- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 7, 2010

The retirements of two veteran Senate Democrats in two days this week underscore the political problems facing the party, with five other Democratic incumbents trailing potential Republican challengers in states where President Obama and his $1 trillion health care reform plan are increasingly unpopular.

From Nevada, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid faces a string of negative polls, to Arkansas, where Sen. Blanche Lincoln is polling at just 40 percent in head-to-head matchups with four potential Republican challengers, opposition to Mr. Obama’s agenda is causing problems for Democratic incumbents.

“As numerous polls continue to reflect, Americans in key battleground states disapprove of the president’s massive health care proposal and the partisan manner in which Democrats have pursued it,” Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told The Washington Times.

Five-term Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut announced on Wednesday that he was stepping down, a day after three-term fellow Democrat Sen. Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota opted not to seek re-election. In another unpleasant surprise for Democrats, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter also revealed Wednesday plans to retire.

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Democrats at one time hoped to build on their 58-40 Senate majority - or 60, when two independents who caucus with the Democrats are counted - in the 2010 midterm vote, with six Republican incumbents also stepping down this year. But now they face a starkly different political landscape and vulnerabilities they had not expected.

In at least seven states - Connecticut, Nevada, Ohio, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, North Dakota and Colorado - the Democratic candidate for Senate trails the Republican in the most recent polls. In those states, Mr. Obama’s popularity has dropped below the percentage of votes he drew in 2008, and opposition to the health care reform bill is deep and wide.

Connecticut Democrats received a bit of good news when state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, considered the party’s best hope of holding the seat, immediately announced that he would enter the race. By contrast, Rep. Earl Pomeroy, North Dakota Democrat, told reporters that he would not seek Mr. Dorgan’s Senate seat, in an expected contest with popular Gov. John Hoeven, a Republican.

Most striking is the plight of Mr. Reid. After shepherding the health care bill through the Senate - making deals throughout that Republicans decried - the senator from Nevada finds himself in political trouble with 10 months to go before Election Day.

Mr. Reid has been polling in the mid-40 percent range in recent surveys, trailing two lesser-known Republicans hoping to unseat him. In addition, the latest Rasmussen Reports poll found that 49 percent of Nevada voters have a “very unfavorable opinion” of Mr. Reid.

That number mirrors the unpopularity of the president in Nevada. Although Mr. Obama beat Sen. John McCain 55 percent to 43 percent there in 2008, now 55 percent disapprove of the president’s performance - including 44 percent who “strongly disapprove.”

The health care bill passed by the Senate fares even worse. Sixty-six percent of Nevada voters say the health care plan will raise the deficit. Seventy-five percent think Mr. Obama’s plan would result in a middle-class tax increase to pay for it.

“The White House has overshot the runway on many broad policy objectives in an effort to carry out a liberal agenda,” said Republican strategist Scott Reed. “Independent voters are turning on the president over the issue of spending and giving the GOP hope in many Senate races as Democrat candidates are torn between Potomac fever and their home-state priorities.”

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs rejected the idea that the retirements of Mr. Dodd and Mr. Dorgan could hurt the party’s hopes in November.

“It is hard to look into the crystal ball …,” he said. “There’s retirements on both sides of the aisle in the Senate. There will be the same in the House.”

Mr. Gibbs also defended Mr. Obama’s packed agenda, saying the senators’ decisions to retire did not indicate any pattern.

“I fail to see a commonality or a common thread that goes through each and every retirement,” he said.

But in state after state, Democratic incumbents and Mr. Obama’s agenda are facing an increasingly skeptical electorate.

In Arkansas, Mrs. Lincoln, a moderate who found herself in the middle of the national debate over health care, is paying a price. She trails four potential Republican challengers in the latest Rasmussen survey, with her support ranging from 39 percent to 41 percent in head-to-head matchups.

Opposition to the health care plan runs high in the state - 65 percent opposed - and 83 percent think it is likely to lead to higher taxes on the middle class. Mr. Obama’s job rating in Arkansas is dismal - just 34 percent now approve.

New York, one of the most liberal states in the country, where Mr. Obama defeated Mr. McCain in 2008 by a whopping 27 percentage points, now appears to be in play for 2010. The incumbent Senate Democrat, Kirsten Gillibrand, is in a statistical tie with a potential challenger, former Gov. George E. Pataki, based on an average of recent polls compiled by realclearpolitics.com.

The scene is similar in Ohio, where Mr. Obama beat Mr. McCain 51 percent to 47 percent. Just 44 percent of Ohio voters now approve of the president’s performance, according to the latest statewide poll - and only 41 percent approve of his health care bill.

Rob Portman, a former congressman and director of the Office of Management and Budget during the administration of President George W. Bush, leads Democratic Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher in a potential 2010 U.S. Senate matchup 38 percent to 36 percent, according to a Rasmussen poll conducted in December. The seat is being vacated by Sen. George V. Voinovich, a Republican.

Pollsters see a pattern.

“The health care debate has energized the Republican base and is helping at the moment with independents - many of whom are conservative-leaning and also frightened about spending trillions of dollars,” said pollster John Zogby.

In Connecticut, Mr. Dodd, 66, who was first elected to the Senate in 1980, was trailing all three Republican candidates, attracting just 35 percent to 40 percent of the vote. Even Linda McMahon, a former chief executive officer of World Wrestling Entertainment, polled six percentage points higher than Mr. Dodd.

In North Dakota, Mr. Dorgan, 67, was trailing Mr. Hoeven by 19 points, according to the latest Zogby poll. Just 30 percent favor the proposed health care reform plan, and Mr. Obama’s popularity among state voters has fallen to 41 percent.

“I have other interests, and I have other things I would like to pursue outside of public life,” Mr. Dorgan said in announcing his decision.

In Colorado, Mr. Ritter announced Wednesday that he would not seek a second term and said he wanted to spend more time with his family.

His surprise announcement immediately touched off speculation over who would seek the Democratic Party’s 2010 gubernatorial nomination. Among those mentioned as candidates are Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Rep. Ed Perlmutter.

Early polls showed Mr. Ritter trailing former Rep. Scott McInnis, the likely Republican nominee, but the governor insisted he was under no pressure from party officials to drop out of the race.

Some Democratic strategists acknowledge that the party must make an effort to explain the health care bill to voters.

“To win back independents, the case that must be made for health care is that it will save business money, save individuals money and reduce the deficit,” said party strategist Mary Anne Marsh. “Independents also care about the deficit in polls and showing that health care reform will reduce the deficit by $1.3 trillion over 20 years. If that case is made successfully as the economy begins to improve, then Democrats can minimize their losses.”

Another Democratic strategist, Liz Chadderon, said the year had just begun, “and we’re already behind.”

Midterm elections are always a referendum on the party in the White House, so, yes, if Obama has low approval ratings next November, it will hurt Democrats. And health care is hard to explain and easy to demonize, so if Democrats can’t show voters how it helps them in the long run, then it will become a problem,” she said.

c Valerie Richardson in Colorado and Kara Rowland in Washington contributed to this report.

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