Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Most Vulnerable Senator Up for Re-Election in 2010?

By Stuart Rothenberg

Move over, Jim Bunning. You have company.

Veteran Sen. Chris Dodd (D) should not be vulnerable in his home state of Connecticut. As a longtime officeholder in a reliably Democratic state and the chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, Dodd should have the stature, political base and access to resources to dissuade even the most ambitious of Republicans from challenging him for re-election.

But the darkening cloud that is growing over the Senator’s head has changed Dodd’s prospects quickly, and the signs already are clear that he’ll have the fight of his life next year when he seeks his sixth consecutive term in the Senate.

Coverage of Dodd’s special treatment from lender Countrywide Financial — and his designation as a “friend of Angelo” — has blanketed local media, severely damaging Dodd’s standing in a state where Democrats hold better than 2-1 majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature, hold all of the Congressional seats and haven’t lost a U.S. Senate race since 1986.

Only one Republican, Lowell Weicker, has won a Senate race in the Constitution State since Prescott Bush did so in 1956. (Bush defeated Democrat Thomas Dodd, the current Senator’s father.)

Chris Dodd has had no serious tests since he coasted to victory in an open-seat House race in the very Democratic year of 1974. Dodd’s closest race since then was his first bid for Senate, in 1980, which he won by “only” 13 points over former New York Sen. Jim Buckley (R). Buckley had lost re-election in the Empire State in 1976 and figured that he might as well run for the Senate in neighboring Connecticut.

But this cycle is shaping up very differently. A March 26-28 Quinnipiac University poll of registered voters showed Dodd with a 30 percent favorable/58 percent unfavorable rating and his job approval at 33 percent approve/58 percent disapprove. Four in 10 Democrats disapproved of his job performance.

More troubling, he was 16 points behind Republican opponent Rob Simmons, a well-regarded former Member from eastern Connecticut who was overwhelmed in the Democratic wave of 2006. Dodd was losing independents by more than 2-1, and Simmons was winning more than 1 in 4 Democrats.

The poll also showed Dodd trailing Waterbury state Sen. Sam Caligiuri, who recently entered the race, and former Ambassador to Ireland Tom Foley, who is considering his options. Caligiuri held a 4-point lead over Dodd even though 88 percent of those responding hadn’t heard enough about the state lawmaker to have an opinion of him.

Dodd’s position now is an excellent example of how quickly things can change. Until the Countrywide Financial story broke last summer, Dodd’s chairmanship looked like a political asset. But now it is a double-edged sword, causing more light to be shined on him and his dealings with the financial community and exposing him to criticism that creates electoral problems for him back home.

Dodd, it should be noted, insists he has done nothing wrong and never knew he was receiving special treatment from Countywide (an assertion that some have disputed).

But in addition to his Countrywide problems, the Senator has also been forced to return contributions from R. Allen Stanford, a financier accused of defrauding investors, and admitted that he had been involved in the process that ultimately stripped from the stimulus bill a provision that would have limited bonuses American International Group executives eventually received.

The Senator said that his admission about his role in modifying the bill (at the request of Treasury Department officials) did not amount to a reversal of his initial explanation, but local and national media certainly played it as a switch.

To make things worse, Dodd’s wife was also on the board of directors of IPC Holdings, a Bermuda-based insurance company controlled by AIG.

Finally, and not insignificantly, Dodd riled some Connecticut voters when he moved his family to Iowa during the 2008 presidential contest, even going so far as to enroll his eldest daughter in a Des Moines kindergarten.

All of that adds up to political baggage that would fill one of Dodd’s mortgaged homes.

But Republicans ought to be realistic about their chances of ousting the Senator. Dodd is an incumbent who can raise more money than most candidates would ever need, and his Democratic label is a significant asset in the state.

Moreover, while the Senator has already hired an experienced campaign manager, at some point later this year thoughts of retirement will cross his mind — if his prospects look as bad as they now do. If he were to decide against seeking re-election, Democrats would likely find a strong candidate to replace him, reducing the GOP’s chances in the race.

Further, Republicans are headed to a two-way or three-way primary, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has already started attacking Simmons. A Senate bid would be a big step up for Caligiuri.

The primary, which could be expensive, both complicates GOP prospects and reflects Dodd’s vulnerability. You can be sure that Simmons and Caligiuri wouldn’t be in the race if Dodd had not been damaged by recent news stories and events.

It seems as if every election cycle one supposedly safe Senator up for re-election somehow finds himself in an unexpectedly difficult race. In 2004, it was Bunning. In 2006, it was Sen. George Allen (R-Va.). Last year, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) was forced into a runoff. It already looks as if Chris Dodd will join that select club next year.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on April 6, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.