Senate Picture Clouded by Primaries, Uncertainties

Posted October 30, 2009 at 11:23am

A year out from the 2010 midterm elections, the Senate battlefield is anything but easy to read. The landscape features a dozen close contests, around nine serious primary battles and the possibility that a few incumbents might not even make it to the general election.

It’s enough to make a political prognosticator pine for the simpler days of handicapping Senate races.

Perhaps, say, November 2007. Back then the story line was pretty simple.

Democrats were on the march with pickup opportunities in seven races while Republicans could only point to Louisiana as their lone serious pickup opportunity. And with the exception of competitive primaries on both sides of the aisle in New Mexico, there was little doubt as to who would be on the ballot in those Senate contests come November 2008.

Fast-forward two years and Republicans now are finding good opportunities in heavily Democratic territory — like Illinois and Connecticut.

Still, a year before the midterm elections, both sides remain confident about their ability to pick up seats.

Uncharted Waters

The uncertainty surrounding next year’s political environment is probably the biggest reason that the Senate playing field is more cloudy than it was at this point in the previous cycle. A new president, an unstable economy and the introduction of several of the biggest policy initiatives in recent history make it hard to predict exactly how the electorate will be feeling or behave in 12 months.

“The political environment was much more defined in 2007,— GOP pollster Glen Bolger said. “There’s a lot more uncertainty about the direction the political environment is headed. I think if there were more clarity on that, you’d see the Senate races shake out a bit more.—

In some of the more high-profile primaries, there are ideological battles being waged to determine which direction the country should be moving in.

“You’re seeing on both sides a struggle for identity,— Democratic pollster Dave Beattie said. “And you’re seeing it more in Senate races than gubernatorial races because Senate races are much more about a national partisan ideology whereas governors’ races, there’s always a significant local angle. … I think you’re seeing on both sides a struggle between the more ideological pure members of the party and the more moderate members of the parties … for who’s going to control the seat.—

Democrats are seeing that battle take place in Pennsylvania, where party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter is being challenged in the primary by Rep. Joe Sestak, who is positioning himself as the true Democrat in the race.

Republicans, meanwhile, are watching Florida Gov. Charlie Crist — who has been endorsed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee — take fire from the right in his battle with former state Speaker Marco Rubio, who is gaining support from prominent national conservatives. In Kentucky, anti-tax activist Rand Paul (R) is trying to run to the ideological right of Secretary of State Trey Grayson (R), the establishment choice in the contest.

In some unsettled primaries, it’s hard to tell at this point who the establishment candidate will be.

Kentucky Democrats are facing a nasty primary that pits two prominent statewide officials against each other. The Democratic primary in Ohio is now likely to be a less dramatic affair since Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher appears to be pulling well ahead of Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner as the establishment frontrunner. Brunner’s dismal fundraising has also led to questions about whether she can remain viable in the race.

Republicans, meanwhile, have primary headaches of their own in states that are considered key pickup opportunities, including Colorado, Connecticut and Nevada.

Obama Vs. Bush

Republicans argue that the increased interest they’ve gotten from candidates is just one positive benefit they’ve reaped from having Democrats control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. And while the GOP plans to use President Barack Obama and his agenda in starring roles in campaign ads next fall, the Democrats are still hoping to reap some benefit from residual unhappiness with President George W. Bush.

“We have an embarrassment of riches here in terms of good candidates stepping forward to run,— NRSC Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said last week. “It’s an indicator that people sense an opportunity and the public fears what they see coming out of Washington.—

Cornyn said he’s not necessarily worried about the prospect of waiting for a primary to determine the party’s nominee in a highly targeted race.

“It would be presumptuous of me to somehow suggest that somehow I’ll have some disproportionate influence over who’s going to be the nominee,— he said.

As for GOP incumbents who are up this cycle, Cornyn said his advice has been to not take anything for granted in such a volatile environment.

“I do believe there is a significant anti-Washington mood out there and significant anti-incumbent mood. But clearly the Democrats have the tougher time of it because they are clearly in charge and there seems to be considerable pushback to their policy proposals on health care and otherwise,— he said.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) said that when it comes to the issues, candidate recruiting, incumbent preparation and committee finances — including the DSCC’s $3.6 million cash-on-hand lead over the NRSC — he likes his position better than Cornyn’s.

“Next year they are going to have bequeathed to us the two most important issues that people I think are going to be deciding this election on — economy and health care,— he said. “They will have said no to everything, been for nothing. That’s a tough way to run.—

Menendez said a major problem for Republicans next year will be that they’ve gotten behind “retreads— like Rob Portman, a former Ohio Congressman and Bush administration official, and Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a former member of House GOP leadership.

“If I was the Republicans, I would be looking for new, fresh candidates who couldn’t be sacked with the Bush era,— Menendez said. “I think they’ve ended up pursuing a bunch of candidates that actually are the face of the Republican Party of the past, and that is going to haunt them in the future in next year’s election.—

The Ones That Got Away

Before the page can be turned on the recruiting phase of the 2010 Senate cycle, it’s only fair to take a moment to remember those tantalizing top-tier potential candidates who slipped off the lines that national party strategists were casting.

At the top of that list for Republicans is Rep. Dean Heller (Nev.). The two-term Congressman was seen as the party’s top potential recruit against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and the one man who could clear the primary field. But after openly pondering the job for months, Heller, who earned a spot on the coveted Ways and Means Committee this year, opted to stay in the House in August, much to the chagrin of the NRSC.

In Florida, it’s easy to forget that neither Crist nor Meek were their party’s first choice for the open-seat contest.

Crist may be the odds-on-favorite now, but former Gov. Jeb Bush was the subject of much early excitement after former-Sen. Mel Martinez (R) announced his plans to retire late last year. Crist only came into the picture after the popular former governor passed on the race in early January.

After Bush passed on the contest, Democrats also lost their top potential recruit in Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink. She had long been considered a likely 2010 gubernatorial candidate and eventually went down that road. But it’s no secret that Senate Democrats wanted her to run, and she would have instantly given them a strong shot at picking up the open seat.

In North Carolina, meanwhile, Democrats also face the lingering question of who will step forward to challenge Sen. Richard Burr (R) after several top-tier recruits passed on the race.

Rep. Bob Etheridge (D) is reconsidering his earlier decision to pass, and if he declines he will no doubt be considered another recruiting failure for Democrats.

In the same vein, if Democrats aren’t successful in getting Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden into the open-seat contest, he’ll go down as a big one that got away.