Thursday, January 14, 2010

Democrats Catch a Big Break in Connecticut Senate Race

By Stuart Rothenberg

If you are wondering why reporters ask politicians the same question again and again, it’s because you never know when a political figure is going to change his mind.

That’s exactly what Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd (D) did last week when he reversed himself and announced that he would not seek re-election in the Nutmeg State.

“I’m running for re-election,” Dodd told the media on July 31, the same day that he announced he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

Dodd had already begun airing TV spots even before that late July announcement. In early June, he spent more than $100,000 on a weeklong TV buy to boost his image. The ad included part of an Obama speech praising Dodd’s work on credit card legislation. About two weeks later, Dodd went up with another credit card ad, as well as a television spot featuring Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who has since passed away.

Dodd’s decision not to seek re-election probably was both personal and political.

The five-term Senator’s chances of winning another term have been “iffy” for a long time. The latest polling memo released in the Connecticut Senate race was intended to bolster his prospects. But any Democratic memo that asserts that the incumbent “is holding his ground” against his opponents and “can win next November” is an acknowledgment of weakness, not an assertion of strength.

The Dec. 21 memo from Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research about its Dec. 15-17 poll reported that Dodd trailed former Rep. Rob Simmons (R) by 5 points (51 percent to 46 percent) and was in a dead heat against Republican businesswoman Linda McMahon (46 percent apiece) in general election ballot tests.

And Dodd has plenty of reasons to be worried whether he was as close as the Greenberg numbers suggested. Earlier polling conducted by Quinnipiac University showed Dodd drawing 35 percent to 41 percent of the vote, significantly below where the Democratic incumbent was in the GQRR survey.

It is possible, of course, that Dodd had improved his standing over the previous three months and that he had increased his share of the general election vote. But it is also possible that GQRR’s polling overstated Dodd’s strength, just as the firm’s polls for Democracy Corps exaggerated Gov. Jon Corzine’s (D) standing in last year’s New Jersey gubernatorial contest.

In the last New Jersey pre-election poll, Democracy Corps found Corzine up by 5 points over challenger Chris Christie (R), while Quinnipiac had Christie up by 2 points and SurveyUSA had Christie ahead by 3 points. In early October, Democracy Corps had Corzine up by 3 points, while Quinnipiac had Christie up by 1 and SurveyUSA had Christie ahead by 3.

In fact, the same trend held in August, early September and late September Democracy Corps and Quinnipiac polling, with Corzine running 3 to 7 points better in GQRR polls than in Quinnipiac surveys. Corzine lost by 4 points on Election Day.

Dodd’s inability to move the ballot test much against Simmons even after push poll questions had to be stunningly disappointing for Dodd and his strategists.

Interestingly, the Greenberg memo made a great deal out of the Democratic Party’s advantages over the GOP in Connecticut and stressed President Barack Obama’s favorable rating. But the memo did not include the president’s job rating in the state or Dodd’s favorable/unfavorable or job approval numbers. If those numbers were good, I expect they would have been in the memo.

If Dodd was faring poorly in ballot tests even with the Obama and partisan numbers as good as they were, any weakening in the president’s standing or closing of the partisan gap between Christmas 2009 and Election Day 2010 would further undermine Dodd’s re-election prospects.

Dodd’s exit dramatically improves Democrats’ chances of holding the Connecticut seat and offsets the bad news for Democrats that North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) won’t seek re-election this year.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (D) immediately entered the Senate race and becomes a solid favorite to hold the seat for his party. After all, Dodd’s re-election problems stemmed from voters’ evaluations of him, not a sudden Republican turn in the state. Not surprisingly, a Public Policy Polling survey showed Blumenthal holding large leads over each of his potential GOP opponents.

Republican strategists, who were prepared to invest in this race to help the Republican nominee knock off Dodd, are already backing away from the Connecticut race, noting that while Blumenthal has to prove his mettle, the Dodd announcement simply has changed GOP calculations.

McMahon, the former World Wresting Entertainment CEO, has already put more than $2 million into her bid. Simmons, who has held a comfortable lead over Dodd in most polls, now faces a double fundraising problem, first in the primary and then in the general election, should he get that far.

For national and Connecticut Democrats, however, the GOP Senate race is no longer so compelling. They can start anew in a state with a favorable partisan terrain.

This column
first appeared in Roll Call on January 11, 2010. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.