Friday, May 07, 2010

Why Illinois Senate Is a Tossup but N.H. Isn’t

By Stuart Rothenberg

Not long ago, my friends over at the Cook Political Report moved the Illinois Senate race from Tossup to Leans Republican, a significant development in my eyes.

Shortly after that development, my newsletter moved the New Hampshire Senate race from Tossup to Narrow Advantage for the incumbent party (my version of Leans Republican). But I did not move Illinois out of my Tossup category.


It’s probably important to note, right off the bat, that I am not on all that different a page from the Cook folks. Right now, I think the Republicans are positioned to win both Senate races. So it’s really a question of how comfortable each handicapper is about moving a particular race.

Despite what Granite State voters have done over the past two cycles, New Hampshire remains a competitive state. Recent Democratic gains in the state present an exaggerated picture of the state’s partisan bent, so it won’t be surprising if Republicans stage a comeback later this year.

I’ve met three of the four credible Republican candidates in the race — former Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, millionaire businessman Bill Binnie and conservative Ovide Lamontagne, the GOP’s unsuccessful gubernatorial nominee in 1996 — and all three should have considerable appeal in the primary and in the fall.

Lamontagne is often portrayed by Democrats as a knuckle-dragging right-winger, but he is personable, articulate and easy to like. Though he clearly has an ideological strategy, Lamontagne has not yet emerged as “the” conservative in the race, in part because Ayotte, who is every bit as personable as Lamontagne, is running as a conservative as well.

Stylistically, however, Ayotte should also appeal to moderates. In this respect, she resembles retiring Sen. Judd Gregg (R), who is clearly in her corner.

Binnie, who is pro-abortion-rights, is running as an outsider and painting Ayotte as the insider in the race. The wealthy businessman is investing heavily in his own bid, and as one Granite State Republican commented, “He doesn’t lack for self-esteem.”

Binnie portrays the race as between himself and Ayotte, but he too quickly dismisses Jim Bender, another businessman with personal resources, whose more moderate positioning surely is taking votes from Binnie.

Ayotte and Binnie, I expect, would be difficult opponents for Rep. Paul Hodes, the presumptive Democratic Senate nominee. So might Bender, though I haven’t met him yet.

Hodes is poised, confident and well-spoken, but he seems to think that he can make former President George W. Bush a major issue this year and that his own accomplishments in the House will demonstrate his independence and draw a favorable contrast with his eventual GOP opponent.

In fact, I think that Hodes is far too optimistic about his ability to dictate what the 2010 Senate race will be about.

National political currents (including intensity) are likely to favor Republicans, and as long as the GOP nominee isn’t hemorrhaging support after the primary, Hodes, who voted for the health care bill, cap-and-trade and the stimulus, will be on the defensive when the fall arrives. An improvement in the national mood would, of course, improve the Congressman’s prospects.

Recent polling suggests that Hodes is trailing a number of the GOP candidates (particularly Ayotte), and the overall dynamic — including strong Republican bids to win both of the state’s House seats — makes it more likely than not that Hodes will come up short in November.

Illinois Democratic Senate nominee Alexi Giannoulias isn’t in much better shape for November than Hodes. But he has one advantage: his state.

Illinois has an electorate that is much more favorable than New Hampshire for any Democrat, and while Giannoulias has plenty of headaches — particularly the failure of his family’s bank — I am less certain that Illinois voters won’t eventually return to their traditional partisan voting patterns before November.

Recent polling in the Land of Lincoln shows Republican Rep. Mark Kirk, a moderate who surely is his party’s ideal candidate for this seat, ahead in general election trial heats. But neither candidate is well-known statewide, even after their primary victories, so the race seems extremely fluid.

Moving Illinois to Leans Republican isn’t unreasonable. As I’ve already noted, I like Kirk’s current position in the horse race against Giannoulias. But I think it wise to see how that race unfolds and to look for more evidence that Illinois voters are making up their minds about both candidates, as well as about the president’s performance.

This column first appeared in Roll Call and on on May 6, 2010. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.