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David Paterson to drop bid for a full term

Just one week after he launched his bid for a full term in New York’s Governor’s Mansion, David Paterson is set to announce that he is withdrawing his candidacy at a press conference this afternoon. The New York Times’s Wednesday night bombshell would have been too much for most politicians to overcome, let alone one who has grown one of the most unpopular incumbents in the country.

The main question going forward is whether the increasingly isolated Paterson will also be forced to resign. Two days after the scandal broke, Rep. Nita Lowey is the only prominent Democrat I am aware of who suggested the governor might consider doing so. With Paterson no longer a threat to anyone’s agenda, it is possible he’ll be able to weather the storm all the way to the end of 2010; if anything, Republicans might be better off if he remains in the Governor’s Mansion than if Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch gets to start over with a clean slate. (At 76, Ravitch would be extremely unlikely to seek a full term in November.)

Paterson’s retirement means that there will be 22 open Governor’s races on the 2010 ballot - a stunningly large number.

Yet, what is most striking about today’s apparent development is how little it changes to New York’s political landscape. You would think that for the governor of the country’s third most populous state to announce he was dropping his re-election bid would have colossal repercussions, but I am hard-pressed to think of what substantial change Paterson’s decision might have on New York politics other than remove the faint possibility Andrew Cuomo might have still grown scared of running for Governor and the possibility that a racially charged confrontation weigh down the entire Democratic ticket in the fall.

Paterson’s withdrawal clears the way for Cuomo to not only run but to secure the Democratic nod in undramatic fashion: It’s hard to see who would even want to challenge the state’s uber-popular Attorney General, let alone threaten him. (There are after all seven months left until Election Day, and New York is a difficult state in which to mount a statewide campaign; while Cuomo had yet to declare a bid, he was transparently putting together the infrastructure he would need to do so. The latest reports suggest Cuomo will now accelerate his timetable, but only by advancing his announcement date from April to mid-March.)

It also removes some of the GOP’s only hopes that they might have a shot at recapturing the Governor’s Mansion: Not only will Paterson not be the Democratic nominee (the latest poll found him trailing Rick Lazio), but Cuomo will move to the general election unscathed. Republicans would already have faced an uphill climb had Cuomo beat Paterson after months of suffering brutal attacks from the governor’s allies; how can they beat him now that he will likely have no trouble unifying the state’s Democratic Party? As I noted yesterday, they can hardly hope for Cuomo to turn into the second coming of Martha Coakley, despite the fact the two hold the same position in their respective states; Cuomo is a very well-known politician, and whatever the red wave it’ll be harder for a low-profile opponent to mount a financially competitive campaign in a large state like New York.

It is not just the GOP’s gubernatorial dreams that could be damaged by Paterson’s withdrawal and Cuomo’s emergence as the clear front-runner: For the Attorney General to become the state’s most prominent Democrat over the next nine months and for him to win a landslide victory in November should impact down-ballot races. Republicans have won a string of electoral victories in the Empire State in recent months, making them confident that the electorate’s discontent towards Democrats is particularly strong in New York. Since all polls show Cuomo is the one Democrat who has been left unscathed by Albany’s mess, he should protect his party from some of the brewing backlash by arguing that his coming-to-power is in itself the type of change voters are looking for.

Whether this saves Democrats’ majority in the state Senate remains to be seen, but the party should have an easier time defending its positions in the state legislature and also in the U.S. House (the NRCC has had high hopes for New York, since it is targeting Reps. Hall, Murphy, Arcuri, Owens, Maffei and Massa. The special elections in NY-20 and NY-23 showed that state Democrats remain solid). Similarly, it is harder to envision Bruce Blakeman gaining traction in the Senate race if Kirsten Gillibrand shares the top of the ticket with Andrew Cuomo, though all bets are off if George Pataki jumps in.

(Note: I will be heading out for much of the day, so if Paterson proves all of the New York press wrong at his 3pm press conference, I will not be be able to update this post. And I would not rule this out as a possibility: How many times did the press get it wrong about New York in the past year? Where are Senator Caroline Kennedy and Senate candidate Rudy Giuliani? Update: He didn’t. Paterson is retiring.)

Open seats: Dem field narrows as GOP tensions rise in PA-12; Phoenix Mayor won’t run in AZ-03

PA-12: Joyce Murtha and Singel back Critz, Russell signals he won’t give up

While I wrote about PA-12’s special election last night, the race took an entirely new direction in the past 24 hours alone: Where we expected a long-line of state legislators looking to replace Rep. Jack Murtha led by state Senator John Wozniack, today’s event make it look increasingly likely the Democratic nod will go to Murtha’s district director Mark Critz and that there won’t even be a single currently elected official from either party looking to challenge him.

While Critz came to look as a serious contender over the week-end, when a wealthy Republican businessman touted by the NRCC announced he would support him instead, his first big break occurred this morning, when Joyce Murtha endorsed her husband’s former aide. With that development already sure to weigh on Democratic leaders’ minds given the Murthas’ prominence in party circles, Critz caught as big a break when former Lieutenant Governor Mark Singel, who as of yesterday had come to be viewed as the closest thing the field had to a front-runner, announced he was withdrawing his bid and also throwing his support behind Critz! Add to this Westmoreland County Commissioner Tom Ceraso’s decision to also end his candidacy, and that leaves just two candidates actively seeking the Democratic nomination: Critz and the state’s former Republican Treasurer Barbara Hafer.

Given the deep bench the party has in this cycle, I confess this is not the final line-up I expected; this situation certainly confirms that most political insiders are expecting this district to be dismantled after the next round of redistricting. It also suggests that Democrats will have less difficulty uniting behind a single candidate than might have been expected. More specifically, I find it unlikely that whichever of these two was not chosen would mount a primary campaign against the other. (Remember that May 18th is both the special election and the primary for November’s regularly scheduled election, and for a candidate to have to simultaneously fight on both frights could be fatal.) Critz’s only asset is his institutional ties, so it’s unclear how he could run if the establishment chooses Hafer; and given the way in which local Democrats are coalescing around Critz, it would have to be seen who would vouch for Hafer’s party credentials if she attempted a primary run.

The situation is opposite on the GOP side as tensions are rising between Tim Burns and William Russell. National Republicans are transparently signaling they would prefer for their nominee to be the former, mainly because he could self-fund part of his campaign, but Russell is making it clear he would not step aside. In other words, even if party leaders choose Burns to represent them in the special election, Russell is threatening to still seek the GOP nomination for the November ballot and thus create an untenable situation for the NRCC: Of the Russell loyalists who would go to the polls on May 18th to vote for their champion in the primary, how many would skip voting in the special election question rather than cast a ballot for Burns? Republicans are down on Russell’s candidacy because he has $216,000 of cash-on-hand; that might be too low an amount to beat a Democrat if the NRCC is not willing to help, but it is more than enough to seriously complicate Burns’s life.

I would say that this is making Democratic prospects of defending PA-12 look even better than when the seat first became vacant, but I would first like to see what type of candiate Critz will turn out to be and at the very least wait until we learn more about a man who does not as of yet have the clearest public profile.

AZ-03: Gordon will not run

An open seat in a district that gave John McCain a 17% victory is not at the top of the Democrats’ priority list, but Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon would have at least made the party competitive - as any mayor of a city of more than 1,5 million is sure to be when he seeks another office with far fewer constituents. (Note that AZ-03 extends into Phoenix’s northern suburbs, so a fair amount of the district would have been new territory for Gordon.) Yet, after a few weeks in which he openly mulled the possibility of running, Gordon announced today that he would not seek the seat of retiring Republican John Shadegg.

Gordon’s decision is unlikely to lead many Democrats other than DCCC officials to lament since there’s a limit to how conservative a candidate the party is willing to tolerate - and with Parker Griffith’s party switch and Joe Lieberman’s antics fresh in everyone’s minds, recruiting a politician who enthusiastically endorsed John McCain’s presidential bid is not high on the DCCC’s to-do list. Besides his support for McCain, Gordon is mistrusted because he endorsed Republican Andrew Thomas and Joe Arpaio bids to be Maricopa County’s county attorney and county sheriff, respectively. (Thomas and Arpaio are high-profile figures who have led an anti-immigration crusade in Arizona.) That said, Gordon’s ties with Arpaio considerably deteriorated over the past two years, including over the mayor’s criticism over the sheriff’s sweeps into Hispanic neighborhoods.

One major reason that might explain Gordon’s decision is Arizona’s resign-to-run law, which would have forced him to give up his mayoral post as soo as he would have announced a House run - just as Republican state Senator state Sen. Jonathan Paton had to do this week as he moved to challenge Rep. Giffords. Given that the district is a tough one for a Democratic candidate, that would undoubtedly have been a big political risk. (Note that I am not sure the resign-to-run law applies to mayors in the same way as for statewide officials or state legislators, though I can’t see why it wouldn’t.)

The filing deadline is still three months away, so there could still be plenty of movement, but the Democratic front-runner is now more than ever attorney Jon Hulburd, whose main draw seems to be finances: He not only raised more than $300,000 in the fourth quarter, but he appears to have enough money to self-fund his campaign, allowing the DCCC not to have to do anything but potentially forcing the NRCC to invest some of its precious resources in playing defense and saving that money from being used to attack an additional Democratic incumbent. Can Democrats hope for much else in such a district in such political conditions?

Yet another bombshell NYT story about a New York Governor

Nearly two years after a New York Times launched a bombshell of a story at Eliot Spitzer’s political career, David Paterson finds himself teetering on the brink, the second New York Governor in a row to find himself fighting for his political life following explosive allegations by the Grey Lady.

Of course, the revelations concerning Spitzer toppled a man who was until then well-liked and who many saw as a potential presidential contender. By contrast, Paterson’s political fortunes already collapsed more than a year ago, as a variety of factors made him one of the most unpopular governors of the country with no discernible chance of extending his tenure past the coming fall. As such, they do not alter the landscape of New York politics anywhere as dramatically as Spitzer’s resignation did in 2008.

In fact, while Spitzer’s scandal came out of nowhere, rumors had been swirling for weeks that The New York Times was preparing a damning expose that would all but end Paterson’s hopes of hanging on to his job. Two weeks ago, the paper published a story on Paterson aide David Johnson that I believe reflected worse on The Times than on Johnson. Then, the Times followed that up with an article on Paterson’s work habits, which contained some damaging tidbits but certainly no revelation serious enough to single-handedly destroy whatever is left of his political standing.

And last night, just when we thought Paterson had weathered the storm, came the biggest bombshell: An article that alleges Paterson pressured a woman to drop domestic violence charges against his aide David Johnson not only by having the State Police harass her but also by personally calling her the day before she was scheduled to appear in court.

These allegations are all the more damaging to Paterson that they contradict numerous statements he made in recent months. He has taken up the issue of domestic violence since early in his tenure, and in recent months he was one of the staunchest advocates for Hiram Monserrate’s ouster from the state Senate. While Johnson and Monserrate’s cases differ since the former has not been convicted of assault, the woman who was pressing charges against him did obtain two restraining orders. When Monserrate’s former girlfriend obtained the same but was nonetheless contacted but Monserrate’s staff, Paterson criticized the state Senator for endangering the victim’s independence and wondered whether he could face witness intimidation charges. “Because that’s the whole essence of what domestic violence is. It’s control,” he explained.

And yet those admirable words allegedly did not stop him from contacting the woman who was seeking a restraining order against his aide; might Paterson now face witness admiration charges?

While I will leave the story’s judicial implications to others, its political implications are obviously dire for Paterson. To merely be competitive in the fall, he needed nothing more to go wrong over the next seven months but he now needs to field calls for his resignation. Needless to say, the stories that have accumulated in recent weeks make it difficult to envision how the already embattled Governor could remain a candidate - and make it all but impossible for him to beat Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic primary.

Paterson is all the more politically vulnerable that he has few friends in Albany. Just like Spitzer’s rocky relationship with the state legislature meant that few Democrats were willing to defend him in the days following his New York Times story, Paterson has spent much of 2009 battling with prominent Democrats and with the state Senate. It’s therefore unsurprising that Rep. Steve Israel, whom Paterson passed over when he chose Hillary Clinton’s replacement, or state Senator Bill Perkins called for the Governor to drop his re-election bid within hours of the New York Times’s allegations.

(While few people have called for Paterson to resign, the scandal has already led another state official to call it quits: Paterson’s public safety czar Denise O’Donnell, a holdover from the Spitzer Administration. O’Donnell explained having heard of an incident involving the woman pressing charges against David Johnson but having been assured by the Superintendent of Police that the State Police was not involved - an assurance that The New York Times story reveals to be false.)

Paterson’s office immediately released a statement calling for the Attorney General to investigate into the State Police’s actions, but he did not address the most serious charge that he intervened so directly as to pick up the phone himself. Complicating matters, of course, is that said Attorney General is no other than Paterson’s biggest political rival, which creates a somewhat tricky situation for Cuomo to navigate as well since he has nothing to gain from putting himself in the middle of this story.

After all, Cuomo’s entire strategy for the past year has been to lay low. While Cuomo he long ago started putting together the type of campaign infrastructure he would need for a gubernatorial run, he has done his best to stay out of the spotlight. He has yet to publicly announce his plans, and the latest reports suggest he has no intention of doing so before April at the earliest. Polls show he would crush both David Paterson and Rick Lazio by gigantic margins; announcing he is seeking the Governor’s Mansion would only draw the media’s attention - and given what happened to the last two New Yorkers who were the subject of serious press investigations, Cuomo might as well wait a bit longer.

Of course, the Massachusetts special election showed that no state is safe for Democrat and that any candidate who takes an election for granted risks losing. Yet, the general election is still seven months away so it is certainly not shocking for Cuomo not to be campaigning, especially when one considers that he has a huge bank account he’ll start using as soon as he announces, that he bears one of the best-known last names in New York politics and that he is far more popular than Coakley ever was. (I find the Coakley analogy a much more useful one to use in the case of California’s Jerry Brown, but I’ll leave that discussion to a future post.)

Open seats: Dems clarify plans in PA-12, candidates withdraw in WA-03

As Joyce Murtha rules out bid, other Dems clarify plans

While Democrats looked very interested in the possibility that Joyce Murtha might run for her late husband’s seat in the May 18th primary, but she announced she would do no such thing, thus leaving the field wide open. While her decision might complicate matters for Democrats in the short-term (widows tend to be strong candidates in special elections, however unjustified their candidacies), it will allow Democrats to work towards electing someone who could then try to defend his job even if this district is combined with a Republican-leaning district in the next round of redistricting, as I discussed last week.

It remains to be seen who that Democrat will be, however. Murtha’s decision has allowed other Democrats to come public with their plans. If former Treasurer Barbara Hafer said she wanted to run last week, this week brought a number of new contenders - starting with former Lt. Gov. Mark Singel, Murtha’s former district director Mark Critz and Cambria County Controller Ed Cernic. (Remember that there will be no primary; rather, the party’s state executive committee will choose a general election candidate at a March 8th meeting, three days before a committee of GOP leaders selects its nominee.)

Singel is be the highest-profile name on that list. (He was the party’s gubernatorial nominee in 1994, and his 6% defeat to Tom Ridge was the occasion of a deep rift with outgoing Democratic Governor Casey, who did not campaign for Singel, perhaps over of abortion.) Yet, he has worked as a lobbyist for a Philadelphia law-firm, which is certainly not the best resume line with which to run for office - especially given the current economic conditions, especially in a hard-hit place like Western Pennsylvania. However, some local party officials might be reluctant to support Hafer, who was a Republican until 2002 and as far as I know has never before ran for office as a Democrat. That alone should make Critz a credible contender for the party’s nod; after all, as Murtha’s district director he forged close relationships with local officials, which should serve him well now that all he needs is to secure their support.

Interestingly, Republicans have not been able to get anyone interested in running except their 2008 nominee William Russell and businessman Tim Burns, neither of which would give the GOP as clear a shot at winning as the party was hoping to have when the seat became vacant. Indeed, whatever the national mood, let’s not forget that few districts have received as much federal money as PA-12, and most voters are probably aware of that. The GOP nominee might be very successful campaigning against Washington and against Democratic policies, but to run against the earmarking process or express pride in ignoring the ways of Congress could prove a tricky proposition to navigate.

The NRCC was hoping to convince wealthy businessman Mark Pasquerilla to seek the GOP nod, as he could try to spend his way to victory, Pasquerilla announced a few days ago that he not only would not run but that he is also endorsing a Democrat, Mark Critz. That came as a clear sign that the district’s increasingly red hue in presidential races has not translated to GOP-friendly conditions at the local level, and also that Murtha’s ability to secure millions of earmarks for the area was a powerful reason for people like Pasquerilla who identity as Republicans to support a Democrat in the special election - at least as long as said Democrat seems to follow in Murtha’s footsteps, as Critz presumably would.

Wallace withdraws in in WA-03

Within weeks of Rep. Brian Baird’s retirement, it seemed like the Democratic field to replace him would oppose centrist state Rep. Deb Wallace to progressive state Senator Craig Pridemore. Yet, a third contender (former Rep. Denny Heck, who has been working in the private sector since the early 1990s) disrupted that expectation: Not only did he indicate he would to self-fund by pouring $100,000 of his own money in his campaign, but he also displayed his institutional backing when he secured the surprise endorsement of Governor Christine Gregoire a few weeks ago. Also supporting Heck are former Governor Booth Gardner, for whom Heck worked twenty years ago, and Don Bonker, who represented the district from 1975 to 1989.

Perhaps as a result of the increased hardship created by Heck’s candidacy, Wallace decided to drop out of the race this week - and in doing so she called on voters to nominate a centrist. “Although Wallace is not making an endorsement for another candidate at this time she believes we need to elect a true moderate Democrat who has the wherewithal to win this election,” her statement said. That certainly rules out her backing Pridemore, though I am unable to determine whether Heck fits Baird and Wallace’s centrist mold enough for this primary to feature the clear ideological fault lines it would have had if Pridemore had been opposed to Wallace. With Heck out of public office for two decades, he doesn’t appear to have taken public positions on polarizing matters, which could allow him to play the front-runner card more easily. (For one, we will have to see whether Heck can follow-up his Gregoire endorsement with more high-profile gets.)

As to the question of who Wallace’s withdrawal should favor, the obvious answer would seem to be Heck, since centrist-minded Democrats should be more likely to gravitate towards him, but important geographical factors lead me to think Pridemore is breathing a sigh of relief. While Heck is from Olympia, Wallace and Pridemore are both based around in the Vancouver part of WA-03, and their legislative districts overlap are adjacent; had they both been in the race, they would have been competing over the same turf (the region they already represent), thus undermining their best chance to clinch victory.

Today, a Republican candidate also withdrew: Washougal Mayor Pro Tem Jon Russell dropped out. Russell indicated that he was only raising $500 per month, which probably means he wouldn’t have been a big factor had he stayed in. Here also, there will be a contested primary between state Rep. Jaime Herrera and financial consultant David Castillo, who was already running before Baird retired.

As Sink’s campaign draws rough reviews, parties exchange attack ads in the FL Governor’s race

Many primaries that are just around the corner have not yet taken to the airwaves, as I noted yesterday, but Floridians are already being treated to a preview of their gubernatorial race’s fall campaign. While the primaries are still seven months away, Alex Sink and Bil McCollum are clearly favored to win their party’s nominations, which explains why attack ads started flying this week.

The first salvo was fired by the RGA: A 15-second spot going after Sink’s background as the former president of Bank of America’s Florida Operations is the national committee’s first ad this cycle. “As bank president, Alex Sink eliminated thousands of Florida jobs while taking over $8 million in salary and bonuses,” claims the ad, an attack that should resonate since the financial sector is hardly the most popular industry at the moment.

While candidates who have worked in the private sector like to tout that experience, it could be hard for a former Bank of America executive to do so (just as a Merrill Lynch consultant is facing questions about bonuses he received over in New York’s Senate race). The ad concludes: “Alex Sink, not one of us, one of them” - a slogan we are sure to hear in dozens of races this cycle. Given both parties’  tight relationship with the corporate/lobbying world and their attraction to multimillionaire businessmen who will be able to self-fund their campaign, there’ll be plenty of opportunities to question who candidates are looking after, though the question should be asked about the political establishment at large.

In fact, Democrats are showing no sign of being intimidated by the GOP’s efforts to portray Sink as an elitist banker not looking out for the people because they believe they can counter with the same exact argument aimed at the Republican front-runner Bill McCollum. For one, he is a former lobbyist so how can he make the argument that Sink is not “one of us”? But that is not the angle the Florida Democratic Party chose for its response ad, which it unveiled yesterday; rather, they went after McCollum for his tenure in the U.S. Congress (he was in the House before running for state Attorney General). The ad highlights votes he took like raising his pay raise and raising the U.S.’s debt limit, as well as blaming him for how much the debt skyrocketed during his tenure:

Oh, the irony. The debt is now the GOP’s most important issue, and the NRCC is sure to air ads against countless Democratic incumbents blaming them for having agreed to raise the debt limit in a vote this month. But this argument will be made without any consideration of how much the debt skyrocketed during the Bush years - and Democrats will insist that the debt is not the most important measure of the country’s health while voicing the same exact attacks against incumbent Republicans. Of course, that’s not to say that these ads won’t be effective, nor that Floridians aren’t turned off by the prospect of electing a former Republican congressman to their statehouse.

Note that I am not sure whether there is a substantial buy behind this ad, and am somewhat puzzled by the idea that Democrats would already go after McCollum considering there is a slight chance he will not be the Republican nominee. While no one doubts he is the clear front-runner, state Senator Paula Dockery is running as well, and the primary remains far enough that she has time to gain some traction. In particular, she is considered to be a more conservative candidate than McCollum and could have more success if she can link her candidacy to Marco Rubio’s (though Rubio would be unlikely to play along).

The RGA’s choice to attack Sink is more understandable given she looks far more certain of being on the November ballot. That said, the committee’s choice to air its first ad of the year in Florida is an interesting one. While it can partly be explained by the fact that they don’t have to fear going after a Democrat who’ll end up losing the primary, they could have aimed at someone like John Hickenlooper in Colorado, Tom Barrett in Wisconsin or the countless of vulnerable Democratic incumbents. I suspect the RGA might have been motivated not only by Florida’s importance but also by the hope that they could kick Sink while she is already down. (This motivation cannot be present in states like Colorado and Wisconsin, where Barrett and Hickenlooper are polling roughly even which means defeating them looks like it will have to be a long-term effort for the RGA.)

While Sink was highly touted by Democrats when she entered the race in 2009, she has since failed to inspire much confidence that she’ll be able to beat back the cycle’s pro-Republican tide, quite the contrary. Last week, The St Petersburg Times and The Miami Herald both published brutal pieces describing Sink as a lackluster candidate who is barely trying to put together the sort of active and exciting campaign Democrats will need this year. In fact, the former piece makes Sink sound like the second coming of Martha Coakley - simply disinterested in campaigning:

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kendrick Meek is everywhere holding grass roots political events, while Sink’s main Republican gubernatorial rival, Bill McCollum, regularly has “Breakfast with Bill” community meetings or rolls out grass roots campaign teams. Democrats say they see little pulse with the Sink campaign unless it involves soliciting campaign checks. “As a grass roots organizer, it’s difficult to make a case for a candidate who is unknown. I’ve never been contacted by the campaign,” said Ann Zucker, president of the Weston Democratic Club in Broward County…

“Alex does not like to work a room, and for the faithful that want to touch her and feel her, she doesn’t radiate that kind of warmth that they want. That’s Alex — she’s not warm and fuzzy,” said former Democratic legislator Sam Bell, a strong Sink supporter.

With friends like that… Of course, some of this fretting likely comes from the fact that Sink has been seeing her poll numbers decline by the month, which after all has been the fate of most Democratic candidates nationwide. But that will hardly make Democrats feel better about a candidate they once believed to be formidable trail by double-digits in one of the country’s most important swing states.

The latest poll, released by Rasmussen yesterday, has McCollum leading Sink 48% to 35%; even if you mistrust Rasmussen, the trendline is brutal since McCollum led by 11% in January and 5% in December. In fact, the closest Sink has gotten to McCollum in the five polls released in 2010 is 9%. That’s a revealing statistic given that the first seven polls of the race found margins ranging from a small Sink lead to an 8% McCollum edge, with most showing the race within the MoE.

A final note about Florida: I can’t help but wonder whether there is any possibility that Charlie Crist might at least attempt to work his way back to the Governor’s race. To be clear: I find this prospect extremely unlikely - most importantly because he would face just as tough a time defeating McCollum in the gubernatorial primary than Marco Rubio in the senator primary. Yet, with two new polls released yesterday and today finding him falling a jaw-dropping 18% behind Rubio (more on this in my polling round-up to come later this week), I am wondering how Crist might react if such polls multiply in the weeks ahead. The Governor is a very ambitious politician who had presidential aspirations and was transparently eying the VP spot in 2008; can he really stick to the Senate’s GOP primary? Unfortunately for him, he might have no good choices at this point - but that doesn’t mean a desperate man will not attempt desperate solutions. At the very least, that’s what Senator Jim DeMint appears to be thinking.

Grayson and Paul hammer each other for insufficient opposition to Obama’s “war on coal”

Primary season might be dawning upon us, but few campaigns have gotten heated on the airwaves as of now. For instance, I don’t believe that Arlen Specter and Joe Sestak have started using their huge war chests to go up on TV - and we are just ten weeks from Election Day.

One state in which local TV channels are starting to reap some benefits is Kentucky. While the GOP’s Senate primary was not expected to be particularly contested when the seat opened up, Trey Grayson and Rand Paul are now waging an all-out battle that spilled over to the airwaves this week. And while other candidates who’ve started airing ads have chosen to first go down the route of the positive introductory spot (see Sue Lowden in Nevada), Grayson and Paul are both gone negative at once.

The subject of their on-air dispute: coal. With both candidates having been caught on camera expressing some anti-coal sentiment, footage was bound to pop up on the campaign trail. (Coal is a major enough issue in Appalachia that West Virginia’s Democratic Governor Jon Manchin said this week that he is worried Allan Mollohan and Nick Rahall, longtime congressmen of his own party, could lose in November because “they have not articulated [their support for coal] as forceful as they should.” Talk about a vote of confidence for your party’s ticket.)

Grayson fired the first salvo with an ad that features comments Paul made in 2008 when on the stump supporting his father’s presidential candidacy. Before pledging to fight “Obama’s war on coal,” Grayson shows viewers footage of Paul declaring: “Coal’s very dirty form of energy. You may have coal around you that needs to be monitored. But I mean the thing is it’s probably one of the leat favorable forms of energy.”

That’s some damaging footage for Paul to deal with, so how can he possibly respond? What about an ad that features comments made by Grayson, not only about coal but also about a willingness to work with Barack Obama (gasp!). First, we see Grayson declare that, “As some of these coal power plants are being phased out, we need to bring nuclear on.” Then, the ad jumps to an unrelated video on which Grayson declares,”I look forward to doing my part as a Secretary of State and as a citizen of working with President Obama.” The ad concludes: “A friend of Obama? No friend of coal.”

From the perspective of coal defenders, Grayson’s comments are far less incriminating than Paul’s since he did not express any hostility towards that form of energy. Yet, his comment could very well be perceived as a fatalistic response to mining’s decline - certainly not the type of passionate defense of the coaling industry Kentuckians (and West Virginians like Manchin) are hoping to see.

Similarly, it is somewhat depressing that Grayson’s comments on Obama could be used against him in a campaign ad, as they are in no way remarkable - nor do they in any way seem like a warm embrace of the president or an endorsement of any of his policies (contra, say, Charlie Crist’s physically hugging Obama over the stimulus), but conservative voters have come to expect such frontal opposition that such footage could very well damage Grayson. After all, they fit well in Paul’s efforts to portray himself as the conservative who right-wing voters can trust because he is an outsider and an activist, while Grayson is part of the GOP establishment that Tea Partiers feel is too cozy with the Democratic elites.

Another remarkable aspect of this Grayson-Paul back-and-forth is the speed with which the latter’s campaign unveiled a response; who could have expected when he declared his candidacy that he would have the financial capacity to pull off such a solid campaign? In any case, If Grayson was hoping that Paul’s strength would dissipate as we got further away from the 2008 cycle, during which Ron Paul’s supporters were an organizational sensation, this past week-end must have forced him to realize it would not be the case: At the yearly CPAC conference, Ron Paul for the first time won the presidential straw poll, breaking Mitt Romney’s 3-year winning streak. This obviously does not mean much insofar as a 2012 bid is concerned, nor does it provide direct help for Rand Paul’s Senate campaign, but it simply serves as one more reminder that the libertarian groups that have allowed the family to become such formidable figures within the Republican universe should not be underestimated.

The scope of a high-turnout 50-state presidential primary might have been to large for this organizational muscle to translate well at the polls, but now that we are in a one-state campaign (in a medium-sized state no less) that should be decided by relatively low turnout, Rand Paul’s grassroots support could be more decisive - especially when we consider that the GOP electorate is in a different mood this year than it was in 2008 and that this activist base is being complemented by more institutional support than Ron Paul could have dreamed about: Sarah Palin endorsed Rand’s Senate candidacy last month. It is unclear whether the former Governor will actively campaign for Paul, though groups like Dick Armey’s Freedom Works should help him.

One key question that could go a long way towards deciding primary: Will the Club for Growth intervene? Speculation that the conservative PAC would endorse Paul dates back to November, when both candidates reportedly met with Club officials in Washington, but they have yet to do so despite already making decisions to intervene in Utah and Florida’s Senate primaries, both of which will be held much after Kentucky’s. Its reluctance to endorse Paul is perhaps due to the fact that Grayson himself is a Club member, and that he doesn’t seem as obviously offensive to conservatives than someone like Crist and arguably Bennett’s by Utah standards.

While the Reids are in rough shape, Nevada Dems should keep up hope

State Senator Mark Amodei has dropped out of the Nevada Senate race. Despite or because (depending on your take on the cycle) the fact that he is the only candidate who holds elected office, he failed to get much traction; he was unable to overcome his lack of name recognition due to his meager fundraising.

He was hoping he could have a geographical advantage as the only candidate from Northern Nevada, while David Tarkanian and Sue Lowden both come from the Las Vegas region; but Sharron Angle’s entry in the race blew to that prospect. He also had no obvious ideological niche to exploit: While Lowden is a fragile front-runner due to hostility among some conservatives, Amodei couldn’t expect much support from the party’s most motivated faction given that his name was closely associated with a push to raise or create twelve taxes at once - a tough record to defend in a GOP primary.

His withdrawal leaves a crowded field battling it out for the right to face Reid: former party chair Lowden, real estate developer Tarkanian, former Assemblywoman Angle and banker Joe Chachas, and at least 5 other lower-profile candidates.

Three weeks from the filing deadline, I have to admit that I am surprised the Republican field remains as underwhelming as it was in the fall: Sure, Reid is so unpopular that one of these individuals might very well beat him in November, but the NRSC could make this strong opportunity a near-lock if it convinced a politician like Rep. Dean Heller to jump in the Senate race after all - just as happened in Arkansas when Rep. Boozman announced he’d challenge Blanche Lincoln. Yet, it looks like Lieutenant Governor Brian Krolicki’s decision not to run a few weeks ago was the last recruitment shoe to drop.

In what looks like it could be at least a 9-way race, it should not take a large share of the vote for a Republican to advance to the general election, which means any of the candidates I mentioned above has a shot at the nomination.That includes New York banker John Chachas, who at the moment has no name recognition whatsoever but he is apparently willing to spend a lot of money: As of the end of 2009, he had donated $1,3 million of his own fortune to his campaign. Of course, many unknown businessmen who try to buy themselves Senate seats fail (the latest: Steve Pagliuca) but Lowden and Tarkanian are weak front-runners. In fact, Chachas drew favorable reviews for his latest debate performance, whereas Lowden has failed to impress.

The confusion that is still reigning in the GOP field (and the ensuing prospect that the party will produce a weaker nominee than it should) is not the only factor that should give Harry Reid hope he could still survive. I already mentioned a few weeks ago that a Tea Party had qualified as an official Nevada party and was planning on fielding a candidate in the Senate race. We now have our first look at the effect this would have on the general election, via a Public Opinion Strategies survey that tests a three-way race between Reid, Tea Party candidate Jon Ashjian (who seems to have no public record I can find) and various Republicans - and while Reid’s standing is certainly nothing he should boast about, these have to be the most favorable match-ups he has seen since the summer.

While Reid has routinely trailed by double-digits in polls conducted since August (and this poll makes it clear why, since Reid’s favorability rating is a dismal 35-58) he trails Lowden by a less catastrophic 5% (42-37), with Ashjian at 9%. Against Tarkanian, Reid is only down 40-39, with Ashjian at 11%. Against Angle, Reid actually grabs a 37% to 32% lead, with Ashjian at 16%. The clearest sign that conservative-minded voters are just as willing to vote for a Tea Party than for a GOP nominee when they know about neither candidate comes in the Chachas match-ups, as Ashjian comes out ahead of the banker (22-21) with Reid at 39%.

Of course, it is very possible that Ashjian’s support recedes to the 5%-7% range once a Republican is chosen as the nominee and increases his or her notoriety; but his presence on the ballot certainly looks like it could have a non-marginal effect on the race. The GOP could be in particular trouble if Lowden is the nominee: While Ashjian receives his lowest share of the vote against her, she would probably give him the biggest opening since she inspire mistrust among the hard-right. With Jim DeMint opening the door to supporting third-party bids against the Republican nominees, it seems more likely that Ashjian could hope for such institutional backing if he faces Lowden than Tarkanian or Angle. (While I am more unsure about Chachas’s ideological profile, his background as a New York banker could allow the Tea Party to play a more populist card.)

Dems can also hope for positive developments in non-federal races

The POS poll I cited above also suggests that all is not lost for Democrats over in the Governor’s race: While no one is denying that Governor Jim Gibbons is the clear underdog in his primary fight against former Attorney General Brian Sandoval, the same survey finds him trailing only 38% to 32%, within the margin of error. Voters who have definitely made up their mind favor Sandoval by just 1%, suggesting the Governor is closer to surviving the primary than we might think.

However unpopular incumbents get, they more often than not keep the support of their own party’s base, which is what makes the position of politicians like David Paterson and pre-switch Arlen Specter so shocking. Gibbons is probably too damaged to have a shot at moving to the general election, but his dismal standing among the electorate-at-large (a 29-58 favorability rating) does not mean he is universally despised among Republican voters. Of course, for Gibbons to pull a June upset would be amazing news for Democrats: While Rory Reid trails Brian Sandoval 50% to 34%, he leads the governor 47% to 36%.

The last reason Nevada Democrats should not let Harry Reid’s unpopularity and Rory Reid’s probable presence at the top of their ticket lead them to despair is that they are in a good position to keep the state legislation, which they fully control for the first time in two decades. While Democrats have a 28-14 edge in the state Assembly, their majority in the state Senate is a far narrower 12-9. While you would expect this to mean the GOP would have a good opportunity to take over the upper chamber, only 5 Democratic seats are in play, which gives Republicans little room to maneuver to pick-up the two districts they’ll need.

While Democratic state Senator Joyce Woodhouse appears to be the cycle’s most endangered incumbent, because the district she represents (Henderson) is divided as closely as it gets between the two parties. If Election Night is rough for Democrats, Woodhouse could very well lose, but the GOP’s second best opportunity is an open seat in a district in which Democrats outnumber Republicans 2:1. That the GOP’s rationale for why they think this race is vulnerable is that Democrats’ (June) primary is pitting two Assemblymen against other suggests Republicans can’t expect to regain any power in the legislature before at least 2012.

Yet two more breaks for House Republicans

The NRCC was spared two big headaches this week-end: Rep. Bill Young has decided to run for re-election and ex-retiree Rep. Jim Gerlach finally succeeded at clearing his primary field. Not that Democrats are particularly optimistic about their chances of playing offense this year, but these two developments significantly diminish the party’s chances of picking-up either of their districts, rare GOP-held seats the DCCC had been eying.

No open seat in Pinellas County

79-year Bill Young has been in the House for 40 years, which makes him the longest-serving Republican in either chamber of Congress. The former chair of the Appropriation Committee, he used to be one of Washington’s most powerful politicians but is now relegated to the ranks of a largely powerless minority; even if the GOP regains control in 2010, he’d be unlikely to have anywhere near as much influence as he did between 1999 and 2005. This combination of factor has made him a fixture of retirement watches for years now, and there were a lot of reasons to believe Democrats (who have never been able to lay so much as a glove on him) would finally get their shot at the open seat this year.

For one, he explicitly stated he was undecided about whether he’d run. Second, he faced his first credible Democratic challenger in decades, as he at the very least needs to seriously campaign against state Senator Charlie Justice; would he have it in him to do so after 19 re-election races that have nearly all been uncompetitive? Third were his fundraising reports, which were so low that he could only be discouraging contributions: How can the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee raise only $750 in the fourth quarter otherwise? The question remains all the more puzzling that he has hasn’t shown animosity to off-year fundraising in the past.

Yet, the open race won’t be for this year. At an event held on Saturday night as a tribute to the congressman, Young announced he would run for a 21st term.

In normal circumstances, an incumbent who represents a district won by the opposing party’s presidential candidate (Obama carried the district by 4%), who has banked only $750 in the latest quarter and who faces a 10-year state Senator would be considered highly vulnerable. But these are hardly normal circumstances and Young is clearly favored to win in November. The electorate is too hostile to Democrats for the party to have a shot at ousting any but the least entrenched Republican incumbents, especially Young whose stature would make it tough for Democrats to defeat him in a favorable environment, let alone in 2010. Furthermore, as a senior member of the Appropriations Committee he should have no trouble quickly filling his campaign coffers. Finally, Democrats have generally been down on Justice since last spring, and whatever confidence they once had Justice could defeat Young has largely evaporated.

While Young’s decision considerably diminishes Democrats’ takeover prospects in a rare district they are targeting, there is a convincing reason (articulated by James L. over at SSP) to think Young’s decision should come as a relief to Democrats: Given that the party has been waiting for his retirement for much of the decade, it could have been a waste to have it come in the one cycle in which open seats are bound to favor Republicans. (In 2006 and 2008, Democrats had no difficulty holding open seats in tough districts like OH-06 and OR-05.) Had Young retired now, the GOP would have been favored to defend the seat whereas in most future cycles an open seat should be no worse than a toss-up for Democrats. Can the DCCC be that unhappy they might have a shot at a Young-less district in 2012 rather than in 2010? (A major caveat: redistricting could alter the district’s boundaries.)

None of this means we should entirely take our eye off of this district this year. Justice remains an experienced politician with a strong foothold in the district while an aging congressman who has not had to seriously campaign for decades is prone to gaffes that can endanger his re-election. Look at IL-08 in 2004, when 36-year incumbent Phil Crane despite the year’s being a tough one for Democrats.

(An other Florida district became the subject of retirement rumors on Friday, when 66-year old Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite announced she’d make a major announcement, which turned out to be that she is getting married. Not that Democrats would have had much of a shot at an open seat here: FL-05 gave Bush and McCain double-digit victories.)

No primary for Gerlach

PA-06 was one of the cycle’s most vulnerable seats until Rep. Jim Gerlach dropped out of the Governor’s race and announced he would seek re-election after all. That was a major blow to Democrats, since they were well-positioned to pick-up an open seat in a district that went for Kerry by 4% and Obama by 17%, but they clung to the hope that Gerlach might not be able to survive the May primary: Gerlach found himself in early January with no campaign structure and next-to-money he could use, whereas two credible Republicans were in the race refusing to drop-out.

State Rep. Curt Schroder lasted less than a week, leaving businessman Steven Welch as Gerlach’s sole GOP opponent. While Welch was clearly an underdog, he had more than $650,000 in the bank at the end of 2009, he was apparently willing to pour in much more from his personal fortune and he was clearly a credible enough candidate that the NRCC was once busy touting his entry as a recruitment coup. At the very least, he would have forced Gerlach to use whatever campaign cash he could come with by May 18th, making him an easier target for Democrats.

But Welch has now ended his campaign, taking with him the millions the DCCC was hoping would indirectly help its cause. (One reason that might have contributed to his decision is that his moderate profile made it impossible for him to hope for the support of the Club for Growth or of Tea Party groups, which might have considered backing a challenge to Gerlach otherwise.) Gerlach is now certain to be the GOP nominee on the November ballot, which considerably increases the party’s chances.

That said, Democrats should not give up on PA-06: With two hotly contested statewide races on the ballot in November, the party will have a full-blown turnout machine working the Philadelphia suburbs, so they might as well work against Gerlach at the same time as they’re working against Toomey and Corbett. Also, Manan Trivedi and Doug Pike had already put together top-tier campaigns before Gerlach’s re-entry and while their chances would have been much higher come 2008, it would be a waste for the party to give up now. After all, the DCCC has to play offense somewhere.

Note that this district was gerrymandered to favor Republicans in 2001. If Democrats have some control over the next redistricting process, they should be able to impose a more favorable redrawing of Philadelphia’s suburbs. Even if Republicans have full control, it’s tough to see how they could make it that much more protected, though depending on the November results they could try to draw PA-07 bluer to get PA-06 redder.

Weekly update: Besides the IN confusion, KS Dems hope they’ve finally found someone to field

The week started in unexpectedly dramatic fashion when Senator Evan Bayh drove a stake to the DSCC’s hopes of not having to also worry about Indiana; it should also lead to an additional open seat in the House - though we won’t know that for sure until the Democratic party committee taps a replacement for Bayh. Another state with important developments this week was Ohio, which became the 8th state to move past its filing deadline, as I wrote about yesterday.

But forget Evan Bayh: The biggest shocker of the cycle is that Democrats are landing statewide candidates in Kansas! State Senator Tom Holland announced this week that he would take on Senator Sam Brownback in the Governor’s race, giving Democrats hope of at least pulling off a decent showing at the head of the ticket  (that could have repercussions down-ballot). While Holland is the heavy underdog, Democrats are quick to note that he beat two Republican incumbents in 2002 and in 2008 to first be elected to the state House and the state Senate. The party will also milk the one advantage its candidate will have in these difficult circumstances: attack Brownback for practicing “Washington-style politics” while touting Holland’s local roots. “He hasn’t been in Washington for 16 years, he’s been here - building a business, raising his family and serving his community,” said Lieut. Gov. Troy Findley.

Democrats are also hopeful that Holland will inspire state Senator David Haley to jump in the open Senate race, where they currently have no candidate. Since the GOP nominee will be a U.S. House member, this could help the party use the same template in both statewide races, but more on this if Haley actually pulls the trigger.

In California, Senator Diane Feinstein finally put the speculation to rest for good as she closed the door to a gubernatorial run without allowing herself any hedges. This confirms what we have known since the fall: Attorney General Jerry Brown faces no real competition for the Democratic nomination, which few people could have expected as the cycle started given how many ambitious politicians California has. I do think the party could have positioned itself better for the general election; not only can Brown be attacked for being the consummate insider, but how credibly can he propose to fix the state’s terrible fiscal situation given his responsibility in the passage and implementation of Prop 13? In other statewide news, San Fransisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, last seen dropping out of the Governor’s race, prepared himself to run for Lieutenant Governor, a surprising move given that the job doesn’t have any real power as opposed to being mayor of a major city.

In Minnesota, the once very large GOP field has now been reduced to just three candidates as state Senator David Hann became the fifth candidate to drop out. That leaves state Rep. Marty Seifert, state Rep. Tom Emmer and former state Rep. Bill Haas as the only politicians seeking the Republican nod, with Seifert and Emmer looking like the clear front-runners ever since Norm Coleman passed on the race. Hann’s withdrawal could help Emmer, as both men represent Hennepin County while Seifert is from Southwestern Minnesota, though ultimately this could matter little since the nomination should be decided at a convention at which I believe a candidate needs 50% of delegates. (I wrote more about Minnesota last month.)

In North Carolina, there is now a fourth candidate seeking the Democratic nomination: Marcus Williams, an attorney from Lumberton. While he would not appear to be a threat to win the nomination, he could pull a significant share of the vote: In the 2008 Senate primary, he received an impressive 13% of the vote (more than 170,000 votes) and won more counties than Jim Neal despite the fact that the latter’s challenge to Kay Hagan won more attention nationwide. If Williams can once again draw a substantial share of the vote, it could help Elaine Marshall by making it difficult for one of her rivals to differentiate himself and get momentum - but it could also ensure that no candidate tops 50% in the May 4th first round. [Correction: In NC, a candidate needs to get only 40% to clinch the nomination in the first round. That diminishes the possibility Williams's entry to prevent Marshall from avoiding a runoff, while the point about his fracturing the field too much for one candidate to catch-up remains valid.]

In Iowa, one of the four Republican candidates dropped out of the Governor’s race: state Rep. Bob Rants, who served as the state’s Speaker between 2003 and 2006. This leaves former Governor Terry Branstad, Bob Vander Plaats and state Rep. Rod Roberts. Rants’ withdrawal improves Vander Plaats’s odds of pulling an upset against Branstad but potentially helping him coalesce the support of conservatives, over which the two men were competing (Rants for instance said that he would veto every single bill that comes out of the state legislature, including the budget, until both chambers vote on a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage). After all, while Branstad has had problem with his right flank throughout his decades in politics, he is too formidable a candidate to envision him losing in a crowded field with numerous conservative candidates.

In Rhode Island, it long looked like no one wanted the GOP’s gubernatorial nomination but there is now a second candidate in the race: former state Rep. Victor Moffitt while go after John Robitaille, the incumbent Governor’s communications director. Neither can be sure to be a competitive general election nominee, but the more state Republicans get invested in their nominee the harder it could be for the now-independent Lincoln Chaffee to pull out a victory in a 3-way race.

As always, I list all the changes I have logged in during the week to the retirement and race-by-race pages. First, updates to Retirement Watch:

New open seats Senator Evan Bayh (D, Indiana)
Will not retire Rep. Pat Tiberi (R, OH-12)
Rep. Bill Young (R, FL-10)
Added to retirement watch Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D, IN-08)

Next, the recruitment page:

AZ-Sen, GOP Chris Simcox dropped out
IN-Sen, Dem Rep. Joe Donnelly added to list
Rep. Brad Ellsworth wants the Dem nod
Rep. Baron Hill added to list
Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott wants the Dem nod
businesswoman Bren Simon added to list
state Senate Minority Leader Vi Simpson ruled out run
Evansville mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel ruled out run
IN-Sen, GOP Don Bates Jr is running
plumbing company owner Richard Behney is running
Governor Mitch Daniels will not run
KS-Sen, Dem state Senator David Haley added to list
NC-Sen, Dem attorney Marcus Williams announced run
OH-Sen, GOP Charlena Renee Bradley is running
Traci Johnson is running
OH-Sen, GOP car dealer Tom Ganley dropped out

Third, updates to gubernatorial races:

CA-Gov, Dem Senator Dianne Feinstein will not run
IA-Gov, GOP state Rep. Chris Rants dropped out
KS-Gov, Dem state Senator Tom Holland is running
MI-Gov, Dem former Treasurer Robert Bowman will not run
county Treasurer Dan Kildee formed exploratory committee
MN-Gov, Dem state Senator David Hann dropped out
NE-Gov, Dem agribusiness executive Mark Lakers added
PA-Gov, Dem Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty dropped out
RI-Gov, GOP former state Rep. Victor Moffitt announced run
SC-Gov, Dem Mullins McLeod dropped out

Filing deadline passes in Ohio, Indiana

Two new states saw their filing deadlines pass this week: Ohio and Indiana. This means retirement/recruitment season is already done in 8 states. This allows us to take a detailed look at the state of play in all 27 of these state’s House races, as well as their two Senate contests. (Note: Next up is North Carolina, with a February 26th deadline.)

Ohio: No retirement, 7 races to watch

All 18 of Ohio’s congressmen (10 Democrats and 8 Republicans) will seek re-election. Of them, a third look like they will have to fight off a competitive challenge come November, 5 of them Democrats in OH-01, OH-13, OH-15, OH-16 and OH-18. OH-12 is probably the only GOP-held seat to watch, though OH-02 could still be worth monitoring as the district has produced many fireworks in recent cycles. However, a lot depends on what happens in the May primaries, as at least two candidates highly touted by the NRCC face very crowded fields in which their victory is far from certain.

Rep. Steve Driehaus of OH-01 is arguably the most endangered of the state’s incumbents as he is sure to face former Rep. Steve Chabot, whom he defeated two years ago, in the general election: No other Republican filed. Next on the list is probably OH-15, in which state Senator Steve Stivers should have little trouble securing the Republican nomination for a rematch over now-Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy. The trouble for Stivers could come in the general election: former Hilliard Mayor David Ryon has filed to run as the Constitution Party candidate and he could draw a substantial share of the vote because of conservative mistrust towards Stivers. (In 2008, two conservative candidates totaled more than 10% of the vote, helping Kilroy defeat Stivers.)

OH-16 is home to yet another Democratic freshman, and while Rep. John Boccieri looks in a better shape than his colleagues 5 Republicans are going after him. The front-runner is financial consultant Jim Renacci, whom the NRCC is hoping will self-fund; Renacci also used to serve as Mayor of Wadsworth, a small town of about 18,000 people. Yet, Renacci should face a tough primary against a crowed field of 4 other candidates. In particular, two of his opponents (Matt Miller and Paul Schiffer) ran in 2008 and received 42% and 10% of the vote - showings that are all the more impressive given that they came against a state Senator who secured the nomination with just 47%. In short: Renacci is in no way certain of winning the GOP nod. I’d guess the NRCC will turn away from the district f Renacci loses.

In OH-18, Rep. Zach Space long hoped he would not have to face a top-tier GOP opponent, but those hopes faded back in September when state Senator Bob Gibbs agreed to jump in. In a district George W. Bush twice won by double-digits, this could be a tough challenge to overcome. The twist: there are a total of 9 candidates seeking the Republican nomination, including 2008 nominee Fred Dailey (the former head of the Ohio Department of Agriculture), former state Rep. Ron Hood, and candidates who have never ran for office but who should enjoy support among Tea Party activists (The Chillicothe Gazette has a full rundown). When we are talking about this crowded a primary, as little as 15-20% could get you the nomination and all bets are off as to who could emerge as Space’s opponent.

Last is OH-13, which is the week’s big surprise as the GOP is only able to put Rep. Betty Sutton on its list because of a last-minute decision by auto dealer Tom Ganley, who dropped out of the Senate race to announce he’d run for the House. To be sure, this is a blue district that gave John Kerry and Barack Obama double-digits victories, and if Republicans defeat Sutton they are likely already on their way to a House majority. But Ganley should nonetheless be quite a headache for Democrats: He was willing to spend more than $1 million of his own fortune on the Senate race, money he’ll now use against Sutton, potentially forcing the DCCC to play in this district rather than devote those funds to the state’s many other vulnerable Democrats. A key question: Can Ganley survive the primary? A surprise can’t be ruled out i a 6-way field filled with political novices, but Ganley’s money should carry him through.

Democrats are targeting a seat of their own, OH-12. The filing deadline is all the more newsworthy here that Rep. Tiberi has been the subject of some speculation rumors, but we now know for sure he is seeking re-election. In the general election, he is sure to oppose Franklin County Commissioner Paula Brooks, who would have had far better chances in the previous two cycles but who we should nonetheless keep track of. Finally, there is OH-02, a staunchly conservative district the GOP has struggled in because of Rep. Jean Schmidt’s persona. But the Democratic state legislator the DCCC was touting dropped out in November, leaving the party in the hands of a trio of candidates: Surya Yalamanchili, a political novice whose claim to fame comes from a bout on Donald Trump’s The Apprentice, PaulDavid Krikorian, who got double-digits running as an independent in 2008, and Jim Parker.

That leaves us with 11 districts which will almost certainly not host competitive races.

Democrats Marcy Kaptur (OH-9), Dennis Kucinich (OH-10), Marcia Fudge (OH-11) and Tim Ryan (OH-17) should be safe. It should be noted that Kucinich didn’t draw a single Democratic opponent in OH-10 despite the fact that he had to face a few relatively competitive primaries in recent cycles. Furthermore, I have read that the GOP might look to contest Marcy Kaptur’s seat (but it would be a huge upset for former Food Town CEO Rich Iott or former Toledo Police Chief Jack Smith to defeat the longest-serving woman in Congress in a district that gave Obama 62%.

In addition, OH-06 has to be a disappointment for the GOP. This is a district that twice voted for George W. Bush and went for John McCain in 2008, albeit very narrowly; it’s also a district represented by a sophomore Democrat. And yet, the NRCC never made noise about challenging Rep. Charlie Wilson. As a result, the incumbent’s chief challenger is the man he already crushed in 2008 (62% to 33%), former Belmont County Sheriff Ohio Richard Stobbs. While repeat candidates are sometimes successful, it is difficult to go from a 29% defeat to a victory (even Nancy Boyda had not lost by quite that much in 2004), especially considering also made an unsuccessful run for this seat in 2006, this time losing in the GOP primary. This is one potentially tough district that Democrats should be able to hold.

Republican Reps. Michael Turner (OH-3), Jim Jordan (OH-4), Robert Latta (OH-5), Steve Austria (OH-7), John Boehner (OH-8) should be safe. All represent slightly-to-staunchly red districts, though OH-03 is competitive enough that Democrats should have a chance when Turner retires. Another Republican who looks safe despite the fact that John McCain just barely won his district is Rep. Steve LaTourette (OH-14); his main Democratic opponent is former appeals judge William O’Neill, who was already the party’s nominee in 2008. LaTourette lost by more than 20% that year, making it hard to see how he could lose to the same candidate under so much more favorable circumstances.

There were no surprises in Ohio’s statewide contest: Rob Portman and John Kasich are likely to coast to the GOP nominations, Ted Strickland will represent Democrats in the Governor’s race, and there were no major last-minute entrants in the Brunner-Fisher battle for the Democrats’ Senate nomination. That said, the last-minute entrance of two women, one of which has done work for Fisher, has led Brunner’s camp to accuse its rival of foul play.

Indiana: Uncertainty reigns

Indiana’s filling deadline was supposed to be met uneventfully, but Evan Bayh’s last-minute retirement announcement upended the landscape by forcing Democrats to figure out how to replace him. Yesterday’s deadline came and passed with no Democratic qualifying for the Senate ballot, which means a party committee will be able to choose a general election candidate after the May 4th primary results in a vacancy. Meanwhile, there will be 5 Republicans battling for the GOP nomination: former Senator Dan Coats, state Senator Marlin Stutzman, former Rep. John Hostettler, plumbing company owner Richard Behney and Don Bates Jr.

While all 5 of the state’s Democratic congressmen are running for re-election, one district could still open up if Baron Hill, Brad Ellsworth or Joe Donnelly are tapped to run for Senate, an additional headache for the DCCC to think about. All three Democrats filed for re-election, despite speculation that Ellsworth might not do so and put pressure on the party committee to give him the nod. The Republican fields, however, are locked in all three districts.

If Ellsworth does not move to the Senate race, he would be heavily favored to defend IN-8 as the GOP field is rather underwhelming. If Ellsworth withdraws before the primary, the Democratic nominee will be state Rep. Trent Van Haaften, the only other Democrat who filed (in coordination with Ellsworth). If Ellsworth withdraws after winning the primary, there will be a vacancy on the House ballot that the state party committee will be called to fill. While an open seat would be tough for the DCCC to defend, the fact that the GOP did not have time to recruit a top candidate will help Democrats; heart surgeon Larry Bucshon would be a credible Republican nominee with a good shot at winning, but other GOPers would have given the party better odds - not to mention Bucshon can’t be sure to win the 8-way primary!

If Hill does not move to the Senate race, he should face a top-tier race in IN-9 against whoever wins the GOP primary: Attorney Todd Young and former Rep. Mike Sodrel would both be strong general election challengers. If Democratic officials want to tap him for the Senate race, they’ll have him stay on the May 4th House ballot and withdraw after the primary to avoid having the nomination go to one of two little-known candidates. In IN-2, Rep. Joe Donnelly is the only Democrat to have filed, so for him to move to the Senate race would make for a fairly straightforward transition at the House level. Republicans are looking to contest this seat, with state Rep. Jackie Walorski and three other candidates seeking the nomination.

The six other districts are unlikely to change hands. Democratic Reps. Visclosky (IN-1) and Carson (IN-7) are safe, as are GOP Reps. Burton (IN-5) and Pence (IN-6). It is worth keeping an eye on IN-3, where Rep. Mark Souder is facing doctor Tom Hayhurst who has been attracting some buzz, but however unimpressive Souder’s hold on the seat has been Democrats aren’t in a position to win a district that voted for Bush by 37% in 2004 in this environment.

Finally, IN-4 is sure to host a highly competitive race - but only in the GOP primary. Just as we expected when Rep. Steve Buyer announced his retirement on January 29th, Democrats are not in a position to compete in a district that gave Bush a 39% victory in 2004 (McCain only won by 13%). On the other hand, a total of 11 candidates are seeking the Republican nod, a crowded field headlined by Secretary of State Todd Rokita, Greenwood Mayor Charles Henderson, state Senator Brandt Hershman and state Senator Mike Young.

Poll watch: GOP dominates IN and IA, has fighting chance in VT and CA

Given how much of this week’s has had us talking about Indiana, it is no surprise that its most noteworthy poll also comes from the Hoosier State: Rasmussen tested the Senate race sans Bayh - and the results are atrocious for Democrats. Reps. Brad Ellsworth and Baron Hill would be crushed by whichever Republican they are up against: Dan Coats leads them 46-32 and 48-32, John Hostettler is up 49-31 and 46-27 and even Marlin Stutzman has decisive leads, 41-33 and 40-30. If these numbers are confirmed by other pollsters, Indiana would no doubt move towards North Dakota.

Yet, it is in not certain that other pollsters will find similar results, as we already know that Rasmussen’s number are in flagrant contradiction with Research 2000 released last week. While R2000 did not test other Democrats but Bayh, it did find Coats with a 38/33 favorability rating; Rasmussen has it at 54/27. (I’ll pass on the other weird internal of Rasmussen’s poll: How can a first-term state Senator [Stutzman] have the same name recognition as a congressman?) Given that Research 2000 had found Bayh in a far stronger position when matched-up against Hostettler than Rasmussen had found last month, it’s probably safe to say their numbers would have found Ellsworth and Hill in a far more competitive position than this Rasmussen poll does.

Does this mean we should trash Rasmussen and cherry-pick Research 2000’s survey? Of course not! But we shouldn’t do the inverse either. At the moment, only two polling outlets have tested Indiana’s Senate race and both have released surveys with no glaring problem that paint a very different landscape. (Of course, this has happened in other states, most notably in Colorado where Rasmussen and R2000 have a very different take on Michael Bennet’s electability.) We will need more polling evidence to figure out what to make of all of this, and it’s too early in the cycle to decide what’s an outlier and what’s not.


Wisconsin: To my knowledge, Rasmussen and PPP are the only pollsters to have recently tested Tommy Thompson’s prospects and their results are so at odds that it is a shame no other firm is releasing a Wisconsin poll. After all, the main reason Rasmussen’s finding that Thompson would start as the front-runner has become conventional wisdom is that they are releasing a survey of the state every few weeks, and indeed a new Rasmussen poll conducted this week finds that Senator Russ Feingold trailing Thompson 48% to 43%. Feingold’s favorability rating is a mediocre 50/48 while Thompson’s is an impressive 63/34, which is the main difference with PPP since that pollster found the former Governor rather unpopular. In any case, Thompson is not running as of now and Feingold leads two low-profile Republicans - albeit by underwhelming margins: 47% t o 37% against Westlake, 47% to 39% against Terrence Wall.

North Carolina: No surprise in PPP’s monthly look at Senator Richard Burr (yet another race that is pretty much tested by only one firm). As always, he has a comfortable lead against his rivals; as always, he is very far from the 50% threshold and his approval rating is mediocre (35/35). Against Elaine Marshall, he leads 43% to 33%; against Cal Cunningham, 44% to 32%; against Kenneth Lewis, 44% to 31%. That said, those numbers are clear improvement over the December and January numbers, since Burr only led Marshall by 5% and 7%. Another bad sign for Democrats: For the first time in January, Marshall performed better than a generic Democrat, a potential sign that her campaign was catching on, but she has once again fallen behind. PPP also tested the Democratic primary, finding Elaine Marshall ahead but certainly not by enough to look like a safe bet: She has 29% versus 12% for Cal Cunningham, 5% for Kenneth Lewis and 2% for new candidate Marcus Williams, who I had not heard of before this poll.

Illinois: Internal polls are only good insofar as the other camp chooses not to release a contradictory survey so it looks like the two parties have fought themselves to a draw in Illinois. Two weeks after Mark Kirk publicized an internal poll finding him leading Alexi Giannoulias, it is now the Democrat’s turn to release a Greenberg Quinlan Rosner survey that has him up 49% to 45%. Combine that with PPP and Rasmussen’s contrasting results (the former has Giannoulias up 9%, the latter Kirk up 6%), and thi is one race whose polls are all over the map.

Iowa: Democrats have never thought of Iowa as a strong opportunity, but given the number of their incumbents who are struggling to lead unknown Republicans it must be jarring to see Senator Chuck Grassley with 56% to 35% lead in a new KCCI-TV poll. Combine that with Grassley’s strong approval rating, and it certainly doesn’t look like there is anything to see in this Senate race.

Oregon: Rasmussen has released the first poll I am aware of that tests Senator Ron Wyden, and Democrats can be relieved that there isn’t yet another bad surprise. Wyden’s approval rating stands at 55-36, making it hard to see how the GOP can find an opening to defeat him. However, even he fails to crack the 50% threshold when matched-up against his largely unknown opponent, Jim Huffman, though his 49% to 35% lead is nothing for Democrats to get panicked by. Also today, SUSA found Wyden’s approval rating to be a respectable 50/37, which is a better spread than Jeff Merkley’s and Barack Obama’s.

Washington: While two surveys find Wyden with a strong approval rating, Patty Murray might not be holding on as well - at least according to SUSA. The senator’s approval rating has collapsed to 43% to 50%, by far the lowest SUSA has ever found Murray in 5 years of polling. So is this poll an outlier or does it serve as more evidence that the GOP can put Washington in play if it recruits a strong candidate?


Vermont: While this open race has looked like one of Democrats’ top opportunities of the cycle, Republican Lieutenant Governor would more than hold his own against a series of Democratic candidates according to Research 2000: He trails Secretary of State Deb Markowitz within the margin of error (43-41), leads state Senator Doug Racine 43% to 38% (also barely within the MoE) and has decisive leads ranging from 10% to 18% against lower-profile Democrats (Peter Shumlin, Matt Dunne and Bartlett). A major caveat: No more than 11% of Republican respondents say they are undecided in any of these match-ups, between 25% and 36% of Democrats say the same. When we account for that, Markowitz does start as the front-runner and the other Democrats have a lot of room to grow.

Iowa: Governor Chet Culver trails his chief Republican challenger Terry Branstad 53% to 33% in the latest Des Moines Register poll and 54% to 38% in a new Research 2000 poll conducted for KCCI-TV. Six months ago, those numbers would have been jaw-dropping; now they’ve come to be expected. The former Governor’s entry in the race has made Culver look like one of the surest gubernatorial losers of the year. The one thing that could save him would be for Branstad to be upset in the GOP primary since Culver is far more competitive against 3 other Republicans (in the DMR poll, he trails Vander Plaats by 3% while leading state Rep. Roberts by 5%; in R2000, he leads Vander Plaats by 3% and crushes Roberts by a surprising 22%). While he reaches 48% in Research 2000’s most favorable match-up, he doesn’t break 41% against any rival in the DMR survey. Combined with his dismal approval rating (36-53), this makes it hard to see how he could survive.

California: For a year now, Rasmussen has found tougher results for California Democrats than PPIC and the Field Poll, and its latest round of gubernatorial numbers are no different since Meg Whitman forces a 43%-43% tie against probable Democratic nominee Jerry Brown. Brown does have a wide 46%-34% lead against Steve Poizner, however. What should be comforting to Democrats is that this comes from Whitman’s remarkable popularity (56-28) rather than because Jerry Brown is unpopular (his favorability rating is a decent 53-41) or because the electorate has soured on Democrats (Obama’s approval rating is a solid 57-42). As long as Democrats don’t fall asleep as they did in Massachusetts, their attacks combined with Poizner’s should at least be able to increase Whitman’s negatives.

Interestingly, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s approval rating is a disastrous 26% to 73% in this Rasmussen poll and 19/80 in a newly-released SUSA poll. Republicans sure are lucky he is term-limited.

Nevada: The latest numbers of this Governor’s race are more encouraging than usual for Democrat Rory Reid, as Brian Sandoval’s lead is not as overwhelming as usual (44% to 35%) but then again it is a survey conducted by a Democratic firm, Grove Insight. The poll also confirms  just how much Democrats stand to benefit if Governor Jim Gibbons somehow manages to survive the GOP primary; weighed down by a catastrophic approval rating (20-75!), Gibbons would be crushed by Reid 49% to 33%. The survey also finds that Rory’s father Harry Reid is in bad shape, however: His approval rating stands at a dismal 34-63.

Open seats: Field takes shape in Kennedy’s RI-01, Charlie Bass seeks to recapture NH-02

RI-01: Prominent candidates seek Kennedy’s seat

Patrick Kennedy’s retirement is sure not causing recruitment headaches for Democrats, as two major candidates have already entered the race: Providence Mayor David Cicilline, who was expected to run for Governor but chose not to do so, and state Democratic Party chairman William Lynch. A number of other Democrats could still enter the race, for instance Reps. Edwin Pacheco and Jon Brien (here’s a full rundown), but Cicilline and Lynch will surely not complain that Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts (another politician who unexpectedly passed on the Governor’s race) stuck to her plan of seeking re-election rather than running for Kennedy’s seat.

Cicilline has a progressive reputation; while I am not sure about Lynch’s ideological profile, his brother (Attorney General Patrick Lynch) is running for Governor as the liberal alternative to centrist Treasurer Frank Caprio so it would be somewhat confusing if William campaigned to Cicilline’s right. Note that Cicilline would be a more dominant candidate if all of Providence was contained in the district, but Rhode Island’s largest city is divided between RI-01 and RI-02; if he prevailed, Cicilline would be the third person elected to Congress as an openly gay politician.

Of course, winning the Democratic primary will not be enough as the GOP is hoping state Rep. John Loughlin can be competitive despite the district’s red lean. But the biggest wild card remains Buddy Cianci, the former Mayor of Providence who recently spent four years in federal prison and who as been mentioned as an independent candidate. While I was not sure whether to take the possibility seriously at first, Cianci himself said he is considering the race. While his conviction for racketeering would be too much for any politician to overcome, Cianci probably kept enough residue support from his 25 years as mayor to be a player in a 3-way race. While Cianci would probably draw more votes from Loughlin (he was a Republican in his first decade as Mayor, though he quit the party in 1982) but he could also put victory within his reach by lowering the share of the vote the GOP nominee needs.

NH-02: As expected, Charlie Bass is running

Charlie Bass’s decision to seek his former House seat won’t come as a surprise, but he had left enough bizarre hedges to his previous statements of interest that Democrats might have been still hoping he would end up not running. In 2006, Bass lost in an upset against Democrat Paul Hodes, who is now his party’s probable Senate nominee. While NH-02 is the more Democratic of New Hampshire’s two seats (it gave John Kerry a 5% victory and Barack Obama a 13% triumph), this open seat is very dangerous territory for Democrats since New Hampshire is the type of state in which independents’ partisan swings have big consequences (as we saw in 2006, as few other states were submerged by such a large blue wave).

As a 12-year congressman with a relatively moderate profile (he led a GOP rebellion against Tom DeLay in 2005, he is pro-choice, he chaired the Main Street Partnership), Bass should make the most of the year’s GOP bent; a UNH poll released last week found him handily leading Democratic candidates. Yet, his moderate credentials could also mean trouble in the GOP primary: The party’s 2008 nominee, radio talk show host Jennifer Horn, is also running and she is known as more of a conservative. Bass is certainly worried enough that he is moving to embrace Tea Partiers: “As far as the tea party movement is concerned I love em. God bless every single one of them,” he said last week. “Because you know what their agenda is exactly the same is mine. They want a new environment in Washington.”

The Bass-Horn primary will not be the district’s only ideologically loaded contest, as Democratic voters will have to choose between attorney Ann McLane Kuster and Katrina Swett, a former Lieberman ally who lost to Bass in 2002. Emily’s List has endorsed Kuster, which should guarantee she can be competitive against the well-funded Swett, who has money left over from her short-lived Senate campaign in 2008. I am somewhat surprised that more Democrats have not entered the race, since the party does have a deeper bench of elected officials than Kuster and Swett’s front-running status would indicate.

Democrats have yet to give up on KS-03; GOP might do so in DE-AL

With Kansas Democrats are suddenly enjoying an unexpected streak of good recruitment news in the two statewide races (more on that later), they aren’t quite ready to give up KS-03, a district that might be tough to hold but that did vote for Barack Obama in 2008. While Kansas City Mayor Joe Reardon’s exit was a big blow to the party’s prospect, Democrats are now hoping to recruit either state Senator Kelly Kultala or the retiring incumbent’s wife Stephene Moore. (While the Kansas City Star is reporting she is interested, that would be a surprise since it would mean the current congressman would be back on the campaign trail and still in D.C. rather than retired.) KS-03 remains one of the GOP’s top opportunities, but it is not quite as far gone as LA-03 and TN-06, which Democrats appear to have all but given up.

One district that could soon join the ranks of uncontested open seats is DE-AL, left open by GOP Rep. Mike Castle. Not that this district isn’t already considered likely to switch to Democrats, but it looks like the NRCC will also cross the district off its list now that businessman Anthony Wedo has dropped out. Why was the GOP so high on Wedo and not on businessman Fred Cullis, who is running? The reason seems to be all about money: Wedo would have self-funded his campaign while Cullis doesn’t seem likely to do so.

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