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House: Gerlach looks for way out, Chabot looks for way in

Yesterday, Rep. Jim Gerlach created an explanatory committee for a possible gubernatorial run in 2010. While he did insist that he had not made up his mind about which office to pursue, he has been sending signals that he intends to run statewide for months.

Gerlach’s retirement is one of the worst possible news for House Republicans. Philadelphia’s suburbs have been trending increasingly Democratic over the past decade, and Gerlach has been sitting on increasingly precarious territory. His district (PA-06) voted for John Kerry 52% to 48% in 2004; four years later, it swung to Obama by 13% as the Democrat crushed McCain 58% to 41%.

Needless to say, Democrats would be favored to pick-up the district if Gerlach were to leave his House seat for a statewide run, and the GOP cannot afford giving up seats this easily if it wants to get back on the offense in 2010. On the other hand, PA-06 is sure to be hotly contested even if Gerlach does run for re-election - and that is probably why the Republican is looking for a way out.

Gerlach won his first three elections (in 2002, 2004 and 2006) by a tight 51% to 49%. In 2008, he was expected to cruise to victory since Democrats had nominated the little-noticed Bob Roggio; but when all the votes got counted, Gerlach prevailed by a narrow 52% to 48% margin. That result must have shown Gerlach that it is only a matter of time until a stronger Democratic challenger channels the district’s lean to unseat him. And making matters worse is the prospect of the upcoming redistricting: Pennsylvania is slated to lose a seat, and Democrats would undoubtedly make sure that Gerlach’s district is redrawn to make his 2012 re-election impossible.

In other words: We should not be surprised that Gerlach is eying the gubernatorial mansion even if his odds of surviving the Republican primary are not that high. Pennsylvania has a closed primary so nominees tend to be decided by the GOP’s base - and that does not match with Gerlach’s moderate profile.

The fact that former Rep. and arch-conservative Pat Toomey is also looking to jump in the gubernatorial race makes it that much more difficult to imagine Gerlach prevail in a contest that Toomey would ensure is fought on ideological lines. Gerlach would need a few conservative candidates to divide up the conservative vote to allow Gerlach to prevail with a plurality.

The NRCC got better news from Ohio, where former Rep. Steve Chabot announced that he would run to regain his seat, OH-01,  in 2010. He was defeated last year by then-state Senator Steve Driehaus, 52.5% to 47.5%.

In his seven terms in Congress, Chabot faced (and beat back) a number of tough challenges, a sign that he knows the district and that he will be a top-tier candidate in 2010. But he will have to face the district’s changing political allegiance: OH-01 swung to the blue column by a dramatic 13% between 2004 and 2008, which is a larger change than the state at large. Bush won the district 51% to 49% five years ago, while Obama prevailed 55% to 44%.

This is partly explained by the district’s significant African-American population, which voted in greater numbers than usual. That 2008 was a presidential year was clearly a huge boost to Driehaus’s campaign, and Chabot is right to point out that Driehaus could face a difficult re-election race once he is deprived of Barack Obama’s coattails. OH-01 is one of the districts that will test the resilience of Obama’s coalition, especially if Chabot is running.

On the other hand, Republicans should not make the same error as they did in 2008, when they treated the victory of many freshmen Democrats as flukes that would quickly be undone once the environment changed. Sure, some of them were (TX-22, for instance), but Democrats elected in districts that were clearly becoming blue (like Carol Shea-Porter in NH-01) proved less vulnerable than the GOP anticipated.

Furthermore, running defeated politicians is very helpful in terms of name recognition, campaigning skills and fundraising abilities, but it is not necessarily the best path. A few attempted a similar comeback in the 2008 cycle, but none succeeded.

Reports: Pat Toomey will not challenge Arlen Specter

Former Rep. Pat Toomey is no longer considering challenging Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter in the Republican primary and is focusing his attention instead on a potential run for Governor, according to Pennsylvania’s Morning Call.

Toomey himself released a statement acknowledging his interest in the gubernatorial race:

I have had several preliminary conversations with supporters of mine regarding a possible run for governor in 2010. Given the state of Pennsylvania’s economy and the disastrous state budget deficits we face, there certainly is a need for major changes in Harrisburg. It is still very early in my exploration of a possible run, but it is something I will consider.

The statement contains no word about a possible run for Senate, which is itself an indication that Toomey is no longer considering challenging Specter. Morning Call’s reporting is more definite than that. If it is confirmed, it would be the most important development to date in Pennsylvania’s Senate race and one of the best news Senate Republicans could hope for regarding the 2010 cycle.

Toomey already ran against Specter in 2004, challenging him from the right and urging conservatives to reject a Senator Toomey denounced as a RINO (Republican In Name Only). Specter survived by less than 2% in what was a bruising springtime battle in which both men traded very sharp attacks. (This Washington Post article is well worth a read to relive the 2004 primary now that we know we will not get a rematch. Perhaps the most fascinating gem from that race is Specter’s declaring, “He accuses me of being a liberal, as though that’s some form of a dirty word.” Yes, that came from a Republican Senator.)

Since then, Toomey served as president of the conservative group Club for Growth; as such, he helped fund conservative challenges across the country, a few of which were successful. Soon after the 2008 election, Toomey hinted that he might seek a rematch against Specter in 2010. He added that Specter would face an even tougher time now , since a significant number of moderate Republicans have left the party since 2004 and will be unable to vote for Specter in the state’s closed primary.

The prospect of a Specter-Toomey primary battle delighted Democrats. Either Specter would lose, and the Democratic nominee would be clearly favored against Toomey (though the conservative Republican should not be counted out: as Santorum showed, conservative Republicans can win statewide); or Specter would win, but he would be (politically and financially) diminished and have moved so far to the right as to be more vulnerable to a Democratic opponent.

With Toomey out of the race, however, it is unlikely that a strong enough Republican will emerge to take on as powerful an incumbent as Specter. This means that Democrats have little hope of facing someone else than Specter in the general election, and the incumbent can prepare himself (here again, politically and financially) for the general election.

This is certainly not enough to guarantee that Specter will be re-elected, and he is still expected to receive a stiff challenge from a Democrat (there are many potential candidates, as you can see in my recruitment page). But the fact that Specter had to worry about a primary and a general election challenge was the reason his seat was ranked as high as 2nd in my latest Senate rankings - so expect a slight drop in the next update.

For Specter not to have to worry about a primary challenge could also have important consequences for his behavior in the U.S. Senate. As I explained last week, Specter is moderate enough that he could be expected to provide Democrats the crucial 60th vote on tough roll calls; but it looked like Specter would have to prove his conservative bona fides to prepare himself for a run against Toomey. That is now no longer the case, and Specter no longer has to worry about his votes hurting his support among conservative activists (unless he goes so far to the center that he loses them for the general election, but Specter isn’t that much of a maverick).

Finally, Toomey’s statement is important for Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race. This is an open seat, and both parties are expected to hold competitive primaries. Toomey would be a formidable candidate because of his conservative profile, his deep connections with Republican leaders and his fundraising potential - and the Republican primary could feature a clear ideological contrast if he faces moderate GOP Rep. Gerlach, another potential candidate. Note that Toomey would be a more electable general election candidate in a gubernatorial election than in a senatorial one, since voters are usually more open to backing someone of an opposite party in a local race than a federal one.

2010: Inouye plans re-election, Gerlach mulls statewide run

Tomorrow, the Minnesota canvassing board will convene to settle some of the outstanding issues in the Senate recount - what should be done with the “fifth pile” of wrongly rejected absentee ballots? what standards should the board use when considering the challenged ballots (a process that will be launched next week)? shall unanimity be required to decide a ballot’s face, or will a simple majority of the five-person board suffice?

Until then, we can concentrate on the 2010 races - and the latest retirement and recruitment news that is coming our way.

A few days after Kentucky’s Jim Bunning announced that he would run for re-election, another Senator who is rumored as a possible retiree - Hawaii’s Daniel Inouye - attempted to squash retirement rumors. Inouye, who will be 86 in 2010, is finishing his eight term - 48 years - so this would be an attempt to secure a ninth term. It is no wonder, then, that people are closely monitoring Inouye’s intentions.

If Inouye retires, Republicans are hoping to entice Governor Linda Lingle into the race (they have very few other credible contenders); if Inouye runs for re-election, it is far less likely that Lingle would run (though she might have little to lose, since she is term-limited out of the governor’s mansion in 2010).

Today, Inouye issued a forceful statement about his intentions. “Make no mistake, I am a candidate for re-election in 2010,” he wrote. “I am calling upon my friends and supporters to once again stand with me.” This does not settle anything, however, and we should certainly not speculating about a possible Inouye retirement.

As I explained two days ago, as long as an incumbent has not made definite plans, it is foolish to even hint at the possibility of retirement as that would only dry up fundraising and encourage challengers to jump in. Inouy’e

In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, the gubernatorial race made some news - briefly eclipsing the for now more high-profile senatorial contest. Incumbent Govenror Ed Rendell is term-limited, so the Keystone State will host one of the most important open seats of 2010.

Today, Republican Rep. Gerlach announced that he was mulling a run for the Republican nomination, predicting that the primary would see a crowded field of five or six contenders. Among other potential candidates is Attorney General Tom Corbett. Both parties have enough of a bench in Pennsylvania to guarantee a contested race.

A potential Gerlach candidacy would also be very important in the House battle: Gerlach represents a Democratic-trending district in Philadelphia’s suburbs (PA-06) that he narrowly won in 2002 before barely surviving in 2004 and 2006.

In 2008, Gerlach was supposedly facing a weak Democrat but he nonetheless drew an unexpectedly weak result, a testament to how difficult it is for any Republican to prevail in this district. At the same time, Gerlach survived while the rest of his state party collapsed (Democrats picked-up 5 House seats over the past two cycles while saving endangered incumbents in PA-11 and PA-12), a testament to Gerlach’s personal appeal.

To make matters worse, PA-06 has grown more Democratic over the past few years, along with the rest of Pennsylvania. All of this would make it very difficult for Republicans to keep PA-06 if Gerlach were to seek statewide office. (Update: A commentor has a thorough list of potential Democratic candidates in the district.)

Obama’s transition and the 2010 landscape

That the party that holds the White House traditionally suffers losses in midterm elections is generally attributed to voters’ desire to send a message to the incumbent Administration and their alleged preference for divided government. But Obama’s transition points to another factor in midterm losses: A new president draws a number of his party’s star figures to Washington, making it more difficult for the DSCC and DCCC to recruit down-the-line and opening up seats to potentially dangerous special elections.

This is most obvious in the Illinois and Delaware elections that will be held in 2010. Both are Democratic states, but Republicans have an outside shot in getting either of them competitive, particularly if the governors appoint place-holders who do not run for re-election in two years and if the GOP get very lucky recruitment-wise (for instance if Delaware Rep. Castle decides to run for Senate, an unlikely but plausible scenario).

Other special elections could take place in Massachusetts or New York if either John Kerry or Hillary Clinton (who has become the buzz of the day) are nominated as Secretary of State. I already discussed the situation in Massachusetts earlier this week. In New York, Gov. Paterson would get to appoint Clinton’s successor, and there is a remarkably deep bench in the Empire State, starting with Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, a long list of ambitious House representatives (for instance Nita Lowey and Anthony Weiner) or former Spitzer foe Tom Suozzi.

In both states, it is difficult to see which Republican could force Democrats to play defense - but all of these special elections will only increase the number of Senate seats Democrats have to defend.

The DSCC could be further frustrated if Obama taps Govs. Janet Napolitano and Kathleen Sebelius. Both are term-limited and cannot run again in 2010, and both are mentioned as strong contenders for Senate seats that year. In Arizona, a recent Research 2000 poll showed Napolitano defeated John McCain and its difficult to see many other Democrats with the potential to defeat the former presidential candidate. In Kansas, Senator Sam Brownback has already announced that he will retire, but this is a conservative a state in which Democrats have a small bench. It is difficult to see anyone but Sebelius having a shot at the seat.

The most direct consequence on Senate numbers, however, would come if Obama appoints Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed, another name who is mentioned as a possible Cabinet member. The Rhode Island Governor is a Republican, which would lead the GOP to gain a seat in the unlikeliest of states. Obama could compensate that by tapping Maine’s Republican Senator Olympia Snowe, who is rumored to be in contention for Commerce Secretary and who would be replaced by a Democratic Governor.

At the House level, Obama’s decision to tap Rahm Emanuel has also provoked a lot of commotion in IL-05, but there is no possibility whatsoever that the seat becomes competitive. The Democratic primary will essentially be the general election, which is why there are more than a dozen credible candidates who are now jostling for support. But the situation would be very different in Texas if Chet Edwards (who, you will remember, made a last-minute appearance in the veepstakes) joins the Cabinet. Edwards represents a heavily Republican seat, and the GOP would be favored to reclaim that seat.

At the gubernatorial level, a number of appointments could result in Republican gains. Of the four Democratic governors whose name is most often mentioned, only Kathleen Sebelius has a Democratic lieutenant. Cabinet taps for Pennsylvania’s Ed Rendell, Montana’s Brian Schweizer and Arizona’s Janet Napolitano would all lead to Republican lieutenant governors or secretary of states taking over the governor’s mansion - and positioning themselves to keep the job in 2010.

In Arizona, for instance, secretary of State Jan Brewer (there is no LG in this state) is already mentioned as a possible contender in 2010’s open gubernatorial race; a Napolitano resignation would allow her to run as the incumbent. Tapping New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, however, could have the opposite effect. Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish, a Democrat, is virtually certain to run for Richardson’s job in 2010 (the incumbent is term-limited), and she would get a head start in keeping the seat in Democratic hands if Richardson moved to Washington.

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