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Obama leads Palin big in North Carolina, but priority to downballot polls

Senate: Tight NH race, Burr (and Obama!) uptick in NC

New Hampshire and North Carolina are hosting 2 of the 6 most competitive Senate races of the cycle, and two new polls give us a clearer picture:

  • In New Hampshire, Research 2000 finds Republican Attorney General Kelly Ayotte ahead 39% to 38% against Democratic Rep. Paul Hodes. Against former Rep. Charlie Bass, Hodes leads 43% to 38%. Ayotte’s favorability rating (36-13) is higher than Bass’s (31-23) or Hodes’s (34-21).
  • In North Carolina, PPP has Richard Burr’s approval rating improve from a net negative to 36-29. Against former state Senator Cal Cunningham, he is ahead 40% to 31%; against attorney Kenneth Lewis, 42% to 31%.

NH: Given that the NRSC was afraid it could fail to recruit any credible candidate, it is remarkable that they found a contender that has led the first two surveys she was included in. (Research 2000’s results are very similar to those of UNH, which found Ayotte leading Hodes 39% to 35%). However - and this is very important - Ayotte has yet to prove that she can appeal beyond the GOP’s shrinking base: In 2008, John McCain and John Sununu failed to extricate themselves out of the low 40s, and I’ll reserve judgment on Ayotte’s strength until she can finally break that barrier.

NC: We have known that the DSCC missed its clearest shot at the seat ever since Roy Cooper announced he would not run. The question now is whether other Democrats can beat Burr, and the bottom line is that the incumbent is well under 50% and that he leads by double-digits when matched-up with a former state legislator with low name recognition - a sign of vulnerability. On the other hand, it will not be easy for Democrats to oust Burr, whose approval rating is positive: Not every second-tier candidate can turn out to be as successful as Kay Hagan.

At least, Democrats don’t have to worry that the state’s 2008 results were just an anomaly: PPP also tested a potential 2012 match-up between Obama and Palin and found the president ahead 49% to 42%. In 2008, only once did Obama lead McCain by as large a margin. Take that as much as a sign of North Carolina’s leftward trend as of Palin’s glaring 2012 weakness.

Primaries: They might be favored by CW, but Hutchison and Gillibrand trail again

Rasmussen released polls of two of the country’s most contested primaries:

  • In New York, Rep. Carolyn Maloney leads Senator Kirsten Gillibrand 33% to 27% in the senatorial primary. (The poll also tested the state’s gubernatorial primary, which confirmed Andrew Cuomo’s huge lead over David Paterson, 61% to 27%).
  • In Texas, Governor Rick Perry leads Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison 46% to 36% in the gubernatorial primary.

This marks the 4th straight survey that has Maloney ahead, this 6% lead being the largest yet. Given that conventional wisdom generally holds Gillibrand favored, this is an important trend. Particularly welcome news for Maloney is that her lead is not due to name recognition: Voters know Gillibrand better than they know her, suggesting that the Senator will not gain simply by introducing herself (something we also noticed in the recent Marist survey).

The poll also contains good news for Gillibrand: Her favorability rating, which stands at 49-25, is solid and stronger than Maloney’s (42-24) so it’s not that Democrats dislike their newest Senator. Both Maloney and Gillibrand’s ratings pale in comparison to Andrew Cuomo’s, which stands at a massive 78-15. How can Paterson (and his 49-50 rating) beat that?

Hutchison’s allies were quick to dismiss last week’s University of Texas poll showing the Senator trailing Rick Perry in the GOP’s gubernatorial primary, 38% to 26%; yet, Rasmussen now finds a similar margin. Since we once thought Hutchison would easily win this race, her inability to break out of such low levels must be distressing to her campaign - and it leads to an obvious question: It was long certain that she would resign from her Senate seat before Election Day, but will she really do so now that her primary prospects look no better than even?

2009 races: GOP retains advantage

Two new polls of Virginia and New Jersey’s gubernatorial elections show Republicans ahead in both states:

  • In Virginia, Bill McDonnell is ahead 44% to 41% in a Rasmussen survey; in the poll taken immediately following Creigh Deeds’s primary victory, the Democrat was ahead 47% to 41%.
  • In New Jersey, Jon Corzine trails 45% t0 37% in a Monmouth University poll, with independent Chris Daggett drawing 4%; Monmouth’s previous poll was taken in April, so the trendline isn’t that relevant (Corzine trailed 39% to 35%).

Any poll that has Christie under 50% comes as a relief to Corzine’s campaign, especially after Quinnipiac’s newest delivery; yet, it’s now been months that Corzine has shown no upward momentum. In Virginia, Rasmussen joins other pollsters in finding that Deeds’s post-primary bonce has faded (Rasmussen’s June poll marked Deeds’s first general election lead ever). This is not surprising. What’s truly important is that he remains competitive rather than fall back to the big deficits he was facing until his primary victory - and he appears to be succeeding in that.

Thanks to Democrat John Lynch, GOP finally gets a Senate candidate in New Hampshire

That sound you just heard is the GOP’s massive sigh of relief. Faced with the dreadful prospect of finding no credible candidate to field in New Hampshire’s Senate race, the party landed as strong a candidate as it could have hoped for today: Kelly Ayotte announced that she would resign from her position as Attorney General to explore a Senate bid.

This is not to say that Ayotte is a formidable contender, and she will join the contest with significant liabilities. But the GOP would have been in a bad spot had she declined: They would have been left fielding a second to third-tier candidate like businessmen Rich Ashooh and Fred Tausch. As such, Ayotte’s quasi-entrance denies the DSCC a chance at an effortless pick-up and it ensures a competitive race in a state that is no Democratic stronghold. After all, Ayotte did lead probable Democratic nominee Paul Hodes by 4% in a UNH poll released last week, performing better than former Senator John Sununu.

Ayotte’s clearest drawback is that she has never been elected to any office. The Attorney General position is an appointed position, so despite the fact that she has occupied a statewide position since 2004 the Senate race will mark the first time Ayotte will face voters. There is no telling how she will perform on the trail, whether she’ll be able to connect with voters and whether she’ll have the constant discipline politicians need in the YouTube age.

And she’ll sure have to run an impeccable campaign: New Hampshire will be no easy state for Republicans to defend. The state’s leftward drift predates the past two cycles cycles as the Granite State is the only state to have gone from Bush in 2000 to Kerry in 2004; that same year, voters ousted their GOP Governor. In 2006 and in 2008, Republicans lost a Senate seat, the state’s two House seats and both chambers of the legislature - not to mention granting Obama a 9% victory.

Can they possibly rebound in 2010 or have the state’s independents durably deserted the GOP? More specifically: Can Ayotte break out of the low 40s range that has plagued Republicans over the past few cycles? Sununu got more than 45% in only two polls throughout the entirety of 2008 - and recent polls once again found him hovering around 40%; McCain also received 45%. And the UNH survey that found Ayotte ahead showed ahead at 39%. Can she claim back enough voters to reach a majority? Can she appeal beyond the party’s narrowing base?

Ayotte is probably better placed than most Republicans to reclaim those voters who have abandoned her party. Her strongest asset is the fact that she has been appointed to her current post by Governors of both parties: After Republican Governor Benson nominated her in 2004, she was kept to her post by John Lynch in 2008. Even though Lynch will support Hodes, Ayotte will be able to point to the fact that a Democratic Governor trusted her to work by his side - the type of nonpartisan credential that could seduce moderate Republicans and independents.

It will not be easy for her to maintain her nonpartisan image as the Republican nominee in such a high-profile race that should draw millions from the national parties. One issue Democrats can use is abortion: New Hampshire independents are no social conservatives, so Ayotte’s prominent role in taking an abortion case all the way to the Supreme Court over Lynch’s objections could be revisited over the next year.

On the other hand, I am skeptical that another issue on which Democrats are now going on the offensive will resonate much. Lynch is now claiming that Ayotte had promised him that she would finish a second term when they discussed the matter in 2008, but that’s unlikely to resonate beyond the blogosphere: Politicians routinely break such promises and face no consequence, and Ayotte had not even made a public statement.

Perhaps Democrats can use her resignation to label her a Palin-like quitter? I am unclear as to whether Ayotte had to resign to run or whether she is doing so to mark her distances from Lynch’s Democratic administration, but it could help Hodes damage her image as being the above the political fray.

That image, of course, is due less to anything Ayotte has done than to Lynch reappointing her. As such, the Governor bears huge responsibility in the good news the GOP received today and I do hope this finally gets him to reflect on the ridiculous extents to which he has taken his displays of bipartisanship. Remember that, earlier this year, he was set to appoint a Republican replacement for Judd Gregg! That did not come to pass but a Republican appointment to another post is now proving to be the NRSC’s salvation: Had Lynch appointed a Democratic Attorney General, it would have been tougher for Ayotte to mount a run.

Republicans smiling: Ayotte, Crist, McCollum and Christie all ahead in new polls

First look at Ayotte shows promise, but she’s also stuck in high 30s-low 40s range

John Sununu’s withdrawal from the New Hampshire Senate race made it all the more unclear who would emerge as the Republican nominee. That Kelly Ayotte would be the GOP’s best chance at defending Judd Gregg’s seat has become conventional wisdom, but the lack of any data on how voters view their unelected Attorney General made it difficult to figure out how strong she actually could be.

Well, we finally get to take our first look at Ayotte’s strength. The University of New Hampshire poll, conducted before Sununu’s announcement, included Ayotte and finds that she is the only Republican with a lead over probable Democratic nominee Rep. Paul Hodes:

  • She is ahead 39% to 35%. By contrast, Hodes leads 43% to 41% against Sununu, 40% to 38% against former Rep. Charlie Bass and 45% to 25% against businessman Fred Tausch.
  • Ayotte and Hodes have comparable levels of name recognition, but the Republican has a far stronger favorability rating: 47-7 compared to 32-23 for Hodes.

This poll demonstrates that Ayotte would come in the race with great potential. That she performs significantly better than two Republicans who long held federal office is a sign that she might not be encumbered by the party stain that could sink Sununu and Bass’s chances. On the other hand, Ayotte’s image is bound to change if she jumps in the race: While she was first appointed by a Republican, Democratic Governor John Lynch retained her services which helps her enjoy a nonpartisan image that would be hard to maintain as a party’s nominee in such a high-profile race.

Furthermore, what I find fascinating is that Ayotte receives less support than Sununu and only 1% more than Bass; it’s Hodes who is much weaker in a match-up against the Attorney General. As such, this poll does not resolve the most important question facing New Hampshire Republicans: Can they break out of the low 40s? Sununu was stuck in that range through more than 50 polls last year, and this poll offers the GOP no reassurance that Ayotte would be in any position to appeal beyond the party’s narrowing base.

In a related note, Hodes was one of the first Senate candidates nationwide to come public with his second quarter fundraising numbers: He announced having raised $750,000 over the past three months, bringing his 2009 total to over $1 million. That’s just a reminder that Hodes has been enjoying a good head start in raising money, hiring staff and mounting a campaign infrastructure. This is certainly not enough to guarantee him victory, but Republicans might want to recruit a candidate sooner rather than later - especially if that contender isn’t a well-known figure.

Mason Dixon revisits Florida, confirms GOP edge

In May, Mason Dixon gave us the first post-Crist poll. They are now out with a new survey that shows that Charlie Crist remains far ahead while Bill McCollum keeps a slight edge:

  • In the Governor’s race, probable Democratic nominee Alex Sink trails McCollum 41% to 35% (the same margin as in May); in the unlikely case she were to face state Senator Paula Dockery, she is ahead 43% to 18%.
  • In the Senate race, Charlie Crist crushes both Republican Marco Rubio (51% to 23%) and Democrat Kendrick Meek (48% to 26%).
  • You can add to Mason Dixon’s Republican primary numbers a poll conducted for the Club for Growth, which finds Crist ahead of Rubio 51% to 21%.

The gubernatorial race is still marked by a large name recognition difference: 13% do not recognize McCollum, while 39% do not recognize Sink. This is not to say that Sink will necessarily gain an edge as she introduces herself to all voters, only that she’ll have McCollum’s small leads can be accounted to his superior notoriety and it will hard to read much into these polls until the notoriety gap closes. Two troubling signs for Sink, however, are that there are more Republicans who are undecided (25%) than there are Democrats (18%) and that McCollum gets a decent share of the Democratic vote.

As for the Senate race, there isn’t much else for Crist’s opponents to hold on than the fact that he has not quite cleared the 50% threshold, which at least makes it possible that Rubio or Meek could get in a more competitive position if they run a perfect campaign. For one thing, Rubio will need as much support as he can get to ensure that he remains relevant even if polls continue to show him trailing by such massive margins; South Carolina Senator John DeMint’s recent statement that prominent conservatives were preparing to back Rubio is a sign that things could still get interesting.

Christie might be under 50%, but Corzine is still under 40%

Let’s not call this new Farleigh Dickinson poll good news for Jon Corzine, but it’s nonetheless as encouraging a survey as he’s gotten: He trails Chris Christie 45% to 39%, which is the smallest deficit Corzine has faced since April and the first time since Christie secured the Republican nomination that a poll finds him under 50%. The good news stops there, and the fact Corzine has been reduced to celebrating a 6% margin says as much about the hole he is in as it does about any uptick to his chances of survivals.

A challenger crossing 50% is such a show of force that it’s hard to read much into it not occurring; far more significant is the fact that Corzine is still below 40%. The rest of the poll also finds truly dismal numbers for the Governor. His favorability rating stands at 31-54, while Christie’s is a solid 37-25. Perhaps worst is the fact that independents detest Corzine almost as much as Republicans do: It might be easy to overcome a 13-77 rating among GOP voters, but a 17-64 rating among independents? How can that be overcome? After all, it’s not like Democrats are enamored with Corzine either: Christie receives 20% of Democratic support.

Sununu will not attempt comeback

Crushed in his 2008 re-election bid, former Senator John Sununu will not run for New Hampshire’s open seat in 2010. Earlier today, he told The Associated Press that he was concentrating on new activities he had picked up over the past few months, including his membership on a panel overseeing the financial bailout.

While Democrats look to have settled on Rep. Paul Hodes as their nominee, it has never looked clear who might represent the GOP. Sununu’s withdrawal goes a long way towards clearing up the state of play. By far the most Republican to consider the race, the former Senator had the right of first refusal.

That does not mean that his decision is a blow to the GOP, however; it’s rather a mixed blessing, full of both danger and potential. The short version: Sununu would have guaranteed his party 40% of the vote, but he might have had trouble reaching 50%. His withdrawal allows Republicans to dream of a higher ceiling but it also threatens to send them falling through the floor, unable to mount a credible defense for Judd Gregg’s seat.

On the one hand, then, Sununu would have been a deeply flawed contender: New Hampshire voters know him well and a majority has decided that they don’t want him. He was never in a position to win last year’s race as an incumbent, which raises obvious questions as to his electability, and he would have forced Republicans to revisit the dreadful 2008 cycle.

As such, Sununu’s exit could allow Republicans to nominate a fresher politician, unencumbered by Bush’s legacy. Yes, that means someone with lower initial support, but also someone whose reputation has not yet hardened and who would thus have more room to grow. All eyes now turn towards Attorney General Kelly Ayotte and towards former Rep. Charlie Bass, albeit to a lesser extent.

On the other hand, a Sununu candidacy would have guaranteed the NRSC a prominent candidate who would be sure to fundraise well and keep the party in the running. Now, the GOP is still left with no candidate and the possibility remains that they won’t be able to field a credible contender against Hodes. Ayotte was considered unlikely to run until a few months ago and Bass is also considering seeking his old House seat, which has now been left open by Hodes. If both of them pass, the NRSC could be forced to deal with third-tier candidates like businessman Fred Tausch and the party’s 1996 gubernatorial nominee, Ovide Lamontagne.

Even if Ayotte or Bass jump in, nothing guarantees that they would make the race worth following. Bass was last seen losing his re-election race in 2006, and he will also have to find a way to distance himself from his role in the Bush years: New Hampshire voters might be open to Republicans, but they clearly want a new start for the GOP. Ayotte would make a more intriguing contender, but she has never held elected office - nor ran any campaign. (Attorney Generals are appointed by the Governor.) How would she fare on the trail? would she have the funds to introduce herself early enough to avoid Democrats doing so first? how would she connect to voters?

In new polls, GOP leads 3 out of 4 Northeastern races

In 2006 and 2008, the GOP was routed throughout the Northeast, losing numerous governorships and congressional seats. It remains to be seen whether Republicans can make up any ground at the federal level - Democrats are narrowly favored to pick-up a second Senate seat from New Hampshire - but they are well-positioned to capture some gubernatorial mansions.

Hodes has an edge in New Hampshire

John Sununu is expected to announce his 2010 plans shortly - perhaps in the coming days - but a new ARG poll confirms that he’ll be no savior for New Hampshire Republicans: 8 months after losing his re-election bid by 7%, he is trailing by almost as much in a new American Research Group poll. The survey finds probable Democratic nominee Paul Hodes ahead 40% to 34% - the same margin the pollster had found in March.

More interesting than the Democrat’s advantage is the fact that Sununu is stuck at 34% - a dismal showing for a man who was a U.S. Senator just 6 months ago. Combined with the fact that Sununu is better known than Hodes and that he was already stuck in the low 40s through the 50 polls released in the 2008 cycle, this sure raises questions about his electability: Is it conceivable that a majority of New Hampshire residents would suddenly decide to back a man they have knowingly shunned for years?

Sununu is one of the only options that New Hampshire Republicans have available. As such, it’s tough to say that it would be good news for the GOP if Sununu were to pass on the race. Yet, while Sununu would start at a higher level, he also looks to have a low ceiling and fielding him might condemn Republicans to relive 2008 rather than attempt to start anew.

Et tu, Massachusetts?

Over the past six months, two polls had found brutal numbers for Governor Deval Patrick. A March survey had him narrowly trailing the state Treasurer in a hypothetical Democratic primary, and an April survey found that Massachusetts voters were so dissatisfied with Patrick that they were nostalgic for the days of Mitt Romney. But neither poll tested any general election match-ups.

Well, Rasmussen just went there and found very worrisome numbers for Patrick’s re-election prospects. Not only is the incumbent stuck well below 50% against two businessman, but he is even narrowly trailing one of them. Christy Mihos, who garnered 7% as an independent candidate back in 2007, has a 41-40 edge; Charlie Baker trails 41% to 36%. Interestingly, both Republicans enjoy higher name recognition than you might suspect (especially Mihos, with just 18% who don’t have an opinion about him).

This race will largely be a referendum about Patrick and his leadership. Just as in New York and New Jersey, the Governor’s unpopularity will make it hard for Democrats to cast the spotlight on the opposition - and it’s not like Massachusetts has shied away from electing Republicans in the past. More than his state’s blue roots, Patrick’s saving grace was expected to be the weakness of the Republican bench but if even Mihos manages to start with a strong favorability rating and a 1% edge, this contest could certainly be tougher than expected for Democrats. Former Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey is also mentioned as a contender, and she could make an even stronger challenger.

Governor closes gap with Giuliani by 9%, still trails by 17%

David Paterson was hoping that his confrontational stance with New York’s state Senate would help his poll numbers and the latest Marist poll, just like the latest Quinnipiac poll, has found the slightest of bumps. While Paterson’s approval rating is stuck at a dismal 22% and his match-ups results remain pathetic, they are at least inching upwards: He is crushed 69% to 24% by Andrew Cuomo (70-21 in May), 54% to 37% by Rudy Giuliani (56% to 32% in May) and he actually has seized a 41% to 40% edge against Rick Lazio (he trailed by 3% in May). Cuomo leads both Republicans, 68-22 against Lazio and 51-33 against Giuliani.

It’s telling that Paterson can cut his deficit against Giuliani by 9% and still look to be in a huge hole - down 17% as an incumbent is a sure sign of defeat. On the other hand, hi general election results are back in the realm of what we election watchers can deal with rationally - and that’s saying a lot considering the depths of unpopularity Paterson hit in the spring. Dare we stay that Democrats would have a glimmer of hope even if they ended up with Paterson as their nominee?

Of course, for that to happen would require the Attorney General to surprise us and not jump in the Democratic primary, as Cuomo looks all but certain to defeat Paterson if he runs. As for Lazio, he should not be dismissed on the basis of these numbers. Yes, he is blown out of the water by Cuomo but that’s not a contest any Republican should have much hope of winning. Given that Lazio has been out of the public eye for nearly a decade, tying the incumbent Governor - and performing only 16% worse than the formidable Giuliani - isn’t that bad a sign.

Christie stays above 50%

The two most recent New Jersey polls confirm that the situation is critical for Governor Jon Corzine. The first is a Strategic Vision poll that shows Corzine posting a dismal 34% approval rating and trailing Chris Christie by a 51% to 39% margin. The second is a PPP survey that has Christie up 51% to 41%, including a brutal 60-26 lead among independents. These are the third and fourth consecutive poll that finds Christie at or above the 50% mark. What more needs to be said?

The situation gets worse for the Governor when you consider that Christie achieves majority support despite receiving only 16% support from Democrats so it’s not like Corzine is underperforming among his base. We shall now see whether coverage of Christie’s appearance in front of a House committee charged with investigating potential prosecutorial abuses will have any impact on the race.

For national parties, it’s time to increase the pressure

As the landscape of the 2010 elections is starting to take shape, both parties are starting to increase the pressure on prominent politicians to conform to their wishes. The highest-profile examples of this dynamic are taking place in Kentucky, where the NRSC has just about finished cornering Jim Bunning, and in Pennsylvania, where the Democratic establishment is trying to ensure Arlen Specter a clean path to his new party’s nomination. But similar dynamics are occurring elsewhere.

Oklahoma: The DSCC turns its attention to Brad Henry

The NRSC got Charlie Crist to consider running for Senate when no one was expecting him to entertain the thought, so why should the DSCC not try to convince a reluctant Governor of its own? Oklahoma’s Brad Henry has made it clear that he is not interested in serving for Congress, suggesting that he is more comfortable in an executive position. Yet, the popular Governor would be the Democrats’ best hope to pick-up this seat if Senator Tom Coburn retires, as he has himself suggested he might do.

Well, the DSCC has reportedly been talking to Henry to convince him that life in the Senate might be worth the move. It is hard to see Henry run if Coburn does not retire, but his entry in an open race would be a huge recruitment coup for the DSCC - so huge that Democratic officials are sure to keep pressing until Henry issues a Shermanesque statement.

New Hampshire: Does Judd Gregg ever stick to a decision?

It is no secret Republicans have been trying to convince New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg to reconsider his decision to retire, but the stakes are getting higher and the NRSC must be getting more desperate by the day as no one looks willing to seek the party’s nomination.

While Gregg did not suggest that he is willing to consider seeking another term, a recent CQ article has raised some eyebrows. “It’s coming from different people, including some in the leadership. They’ve got nothing else to say. It’s like saying, ‘Good morning.’ They don’t want me to retire,” Gregg told to CQ. The article goes on to say that the Senator “will continue to listen to the entreaties” before getting Gregg to offer comments that sound less definite than his previous statements: “I’m settled in. I’m comfortable with where I am.”

A recent UNH survey found that Gregg would crush Paul Hodes by 16%, so his re-entry would be quite a relief for the NRSC. Yet, is there a point at which a politician changes his plans so often as to ridicule himself?

Illinois: Will the establishment abandon Giannoulias to rally around a Kennedy?

For a while, it looked like Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias would be the Democratic establishment’s candidate in the Illinois Senate race, creating tough circumstances for Rep. Jan Schakowsky and Senator Roland Burris. But the news that Chris Kennedy (son of Robert and head of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc.) is considering running looks to have altered the race: Rahm Emanuel has reportedly been saying that Kennedy, who The Sun-Times reports is likely to run, would be the most electable Democratic candidate.

The Kennedy fetish has gotten out-of-hand over the past few months. I understand that Ted Kennedy has decided that there should be a Kennedy in the Senate to prepare his succession, but that is not reason enough for Democrats to fall on themselves to rally around any politically inexperienced Kennedy who wants to run.

While heading the Merchandise Mart Properties is no small position, it does not give one policy positions - let alone campaign skills - and I can’t help but notice that Kennedy was first hired when the Mart was owned by his family. Furthermore, there is absolutely no evidence for the contention that Chris Kennedy would be the Democrats’ strongest candidate. The same argument was made about Caroline Kennedy in New York, and she turned out to be an unmitigated disaster with few campaign skills, an entitlement complex and quickly collapsing poll numbers.

On the other hand, recruiting Chris Kennedy makes perfect sense: Roland Burris is the only African-American Senator, so the symbol of replacing him with a member of the disenfranchised Kennedy family would be a sure political winner.

New York: A one-man operation to save Kirsten Gillibrand

In the first few weeks of Kirsten Gillibrand’s senatorial tenure, Chuck Schumer chose not to get too close to the David Paterson’s controversial appointee even though she was long seen as a Schumer protegee. Yet, it looks like Schumer is now comfortable enough that Gillibrand will not drive him down that he is erecting himself as her mentor and mounting a one-man operation to get Gillibrand through the Democratic primary.

A much-discussed New York Times article on the Schumer-Gillibrand relationship revealed that the senior Senator is helping his new colleague collect the support of the Democratic establishment. And Schumer is powerful enough that New York’s Democratic donors will think it over it twice before contributing to a Gillibrand challenger. Schumer is going so far as to promise “There is not going to be a primary!”

Yet, it is looking doubtful that Schumer’s clout will be enough to keep prominent Democrats out of the race. For one, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy might be saying she is pleased at the Senator’s evolution on gun control issues but she still sounds determined to run if a “younger” Democrat does not. Second, it is looking increasingly probable that Rep. Carolyn Maloney (who would arguably be a stronger candidate) will jump in the race. As I wrote last month, her hiring moves suggest she is preparing for a statewide race; now, Crain’s reports that Maloney is telling labor leaders that she will run.

Impressive numbers for Republicans in new Senate polls

In recent days, there has been some debate in the comments section about the 2010 Senate landscape: Are Democrats still likely to net seats, or are Republicans now poised for gains? While I am weary of supporting the latter argument, I do think that the GOP’s Senate prospects have significantly brightened and that the possibility of Republicans picking-up seats no longer looks far-fetched.

Since the beginning of the year, the GOP’s has improved its positions in a number of races on its defense list - none more so than Kansas (though that was outside of any Republican’s control). And while Nevada has largely fallen off the radar screen, it is starting to look like the NRSC will be able to put a number of Democratic seats in play. A detailed post is in order - as well as updated Senate rankings - but for now, look no further than 4 new polls from 3 states for evidence that Democrats have reason to worry.

Stop the presses: A New Hampshire poll has Sununu in the lead!

The University of New Hampshire has released a new “Granite Poll” - a reputed state survey. Its last poll before the 2008 election had Jeanne Shaheen leading then-Senator John Sununu by 6% - she won by 7% - but the new survey finds reason for Republicans to smile: If he decides to run in the 2010 Senate race, Sununu would start in the lead against Democratic Paul Hodes, 46% to 41%.

This is quite a finding: In the past cycle, more than 50 polls were released of the New Hampshire Senate race; only two had then-Senator John Sununu ahead. (The first was released in December 2007, the second in September 2008; both were clearly outliers that were immediately contradicted by the same pollster’s subsequent poll.) And only three had him at 46% or higher - the level of support he receives in this UNH survey.

Sure, Hodes is no Shaheen - but Sununu is also no longer an incumbent and an ARG poll conducted in late March found Hodes ahead by 6%. In short, these new numbers are undoubtedly encouraging for him, especially when combined with his good favorability rating (47/36). On the other hand, Hodes is also liked by voters who know him (34/22) but he has far lesser name recognition; that also means he has more room to grow.

In short, Sununu has obvious flaws - but it would be a huge relief for the GOP to recruit him: He would keep the race in play and it’s not like Republicans have many other candidates to field. (Interestingly, UNH also tested a match-up between retiring Senator Gregg and Hodes; the incumbent crushes Hodes 52% to 36%.)

Delaware: Castle crushes Biden

Susquehanna Polling and Research has released a poll showing Republican Rep. Mike Castle crushing Beau Biden by a stunning 21%, 55% to 34%; he gets 36% of Democrats and holds Biden at 28% among independents.

An important note of caution: Susquehanna is a Republican firm that has released dubious surveys in the past - and that should certainly lead us to take the magnitude of Castle’s lead with a grain of salt. Yet, the basic result is consistent with what Public Policy Polling found earlier this spring: If he runs for Senate, Castle would start with the lead against Attorney General Beau Biden. (PPP had him ahead by 8%.)

The bad news for the GOP is that they have no one to turn to if Castle declines a run; the bad news for Democrats is that Castle has said it is more likely he runs for Senate than for re-election and there is now no doubt that he would be a formidable opponent for the DSCC.

In a way, it’s strange that we are even doubting that he would be a strong contender. He has served as Governor from 1985 to 1993 and he has been the state’s sole representative since then. On the other hand, it’s worth wondering whether these numbers are partly derived from Biden’s weakness as well; sure, he has built himself a political career of his own but are voters uncomfortable with the blatant nepotism of outgoing Governor Ruth appointing a placeholder for no other reason than to keep the seat available for Biden in 2010?

Pennsylvania: Ridge leads Specter, Specter leads Sestak

Two new surveys were released today confirming what I have been saying for the past week: The odds that the GOP wins the Pennsylvania Senate seat have gone up significantly since Arlen Specter’s party switch. The NRSC can now hope to run a very electable candidate like former Governor Tom Ridge, who leads Specter in both polls:

  • POS also tested the primaries: Ridge crushes Toomey 60% to 23% and Specter crushes Sestak 57% to 20%.

An important note of caution: Both surveys were released by Republican firms. (In fact, the former was commissioned by a RNC committeeman, the latter by a “pro-business” PAC.) Yet, Quinnipiac’s new poll also found Specter vulnerable (he was up by 3% against Ridge) and also found Ridge very popular among Republicans. The main difference between these surveys and Quinnipiac’s is the Specter-Toomey match-up (Q-Pac had the incumbent leading by 20%).

As for the numbers in the Democratic primary, Sestak has very low name recognition in that POS poll: only 18% of voters statewide have an opinion of him, versus 90% for Specter. That is partly responsible for keeping Sestak’s numbers down; on the other hand, it is certainly a mark of strength for Specter to cross the 50% threshold.

We shall know more when Research 2000 released its poll on Thursday. It will hopefully test Joe Sestak in the general election so we can see how much of Ridge’s leads are due to his strength and how much with the fact that Democratic-leaning voters are not interested in supporting Specter. For now, the one-sentence lesson out of these Pennsylvania polls is that Ridge would be a very strong candidate for the GOP and Specter a disaster for Democrats.

GOP gets two credible recruits in Ohio, New Hampshire

After scoring a triumphant victory in 2006, Ohio Governor Ted Strickland was not believed to be vulnerable in 2010. Unfortunately for Democrats, the dire economic conditions endanger any incumbent Governor - especially in the Midwest - and Strickland is no exception. While his poll numbers remain strong, a March survey found a majority of respondents disapproving of his handling of the economy.

Strickland now has a challenger: Former Rep. John Kasich, who was long believed to be planning a gubernatorial run, effectively jumped in the race today by filing paperwork to start raising money for a bid. The former Chairman of the House Budget Committee, Kasich served in the House for 18 years and he is well-known to conservatives nationwide as a guest host on Fox News’s O’Reilly Show.

An official announcement might not come for a few more months, but this move should be enough to dissuade other Republicans (including former Senator Mike DeWine) from getting near the race. That means that Ohio Republicans are close to finalizing their 2006 line-up: former Rep. Rob Portman for Senate and former Rep. John Kasish for Governor.

While Portman’s main vulnerability is his service under Bush, Kasich has been out of elected office since 2000. That does not mean that he should expect to escape from the GOP’s tainted reputation. Over the past decade, he remained active in Republican politics and his staunch fiscal conservatism puts him in line with the GOP’s current ideological line; combined with his role as a guest host on Fox News, that should help Democrats paint him as too far to the right.

Kasich’s biggest liability might very well be the fact that he spent six years as a managing director of Lehman Brothers’ investment banking division. That is not the type of role that Americans have come to appreciate, and it connects Kasich directly to the economic crisis in a way that Democrats will be delighted to exploit. How can Kasich expect to go after Strickland’s handling of the economy with Lehman Brothers on his resume?

The short take: Whether this race is competitive is largely beyond Kasich’s control. If the economic crisis damages Strickland’s approval rating and if the political environment significantly shifts against Democrats by the fall of 2010, Kasich would be a credible challenger. Otherwise, Strickland will be favored to win a second-term and the state GOP will focus most of its attention on the open Senate race.

After two painful losses against Carol Shea-Porter in NH-01, Republicans believe they can reclaim the district in 2010 by running Manchester Mayor Frank Guinta, who filed paperwork today to set up a run.

There is no doubt that Guinta would be a strong candidate. For one, he is the Mayor of New Hampshire’s biggest city - and mayors are often well-positioned to run for higher office. Second, he first won in 2005 by defeating a three-term Democratic incumbent, a victory that was viewed as a major upset and that suggests strong political skills and an ability to win over Democratic-leaning voters; after all, the political environment was already getting toxic for the GOP in 2005. Third, NH-01 is a swing district that voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and in 2004.

Earlier this week, a GOP-sponsored poll found Shea-Porter leading Guinta 43% to 34% - a good margin for the Democrat (especially in an internal Republican poll) but also a clear sign of vulnerability since she is under the 50% threshold.

On the other hand, Rep. Carol Shea-Porter is regularly underestimated - and the GOP should be careful not to do so for the third cycle in a row. Sure, her past victories occurred in pro-Democratic cycles; but when combined with her unexpected win in the 2006 primary, they also suggest that Shea-Porter has strong campaign skills and that she can mobilize the Democratic grassroots. Now, she can take comfort in the fact that she represents a district that gave Barack Obama a clear majority.

Guinta’s move has consequences beyond the House race: While the Mayor was known to be eying a challenge to Shea-Porter, his name was also mentioned as a possible candidate in the state’s open Senate race. Today’s decision takes him off the list of potential statewide contenders, however, and leaves the GOP with an ever shrinking list.

It is interesting that Guinta is choosing to run against an incumbent representative rather than run for for an open Senate race. Is that more telling of the GOP’s low confidence that it can contest the Senate race, of its overconfidence that it can beat Shea-Porter or of Guinta’s insider knowledge that former Senator John Sununu is planning on running for Senate? Republicans better hope it is the latter. (Sununu is generally viewed as unlikely to run, but he now looks like he is trying to stay in the public eye, which somewhat contradicts the conventional wisdom.)

William Daley, Jeb Bradley out of Senate races

The past few days have brought a lot of recruitment news. In particular, 2 relatively prominent candidates can be taken off the list of potential Senate candidates.

William Daley exits Illinois race

Two months after word spread that former Commerce Secretary William Daley was preparing to jump in the Illinois Senate race, the brother of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley unexpectedly ruled out such run. “I was gung-ho and hired pollsters and talked to fundraisers and planned to make an announcement in mid-April,” he explained in an interview with The Chicago Sun-Times. “But I’m getting remarried in June and decided I want to take a new tack in my life. I just don’t want to live a commuter life back and forth from Washington.”

Daley’s political connections would have made him a formidable candidate. He would have received the full backing of the powerful Chicago machine (the Daleys’ hold on the city’s politics goes back decades) and he would have surely been a prodigious fundraiser. On the other hand, he could have been hurt by the ethical question that often surround the Daleys, one of the country’s legendary political families; he would certainly have trouble running as a reformer. In the current post-Blagojevich context, that could provide an opening to primary opponents and to Republicans.

Daley’s exit leaves Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias as the state’s only declared Senate candidate, and that considerably lowers Roland Burris’s hopes of winning another term. Only if the Democratic field is fractured could Burris hope to win the nomination with a small plurality of the vote - and a showdown between Daley and Giannoulias was his clearest hope for such a scenario to unfold.

Two other Democrats who could be hurt by Daley’s decision are Rep. Jan Schalowsky and Rep. Danny Davis. Both would have been well served if Giannoulias and Daley - two white men - split the support of the state’s donors and of the Democratic establishment. Schalowsky would have had an opening to claim the nomination based on the support of liberal voters and of labor groups - not to mention that she is the only woman to seriously be looking at a race. Davis could federate the African-American vote and win the nomination in a crowded field. With Daley out of the picture and Giannoulias raising big money, Schalowsky and Davis would be stuck running against the establishment’s sole candidate - and no U.S. representative wants to be in that position.

New Hampshire Republicans still candidate-less

Jeb Bradley has achieved a political comeback: After losing his House seat to Carol Shea-Porter in 2006 and failing to regain it in 2008, Bradley jumped in a special election to a GOP-held state Senate seat - and he won by a comfortable margin this week. Bizarrely, state GOP Chairman John H. Sununu (the father of John Sununu, who lost the 2008 Senate race) refused to spin the results into good news for the party: “It is a big win, but we recognize that this is a good Republican seat, and we’re replacing a Republican who resigned,” he said. “We’re not silly enough to make it more than that.”

Bradley’s spokesperson said that he would not seek to change office again in 2010. And that makes sense: Bradley has to seek a full term in November 2010 (and then again every two years), so he would have to give up his new position to run for Senate. Why would he take such a risk now that he has managed to get himself back in politics?

All eyes are still on former Senator John Sununu, former Rep. Charlie Bass and former Governor Steve Merrill. (Note: The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza writes that John Sununu has ruled out a Senate bid in his latest look at the 2010 Senate field. I am unable to find any such information anywhere else. It is of course possible that Cillizza has sources that have told him this, but the information is not written as a breaking news or as original reporting - which leads me to believe that it is a mistake.)

Dems hold slight edge in Missouri and New Hampshire Senate races

In 2006 and in 2008, a number of GOP-held Senate seats looked sure to fall in Democratic hands early on in the cycle. In 2006, Pennsylvania’s Rick Santorum trailed by double-digits as soon as Bob Casey jumped in the race; two years later, Virginia and New Mexico’s Senate seats looked like safe Democratic pick-ups by the time 2008 rolled around.

Republicans can ill-afford to fall in a similar situation this year: Democrats are only one seat away from a filibuster-proof majority, and for a single GOP-held seat to become a likely Democratic pick-up would put a tremendous amount of pressure on Republicans. The two contests that are most likely to become this year’s Virginia and New Mexico are New Hampshire and Missouri’s open races - and two new surveys find Democrats with narrow leads.

New Hampshire: Hodes tops Sununu

As soon as Judd Gregg announced his retirement, it became clear that New Hampshire would be the cycle’s the most endangered Republican seat. That the GOP has no one who looks interested in a run while Democrats have coalesced around Rep. Paul Hodes only worsens the situation for the NRSC.

One of the only prominent Republicans who is said to be considering a run is former Senator John Sununu, and ARG ran a poll matching-him against Hodes. The Democrat leads Sununu 42% to 36%, thanks to a 7% edge among independents. (In December, ARG had matched-up Hodes against Gregg, finding the incumbent ahead 47% to 40%.)

Hodes’s lead is not overwhelming, but it suggests that little has changed for Sununu since his re-election defeat last fall. You might remember that nearly all polls in that race showed Jeanne Shaheen crushing Sununu, and the incumbent was unable to break out of the low 40s - even the high 30s. He is still at that level, and there is no reason to think that his numbers would improve. Sununu is a well-known politician who represented the entire state in the Senate for 6 years and whose father served in Congress before him; Hodes has represented half of the state for a little more than two years.

If Sununu passes on the race, it remains to be seen whether the GOP could even find a candidate to keep Hodes in single-digits.

Missouri: Carnahan leads two rivals

This poll was released at the end of last week, but I somehow managed to miss it. Wilson Research Strategies, a Republican polling firm, conducted a survey of the Senate race and found probable Democratic nominee Robin Carnahan ahead of her two potential rivals:

  • Against Rep. Roy Blunt, Carnahan is ahead 47% to 44%.
  • Against former Treasurer Sarah Steelman, Carnahan leads 47% to 38%.

The only other poll of the race was released by PPP in mid-January; it found Carnahan leading Blunt and Steelman by 1% and 11%, respectively. In short, Carnahan starts with a narrow edge - but she has certainly not pulled away. Given the stature her last name gives her (not to mention her status as a statewide officer), it is a relief for the NRSC to see Carnahan and Blunt within the margin of error.

On the other hand, Missouri is Republican enough that for a Democrat to start an open seat race with the upper-hand is a testament to her political strength.

Given that the poll does not find particularly good news for Steelman, it is somewhat puzzling that she chose to release the survey. I see two explanations to this. Before she gets a chance at upsetting Blunt in the Republican nomination, she needs to undermine his efforts to present himself as the inevitable nominee - and what better way to cast doubt in the minds of the Republican establishment than by releasing a poll showing him trailing?

Second, he survey shows Carnahan at the same level - 47% - against both Republicans. Thus, even though Steelman trails by 9% compared to 3% for Blunt, she can argue that the larger deficit she faces is due to her lower name recognition rather than to the fact that she is less electable: It is not so much that independents are rushing into Carnahan’s arms when she is the Republican nominee, Steelman wants to say, but simply that GOP-leaning voters are unfamiliar with her.

Given that the next year will likely bring a multitude of general election polls finding Blunt in a stronger position, it is important for Steelman to prepare this argument as a response.

Shea-Porter will not run for Senate, making Hodes the Dems’ likely nominee in New Hampshire

In what was an eagerly awaited decision, Rep. Carol Shea-Porter announced today that she would not run for Senate in New Hampshire. “I thank the many people in New Hampshire and Washington, D.C. who have asked me to run, but I have decided that I do not want to run for the U.S. Senate,” she said. “I love the House of Representatives and the work I am involved in there to help the people of New Hampshire.”

Shea-Porter started signaling her interest in a statewide run months before Senator Judd Gregg announced that he would not seek re-election in 2010. But Rep. Paul Hodes announced his candidacy first, forcing Shea-Porter to consider whether she wants to give up her House seat without being guaranteed that she would even make it to the general election.

Her decision not to run means that Paul Hodes is now the clear favorite to win the Democratic nomination. The only potential contender left is former State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Nadeau, who has said he will make up his mind by next fall. In a one-on-one race against Hodes, it is hard to see how Nadeau could find an opening to endanger the representative’s hold on the nomination. Republicans, meanwhile, have no candidate and a thin bench. The NRSC is hoping to recruit John Sununu, but will voters be open to rehiring him just two years after they kicked him out of the Senate?

With no obvious Democratic or Republican opponent lining up to oppose Paul Hodes, it is very much possible that Shea-Porter would have been the toughest obstacle on his road to the U.S. Senate.

(Many say that Hodes would have been the overwhelming favorite in such a race, but I have repeatedly warned against underestimating Shea-Porter. In 2006, she beat an establishment-backed candidate in the primary. That caused the DCCC to stop paying attention to her district, but Shea-Porter came out of nowhere to defeat Republican Rep.Jeb Bradley in what was the biggest surprise in the cycle. In 2008, many thought that Shea-Porter would lose in a rematch against Bradley; instead, she triumphed by a relatively comfortable 6%. In short: Shea-Porter has a strong grassroots base that would have made her a formidable force in the primaries.)

Shea-Porter’s announcement also has obvious consequences at the House level: NH-01 is a competitive district won by George W. Bush in 2004 (Obama prevailed by 6%). An open seat would have been hotly contested, so the DCCC has to be happy for Shea-Porter’s decision.

The DCCC was undoubtedly all the more worried by a potential Shea-Porter candidacy by the eerie parallel to last cycle’s New Mexico bloodbath: The state’s both Republican representatives (Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce) left their House seats to run for Senate. Democrats picked-up that Senate seat and both of their House seats, sending Wilson and Pearce into retirement and taking control of the state’s entire congressional delegation. For Hodes and Shea-Porter to both run for Senate would certainly have given the GOP a golden opening to regain its footing in a state in which it has completely collapsed over the past few years.

That is not to say that Shea-Porter will not face yet another contested election, however. As I reported yesterday, at least three candidates are mulling a run, starting with Manchester Mayor Frank Guinta and former HHS Commissioner John Stephen. Will Shea-Porter’s decision affect theirs?

Recruitment tidbits, from Jeb Bradley to Jon Porter

Jeb Bradley downgrades career goals

Over the past two cycles, GOP Rep. Jeb Bradley lost House races many expected him to win. In 2006, very few people were paying attention to NH-01, but Carol Shea-Porter upset Bradley in the general election. Two years later, the Republican was back for a rematch and Shea-Porter was one of the only truly vulnerable incumbent Democrats; but Shea-Porter triumphed once again. That would have been enough to end the career of most politicians, but New Hampshire’s recent electoral chaos gave him an opening: Some suggested his name as a potential Senate candidate, while others thought he could once again run for his old House seat if Shea-Porter left it open to run statewide herself.

This week, Bradley clarified his intentions and downgraded his career goals to the state legislature. He will be running for the special election for a vacant seat in the state Senate. He will face stiff competition in the general election (to be held in May), as Democrats want to solidify their narrow 14-10 majority.

Another loss would surely mark him as a serial loser and it is difficult to imagine him recover him from a defeat at the local level. It is obviously possible that Bradley becomes a state Senator in May and then utilizes his new title to mount a congressional run. But this would obviously be an unlikely scenario, as it is hard to switch offices that quickly without losing credibility. In short: the GOP is still looking for a credible candidate for the open Senate seat.

Is Porter leaning against a Senate run?

Earlier this week, we learned that Oregon Senator Gordon Smith had taken a job as a “senior adviser” in a lobbying firm, suggesting that he had ruled out mounting a comeback effort in 2010. Now, another Republican who lost his seat in 2008 has moved on to the private sector: former Rep. Jon Porter, who is mentioned as the strongest potential challenger to Democratic Senator Harry Reid, has taken a job as a the director of public policy in the D.C. office of lobbying group Akerman Senterfitt.

Just as with Smith, Porter’s new title is a shady way for outgoing congressmen to circumvent the 2007 law requiring them to wait a year before becoming lobbyists: By taking on non-lobbyist positions in a lobbying firm, they are being asked to advise those who will lobby their former colleagues - a loophole that a new ethics law should urgently address.

Porter’s career move is also the first hint we have gotten about his future plans. Sure, it is unfair to expect these former congressmen not to get a new job even if they want to run for office again; after all, they need to make some money to support themselves and their family. But would Porter take such a demanding job if he intended to declare a Senate run in the next few months? Mounting a successful challenge to the Senate Majority Leader will require a long effort and a large amount of fundraising. Porter’s new job suggests he will not run for Senate in 2010 - and the GOP still has no candidate emerging to take on Reid.

A potential GOP challenger for Michael Bennet

Colorado Republicans have not had much luck finding challengers to newly-appointed Senator Michael Bennet. A number of prominent GOPers - Attorney General John Suthers, former Rep. Scott McInnis and former Treasurer Mark Hillman - all announced they would not jump in the race, raising the possibility that Bennet could face a much tougher contest in the Democratic nomination (state Speaker Andrew Romanoff is mulling a run) than in the general election.

But a new Republican name has now surfaced: Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck was expected to take a look at a challenge to freshman Rep. Betsy Markey in CO-04. Instead, he announced this week that he was leaning towards challenging Bennet. “It’s fair to say I’m considering a run for one of them, but I’m looking more closely at the Senate race,” he said, adding that he would make a decision in the month ahead. There is no doubt that Buck would not be the strongest candidate Republicans can field against Bennet. But the appointed Senator is an unknown quantity: the GOP needs to have someone ready to pick up the pieces if the Democrats’ fears about the Senator’s campaigning skills are confirmed.

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