Monday, June 22, 2009

Connecticut Senate: For Dodd, the News Is Decidedly Mixed

By Stuart Rothenberg

Since my April 6 column (“The Most Vulnerable Senator Up for Re-Election in 2010?”), Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) has had his ups and his downs. His supporters happily point to a number of “ups.”

After playing a highly visible role in the bank bailout, Dodd led the charge on a credit card bill that should find favor with consumers. The Senator received positive ink about the bill and about his role in its passage, and he will use it to make the case for his effectiveness to state voters.

And now, the Connecticut Democrat also finds himself pinch-hitting for Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) as the Senate takes steps to write a health care reform bill.

So Dodd is square in the middle of the biggest legislative battle that President Barack Obama is likely to face in his four-year term, and if Congress can get a bill to the president’s desk, Dodd can also take credit for being a major player in that dramatic piece of legislation.

Some observers have commented that Dodd has “rebounded” from an April Quinnipiac University poll that showed him trailing former Rep. Rob Simmons (R) by a stunning 16-point margin. They point to a May 20-25 Quinnipiac survey of 1,575 registered voters that showed Simmons with “only” a 6-point lead over Dodd, who is in his 29th year in the Senate.

But Democratic insiders say they never believed the large deficit, and they remain convinced that while the Senator is weaker than they would like, he has weathered the worst of the political storm.

And Democratic political operatives point out that Dodd eventually will face a Republican who will have spent resources and positioned himself to get through a GOP primary, and that the Republican nominee will have warts that can be exploited.

“Gravity will take hold in a very blue state. If [Dodd] were running in North Carolina, this would be a very, very difficult race,” one Dodd ally said.

All of that is true. But for every step forward that the Connecticut Democrat takes toward re-election, he seems to take one backward.

Months ago, Dodd’s problems involved a sweetheart loan he received (possibly unknowingly) from the CEO of Countrywide Financial as a “friend of Angelo” and questions about his role in a bill that didn’t limit bonuses to executives from mismanaged financial institutions. (His move to Iowa during his quixotic 2008 presidential run remains a sore spot with some voters, too.)

Now, the Senator is taking some hits in local media for allegedly failing to list on Senate financial disclosure forms the accurate value of a cottage he owns in Ireland.

“A new appraisal of the Irish cottage owned by Sen. Christopher Dodd concludes that it is worth about three times as much as Dodd has been reporting on his financial disclosure forms,” two Hartford Courant reporters began their June 13 front-page story.

The same article raised the issue of Jackie Clegg Dodd’s income. Dodd’s wife is on the boards of a number of health care companies, and the Senator’s Democratic primary opponent, Merrick Alpert, a businessman who served on Vice President Al Gore’s advance team, didn’t hesitate in lobbing criticism.

“The fact that Mrs. Dodd receives half a million dollars a year to sit on the boards of companies that are regulated by Sen. Dodd’s committee is further evidence of the need to clean up the corrupt system in Washington,” Alpert said, according to the Courant.

While some observers continue to speculate that Dodd eventually will decide to take a graceful exit and not seek re-election, all of the evidence is to the contrary.

Knowledgeable Democrats say the Senator is increasingly committed to the race, and they point out that a number of his closest advisers — including pollster Stan Greenberg and his wife, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), strategist Jim Jordan, media consultant Saul Shorr, campaign manager Jay Howser and Chief of Staff Miles Lackey — are unlikely to shy away from a fight.

“The Senator seems fully committed to running,” one savvy observer says. “There is no sense that he will re-evaluate his options in the future. In fact, he and his people think they are in a little better place now. They feel like they’ve dealt with a lot of [stuff] and things can’t get much worse. Plus they look at the Republican primary” and feel good.

My own view is that it’s unwise to over-interpret the Quinnipiac University poll numbers from month to month. Dodd’s showing in the April survey looks unreasonably poor given the March and May results, so portraying the May numbers as a “rebound” is unwise.

That said, there is a general pattern in the Senator’s poll numbers. Dodd has now been stuck in the upper 30s or low 40s in the general election ballot test for three straight months, and his job approval (38 percent) and favorable name ID (40 percent) in the most recent Quinnipiac survey are equally horrendous for a veteran incumbent. He has been seriously damaged personally.

Dodd’s problems seem unlikely to simply go away, and the kinds of controversies that have dogged him could continue to “drip, drip, drip” for many months. He must now “educate” voters on his accomplishments — which is why he already has run two ads on Hartford TV — and make his re-election a referendum on Barack Obama, George W. Bush and his eventual GOP opponent.

That’s an embarrassing position for a five-term incumbent to be in, and it suggests that he will be in a tenuous position for re-election for months, no matter what happens with health care reform.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on June 18, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.