Hoekstra. The other important match-ups concern Lansing Mayor Van Bernero, who trails by 6%, 9% and 13%, respectively. This poll is somewhat surprising, since EPIC-MRA has repeatedly shown Cox to be the strongest Republican in the general election; it is also striking that Democrats looked to be in worse shape when Lieutenant Governor John Cherry was in the race. Cherry never looked to be within striking distance, whereas Bernero and Dillon do.

Poll watch: Dems holds edge in Hawaii, GOP leads Senate races in MO, PA and AR

I have avoided spending much talk about the 2012 presidential race, but two new polls released by Fox News and PPP are worth mentioning since they offer quite contrasting takes on the state of Barack Obama’s standing with the electorate - and thus say a lot about the fact that we still have a lot to learn about what the 2010 landscape will look like and also how it will affect 2012. First, Fox has Obama crushing the 3 Republicans that are matched-up against him: 47% against Mitt Romney, 55% to 31% against Sarah Palin and 53% to 29% against Newt Gingrich. PPP, however, has Obama leading David Petraeus 44% to 34%, Palin 49% to 41%, Romney 44% to 42% - but trailing Mike Huckabee 45% to 44%.

I believe PPP’s survey marks the first time Obama has trailed a match-up since early September 2008 - yet another sign of how much the landscape has shifted in recent months. Yet, Fox News’s numbers leave nothing to be desired for the president - and it is striking that both surveys find that it would be a very bad idea for the GOP to nominate Palin.

Meanwhile, a number of important down-ballot polls were released this week. Our first look at HI-01’s special election and at Hawaii’s gubernatorial election, find that Democrats are leading both, while the first Georgia poll since former Governor Roy Barnes announced he wanted his old job back shows that Democrats have a great shot at regaining a Southern governorship. Yet, the news is mostly news for Republicans, as Democratic incumbents trail in Arkansas, Pennsylvania and IN-09. Perhaps the best news for the GOP is that Robin Carnahan has fallen behind for the first time in Missouri’s Senate race.


HI-01: Mason Dixon polled the soon-to-be-called special election in HI-01, which Neil Abercrombie is resigning from. Despite the district’s blue bent, Republicans are optimistic about this opportunity for two reasons. First, They believe Charles Djou is a top-tier candidate; second, they’re hoping that the fact that the special election will have no primary can help them pick-up the seat since 2 Democratic candidates will be splitting their party’s vote. Mason Dixon finds neither reason is justified: Djou receives a low 17%, far behind both Democratic candidates - Ed Case is at 35% while Colleen Hanabusa is at 25%. Looks like HI-01 is blue enough that it can accommodate two Democrats without handing itself over to a Republican. But can it accommodate three? Democrats today received the troubling news that state Senator Will Espero was forming an exploratory committee to join the race. If he manages to gain some traction, it would mean that the Democratic vote would split in three, strengthening Djou’s chances of pulling an upset.

NY-01: Rep. Tom Bishop hasn’t faced a competitive race since he won a tough open seat in 2002, but the GOP’s confidence that it can unseat him in 2010 will be boosted by a new SUSA poll showing the incumbent barely holding on 47% to 45% against challenger Randy Altschuler, a businessman with deep pockets. But here’s the deal: Swing State Project noticed that SUSA’s samples include an absurdly low number of 18-34 year olds - just 1% in this survey! In 2008, 17% of the electorate was made up of 18-29 year olds; sure, turnout among young voters will drop a lot next year, but it certainly won’t fall as low as 1% - it stood at 12% in the 2006 midterms, and that’s the 18-29 rather than the 18-34 year-old group we’re talking about. This skew is bound to have major consequences on what the results look like.

IN-09: The fourth survey in the series of FiredogLake/SUSA polls tested Rep. Baron Hill, and I can’t say I expected the Democrat to trail 49% to 41% against Mike Sodrel, who he’s running against for the 5th straight time. If the survey is confirmed (I never have had reason to doubt SUSA, and the sample’s age breakdown is less problematic than it was in the NY-01 poll), it would guarantee that the cycle will be very tough for Democrats: Hill just crushed him by 20% in 2008, and I recently wrote I found it highly unlikely that Sodrel was the GOP’s best bet. Hill is the third Democratic incumbent SUSA found trailing outside of the MoE in the space of two weeks.


Missouri: In what is one of the clearest polling signs yet that the midterm landscape has dramatically shifted in the GOP’s favor, the Democratic decline is now even affecting Robin Carnahan. Throughout the fall, I had marveled that she was one of the party’s only candidates nationally who had managed to remain stable - but Rasmussen’s latest poll has Roy Blunt leading 49% to 43%. Not only is this the first Rasmussen survey in which Blunt is ahead (Carnahan led by 2% last month), but it is also one of the first polls taken of this race that has one of the candidates’ leading outside of the margin of error. Sure, on paper Missouri is much more certain to be a Republican hold than OH or NH if the environment favors the party, but Carnahan is undoubtedly one of the cycle’s strongest Democratic recruits; if even she has fallen behind 6%, how are Jack Conway or Paul Hodes supposed to remain competitive?

North Carolina: PPP’s first poll of the year shows the same result it found throughout 2009: Senator Richard Burr inspires little passion among his constituents (his approval rating is an unimpressive 36/33, with 31% saying they have no opinion), he is stuck well under 50% of the vote and Secretary of State Elaine Marshall comes closest. Burr leads 44% to 37% against her, 45% to 36% against Cal Cunningham and 46% to 34% against Kenneth Lewis. The good news for the Republican is that his numbers are slightly better than they were last month, as Marshall then only trailed by 5%. But the good news for Democrats is that this is the first time Marshall performs better than a generic Democrat (who is behind 9%). Burr is undoubtedly the cycle’s most (only?) vulnerable Republican incumbent.

Pennsylvania: Rasmussen’s latest poll finds Pat Toomey expanding the leads he had built in the fall and continue to dominate both Arlen Specter (49% to 40%) and Joe Sestak (43% to 35%). While the two Democrats’ margins are similar, it is far more worrisome for an entrenched senator to trail by 9% (a deficit from which few such incumbents can recover) than for a candidate with no statewide profile to do so. As such, Democrats’ best bet to defeat Toomey remains getting rid of Specter - but here lies the party’s problem: Sestak’s primary momentum appears to have completely stalled. Specter now has a 53% to 31% lead, the largest he has received yet in a Rasmussen poll; back in the summer, I would have said this margin is encouraging for the challenger but now that we are 5 months away from Election Day Sestak’s lack of progress is more consequential.

Arkansas: Yet another rough poll for Blanche Lincoln, this time from Mason-Dixon. Not only does the conservative Democrat trail state Senator Gilbert Baker 43% to 39% and her 2004 opponent Jim Holt 43% to 37%, but she can barely manage leads against a series of low-profile Republicans: she’s up 40-39 against Curtis Coleman, 41-38 against Conrad Reynolds, 43-38 against Kim Hendren and 41-38 against Tom Cox. Sure, Mason Dixon’s numbers aren’t quite as brutal for Lincoln as its Nevada polls have been for Reid, but the fact that a two-term incumbent fails to break out of the low 40s obviously a bad sign - one that is sure to fuel speculation that Democrats might try to push Lincoln out; but the poll also suggests that the best way to do that would be convincing her to retire, since she does have a 52% to 34% lead in a potential match-up against Lieutenant Governor Brian Halter. Sure, that’s no insurmountable margin when we’re talking about a primary race, but it’s not like Halter is an unknown figure.


Georgia: Here’s one Republican-held seat Democrats have an excellent chance of picking-up! Rasmussen’s poll of the general election has former Governor Ray Barnes performing stronger than Georgia Democrats have grown to expect against a trio of Republicans. John Oxendine is narrowly up 44-42 while Rep. Nathan Deal and SoS Karen Handel are both down 43-42. On the other hand, these Republicans lead by margins ranging from 18% to 12% against Attorney General Baker. This is the very first survey of the state taken since Barnes jumped in the race in June 2009. While the dearth of polling has made us forget that the former Governor’s entry in the race is one of Democrats’ best recruitment coups of the cycle, this survey leaves little doubt that Barnes could help his party regain a footing in the South.

Hawaii: Mason Dixon released the very first poll we have seen of this state, and it suggest Republicans have a better shot than I expected to defend the governorship. While both Democratic candidates are clearly ahead, Lieutenant Governor Aiona does manage to stay in contact: he trail 43% to 34% against Rep. Neil Abercrombie, 41% to 35% against Honolulu Mayor Hannemann. The state holds very late primaries (on September 18th), so it will be quite a while before the Aiona has to worry about Democrats turning their fire on him.

California: General Jerry Brown remains favored to regain his old job back, but he cannot take the general election for granted. The latest Field Poll has Meg Whitman cutting her deficit by half to trail 46% to 36%. Given that her name recognition is about half of Brown’s she has room to grow, and it’s not like Democrats can hope for Whitman to be tripped up in her primary: she has opened a huge 45-17 lead Steve Poizner, who faces a 48% to 31% deficit against Brown. Rasmussen also tested this race and it found Brown leading Whitman by a much smaller margin (43% to 39%), though he is ahead of Poizner by 10%; strangely, the poll also has Senator Diane Feinstein, arguably the state’s most towering political figure, lead Whitman only 43-42. (The poll’s trendline is actually positive for Democrats, since Brown and Whitman were tied in November.) Even though Rasmussen’s numbers are out-of-line with other pollsters’ results, there is little doubt that Brown shouldn’t be considered a shoo-in.

Texas: For the first time, Rasmussen tested this race’s general election, which vindicated conventional wisdom. While Houston Mayor Bill White, has a shot at an upset, he does face an uphill climb - and his chances probably depend on the outcome of the Republican primary. While Perry leads White 50% to 40%, Hutchison is ahead by a larger 52% to 37%, which confirms that White’s potential would be greater if he were to face the incumbent. Interestingly, White has a slight lead when matched-up against libertarian Debra Medina 44% to 38%, suggesting Texas voters are willing not to automatically back the Republican.

Colorado: I covered the Senate half of Research 2000’s Colorado poll earlier this week, but they also released gubernatorial numbers that confirm not only that the race will be competitive but also that Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper is the strongest of the Democrats who were mentioned as replacements for the retiring Ritter: While Hickenlooper ties probable GOP nominee Scott McInnis at 43%, McInnis has a 2% lead against Ken Salazar (a striking result given Salazar’s statewide profile), a 5% lead over Andrew Romanoff and an 8% lead over Rep. Ed Perlmutter. Here’s further good news for Hickenlooper: Twice as many Democrats as Republicans were undecided in the poll, suggesting he has more room to grow, and he has a slight lead among independents, which is more than can be said of other Democrats across the country.

Maryland: We still have little information on whether former Governor Bob Ehrlich will challenge incumbent Marty O’Malley, but if he does he will start with a 48% to 39% deficit according to a new poll by GOP firm Gonzalez Research; Ehlrich is undoubtedly the only Republican who’d make this race worth watching. The poll also delivers useful confirmation that Barbara Mikulski is one senator Democrats do not have to worry about, since her approval rating stands at 64% to 23%

Dems maintain themselves in MO and PA’s Senate races, but Jerry Brown shows signs of vulnerability

After seeing their standing decline -and in many cases collapse - over the spring and over the summer, Democratic candidates have managed to stabilize in recent polls - and in some cases over make small progress (for instance, Alexi Giannoulias seized his very first lead over Mark Kirk in a Rasmussen survey released last week). In Connecticut, Arkansas, Nevada or Colorado, incumbents find themselves tailing so decisively that the mid-2009 slump might have already have sealed their doom; but in many other states, Democrats managed to maintain themselves in a highly competitive position.

We recently saw that one such state is Ohio, perhaps because Democrats are contesting an open seat rather than defending an incumbent. The same situation exists in Missouri: Secretary of State Robin Carnahan is one of the country’s only Democratic candidates to have experienced no dip in her numbers whatsoever. The latest Rasmussen poll finds her leading Rep. Roy Blunt 46% to 44%, a result that is pretty much identical to what all the year’s surveys have found. (Rasmussen’s previous poll had a tie at 46%.)

While this stability can be partly explained by the fact that both candidates are almost universally known, it is striking that Carnahan isn’t affected by Democrats’ deteriorating standing among independents and by predicted turnout disparities. This is a testament not only to the fact that Democratic candidates who are not incumbents are less sensible to the environment (see Lee Fisher’s competitiveness in Ohio), but also to the strength of Carnahan’s last name among the state’s Democrats and swing voters.

Another state in which a poll finds very stable results is Pennsylvania: Quinnipiac’s latest survey has results that are very similar to September’s. A match-up between Pat Toomey and Arlen Specter yields a tie at 44% while Toomey has a 40% to 35% lead over Rep. Joe Sestak; three months ago, Toomey led Specter 43% to 42%. The same can be said about the Democratic primary: If Specter led 44% to 25% in September, he is now ahead 53% to 30%.

Note that all 3 candidates can take some comfort out of these results. First, Toomey is clearly in contention; a decent share of Pennsylvania voters appear willing to back a Republican and the fact he doesn’t have to spend the year campaigning as a hardcore conservative allows him to appeal to independents (most of whom who do not know him from his days as the president of Club for Growth).

Second, Specter has not gone under like many of his Senate colleagues. Receiving 44% is nothing to boast about, especially given that his favorability rating is negative (43-45) but it’s also nothing that would signal he is unelectable next year. Third, Sestak might not be gaining traction for now, but his position is all the more competitive-looking when you consider that his name recognition is very low compared to those of his rivals: Only 29% of respondents have an opinion of him, versus 45% of Toomey and 88% of Specter.

That Sestak’s 5% deficit over Toomey should not worry Democrats is more obvious when we compare the Senate race’s results to those of the Governor’s contest: Quinnipiac finds a similar name recognition difference between Republican front-runner Tom Corbett (49% have an opinion of him) and the top Democratic candidates (27% have an opinion of Dan Ornato and of Jack Wagner). And yet, Corbett has far larger leads than Toomey: 45% to 30% over Ornato, 43% to 33% over Wagner and 46% to 30% over Joe Hoeffel.

In short: Pennsylvania leans blue enough that its voters remain reluctant to send a Republican to the Senate, but they seem to have no such qualms in non-federal contests. This is the second survey this week that suggests the GOP is clearly favored to reclaim the Keystone State’s Governor’s Mansion.

3 other gubernatorial polls: Dems ahead in CA and IL, the GOP in SD

While Pennsylvania is preparing to go against its usual preference in the Governor’s race, polls from three other states find that the partisan distribution respected - even though Jerry Brown has some reason to be concerned in California: PPIC finds that Jerry Brown’s favorability rating is negative - it stands at 35% to 36% - a sign of vulnerability for a man who has been at the highest level of state politics for more than 3 decades. Also worrisome for Democrats is that Brown has an underwhelming 43% to 37% lead against Meg Whitman. Though he does lead Tom Campbell and Steve Poizner by larger margins (46% to 34% and 47% to 31%, respectively), his lead against Whitman should be far bigger based on the state’s staunchly blue status and on his big name recognition advantage.

In Illinois, Rasmussen has both Democrats in the lead, though they remain far under 50%. In fact, Governor Pat Quinn polls at lower levels than his primary challenger, Treasurer Hynes. Quinn leads former party chairman McKenna 41% to 33%, state Senator Dillard 41% to 30% and state Senator Brady 45% to 30%; Hynes is up 43% to 30% against McKenna, 46% to 27% against Brady and 42% to 29% against Dillard. (Surprisingly, Rasmussen did not test former Attorney General Ryan, who is running and is arguably the GOP’s strongest potential nominee.) Quinn also has a weaker favorability rating (52-44) than Hynes (52-30). Consider these discrepancies still more evidence that the electorate is becoming anti-incumbent first, and anti-Democrat only second.

In South Dakota, finally, PPP tested the 5 candidates who are running for the open Governor’s race. All are largely unknown, so we cannot use these results as much else than generic partisan tests. In that regard, the sole Democratic nominee (Scott Heidepriem) does a bit better than I would have expected but the survey leaves no doubt that he faces a very uphill climb to making this race competitive: Lieutenant Governor Dennis Daugaard leads 42% to 39%, state Senator Dave Knudson 39% to 29% and Brookings Mayor Scott Munsterman 35% to 30%. While Heidepriem only trails Ken Knuppe 32% to 30%, that alone shows how hard it will be for him to overcome his party affiliation since Knuppe is a low-profile rancher whereas he is the state Senate’s Minority Leader.

Senate polls find Carnahan remains stable, Lincoln struggling to stay afloat

In Missouri, Carnahan stays stable despite deterioration of Democratic brand

Whether the GOP will enjoy a big enough wave to defeat many incumbents remains an open question, but what is less debatable is that non-incumbent Democrats will have their work cut out for them. Candidates running in open Senate seats (Lee Fisher and Jennifer Brunner, Paul Hodes) have seen their numbers decline, while those challenging GOP Senators haven’t been unable to capitalize on an anti-incumbent sentiment the way Republican challengers have.

As such, it speaks to the strength of the Carnahan brand that Missouri’s Secretary of State hasn’t followed the fate of her Democratic colleagues: A new PPP poll gives her a narrow 43% to 42% edge against Rep. Roy Blunt, the same margin PPP found all the way back in January. Against state Senator Chuck Purgason, she leads by a larger 42% to 35%.

“In a normal election year Carnahan would probably cruise to election given that divergence in the candidates’ popularity,” writes PPP in its analysis. I do not fully agree with that assessment. She might have cruised in an exceptionally strong Democratic year (even then, Jay Nixon’s triumph in the 2008 gubernatorial race is explained more by intra-Republican divisions than by than by the blue wave, given that John McCain won the state) but Missouri has demonstrated enough of a red-leaning and Blunt is strong enough a Republican candidate that the race would have been unlikely to be decided by more than a few percentage points in any cycle.

That said, there is no question that Carnahan is significantly weighed down by the national environment and the deteriorating of the Democratic brand (which makes her ability to stay stable that much more impressive). Obama’s approval rating in Missouri is low (42% to 58%). While respondents have a dismal view of the GOP, most of those who mistrust both parties are opting to vote for Blunt - a drastic reversal from what we saw in 2006 and 2008, though one that is to be expected. This allows Blunt to take a 44% to 32% lead among independents, even though his favorability rating among that group is a dismal 23%.

In Arkansas, Lincoln stays afloat but remains vulnerable

Robin Carnahan’s poll numbers might look identical to what they were in January, but the same cannot be said of Blanche Lincoln. A new poll released by Zogby (it was conducted for a conservative group) finds the Arkansas Senator edging out state Senator Gilbert Baker 41% to 39%. Given the name recognition differential, that’s a very worrisome margin for the incumbent.

But the poll does contain two pieces of excellent news for Lincoln. First, her favorability rating is positive (52% to 38%).Second, she decisively leads Senator Kim Hendren by a convincing 45% to 29%. That is a meaningful finding, since it indicates independents and Republicans aren’t so committed to ousting her that they’ll rally against just any challenger - something other polls have suggested they might do. (I am not sure how to explain the difference between those two match-ups since the two Republicans have a similar favorability rating: 22-7 for Baker, 24-9 for Hendren.)

Zogby asked respondents how they would vote if Lincoln supported the health-care bill in the Senate and found Baker leading Lincoln 49% to 37%. I find this a ridiculous question to ask. For one, voters won’t go in the booth just moments after having been told a single piece of information about one of the candidates - especially when the health care vote will take place 10 to 11 months before Election Day. Second, Lincoln is all but certain to vote “no” on final passage; the question is only whether she’ll support cloture. Republicans will then claim that a procedural vote is equivalent to a substantive one while Lincoln will insist it does not; the former argument might very well win out, but never as unambiguously as Zogby’s question makes it sound.

That’s not to say that Lincoln won’t face major problems because of health care reform: The poll finds that only 29% of respondents support the bill, while 64% oppose it. As problematically, 48% of respondents say it would make them less likely to vote for Lincoln if she supported the bill (major caveat applies, as I explained above) while 18% say more likely.

Furthermore, a PPP poll released earlier this week that tested Lincoln’s numbers only in AR-02 found very worrisome numbers for the Senator: 49% of independents think she is too liberal and she trails Baker 42% to 37%; this is Arkansas’s most Democratic district we’re talking about…

The twist for Lincoln is that she is in very serious danger of being Creigh Deedsed if she is responsible for sinking health care reform. Why? PPP finds that AR-02’s Democratic voters give Lincoln very low marks: While 78% approve of Obama’s performance, 75% Snyder’s and 63% Pryor’s, only 43% approve Lincoln’s - mainly because she is too conservative. That’s a very low number that raises obvious questions as to whether Democrats will bother going to the polls next year or whether so many of them did in Virginia (don’t forget that this Senate race will be the main political attraction next year).

Add that the fact that Lieutenant Governor Brian Halter is still not ruling out the possibility that he’ll challenge Lincoln next year, and the senator might have as much to lose if she emerges as health care’s slayer as if she comes to look like its enthusiastic champion. Supporting cloture while opposing the bill is probably her best way out of this, as it would help her avoid base anger while giving her arguments with which to rebut the GOP.

Poll watch: Vitter and Burr up double-digits but under 50%, Brown and Campbell strong in Cali

Vitter and Burr under 50%, but Democrats have work to do

In polls taken so far, David Vitter and Richard Burr (arguably the only Republican senators who are vulnerable next year) are in a similar situation. Both lead their match-ups comfortably, yet both have a mediocre approval rating and are unable to break 50%. In short, they are showing early signs of vulnerability but Democrats have a lot of work to do to guarantee they face truly competitive contests next year.

Two new surveys confirm this situation. The first is a Rasmussen poll of Louisiana: Vitter leads 46% to 36% against Rep. Charlie Melancon. That’s certainly a decent margin, but 46% is not a particularly impressive level of support for a Republican incumbent in a red state. Interestingly, Secretary of State Jay Dardenne leads Melancon by a slightly larger margin - 46% to 33%; that’s not a major difference, but whenever an incumbent’s lead is smaller than that a fellow party member we know he is facing enough discontent to raise a red flag.

In North Carolina, PPP finds an uptick in Burr’s numbers. That is most dramatic when he is matched-up against a generic Democrat: He trailed by 4% in June, he now leads 45% to 34%. Against named opponents, his level of support has slightly increased. He now leads 44% to 33% against Bob Etheridge, 44% to 32% against Marshall, 44% to 30% against Dennis Wicker and Kenneth Lewis, 45% to 29% against Kevin Foy and 46% to 27% against Cal Cunningham.

Burr’s approval rating is mediocre enough for him to still be in trouble - 36% to 35% - but PPP is probably right to say he is benefiting from the national environment. That’s especially obvious in his match-up against a generic Democrat, but also in the large margin he manages to lead by against a low-profile Democrat like Cunningham. Sure, that respondents do not automatically rally against whoever the Democratic nominee is (the way Republicans are rallying against Harry Reid and Blanche Lincoln’s opponents, whoever they might be) confirms that Democrats cannot expect to easily defeat Burr.

Carnahan ahead of Blunt within the margin of error

I’ll be rather surprised if one of Missouri’s Senate nominees takes a significant lead sometimes in the next few months. Both are well-known and the popularity of Robin Carnahan’s last name is counterbalanced by the state’s red lean. That’s what a new Momentum Analysis poll confirms: Carnahan has a far stronger favorability rating (54/28 as opposed to 44/33 for Blunt) and she is only ahead 48% to 45%. (Caveat: Momentum Analysis is a Democratic pollster; the poll is consistent with other numbers we have seen.)

Two ways to read these numbers. One is favorable to Democrats: Carnahan manages to keep a narrow edge at a time most polls find Democratic candidates in trouble, confirming a personal appeal that will not be sensitive to a Republican edge in the national environment. The other is favorable to Republicans: That Carnahan (who as Secretary of State is in a less exposed position than a congressman) fails to be further ahead when she is so much more popular bodes ill for her prospects once Republicans go on the attack.

CA: Brown crushes Republicans, Campbell should be taken (very) seriously

A new Field Poll tests California’s gubernatorial primaries, and the big surprise is on the Republican side. While the race is often portrayed as a two-way between Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner, but it is Tom Campbell who comes in a narrow second to Whitman - 22% to 20%, with Poizner coming in at 9%. With half of Republicans undecided, the race still has a long way to go but such numbers will help Campbell position himself on equal footing and hope to get enough media coverage to counterbalance the financial disparity from which he is bound to suffer against self-funding opponents.

On the Democratic side, San Fransisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is falling further behind against Attorney General Jerry Brown: 47% to 27%. (Speaking of the Brown-Newsom, this American Prospect article about Brown’s responsibility in the passage and implementation of Prop 13 is a must-read.) The good news for Newsom is that he at least leads his Republican opponents - something that was not the case in a recent Rasmussen poll: He leads Whitman 40% to 31%, Campbell 38% to 33% and Poizner 39% to 30%. But Brown’s leads are far larger: 50% to 29%, 48% to 28% and 50% to 25%, respectively.

Washington: Another November contest to watch

Maine’s gay marriage battle is the highest-profile initiative that will be on the ballot come November, but there’s another gay-rights initiative to watch in Washington: Referendum 71 asks voters whether they want to expand domestic partnerships, and the stakes are high. The issue here is not whether voters will invalidate already legal rights (or ban already illegal rights) but whether they will take the lead in strengthening gay rights. Just as it was major when a state legislature for the first time legalized gay marriage last spring, the referendum’s passage would be symbolically powerful.

A new SUSA poll - the first I have seen of this issue - suggests that the outcome is as suspenseful as that of Maine, with the yes ahead 45% to 42%. The bad sign for the “yes” is that undecided voters usually tend to break for the “no,” so the rule of thumb is that a referendum needs to have more than 50% in polls to pass. On the other hand, the sample contains twice as many undecided Democrats (5% of the sample) as undecided Republicans (2.6%), so there is certainly reason to think 50% is in reach.

At least one incumbent governor has little to worry about

Kelly Ayotte might be improving its position in New Hampshire’s Senate race, but it doesn’t mean the GOP has a chance to dislodge Governor John Lynch. UNH found Lynch enjoying an approval rating of 66% and posting a 50% to 37% lead against former Senator John Sununu. Since no one expects Sununu to even consider this contest, his inclusion is simply as an attempt to test Lynch’s vulnerability against the GOP’s best-case scenario. He should face even less trouble against the likes of businessman Jack Kimball or state Senator Chuck Morse.

If Thompson were to run for Senate…

Another unlikely match-up was tested by the University of Wisconsin, this time to test the worst-case scenario for Democratic Senator Russ Feingold. Against the strongest potential Republican - former Governor Tommy Thompson - Feingold trails 43% to 39%. Now, if we start hearing that Thompson is looking at the race, Democrats might have reason to worry. For now, I’ll refer you to a Research 2000 poll released back in June that had Feingold leading by 21% and 18% against other prominent Republicans.

Senate polls: MO is a tie, Gillibrand trails Giuliani, incumbents safe in AZ, IA and MD

Missouri: Rasmussen finds a tie

With Sarah Steelman dropping out of Missouri’s Senate race, it looks highly unlikely anything can derail a general election showdown between two of the biggest dynasties of state politics - Roy Blunt and Robin Carnahan. Since both enjoy high name recognition, early polls in this contest are more meaningful than in other Senate races but we have been getting fairly few polls from the state. Rasmussen finally released a survey earlier this week, finding Blunt and Carnahan tied at 46%. Both enjoy positive ratings, though the Republican’s is a bit stronger (57-33 instead of 52-42).

Democrats and Republicans alike are likely to be relieved by this survey. On the one hand, the DSCC has gotten plenty of bad polling news recently, and that’s especially the case in Rasmussen surveys. For instance, Rasmussen found Ayotte handily leading in New Hampshire - and that’s a blue-leaning state we’re talking about: That the GOP has been gaining strength is bound to impact red-leaning states like Missouri more than others, and Democrats were entitled to feel worried about what a Rasmussen poll of this race would show. That Carnahan is forcing a tie is a testament to her strength as a candidate.

On the other hand, Missouri is sometimes considered the Democrats’ top takeover opportunity because of the draw of Carnahan’s last name combined with the stain of Blunt’s years as a leader of the unpopular House GOP and the unpopularity of his son’s gubernatorial tenure. As such, for the Republican to force a tie will be considered good news at Republican headquarters.

All in all, this confirms what we have long suspected: This is one contest that is likely to be decided by nothing else than the national environment. One party typically sweeps most of a cycle’s competitive races, and I can’t imagine this contest bucking whatever general trend emerges. I also doubt we’ll ever see massive swings in public opinion in this contest: With both Blunt and Carnahan well-known and apparently relatively well-liked, they should both hold on to their mid-40s position at least until the general election heats up over the summer.

Marist, Siena have Giuliani handily beating Gillibrand

Since Gillibrand cleared the Democratic field, we have not been hearing that much about her re-election prospects but she won’t be out of the woods until George Pataki and… Rudy Giuliani make it clear they will not challenge her. Giuliani, you ask? A recent report suggested he might consider running for Senate instead of Governor, and while his camp has denied the rumor both Siena and Marist were intrigued enough to try out the match-out. The results are worrisome for Democrats.

The Marist poll has Giuliani crushing Gillibrand 51% to 40%, a margin that looks particularly bad because it’s not that far from the types of lead the former mayor posts against the highly unpopular David Paterson; Gillibrand also trails against Pataki, 45% to 41%. The Siena poll is somewhat less brutal for Gillibrand, who trails 46% to 38% against Giuliani. The Senator’s vulnerability is both a factor of her still-low name recognition, her mediocre favorability rating (29% to 24%) and Giuliani’s surprising popularity (56% to 38%).

The best news for Gillibrand comes from… Rasmussen (what is it this week with Rasmussen showing some better results for Democrats than other pollsters?): A new poll has her beating Pataki 44% to 41%. That’s not a particularly impressive margin, but it’s better than what other recent surveys have found - including the Marist poll. (Rasmussen did not test a match-up between Gillibrand and Giuliani.) Rasmussen does bring some bad news to Gillibrand though, as her favorability rating is a low 39-42. Again, her camp’s claim that her numbers will improve as she introduces herself are not proving true.

Rasmussen also released gubernatorial numbers. (Can pollsters please please stop polling New York, where numbers have not changed for months, and start exploring states like NH, MO or even PA?) Paterson is in relatively better shape, as his approval rating (39-60) is better than usual and he only trails Giuliani 50% to 39%; he ties Lazio at 38%. Cuomo beats Lazio 65% to 26% and Giuliani 58% to 37%.

McCain, Grassley and Murkowski Mikulski look safe

Democrats were once salivating at the prospect of ousting him in 2010 but John McCain is unlikely to face much of a race according to a new PPP poll. Despite last year’s many signs of a weak political standing and despite a mediocre approval rating (48% to 42%), he would handily beat all potential Democratic candidates - 53% to 40% against Napolitano, 57% to 30% against Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 55% to 25% against Rodney Glassman. If McCain can top 50% against Napolitano, who would clearly have been the strongest Democrats had to offer, it’s hard to see anyone else topping him in the general election.

In Iowa, Republican Chuck Grassley is only facing low-profile opponent but a new Rasmussen poll doesn’t give us any reason to think he would be vulnerable even if he faced a top-tier challenger: Not only does he enjoy a formidable 68-30 favorability rating, but he easily tops the 50% mark against Bob Krause: 56% to 30%. The poll has me somewhat surprised, as I am unsure of how 63% of respondents can have an opinion on this low-profile a contender.

A Gonzalez Research poll of Maryland does not test any general election match-up involving Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski, but her re-elect numbers make it clear she has nothing to fear in what is her fourth re-election race: Her favorability rating stands at 64/23 and her approval rating is even more formidable (67/22). 55% of respondents say they would definitely vote to re-elect her, with only 19% saying they definitely want to replace her; 26% say they’ll consider another candidate but with no Republican lining up to take Mikulski on this is one contest the DSCC doesn’t have to worry about.

Sarah Steelman is out of 2010

Former Missouri Treasurer Sarah Steelman announced yesterday she would not run for Senate in 2010. That is no longer a surprise given that she had been inching away for months, but it is easy to forget that she looked (and behaved) like a sure candidate earlier this year. Her decision is a blow to conservatives’ increasingly organized attempts to battle Senate Republicans’ preferred candidates, but it is first and foremost a huge relief for the NRSC and a disappointment for Democrat Robin Carnahan.

In 2008, a nasty gubernatorial primary between Rep. Kenny Hulshof and Steelman helped Democrat Jay Nixon coast to victory: The combination of Missouri’s late primary date and of this contest’s ideological divisiveness weakened Hulshof heading into the general election. For a while, it looked like the same thing would occur in 2010: When Senator Bond announced he would retire next year, Blunt and Steelman both positioned themselves for a run and the odds that their primary would be as nasty as 2008’s was one reason Democrats were so optimistic about this Senate race.

With Steelman already harshly denouncing Blunt as “another white man in a suit,” their race was shaping up as a process-oriented confrontation in which both candidates are turned into caricatural embodiments of their respective camps. Blunt would have been painted as the ultimate Washington insider who had renounced even the pretense of conservative governance and fiscal restraint, while Steelman would be denounced as a demagogic and unelectable crusader who builds her appeal on flimsy anti-establishment rhetoric.

In short, the battle would have been viewed as a fight for the soul of the GOP, with Blunt and Steelman denounced by their detractors as symbolizing everything that is wrong with the party. In media coverage and voters perception, this race would fit perfectly in the ready-made narrative of the GOP’s civil war - movement conservatives versus the NRSC, Glenn Beck viewers versus congressmen struggling to catch up, tea-partiers versus conciliatory politicians - and that would leave the eventual winner heavily bruised heading into the general election.

But the DSCC can stop salivating. In her statement, Steelman cited family concerns but it’s tough not to see this as a desire not to go too far in alienating the Republican establishment: Steelman was long considered a rising GOP star, but two consecutive statewide primaries losses would have left her nowhere to go. By withdrawing from this race, she can hope to curry favor and make herself look like the heir apparent the next time - perhaps even in 2012, in Jay Nixon or Claire McCaskill’s re-election races.

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that would be a good or bad thing for Democrats. Do remember that Steelman, a darling of the conservative movement, served as a statewide official. That gives her the institutional credibility to be taken seriously in the general election - as long as she does not first spend months blasting the establishment from the right. In Pennsylvania, Toomey would have been in a tough spot had he defeated Specter in a primary; but now that he no longer needs to position himself as a staunch conservative, he can pull of an image makeover - he recently endorsed Sotomayor’s nomination and praised Obama’s school speech, which was lambasted by much of the right.

Getting back to the 2010 race, Blunt is not yet out of primary trouble as state Senator Chuck Purgason is running against him, planning to focus on earmarks and spending. In a two-way race, it is conceivable that Purgason could appeal to some of the voters who would have been attracted to Steelman, but he lacks her profile, her reputation as a rising Republican star and her connection to national networks. As such, this primary is worth keeping an eye on but there is for now no reason to think it will significantly weaken Blunt before he enters the general election.

At the moment, Blunt and Carnahan should thus be considered the probable candidates in Missouri’s Senate races - making this a rare major Senate contest in which the general election line-up is already all but set. Of course, there are other reasons than the prospects of a nasty primary that had Democrats excited: Carnahan’s profile as a statewide office older, her popular last name, Blunt’s role as a congressional leader and the hit his last name took due to his son’s unpopularity (Matt Blunt served as Governor from 2005 to 2009) all more than make up for Missouri’s slight Republican lean and guarantee that Missouri will be one of the Democrats’ top pick-up opportunities.

And yet, this is one of the least frequently polled contests, which is bizarre given that it is happening in a major state, that it’s one of the more obviously important elections of the cycle and that both Bunt and Carnahan have high enough name recognition that early polls would be meaningful. So perhaps we could stop getting a poll a week from Nevada and North Carolina and get one a trimester from Missouri?

The feud between the NRSC and local conservatives

In imposing their will from hundreds of miles away, national committees rarely please local activists - and they often do so for no justifiable reason: In 2006, the DCCC’s obsession with helping Tammy Duckworth probably caused Democrats to miss many pick-ups in underfunded districts, and there is no other way to explain it than Rahm Emanuel’s desire to score a victory in his home state.

In 2010, much of the activist angst has transpired on the Republican side: The NRSC has repeatedly promoted relatively centrist candidates against conservative alternatives.

First came Pennsylvania. After Specter’s party switch, the NRSC kept Pat Toomey at arm’s lengths for weeks while trying to recruit the pro-choice Tom Ridge or the comparatively moderate Jim Gerlach. Only after it became clear that these recruitment efforts would fail did national Republican rally around Toomey.

Second was Florida, where the Washington establishment has gone all-out to make Charlie Crist the presumptive nominee; pointing out that Florida is unlikely to shy away from electing a staunch conservative, many are apoplectic at the NRSC’s involvement. But whatever support Marco Rubio has been able to gather, it is now clear that Crist is the heavy favorite to win the Republican nomination.

In the feud between the NRSC and conservative activists, then, the score is tied at 1-all.

With Kentucky, Ohio, Connecticut or Colorado looking unlikely to host ideologically divisive Republican primaries, the decider was supposed to be Missouri - but it is looking increasingly unlikely we will get many fireworks. Sarah Steelman long looked certain to challenge Roy Blunt for the nomination but she has been inching away from the race for months; while she was taking hard shots at Blunt in early spring, we have heard very little from her since then and her top advisers are going to work for other candidates.

That does not mean that Blunt has cleared the primary field, as I wrote in June when I introduced state Senator Chuck Purgason , who was forming an exploratory committee. This week, Purgason, a 13-year state legislator, officially announced his candidacy; he plans to focus on issues like the national debt and earmarks. Sure, Purgason could gain some traction if Steelman passes on the race, but is it really conceivable that he could topple as prominent a politician as Blunt? After all, Blunt might be the ultimate Washington insider but his policy stances don’t leave much of an an opening to rally conservatives nationwide.

So it looks like Missouri’s importance as an ideologically charged battle is diminishing; Blunt is not formidable enough to be a priority for the NRSC nor is he unconservative enough to be a priority for conservative activists.

That leaves us with New Hampshire, where local Republicans are increasingly outspoken in voicing their displeasure at the GOP establishment rallying around Attorney General Kelly Ayotte. While the NRSC is officially neutral, Ayotte is holding a mid-September fundraiser at the NRSC’s headquarters; the same goes for the state party, as chairman John Sununu (Sr.) has been defending her conservative credentials while insisting he’ll stay neutral.

For now, New Hampshire seems like it’s taking Florida’s route: The NRSC looks like it will get what it wants. Ayotte might not be as popular as Crist, but she also has less of a record with which conservatives can rally the troops. On the other hand, while her main intraparty opponent is a man who has been out of the public spotlight for 13 years, The Hill reports that private polls are suggesting Ovide Lamontagne enjoys surprisingly high name recognition. So could he could gain some traction?

For Lamontagne to have any shot at making this primary competitive, he’ll need the backing of The New Hampshire Union-Leader, an influential paper among state Republicans. This is a rare newspaper to still publish front-page editorials, and their influence can be decisive in primaries: In 2008, The Union-Leader’s daily attacks on Mitt Romney and daily praise for John McCain played a major role in the Arizona Senator’s come-from-behind victory.

As of today, it looks like the Union-Leader’s editorial board is frustrated enough to get involved. The paper published a scathing editorial blasting the NRSC’s involvement:

These Washington elites presume to pick our candidates for us. But they have no idea who the best possible candidates for Senate and Congress are. That’s why we have primaries in which party members, not the bosses, pick who will represent them in the general election…

The party bosses in D.C. think they know better than the locals how to pick winning candidates. They don’t. They should butt out and let the people who actually live here decide.

The good news for Ayotte: The Union-Leader is directing its anger at the NRSC rather than at her candidacy. Whether she can connect with the state’s conservative base as she launches her campaign could be decisive.

Roy Blunt cannot clear primary field

For someone who was hoping to look formidable enough to become his party’s presumptive nominee, Rep. Roy Blunt sure is not managing to clear the GOP field. Tom Schweich’s decision to bow out got him rid of one potential primary challenger, but another Republican has unexpectedly popped up.

State Senator Chuck Purgason formed an exploratory committee earlier this week. That does not mean he will pursue the race, but it does put him closer to doing so than Schweich ever got - a startling entrance by a man I had not heard mentioned as a potential candidate until he made his move.

Who is Purgason, you ask? He is no household name for anyone who does not closely follow Missouri politics, but he is no political novice either. First elected to the state House in 1996, he served as Chief Whip for Republicans. He moved over to the state Senate in 2004 and easily won a second-term in 2008. He represents a heavily conservative district of Southern Missouri; last fall, John McCain scored double-digit victories in all eight counties that make up the district (Camden, Howell, Laclede, Oregon, Shannon, Texas, and Wright).

Purgason, who lives in a rural area of heavily Republican Howell, is himself staunchly conservative. Focused with economic issues, he is worried about the national debt. “We cannot stand by silently and allow our government to squander away the future of our children and grandchildren through reckless borrowing and spending,” he said in his candidacy statement. His website is called, which says a lot about the themes he will be emphasizing.

Interestingly, I am unable to find much Purgason has said about social issues, which confirms that he is primarily attached to issues like the deficit and governmental spending. (To the extent that social issues will matter if he tries to challenge Blunt from the right, it’s worth noting that he has received roller-coaster-like ratings from Missouri’s Right to Life.) As is expected, Purgason relates his ideological credentials to his outsider credentials, positioning himself not just as a conservative but also as a Washington reformer:

I think that my own Party bears some blame for many of the things that are happening today. We have forgotten our values, what we stand for, and what made us a great nation.  In the past few years, the leaders we sent to Washington did not stand up for our values of smaller government and more freedoms but instead became part of the problem rather than the solution. As a result, we have become a Party without a true base and a vacancy in real leadership.

The target is not named, but Purgason is clearly contrasting himself with Roy Blunt. After all, the front-runner is no moderate himself, so it wouldn’t be easy for his challengers to run at his right without combining to their ideological positioning a hefty dose of anti-establishment rhetoric. This is also Sarah Steelman’s strategy, who just responded “Washington” a few days ago when asked to describe Blunt in one sentence. “The people do not trust us to be conservatives because we were anything but conservative when we were in the majority,” she had also said in comments Purgason echoed.

Based on this overview, it’s clear that Purgason has enough experience that he would be a credible contender, but he would start as the heavy underdog against a higher-profile Republican. And Blunt is far enough to the right that conservative groups are unlikely to want to defeat him if they aren’t genuinely excited by an alternative (as they are about Steelman).

In fact, Purgason’s candidacy will be great news for Blunt if Steelman joins the race. Given the similarities between the two challengers’ rhetoric and positioning, they would undoubtedly split the anti-Blunt vote, preventing either of them from building any momentum and all but guaranteeing Blunt the nomination.

So what will Steelman do? Since Monday, there has been some movement in her camp - unexpectedly so, given how little information has filtered about her intentions over the past 5 months. On Monday afternoon, The Hill reported that Steelman was no longer sounding committed to challenging Blunt and was considering running for Blunt’s open House seat instead. That would be quite a development indeed.

As evidence, the author quotes a number of Missouri sources that say that Steelman is laying none of the groundwork of a statewide bid, while others still argue that Steelman must know how difficult the Senate race would be. Steelman herself offered a quote. “I am always willing to fight for what I believe in, but I would certainly prefer to do it without further destruction to our party,” she said. The author interpreted this to mean she was thinking of not challenging Blunt - but Steelman quickly came out blasting that analysis in an e-mail exchange with another reporter:

I said I didn’t want to be destructive and immediately he thought I was saying I didn’t want to be in a primary because he assumed like all the insiders do, that all primaries are destructive… The Republican establishment wants to hold on to power at all costs and a primary would force the establishment to admit they made mistakes and take responsibility. Anyone who challenges those ideas threatens their power and they view it as destructive to the party… I do believe that the messenger in order to be credible cannot be a part of the Washington establishment who lead us into the minority.

All of this only serves to confirm how full of color and contrast a Steelman-Blunt primary would be. And so we wait to see whether it will occur or whether Blunt-Purgason could be a suitable replacement.

More GOP primaries: Steelman goes after Blunt, Rubio indicts Crist’s governance

For Crist, the dangers of a guerrilla-like primary

Whenever I write about Florida’s Republican primary, I feel the need to preface my comments with a warning that Charlie Crist is the overwhelming favorite to win the race and there is no guarantee that Marco Rubio can even make Crist break a sweat - let alone win the nomination.

Yet, there continue to be hints that the primary could put the Governor a delicate position. A few weeks ago, I pointed out that the involvement of high-profile Republicans (Mike Huckabee had just endorsed Rubio) could create trouble for Crist. Now, a new story serves as a reminder that an intra-party fight leads to headlines that can easily drive down the Governor’s popularity.

Last month, the state legislature passed a bill allowing community colleges to raise a student fee for transportation services. The legislation was approved by a large margin, but Crist vetoed the legislation last Wednesday. This type of news would certainly not be part of this blog’s beat if the bill’s main sponsor (state Senator Steve Oelrich) had not recently endorsed Rubio’s Senate bid.

Said Oelrich: “I sincerely hope the veto was not the product of political expediency or retribution.” He later added: “I’m certain the Governor’s Office would deny all that, but politics being what they are, it’s discouraging sometimes.” While Oelrich was also suggesting that Crist might have been motivated by his opposition to the SunRail commuter rail system, Rubio himself seized on the controversy. In a statement, his spokesperson expressed the campaign’s regret that Oelrich’s endorsement cost him passage of the bill.

There is obviously no way to know what Crist’s motivations were. Even if the veto was motivated by reasons unrelated to the bill’s content, it is not rare and arguably not that controversial for legislation to be sunk in the context of negotiations relating to other issues - in this case allegedly the SunRail commuter rail system. But the point I want to make is that the tensions of the primary (a rare context in which a politician gets ferociously attacked by members of his own party) should lead to the sort of headlines Crist is not accustomed to.

Indeed, this type of coverage is what Crist’s challengers need to generate. Polls testify to the fact Crist is seen as governing in a cleaner way than most politicians - more pragmatist, less partisan. Thus, Rubio and Meek are going to have to find a way to attack him not just on his ideology (too moderate, will say Rubio) but also on what is currently to be his strength: His reputation for good governance.

It won’t be easy to knock Crist off his pedestal, but don’t forget that he will have to go through more legislative sessions, fiscal crises and budgetary woes. More than a year of conservative guerrilla warfare could help make the Governor look like any other politician - petty, ambitious and politically vulnerable.

Without committing, Steelman continues to attack Blunt as insider

With Tom Schweich’s decision not to run in Missouri’s Senate race, all eyes turned to former Treasurer Sarah Steelman. Earlier this year, she had repeatedly suggested that she would challenge Rep. Roy Blunt for the GOP nomination, only to fall silence in recent weeks. Well, Schweich’s withdrawal looks to have spurred Steelman into action.

“Danforth says we need fresh face in DC then turns around and endorses Blunt…Funny the way it is……,” tweeted Steelman yesterday, in a reference to the former Republican Senator and Schweich’s protegee. She also granted an interview to the SEMO Times in order to blast Blunt. Asked for a word that describes the congressman, Steelman responded “Washington.” Clearly taking a stance in the Republicans’ ideological war, Steelman assessed that the GOP had to move to the right to regain its political footing. “The people do not trust us to be conservatives because we were anything but conservative when we were in the majority,” she said.

If she does run, Steelman’s continued willingness to portray the primary race in terms of such clear contrasts should worry Blunt. Not all primary races are fought along neat divides, which are often a recipe for long-lasting wounds. If Blunt survives Steelman’s challenge, he will only do so after months of nasty ads portray him as a quasi-corrupt old-school Washington insider.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether Steelman actually jumps in. At this point of the cycle, her saying that “if I can offer some of that new leadership, I would consider” doesn’t sound enthusiastic enough for us to consider her a likely candidate, though her determination to forcefully attack Blunt is enough of a hint that she is planning a race. The most likely situation is that Steelman wants to run but is trying to assess her chances at defying the establishment; Steelman lost the gubernatorial primary last year, and it’s hard to see her political career survive a second consecutive primary loss. Might she be better off waiting for another opportunity?

Republicans getting in, getting out

Reading the Castle tealeaves

Of all potential Senate candidates, Delaware Rep. Mike Castle could have the most consequential decision to make. If he stays out of the race, Democrats will be all but certain to keep Joe Biden’s former seat; if he jumps in, the race will be hotly contested with a slight edge to Republicans. (This cycle, the only other politician I can think of who had this much responsibility resting on her shoulders was Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas.)

At his age, how motivated could Castle be at the thought of a tough Senate race? Yet, how can he say no when countless prominent Republicans - including friends like John McCain - are showering him with attention, insisting that they would love to have him over at the upper chamber and pointing out that the GOP has fallen in a huge hole it cannot recover from without Castle’s assistance. (It’s interesting that the NRSC’s other best recruit, Charlie Crist, is also someone who would position himself at the left of the Republican conference.)

This week, Castle provided a clue as to his decision: He told the Republican leadership he was not interested in becoming ranking Republican on the Education and Labor Committee - a position that will open up through a game of musical chair once Rep. John McHugh leaves the Armed Forces Committee.

Combine this episode with Castle’s recent statement that he is less likely to seek re-election than the two alternatives (retire, run for Senate), and the DCCC can be relatively confident that Delaware’s House seat will be open. Sure, Castle said that we should not take his declining the position as a sign that he has decided not to run for another term. Yet, if he was really considering that option, the opportunity to become ranking Republican on this committee should have led him to sit down and make up his mind so as not to waste the offer.

In some ways, it could seem strange that Castle is choosing between running for Senate and retiring altogether rather than first deciding whether he wants to continue his career and then figuring out which office to seek. On the other hand, it makes sense that a former two-term Governor is tired enough of being one among 435 that he feels the time has come for him to leave the House. If anything, the realization that a politician with a smaller resume could become the state’s new Senator might increase his disinterest in staying in the lower chamber.

Schweich endorses Blunt

While Castle makes up his mind, another Republican just ruled out a Senate run in Missouri: A month after he signaled his interest by blasting fellow GOPer Roy Blunt as “unelectable,” former Ambassador Tom Schweich announced he was ready to endorse the congressman in the name of party unity.

Whether you think this development helps or hurts Republicans will depend on your opinion on Blunt’s electability. Yet, it’s not even clear whether Schweich’s exit improves Blunt’s hold on the GOP nomination since former Treasurer Sarah Steelman is also considering jumping in the race.

If Steelman unexpectedly does not run, Blunt will become the presumptive GOP nominee, sparing him the prospect of a ferocious, divisive and nasty showdown in a late primary. That would be a huge relief for the congressman and a boost to Republican prospects. If Steelman does run, however, there are two ways Schweich’s decision could play out:

  1. Since Blunt is the Republican front-runner, Schweich and her might have competed over the same pool of voters (those who are skeptical of Blunt’s service in the House, his insider status). As such, his exit could help Steelman federate anti-establishment forces and conservative activists.
  2. Alternatively, Schweich’s candidacy could have made it easier for Steelman to win: As a protege of former Senator John Danforth, he himself represents the Republican establishment - and its moderate wing at that. By taking votes on Blunt’s left, he could have made it easier for Steelman to clinch victory on the strength of conservative voters.

I find the latter scenario somewhat more convincing. “Another white guy in a suit” was Steelman’s February attack on Blunt; she could have used a similar populist tone against Schweich.

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