Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Plus 10 in the Senate? Republicans Certainly Not There Yet

By Stuart Rothenberg

Having seen victories by Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, the 1994 Republican and 2006 Democratic Congressional sweeps, and Sen. Scott Brown’s (R) recent Massachusetts victory, I’m not inclined to rule out unexpected outcomes — especially nine months before an event.

But the recent explosion of talk of Republicans gaining 10 seats in the Senate is simply premature. Right now, the GOP has an opportunity to net as many as eight Senate seats. That’s a huge number, especially considering that Democrats have 18 seats up this fall, but it is well short of control.

The new political landscape has resulted in an improved environment for the GOP, including the very real possibility that the party can retain all four of its most vulnerable open seats, in Missouri, Ohio, Kentucky and New Hampshire.

For the moment, let’s assume the GOP avoids losing any of its own seats.

Republicans have the advantage in four Democratic-held Senate seats — North Dakota, Delaware, Arkansas and Nevada. In addition, they are no worse than even money in four others — Indiana, Illinois, Colorado and Pennsylvania.

So, any chance of gaining 10 seats would require Republican candidates to win at least two of the following four states: Connecticut, California, Wisconsin and Washington.

Early polling in Connecticut shows state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal ahead of both former Rep. Rob Simmons and businesswoman Linda McMahon, the two Republicans most likely to be the eventual nominee.

Simmons is a quirky ex-legislator who built a moderate record while representing eastern Connecticut in the House. McMahon is a wealthy, self-funding first-time candidate whose claim to fame and wealth, professional wrestling, is widely seen as crude and violent.

Sen. Chris Dodd’s (D) exit from the race hurt Simmons, whose main argument has been substance and electability. He is now an underdog for the GOP nomination. McMahon’s wealth (she has promised to spend tens of millions of dollars), outsider persona, poise and relatively conservative positioning makes her stronger than Simmons in a primary and potentially more of a threat to Blumenthal.

Still, both Republicans start far behind Blumenthal, in the polls and in handicapping. A four-term statewide officeholder, Blumenthal is a smart Democrat in a Democratic state. He’ll raise plenty of cash and begins with a clear advantage in the race.

In California, voters aren’t particularly enthusiastic about Sen. Barbara Boxer (D). She’s a polarizing political figure and running at or below 50 percent in ballot tests against either Assemblyman Chuck DeVore or businesswoman Carly Fiorina, two of the leading Republicans in the race.

Still, DeVore doesn’t have the breadth of appeal or money to defeat Boxer, while Fiorina has plenty of baggage.

Boxer’s prospects would take a hit, of course, if California Republicans were to nominate former Rep. Tom Campbell, a moderate who would have considerable statewide appeal — if he could accumulate the resources for an expensive statewide race. But Campbell’s past fundraising isn’t encouraging.

For now, Boxer’s weakness does not yet translate into a serious Republican opportunity.

In Wisconsin, some polling has shown Sen. Russ Feingold (D) having trouble in a race against former Gov. Tommy Thompson (R). The only problem is that Thompson isn’t now running for the Senate, though he is considering it. And Feingold, who voted against the Troubled Asset Relief Program, is a savvy politician who has developed a reputation for independence.

The main Republican contender currently is Terrence Wall, a prosperous real estate developer who put $300,000 into his campaign but hasn’t paid state taxes in nine of the past 10 years. Democrats apparently have other tax ammunition to use against Wall.

When I interviewed Wall recently, he refused to give his date of birth. He only offered the year of his birth (and his age), apparently because he is concerned about identity theft. Wall, in other words, has a long way to go before he is a serious threat to Feingold, even in a bad year for Democrats.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) is another smart politician, and while Republican insiders hope to recruit someone who can test the Senator, they don’t have a formidable challenger yet. Until they do, there isn’t any reason to see Washington as a GOP takeover opportunity.

Obviously, Sen. Evan Bayh’s (D-Ind.) sudden announcement Monday that he will not seek re-election improves GOP prospects in that state and therefore nationally.

While some polling showed the Democrat at risk, a recent Research 2000 poll for the liberal Web site the Daily Kos showed him leading former Sen. Dan Coats by 20 points. Bayh’s political savvy, strong connection to Hoosier voters and $13 million bank account would have made him a formidable foe for any Republican challenger, so his exit automatically improves GOP prospects, especially given the overall landscape of the election cycle.

Bayh’s retirement puts an eighth Democratic seat at considerable risk, forcing the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to be even more on the defensive than it was. But in another sense, it doesn’t change things fundamentally. For even after Bayh’s retirement, a Republican gain of 10 seats is more hype than reality.

This column first appeared in Roll Call and on on February 16, 2010. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved.