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Poll watch: Democrats in control in Ohio and Pennsylvania

Ohio: Strickland is popular, Democrats lead Senate race

The latest Senate polling has been encouraging for Republicans, but the DSCC can take comfort in a new Quinnipiac survey of the Ohio Senate race: Whoever the two parties nominate, Democrats would start with the upper-hand.

  • In the Democratic primary, there is no front-runner - and a huge number of undecided: Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher receives 20%, Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner gets 16% and state Rep. Tyrone Yates gets 4%.
  • In the Republican primary, former Rep. Rob Portman leads state Auditor Mark Taylor 29% to 8%; strangely, Taylor gets the same level of support as auto dealer Tom Ganley.
  • In the general election, Fisher crushes Portman 42% to 31% and Taylor 41% to 39%. Brunner leads Portman 40% to 32% and Taylor 38% to 29%.

The good news for Democrats: Both Brunner and Fisher look to be in a strong position to win the general election, and it does not look (for now) that the DSCC has to worry about one candidate being less electable than the other. Furthermore, these numbers are similar to those Quinnipiac found in February and March, which indicates that the Democrats’ advantage is not an outlier and that Republicans have made no success in changing the political environment.

But there is also some hope for the GOP, as far more Republicans are undecided than Democrats. That is partly explained by a differential in name recognition: Voters are more likely to be familiar with Brunner and Fisher (both of whom hold statewide office) than with Portman, who should shore up his support among Republican voters once he introduces himself.

Finally, a note about the Democratic primary numbers: While much of the establishment has lined up behind Fisher, ll polls have shown Brunner within the margin of error. A competitive race should not worry Democrats, as Ohio’s primary is early enough to leave the winner time to prepare the general election.

Quinnipiac also tests the gubernatorial race, finding strong numbers for Governor Ted Strickland:

  • 57% of voters approve of his performance, compared to 29%.
  • Against former Rep. Kasich, Strickland triumphs 51% to 32%. (Back in March, Strickland was ahead of Kasich 51% to 31%.) He also leads by double-digits against former Senator Mike DeWine, 48% to 36%.
  • In a hypothetical Republican primary, DeWine is narrowly ahead, 35% to 23%.

These are very solid numbers for the Ohio Governor. A recent poll found that voters are not enthusiastic about his handling of the economy, but the financial crisis has not made a dent in his numbers - unlike so many other Governors. Whether he can keep that up all the way to the fall of 2010 remains to be seen, but he can afford to lose a lot of supporters before looking endangered. The only sign of worry in this poll is that he dips below 50% against DeWine, but we are talking about a former Senator - hardly your typical challenger. (Also, DeWine looks somewhat unlikely to run.)

Pennsylvania: Specter controls Democratic primary

Research 2000 offered us a comprehensive look at the Pennsylvania Senate race. Unfortunately, their survey was conducted before Tom Ridge announced he would not run, and the pollster did not have time to replace the former Governor with another moderate Republican.

Let’s start with the Democratic primary, as the numbers are not encouraging for those who are hoping to see the Senator defeated:

  • Specter crushes both of his potential Democratic opponents: 56% to 11% against Joe Sestak, 60% to 5% against Joe Torsella.
  • 37% of Democrats say they will definitely vote for Specter, while 16% say they will definitely vote for someone else. (23% say they are open to someone else.) Those numbers are not as strong for Specter, but they certainly don’t suggest a wave of discontented Democrats angry at being represented by a center-right Senator.

One big qualifier: Most Democrats have no idea who Torsella or Sestak are. While only 10% have no opinion of Specter (those who do like him 54% to 36%), 56% have no opinion of Sestak and 85% have none of Torsella. On the other hand, the fact that few people know them does not explain away the fact that the Senator is well above 50%. For now, a majority Democrats are comfortable at the idea of voting for Specger

Between 24% and 28% of Democrats said they would be less likely to vote for Specter if he voted against against Obama’s budget, against EFCA or against health care reform, but between 45% and 47% say it would have “no effect” on their vote (6% to 7% say it would make them more likely). Is Specter so entrenched that nothing he does will anger his constituents?

Obviously, a lot could change in the next year and it is worth remembering that primaries tend to be far much volatile than general elections as voters generally don’t think ill of incumbents of their own party. (Kos reminds us that Lieberman led Lamont 65% to 19% in a Quinnipiac poll of the primary just four months before the election.) Furthermore, Specter just switched over to the Democratic Party, so he was enjoying a wave of good will among his new party’s base when the poll was taken.

The rest of the poll also offers valuable information:

  • In a Republican primary match-up, Toomey leads Ridge 41% to 33%.
  • In the general election, Pat Toomey trails all match-ups: 55% to 31% against Arlen Specter (independents back the incumbent 61% to 23%), 37% to 32% against Sestak (34% of Democrats are undecided, compared to 24% of Republicans) and 35% to 33% against Joe Torsella (37% of Democrats are undecided, compared to 23% of Republicans).
  • Ridge is far stronger: He is behind Specter 45% to 44% (they are tied among independents), but he crushes Sestak 50% to 36% and Joe Torsella 52% to 32%.

Toomey enjoys strong name recognition: only 23% of respondents have no opinion of him. That is very important to keep in mind when looking at his general election numbers: 86% of respondents have no idea who Joe Torsella is, while 77% know of Pat Toomey. Yet, Torsella is ahead and handily wins the vote of independents. What better illustration of the fact that Toomey would face very tough odds in the general election?

Unfortunately for the NRSC, these numbers also suggest that Toomey would be very hard to beat in a primary: 66% of Republicans have a favorable opinion of him, versus 13% who have an unfavorable one! If Ridge is trailing Toomey, what chance does someone like Gerlach have? (Note that another poll released on Monday had Ridge crushing Toomey by 40%.)

But the poll’s most striking finding is how formidable a candidate Ridge would have been in the general election: Boosted by a strong favorabilty rating, he would have ensured that the race is a toss-up against whomever Democrats nominate. His decision not to run was arguably the biggest recruitment blow the NRSC has received so far this year.

Kentucky and Ohio: Splitting the Democratic establishment

Kentucky Lieutenant Governor Dan Mongiardo announced his Senate candidacy earlier this year; last week, Roll Call reported that Attorney General Jack Conway had also decided to run for the Democratic nomination. If that latter development is confirmed, the situation would be strangely parallel to the Ohio showdown between Lee Fisher and Jennifer Brunner: A Lieutenant Governor and another top statewide official are going head-to-head.

Such a scenario makes it very difficult to determine a favorite and to predict how the primary will unfold and who will gain the most establishment support. None of these four Democrats can mount an insurgent campaign. For one, they cannot credibly portray themselves as an outsider looking to shake things up; second, there is no clear ideological gap between Brunner and Fisher, Mongiardo and Conway.

As a result, most of them are likely to run a traditional campaign in which success is measured by the number of endorsements one has accumulated and the amount of money one has raised. Yet, all early signs suggest that none of these candidates is pulling away; instead, Ohio and Kentucky’s political establishment is starting to split.

In Kentucky, Governor Steve Beshear released a statement endorsing his Lieutenant Governor’s quest for the nomination. “Now, more than ever, we need strong representatives in Washington, D.C., to give voice to Kentucky priorities and values,” he wrote. “I believe that my lieutenant governor, Daniel Mongiardo, can be that voice.”

Sure, this endorsement is no shock since Mongiardo was picked to be Lieutenant Governor by Beshear himself. Nonetheless, it is newsworthy. For one, Beshear had no need to endorse so early in the game. Second, his statement will undoubtedly help Mongiardo claim front-runner status and it will boost his fundraising efforts. Third, Beshear’s move comes at a crucial time for the Lieutenant Governor, as it was starting to look like Kentucky’s Democratic officials were forming an (unexplained) alliance against Mongiardo!

Mongiardo served as the Democrats’ Senate nominee in 2004; in fact, he only lost by 2% against Jim Bunning. That experience has made him known nationally and explains why outside observers might think of Mongiardo as the natural choice to lead Democrats in 2010. Yet, we learned over the past few weeks that some of the most powerful Kentucky Democrats thought otherwise. Conway publicly declared that it was very unlikely Mongiardo would have the primary field to himself, and he added that he was in talks with Auditor Crit Luallen and Rep. Ben Chandler to determine which of the three would run against the Lieutenant Governor.

The implication was clear: Chandler, Luallen and Conway would be more than happy to have a member of their group win the nomination - they just don’t want Mongiardo to be their party’s candidate. (One potential explanation to this is that they might think Mongiardo has usurped his place: In 2004, he was supposed to be a sacrificial lamb but he came within 2% of the Senate thanks to Bunning’s gaffes and misstatements. That gave him enough stature to be picked as Beshear’s running-mate in 2007 - and to place him as an obvious Senate candidate in 2010. Does someone like Chandler resent the possibility of Mongiardo leap-frogging him to the Senate?)

In this context, news that Conway was close to jumped in led people to assume that Luallen and Chandler would endorse him as soon as he officially announced his candidacy. Such a succession of events would have served as a powerful rebuke to Mongiardo, but Beshear’s endorsement ensures that such a scenario will not unfold. It also signals that the state’s Democratic establishment is split. On one side, the Governor and Lieutenant Governor; on the other, the Atorney General, the Auditor and a powerful U.S. representative.

That should certainly make for an entertaining primary.

The situation is somewhat similar in Ohio. As I have explained before, it is hard to find much distance between Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner and Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher, and their showdown is already looking like one of the most unpreditable contests of the cycle. Governor Ted Strickland wasted no time before picking sides, however: As soon as Fisher announced he would run, Strickland endorsed the man he had chosen as his running-mate back in 2006.

In the weeks following Strickland’s endorsement, pressure has build on Brunner to withdraw from the race. The prevailing sense among Democratic officials seems to be that the nomination is Fisher’s right and that Brunner should wait her turn; there is also the concern that Brunner not running for re-election in 2010 will endanger Democratic control of next decade’s redistricting process.

It was important for Brunner to demonstrate that she was more than an obstacle on natural nominee Fisher’s path - and she got some important good news late last week when the United Food and Commercial Workers endorsed her candidacy. Ohio Daily described the news as “the largest endorsement of the campaign for any candidate;” after all, Ohio is a state with an important labor presence, and unions can play a decisive role in Democratic primaries. Brunner also received the endorsement of a smaller, Cleveland-based union. (And in more minor news, Brunner was also backed by Caroline Kennedy!)

These developments are unlikely to be remembered as significant by the time 2010 comes around. But the timing makes them very valuable to Brunner. These endorsements relieve the pressure she is facing; they allow her to showcase that she has assets that will allow her to win the support of key Democratic constituencies; and, most importantly, they demonstrate that Strickland’s endorsement has not locked establishment support in Fisher’s favor and that Brunner can count on her own share of institutional support.

In any case, Brunner is showing no sign of backing off the campaign. In fact, she took her toughest shot yet at Lee Fisher last week. “Take one for the team? Even if the other guy can’t win?,” she asked. “I don’t think that makes sense.”

Thankfully for Democrats, these two primaries will be held in May 2010, which is relatively early and should leave enough time for the winners to turn around and prepare for a general election. By contrast, Missouri’s Republican nominee will have far less time to recover from primary bruises. (The primary is also held late in Florida, but it is unclear who stands to suffer the most since both parties have unsettled fields.)

Senate polls: Democrats retain edge in Ohio, Burr remains vulnerable

Public Policy Polling is out with its monthly survey of North Carolina’s Senate race, and the results remain mediocre - though not dismal - for Richard Burr:

  • Only 35% of respondents approve of his performance. That’s obviously very low, but it is first and foremost due to the high number of undecideds: Burr retains a positive rating, with 32% disapproving.
  • When matched-up against Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, Burr is ahead 43% to 35% - a sign of vulnerability since the Senator is under the vulnerability threshold of 50% and only leads by single-digits. Moreover, a 2007 PPP poll testing Marshall against Elizabeth Dole found Dole ahead by 11%.
  • Against a generic Democrat, Burr leads by even smaller margin: 42% to 38%.

Elaine Marshall has yet to declare her candidacy, though she acknowledged taking a look at the race this month. She has occupied the Secretary of State office for a decade and she ran for Senate in 2002, losing the Democratic nomination to Erskine Bowles. While PPP’s survey suggests that most voters have heard little about her, her long-proven ability to win statewide and her stature in the state’s establishment would make her a highly credible challenger.

Of course, seeing Burr vulnerable is not a surprise: This is PPP’s fourth poll of the race, and Burr has never crossed the 50% threshold - even when matched-up against obscure Democrats. Worse still, PPP’s first poll, released in late 2008, found the Senator trailing Attorney General Cooper by 5%. The latter surveys only confirmed that Burr is one of the most vulnerable Senators of the 2010 cycle. It’s now up to the DSCC to get its act together and recruit a credible challenger.

Meanwhile, Quinnipiac released its second poll of Ohio’s Senate race, left open by George Voinovich’s retirement. Last month, Democrats Lee Fisher and Jennifer Brunner had double-digits leads. Since then, both have declared their candidacy and, while they have lost some ground, they retain the overall edge:

  • Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher leads former Rep. Rob Portman 41% to 33%; he is ahead of Auditor Mark Taylor 41% to 31%. (Last month, he led by 15% and 14%, respectively.)
  • Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner has slightly smaller leads: 39% to 34% against Portman, 38% to 31% against Taylor. (Last month, she lead by 10% and 12%, respectively.)
  • In the Democratic primary, Fisher and Brunner are essentially tied, 18% to 14%. State Rep. Tyrone Yates, who is also in the race, is not that far behind at 6%. (Quinnipiac inexplicably decided to include Rep. Tim Ryan, who is not running. He gets 12%.)
  • In a potential Republican primary, Portman crushes Taylor 31% to 14%. While Portman is a candidate, Taylor has not announced his plans.

Needless to say, it is anyone’s guess who will come out ahead of the Democratic primary. The vast majority of respondents are undecided, and neither Fisher nor Brunner has enough stature to start the race in the positive of favorite. That said, Fisher is expected to receive the support of much of the state’s Democratic establishment, starting with Governor Ted Strickland; it will be interesting to see how Brunner will react if she is labeled the underdog. Another interesting factor will be the two candidate’s electability candidates. With no obvious ideological split between the two, electability could become that much more important; for now, Fisher is polling slightly better than Brunner in general election match-ups - but the difference is not significant enough to matter.

As for Rob Portman, Republicans can point to the fact that he is little-known to explain his disappointing numbers: 67% of respondents have no opinion of Bush’s former Budget Director. (Fisher and Brunner have a better name recognition, though more than half of respondents say they have no opinion of these prominent statewide officials.) On the other hand, the GOP is touting Portman as a formidable candidate, certainly the best they could have hoped for. Not only do the Quinnipiac polls not vindicate such optimism, but they suggest that Democrats retain a significant generic advantage in Ohio.

Dem fields remain unsettled in Ohio, Kentucky Senate races

How many more Democrats can jump in Ohio’s Senate race? Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher and state Rep. Tyrone Yates have already declared their candidacies, while Cuyahoga County Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones has acknowledged mulling a run. At the very least, it looked like none of the state’s Democratic representatives would risk giving up their House seat to jump in such a crowded Senate seat. Tim Ryan has already endorsed Fisher, and we had not heard much from Zach Space, Betty Sutton, Marcy Kaptur.

It now looks like Zach Space is considering a Senate run much more seriously than anyone expected him to. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that Space was one of five Democrats to “pitch himself” for the Senate race at a dinner organized by Ohio Democratic Party’s dinner meant to celebrate 2008 victories.

What might be causing Space to think about giving up his House seat for such a risky run? For one, a five-way primary would be so unpredictable that anything could happen. Sure, it will be difficult for the two-term congressman to get much oxygen or raise enough money to stay in contact with the two statewide powerhouses, but a third candidate could have an opening if Brunner and Fisher spend months demolishing each other.

Second, Space represents red territory: George W. Bush won OH-18 by 14%, John McCain by 7%. That means that Space is likely to remain a vulnerable House member for a long time, making the prospect of giving up his seat less traumatic. This is surely heightened by the possibility that Space will be in even bigger House trouble after the next round of redistricting. Ohio could lose as many as two House seats, and that will result in some major changes in the legislative map. Depending on who which party is in control of the redistricting process - Democrats have a slight edge as things stand now - Space’s district could become even more difficult for him to defend. (Even if Democrats control the process, they would be expected to make more of an effort to protect Rep. Kilroy and Rep. Boccieri than Rep. Space.)

At the very least, Space looks to be seriously considering options other than a House run, so I am moving him to the list of “those we are watching closely” in my retirement page. Needless to say, an open seat race in a red-leaning district would be a very difficult hold for Democrats - though it would not matter long: A freshman representative’s district would be the force to be redistricted into oblivion in two years.

The Plain Dealer piece contained another fascinating piece of information: Tim Ryan’s House seat might be open after all. Lee Fisher’s decision to run for Senate is forcing Governor Ted Strickland to look for a new running-mate for his 2010 re-election race, and one of the Democrats Strickland is considering is Ryan, a young lawmaker who briefly considered a Senate run in 2006 and again this year. For Ryan to become Ohio’s Lieutenant Governor would obviously position put him in a strong position to run for Governor in 2014.

In Kentucky, Democrats only have one candidate running for now: Lieutenant Governor Dan Mongiardo. But it does not look like Jim Bunning’s 2004 challenger will have the field to himself for very long as two other statewide office holders (Auditor Crit Luallen and Attorney General Jack Conway) are considering jumping in the race.

The Kentucky Gazette reports that Luallen and Conway were seen lunching together last week - and Conway’s spokesperson has acknowledged that the two Democrats are talking about the Senate race. “[Conway] doesn’t envision any situation where the two of them would be running against each other,” he said. “They’re good friends; they have lunch often. He views Crit as a friend, an older sister, a mentor.” The spokesperson added that Conway “does not envision” Mongiardo having the Democratic field to himself, which can only lead to one conclusion: Luallen and Conway are already certain that one of them will challenge Bunning, the only remaining question being which of them does so.

Luallen was already considered a potential Senate candidate in the previous cycle, and the DSCC tried to recruit her to run against Senator Mitch McConnell. Polls showed Luallen would have been a strong contender, but she ended up passing on the race in December 2007. As you might remember, that was considered a major blow to Democrats at the time. Given that McConnell only survived by 6% against a lower-profile Democrat who came to the race with extensive baggage, it is certainly fair to wonder what might have been if Luallen had jumped in the race.

Recruitment tidbits, from Tyrone Yates to Richard Moore

Ohio’s Democratic primary gets crowded

After Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, a third Democrat has jumped in Ohio’s Senate race: state Rep. Tyrone Yates has entered the race. Yates, who represents a Cincinnati district, is term-limited out of his office in 2010; that might explain why he is willing to challenge two statewide officials.

Yates undoubtedly starts as the underdog but he should not be underestimated. His political resume goes beyond his work in the state legislature: he served as vice-major of Cincinnati and as the assistant state Attorney General. He has good relationships with the state’s Democratic establishment, and that will complicate the early jostling between Fisher and Brunner.

Furthermore, two factors could give Yates an opening. The first is that Brunner and Fisher are likely to direct their fire to each other; if their opposition gets heated, other candidates could sneak by. The second is that Yates is an African-American; that gives him a natural constituency, but it also could enable him to differentiate himself in a field whose candidates have few obvious ideological differences. However, another African-American Democrat is considering a run: Cuyahoga County Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones.

Burr still has no challenger

Richard Burr might be one of the Senate’s most endangered incumbents, but the North Carolina Senator has yet to draw a challenger. This week, one of the potential Democratic candidates - former Treasurer Richard Moore - strongly suggested that he would not jump in the race. “We’ve just finished one election cycle, and I don’t have any plans right now,” he said. “You know, you never say never, but I don’t have any plans right now.”

Last year, Moore lost a heated gubernatorial primary against now-Governor Beverly Perdue; many Democrats wondered why Moore would not challenge Elizabeth Dole instead, worrying Democrats were wasting two of their top candidates on the same race. Of course, Kay Hagan ended up proving a far stronger candidate than people expected.

With Moore’s departure, all eyes are on Attorney General Roy Cooper, who is known to be considering the race and who would be a strong contender (a recent poll shows him leading Burr). Another potential candidate is Rep. Heath Shuler, one of the House’s most conservative Democrats. Shuler’s opposition to the stimulus could be an indication that he is leaning towards staying in the House, as his vote on the issue could be used against him in the stimulus.

No Smith-Sununu rematch

In 2002, New Hampshire Senator Bob Smith was defeated in the Republican primary by then-Rep. John Sununu, who went on to win the general election. Sununu, who lost his re-election race last year, is now mulling a run for Judd Gregg’s seat - and we learned a few days ago that Smith was considering moving back to New Hampshire to jump in the race as well, mostly to spite Sununu!

Democrats were obviously salivating at the prospect of a Smith-Sununu rematch, which would cause havoc for the GOP, lead to a confusing primary and bruise the eventual nominee (presumably Sununu). We still have not heard about Sununu’s plans, but Smith ruled out the possibility of a move. “I have decided to remain in Florida where I am now a resident and will under no circumstances be a candidate for any office in New Hampshire,” he said. Interestingly, Smith is also said to be considering a Senate run in Florida.

Another Republican mulling run against Vitter

A few days ago, Tony Perkins confirmed that he was considering challenging Senator David Vitter in Louisiana’s GOP primary. We now get word that another Republican is mulling a run against the incumbent: former Rep. John Cooksey, who represented the heavily conservative LA-05 from 1996 to 2002, is said to be very interested in the race - and is even considering dumping up to $200,000 of his own money in the race. (That would not necesasrily get him very far for challenging an incumbent.)

Cooksey ran for Senate in 2002, when his campaign was derailed by racist comments against Arabs. If Cooksey managed to offend people enough to have his campaign crash in the post 9/11 context, it remains to be seen how credible a campaign he can mount.

Recruitment tidbits, from George Pataki to Christine O’Donnell

NRSC talking to George Pataki

At least, the NRSC is trying to think outside the box and recruit politicians we had not thought of as potential Senate candidates. This was not necessarily the case in 2006 and 2008, which explains how the GOP found itself unable to seriously contest more than a few Democratic-held seats. For instance, John Cornyn’s insistence has reportedly convinced Florida Governor Charlie Crist and former Connecticut Rep. Rob Simmons to think about a Senate run.

We can now add a new name to the list: former New York Governor George Pataki, who served three terms from 1995 to 2007 before retiring.  The AP is reporting that Cornyn approached Pataki to float the possibility of his challenging Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and that Pataki did not shoot him down. This makes Pataki the second potential Republican candidate, along with Rep. Peter King. (Rudy Giuliani is more likely to consider the gubernatorial race.)

Needless to say, Pataki would be as strong a candidate as Republicans can hope to field - and that’s already a great victory for the GOP given the weakness of its New York bench. Pataki has never lost a campaign, and he did win three gubernatorial races - including one against incumbent Mario Cuomo - over the past fourteen years. A recent Marist poll actually tested a match-up between Pataki and Gillibrand, finding the Democrat leading 44% to 42%; the same poll had Gillibrand leading King 49% to 24%.

On the other hand, the possibility of a Pataki candidacy is certainly no reason for Democrats to start panicking. The former Governor had mediocre-to-low approval ratings in his last term, and that contributed to his decision to retire: His camp was justifiably afraid he would lose a re-election race to then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. Given how dramatically New York has swung to the Democratic column over the past decade the former Governor would face hurdles to beating whoever wins the Democratic primary.

Democratic field not yet set in Ohio

On Tuesday, the three Ohio Democrats who were attracting the most Senate buzz all finalized their decision: Jennifer Brunner and Lee Fisher are in, Tom Ryan is out. The prospect of a primary between Brunner and Fisher, both high-profile statewide officeholders, made it unlikely that other Democrats would choose to join the race and complicate things further. But we have been getting news over the pat few days that a few are still expressing their interest in a Senate run.

Those include state Rep. Tyrone Yates, who has said she will decide whether to form an explanatory committee by the end of this month; Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune; and Cuyahoga County Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones, who said the timing was right and told Ohio Daily that he would not make up his mind before later this spring. Yates and Lawson are both African-American, and that is certainly an important factor: With only one African-American currently serving in the Senate (Roland Burris…), black politicians will understandably want to make sure white politicians don’t keep the monopoly on nominations in winnable races.

Christine O’Donnell running for Delaware Senate race, again

Republicans are hoping to recruit Rep. Mike Castle, but another candidate has already jumped in the race: Christine O’Donnell, a political commentator who was crushed 2:1 by Joe Biden in the 2008 Senate race. O’Donnell announced this week that she will run for Senate again, and this will be a campaign for the same seat since this is the special election sparked by Biden’s move to the Naval Observatory.

Delaware Republicans have very little bench to speak of, and O’Donnell could very well emerge as the Republican nominee if Castle does not jump in the race. Needless to say, either of the Democrats who are likely to capture their party’s nomination (AG Beau Biden and former LG John Carney) would be heavily favored against O’Donnell in this staunchly blue state. O’Donnell is not even formidable enough to scare Castle out of the race; if the state’s sole representative decides to run, he is likely to coast to the Republican nomination.

Brunner and Fisher in, Ryan out: Ohio Dems face a crowded primary, and that could be a good thing

[Updated with news that Tim Ryan will not run.] Ohio Democrats were worried they might not get a single top-tier candidate to run for the Senate seat left open by retiring Senator George Voinovich. They got two in a single day: Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner are both set to announce their candidacies.

Within the same day, the third Democrat who was attracting the most Senate buzz also clarified his intentions: Rep. Tim Ryan is set to endorse the Lieutenant Governor, forgo a statewide campaign and announce that he is running for re-election in safely blue OH-17. As it is unlikely other prominent Democrats will choose to enter the race, this series of events leaves Brunner and Fisher locked in a two-way showdown.

The day got started by news that Brunner was about to release a candidacy statement; within a few hours, The Columbus Dispatch reported that Fisher had fired an e-mail to his associates announcing that he had made up his mind and that he would run as well. “Ironically, we learned at about 11 this morning that Jennifer Brunner is announcing for the Senate today,” said the e-mail. “So are we – later this afternoon!”

Fisher had set up an explanatory committee two weeks ago, and he was not expected to make an official declaration until later in the spring. It is thus possible that he was hurried into a public announcement when he heard about Brunner. In any case, today’s events set the tone for what should be a very tight primary since neither candidate can claim to have the upper-hand.

Fisher and Brunner are both high-profile Democrats, both were first elected to their current statewide office in 2006. (Fisher also served as the state Attorney General from 1990 to 1994 before losing his re-election race.) I have not been able to find much difference between their ideological positioning: Both have the reputation of loyal Democrats, closer to the party’s liberal wing than to its conservative one. Fisher will be endorsed by popular Governor Ted Strickland as early as tonight; but Brunner should be boosted by the name recognition she acquired in the run-up to the 2008 election, when she won applause from liberal groups for issuing a series of rulings seeking to facilitate access to the polls.

The good news for Democrats is that Fisher and Brunner would both make strong candidates in the general election, and there is no reason to think that one would be stronger than the other against presumptive Republican nominee Rob Portman. Recent polls show that both would perform similarly, with the slightest of edges for Fisher. (A Quinnipiac poll, for instance, showed him leading Portman by 15%; she “only” led by 10%.) Both have their weaknesses (while Fisher has less charisma and while he has lost statewide races before, Brunner is sure to have made herself enemies for her partisan role during the 2008 election) and their strength.

But is this good news not outweighed by the fact that Democrats now face the prospect of a bruising primary that will leave their nominee weakened for the general election?

I do not think so, and for a very simple reason: Ohio’s congressional primary will be held in May. That leaves plenty of time for the primary’s winner to mount a competitive run against Portman however bruising the primary will have been. (By contrast, Missouri’s primary is held in mid-August, a much tricking timing for the survival of the Blunt-Steelman showdown to navigate.)

As long as there is time for a nominee to mend his wounds, contested primaries are a good thing for a party. They allow for the party that is hosting a competitive contest to remain in the news and the winner typically gets a surge of support after his victory; on the other hand, a candidate who is running in an uncontested primary can easily fall out of the public eye.

This was obviously the case in the 2008 presidential election, as the prolonged primary helped Obama practice his general election arguments and allowed his campaign to lay the groundwork of general election runs in red states few Democrats had campaigned before. Senate races often follow a similar pattern. Last May, Kay Hagan’s primary victory gave her a dramatic boost in polls last May, in what was the first that she had a real chance of beating Dole. Similarly, Oregon’s and Montana’s contested primaries in 2006 and 2008 helped Jeff Merkley and Jon Tester introduce themselves to voters statewide.

(There are exceptions, of course. That Steve Pearce and Heather Wilson dominated the airwaves for months last year did not help the former catch up to Tom Udall once he became the Republican nominee. Yet, Udall’s easy victory had little to do with the fact that Wilson spent months attacking Pearce: the Democrat had wide leads in polls months before the GOP primary got heated.)

Also, Fisher and Brunner are both high-profile candidates, so neither should have difficulty raising money. If they were both unknown politicians, donors might wait to see who would emerge to take on the GOP; but they will be able to raise money on their own merits rather than as Portman’s prospective opponents.

In short: Unless the Fisher-Brunner showdown gets exceptionally nasty (and there is absolutely nothing to suggest that it will), the winner will emerge with six months to go before the general election having put in place a strong infrastructure, gained a competitive edge and obtained a lot of media exposure.

More than the prospect of a competitive primary, what is worrisome for Democrats is that Brunner’s Senate run leaves the Secretary of State position open for the taking in 2010. That might seem minor in comparison to a Senate seat, but this down-the-ballot race will have two major implications:

    1. Redistricting: Democrats have a 3-2 edge on Ohio’s Apportionment Board, the panel that will control redistricting at the beginning of the next decade. Democrats are desperately looking to keep that edge in order to erase the GOP’s heavy gerrymandering. The Secretary of State is one of the board’s five members, so which party wins this open race could very well decide control of the Apportionment Board.
    2. The 2012 presidential race: We learned over the past three presidential elections how important Secretary of States can be: Florida’s Kathrine Harris and Ohio’s Ken Blackwell proved indispensable to  George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 victories, while Brunner’s rulings helped Democrats increase turnout in 2008. The winner of the 2010 open Secretary of State position will supervise Ohio’s presidential election in 2012, so could the stakes be any higher?

      While I have traditionally stayed away from state-level politics, we will definitely keep an eye on the race to succeed Brunner.

      More recruitment tidbits, from Ashwin Madia to Lee Fisher

      My last two posts were already devoted to congressional recruitment; but buzz has build up around many more politicians this week, so this is a quick run-around of some of what is being said!

      Fisher takes first step in Ohio

      Ohio’s Democratic field is starting to look a bit more clear. As I wrote last week, the state’s establishment is being surprisingly blunt in siding with Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher over Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner - confirming (as many of us suspected) that Fisher harbors clear senatorial ambitions.

      In case any one had any doubt, Fisher just filed the paperwork to form an explanatory committee. This does not mean that he is running for sure - and a final decision and announcement is not expected until later this spring or perhaps even this summer - but Fisher’s decision to come public before any other Democrat could be enough to keep most of his party rivals away from the Senate race. (Brunner is quite obviously still interested in jumping in, but Rep. Tim Ryan is now believed to be leaning towards sitting it out.)

      Madia will not seek a rematch in MN-03

      Last November, Barack Obama won 52% of the vote in MN-03 but Democrats failed to pick-up the open House seat. Erik Paulsen’s 7% victory against Ashwin Madia was one of the GOP’s biggest saves of the night. One explanation for Paulsen’s victory highlights the fact that Minnesota Republicans resisted the blue wave better than those in other states. But for Madia to under-perform so significantly suggests there was something specific about MN-03.

      For one, the Democrat’s Indian heritage was used against him when the GOP started playing dirty tricks and using loaded expressions to describe his race. Second, Madia was probably not the best candidate Democrats could have found in this district. Some criticized him for running too timid and too centrist a campaign; also, he lacked the resume to be an effective candidate (this is something we saw across the country in 2006 and 2008: veterans who ran for office attracted a lot of early buzz but many scored disappointing results).

      Whatever you think of Madia’s 2008 campaign will matter little going forward: Despite speculation that Madia might look for a rematch against Paulsen, he announced that he will not be back in 2010. Given that he represents a district won by Obama, however, Paulsen is sure to remain a top DCCC target.

      Colorado, Missouri: Speculation builds

      Missouri’s press is increasingly reporting that former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman has decided to run for Senate in 2010, even tough a formal announcement will not come soon, Steelman is already preparing . I have had the opportunity to discuss the consequences of such a run before (most recently here). Note that there has been very little noise about former Sen. Jim Talent’s plans, despite his entourage’s insistence that he was looking to jump in in the days that followed Kit Bond’s retirement announcement.

      In Colorado, Republicans are still desperately looking for a candidate to run against Governor Bill Ritter and Senator Michael Bennet. Both are vulnerable - especially the latter - but no GOPer is stepping forward. In fact, the most prominent are pulling their name from consideration! Last week, former Rep. Bob Beauprez gave the GOP some hope as he acknowledged that he was looking into both races very closely; he did add, however, that he would not come to a decision before this “summer or fall,” so Colorado’s fields will not come into focus before many more months.

      Redistricting concerns stand between Jennifer Brunner, Charlie Crist and Senate races

      Ohio Democrats are being uncharacteristically blunt about their Senate preferences. It is certainly not rare for the establishment to pressure a politician into not running, but the message Governor Ted Strickland sent to Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner was surprisingly explicit.

      “My commitment is to [Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher] first. I believe Lee would be the strongest candidate if he were to choose to run,” Strickland told The Cleveland Plain Dealer. “I don’t say that to disparage Jennifer. She would be a very strong and credible candidate.” He later added, “I would be very happy if he chose to stay. But I would in no way want to interfere with anything that he deeply desired or felt was in his best interest.”

      In other words: If Brunner chose to run in the Democratic primary, she should not expect the Governor (and, by extension, the state’s Democratic establishment) to remain neutral. This is obviously a particularly brutal way to convince Brunner to stay put at the Secretary of State office and run for re-election in 2010.

      Of course, neither Fisher nor Brunner have declared their candidacy; nor have they signaled that they are about to do so. And there is a third high-profile Democrat who is considering a race, Rep. Tim Ryan. It might be harder for Strickland to put pressure on him since Ryan works in the federal government - but there is no question that the prospect of having the powerful Governor endorse a rival could be enough to keep Ryan out of the Senate race.

      Why are Democrats maneuvering so openly to keep Brunner out of the race? One reason might be that they want to avoid a contested primary (especially as Republicans have all but anointed their candidate, former Rep. Rob Portman) and the nomination is first Fisher’s to refuse. It is plausible that many Democrats feel this, but it is doubtful they would phrase it this explicitly.

      The most likely explanation has to do with redistricting. Ohio has a five-member Apportionment Board that controls the redrawing of district boundaries (both federal districts or those of the state legislature). This redrawing will happen after the 2010 census, and it will be very important for the state’s power of balance over the next decade. Ohio Democrats are still complaining about the redistricting that Republicans undertook at the beginning of this decade and they believe they can strengthen their hold on the Buckeye State if they manage to control the process in 2011-2012.

      Democrats currently have a 3-2 edge on this board, but what matters is having majority after the 2010 election, when redistricting will happen. Whether they retain an edge then will depend on whether they can hold on to the Governor’s Mansion and to the Secretary of State office. In other words, Ohio Democrats want Brunner to run for re-election because it would be much easier for Republicans to pick-up the SoS seat if it is an open race.

      Similar considerations will play out in other states.

      Besides Ohio, Florida is a great example of a state in which redistricting considerations will influence the 2010 cycle. Republicans have long controlled the process in the state and that has allowed them to build large majorities in the state legislature and in the congressional delegation (the GOP holds 15 of 25 House seats). For Democrats to have a say in redistricting could allow them to dramatically improve the redrawing of the state districts.

      Yet, Republicans have large majorities in both chambers of the legislature and Governor Charlie Crist is so popular that Democrats have little to no hope of unseating him in the 2010 election. The only way for Democrats to gain a seat at the redistricting table is for Charlie Crist to give up running for re-election, jump in the Senate race instead and leave the Governor’s Mansion wide open for the taking.

      Sure, for Crist to run for Senate would all but ensure that Republicans hold on to a vulnerable seat; but it would also give Democrats a priceless opportunity to come back to power in Tallhassee and influence the next round of redistricting in such a way that the GOP would spend a decade regretting Crist’s departure.

      These concerns have to be weighing heavily on Crist’s mind. As much as the NRSC is pressuring the Governor to run for Senate, many in the state’s Republican establishment are undoubtedly reminding Crist that he is needed in Tallhassee.

      Polls: Dems lead in Ohio’s Senate race, Corzine posts dismal numbers in New Jersey

      Two weeks after Public Policy Polling released the first poll of Ohio’s Senate race, Quinnipiac visited the Buckeye State and found Democrats in a strong position to pick-up the seat left open by Republican Senator George Voinovich.

      Quinnipiac tested two Democrats (Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner) versus two Republicans (former Rep. Rob Portman and Auditor Mark Taylor). Democrats lead all four match-up by double-digits:

      • Fisher leads Portman 42% to 27%; he leads Taylor 41% to 27%.
      • Brunner leads Portman 38% to 28%; she is ahead of Taylor 28% to 26%.
      • Quinnipiac did not test Rep. Tim Ryan in the general election, but he was included in the inconclusive trial heat of the Democratic primary, in which Fisher, Brunner and Ryan are all within 4%.

      The first lesson of the poll is that none of the potential contenders are well known by voters: All enjoy a good favorability rating (34% to 10% for Jennifer Brunner, 33% to 10% for Lee Fisher, 21% to 6% for Rob Portman, 12% to 3% for Tim Ryan and 17% to 5% for Mark Taylor), but most respondents have no opinion. We still have a long way to go before the candidates get introduced to voters.

      That said, these numbers have to be very disappointing to Republicans given how excited they were by Rob Portman’s entry in race. Not only does Portman not have the stature to look like a formidable early candidate, but Ohio voters clearly still prefer the Democratic Party. The GOP might have been thrown out of national and state power, but voters aren’t done punishing Republicans.

      (Note that none of the three Democrats tested by the poll have made up their mind for now, though Fisher and Brunner are both believed to be strongly considering the race. I will have more to say about Ohio’s Democratic field later today.)

      Meanwhile, Democratic New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine continues to post dismal numbers in trial heats against former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, who took the initial steps of a statewide race in January.

      • In January, a Rasmussen poll found Corzine trailing Christie by 2%; Quinnipiac now shows Corzine trailing Christie by 6%, 42% to 36%. The internal numbers are catastrophic for the incumbent, who trails by a stunning 49% to 24% among independents.
      • Worse still: Only 33% of respondents say Corzine deserves to be re-elected, while 54% say he does not. (Among independents, those numbers stand at 23-64.)
      • As for the Republican party, Christie enjoys a solid 44% to 17% lead over his closest competitor, former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan. (I wrote a post about the dynamics of this GOP primary a few weeks ago.)

      This election will be held in the fall of 2009, so in only ten months. That makes these trial heats that much more valuable. Needless to say, for an incumbent to come in at 36% is a truly dismal showing that confirms that the GOP has a very real shot at winning its first statewide race in the Garden State since 1997.

      As we have repeatedly noted, New Jersey’s Democratic candidates often face worrisome numbers until voters line up behind them in the final weeks of a general election as they think about the consequences of electing a Republican. But if the GOP is to break that pattern, it is far more likely to do so in a state-level race like this one rather than a federal election. That Corzine will be the first incumbent to face re-election in the midst of the worsening economic crisis also gives the GOP hope.

      Ohio Senate: Dems look for candidate as poll finds competitive race

      Barack Obama is now the United States’ 44th President, bringing to an emotional close a long saga I started blogging about in August 2007. But there is no time to pause, as the 2010 cycle has already heat up!

      Yesterday, Public Policy Polling released the cycle’s first poll from Ohio. The surveys tested probable Republican nominee and former Rep. Rob Portman against three potential Democratic opponents:

      • Portman leads 41% to 39% against Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher, 40% to 34% against Rep. Tim Ryan and 42% to 34% against Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner.

      None of these candidates is universally known - far from it - so we still have a very long way to go in this race. Their favorability ratings gives us an early idea of their electability, however. 28% have a favorable opinion of Portman, while 23% have an unfavorable one; the numbers are 40-32 for Fisher, 34-36 for Brunner and 26-27 for Ryan.

      What is most fascinating is that Portman is the least well-known of the four candidates; yet he leads all the match-ups. This suggests that the former representative is boosted by his party label, a surprising finding since we have grown used to a generic Democrat distancing a generic Republican in a swing state like Ohio.

      This is perhaps due to the fact that Portman is getting strong support from Republican voters (80% against Brunner and Fisher, 74% against Ryan) while the Democratic candidate only get between 59% and 68% of their party’s base. We should certainly expect this to improve over the course of the campaign.

      All in all, the poll should dispel any notion that this open seat will fall in Democratic hands as easily as New Mexico and Virginia’s did in 2008; it should also dispel Republican hopes that Portman is a formidable candidate whose entry is enough to keep the seat in Republican hands. (He is stuck in the low 40s, which is certainly not a sign of invincibility.)

      I delved into Rob Portman’s strengths and weakness a few days ago, so perhaps it is time to look into the Democratic contenders, as the party’s field remains very confused.

      As I have already noted, Ohio’s primary is early enough that a competitive Democratic primary should not be disastrous to the party’s chances. And before worrying about the risks of a divisive battle, Democrats should focus on convincing one high-profile candidate to jump in the race.

      Already, Attorney General Richard Cordray and Columbus Mayor Micheal Coleman have announced that they will not join the race. Judge Bill O’Neill, has said that he will run if Fisher does not (O’Neill was the Democratic nominee against GOP Rep. LaTourette in 2008; he lost by 19%.)

      Ryan and Fisher attracted the most early buzz, but there is now plenty of speculation centering of Brunner. As Secretary of State, Brunner attracted a lot of attention during the presidential campaign by issuing a series of crucial rulings (this is Ohio, after all) that made it easier for voters to cast a ballot and that made it harder for watchers to challenge voters at the polls; this might have helped endear her to Democratic activists across the country.

      The Buckeye State Blog reports that Brunner might have already met with Governor Ted Strickland to discuss the consequences of her jumping in the Senate race. (Democrats are particularly worried that her candidacy could endanger Democratic control of the Apportionment Board just as we are approaching redistricting.)

      The larger problem is that Fisher, Burner and Ryan are all ambitious politicians, and all still have many years to spend in their current positions. This is a particularly complex decision for Ryan: He is still in his 30s and he is occupying a safe blue seat, so he has a lot of time to rise in the House leadership before considering a statewide run. Does he really want to endanger his career and potentially risk finding himself locked out of politics at such an early age?

      It is somewhat unlikely to imagine all three bowing out of the race, but Ohio Democrats have enough of a bench to survive such a scenario; Reps. Zach Space, Betty Sutton and Marcy Kaptur are all mentioned as potential candidates.

      (Note that Democrats faced a similar situation in 2006. Until then-Rep. Brown changed his mind and jumped in the Senate race at a relatively late date of the cycle, it looked like Democrats would have no strong candidate to run against vulnerable Senator Mike DeWine.)

      Portman could become first candidate in Ohio Senate race

      Prominent politicians are continuing to come forward with their intentions, and it is now Ohio’s turn to see some recruitment action.

      Politico is reporting that former Rep. Robert Portman is set to announce his candidacy tomorrow, making him the first politician to jump in Ohio’s Senate race. There is still some uncertainty, however. This morning, Portman held a bizarre press conference to say he was “leaning toward deciding to run” but that he had not finalized his decision yet; he added that he might do so as early as tomorrow.

      Portman is the GOP’s first choice, so his candidacy would represent a major recruiting victory for the NRSC. The 51-year old former congressman already has a long resume: He has served as Bush’s trade representative from 2005 to 2006 and as the head of the Office of Management and Budget from 2006 to 2007. Portman was also prominently featured in the summer’s Republican veepstakes; for a short period of time, he was only one of four names I listed in the veepstake’s “top tier.”

      Besides his stature, there are two attributes Republicans love about Portman.

      First, he should prove a strong fundraiser, which will allow the NRSC not to have to bankroll his entire campaign (as they had to do for some of their 2008 candidates). He has always had very extensive connections in the Republican establishment, even more so after his jobs in the Bush Administration. Furthermore, he already has $1.5 million left over in his House campaign committee; he is allowed to transfer that money to a Senate committee.

      Second, Portman is likely to clear the Republican field. The GOP has a strong bench in Ohio, and many other Republicans were taking a look at the race; but most were expected to defer to Portman’s decision - both out of respect for his superior stature and because they do not believe they can beat him in a Republican primary in which Portman would have the establishment’s supports and millions of dollars to spend.

      Other Republican candidates could certainly emerge - and we should keep an eye on former Senator DeWine - but Portman will be treated as the probable nominee in GOP circles, and such a status has obvious financial advantages.

      On the other hand, Democrats should not get discouraged by Portman, who he is certainly not the kind of silver bullet whose entry transforms a race (Jeb Bush or Kathleen Sebelius are examples of such silver bullets).

      For one, avoiding a competitive, even divisive, primary is not very important in Ohio. Unlike in Missouri and Florida, where the primaries are held late (in early August and early September, respectively), the Ohio primaries are held in the spring. That leaves nominees plenty of time to fix their primary wounds and to then turn their attention to the general election.

      (If anything, Democrats lack a candidate with an established statewide name recognition, so a competitive primary could help raise their nominee’s stature while leaving him or her many months to organize a general election campaign.)

      Second - and most importantly - Portman faces an obvious electability issue: Not only does he have an extensive (professional and personal) relationship with George W. Bush, but he helped craft the economic policies of the Bush Administration’s second term! In other words, he can be tied in to what voters like least about Bush, and Democrats are sure to have a field day with Portman’s connections to the 43rd President.

      Sure, Bush will have been out of office for two years by the time Portman faces voters in 2010. Democrats would be foolish to think they can use Bush as the repellent he was in 2006 and in 2008 races, and they should not waste their time with such a strategy in most congressional races. But Portman’s ties to Bush go far beyond those of almost all other Republican candidates, and he had too much of a role in the Bush Administration to hope for them to be washed away with time.

      Portman’s strength could very well depend on the strength of the economy and on the national environment. If the economy is in as disastrous a shape in the fall of 2010, will voters have moved on to blame Barack Obama and will they thus be looking to blame Democrats? Or will Obama have managed to deflect the blame on his predecessors, which could be fatal to Portman’s prospects? Will he have improved the situation just enough for Democrats to look like they are fixing the problems created by Bush?

      Given that Portman’s prospects depend on the answers to these questions, it is not surprising that both parties are reacting differently to his entry in the race. On the one hand, Republicans seem ecstatic at the arrival of this savior. On the other hand, Democrats are certainly not panicking and they seem skeptical of the GOP’s enthusiasm. For now, I share that skepticism.

      On the Democratic side, Rep. Tim Ryan has acknowledged his interest in the race. State Senate Minority Leader Capri Cafaro, meanwhile, has ruled out a run.

      In other recruitment news, I have updated my newly-created recruitment page with about twenty new names, many of which were suggested by Senate Guru, who is admirably always on top of every Senate story. Thank you to everyone else who passed on suggestions and corrections.

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