- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 24, 2009

It’s still an uphill fight, but Senate Republicans are finding the playing field has become just a little less tilted in the run-up to 2010 midterm elections.

The political circus engulfing beleaguered Illinois Sen. Roland W. Burris and the shaky prospects of appointee Democrats in Colorado and New York have given the minority Republicans the opportunity to go on the offense for a change after two election cycles in which the party was consistently on its back foot and lost more than a dozen seats.

Though Republicans face a difficult landscape in the early handicapping, “Democrats aren’t without worries, too,” says political handicapper Charlie Cook.

In 2008, no Senate Democratic incumbent on the ballot faced a serious challenge, according to the Cook Political Report. Already for 2010, Mr. Burris is rated as a “tossup” for re-election and the race of new Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, a relatively unknown schools chief tapped to succeed new Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, is rated as “leans Democratic.”

Democrats counter that the shift shouldn’t be overstated.

For the third cycle in a row, more Republican-held Senate seats (19) will be on the ballot in 2010 than Democratic-held ones (17), although the imbalance is far smaller than in either 2006 or 2008.

Four Republican incumbents #8212; Sens. Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, George V. Voinovich of Ohio, Mel Martinez of Florida and Sam Brownback of Kansas — already have announced they will not run again in 2010. Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, told reporters last week he is “probably not” running in 2010, and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican, is widely expected to resign her seat soon to run for governor.

In addition, Democrats believe Republican Sens. Richard M. Burr of North Carolina and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania are vulnerable in states carried by President Obama, while 77-year-old Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning has raised very little money and could face a tight fight.

By contrast, not a single Democratic Senate incumbent is expected to retire in 2010.

“I think even a cursory look at the map shows you that the fear has got to be on the other side,” New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez said last week at his first press briefing as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Nevertheless, Republicans still contend that the unrelieved gloom of 2006 and 2008 shows signs of lightening a little.

Former Virginia Sen. George Allen, who headed the Republican senatorial campaign in 2004 that produced a net gain of four Senate seats for the party, praised National Republican Senatorial Campaign head Sen. John Cornyn’s early efforts to recruit candidates and raise cash ahead of the 2010 races.

“A lot is still in play,” Mr. Allen said in an interview. “You always look first to defending what you have, and that will be tougher for John than it was in 2004.”

Mr. Allen recalled that two of his biggest victories in 2004 came in states where the Republican candidate emerged only late in the cycle: in Florida, where Mr. Martinez defeated Democrat Betty Castor, and in South Dakota, where John Thune ousted Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

Then, too, Democrats have been hurting themselves in states where it once was thought they were a lock.

The controversy surrounding Mr. Burris’ appointment by disgraced ex-Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich and new revelations of his promises to raise money for the governor have clearly put the seat once held by Mr. Obama in play. Republicans will either face a weakened Mr. Burris or an alternative candidate emerging after what could be a messy primary fight.

Mr. Obama’s penchant for picking his Senate colleagues for administration jobs has made his party’s task harder in 2010.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the upstate New York congresswoman chosen to replace Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, could face a strong Democratic primary challenge, and she trails former House colleague Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney in early polls.

In Colorado, Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. selected Mr. Bennet over a number of better-known Democrats to succeed Mr. Salazar. Mr. Bennet, whose campaigning and fundraising skills are largely untested, also could face a primary fight and a tough Republican challenge in two years.

History suggests that senators appointed to their office by governors are at best a 50-50 bet to keep their jobs when the voters weigh in.

Since the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913 setting out the direct election of senators and the means to replace them, 56 of the 183 appointed senators have lost in the next election, 60 have run and won, and 67 have declined to run again.

Republicans claim there even has been a bit of good news on the open seats they must defend.

In Florida, Democratic state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, considered her party’s best candidate for the Senate, announced she would not run, while polls say Republican Gov. Charlie Crist would be the clear early favorite should he enter the race.

In the swing state of Ohio, Democrats face a potentially divisive primary as both Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner plan to run for the seat being vacated by Mr. Voinovich. Rob Portman, President Bush’s budget chief and a former Republican congressman, is already lined up to run.

In Missouri, former House Minority Whip Roy Blunt confirmed last week that he will run for the Senate seat being vacated by Mr. Bond. He is seen as the strongest challenger to the presumptive Democratic nominee, Secretary of State Robin Carnahan.

With the fate of the national economy heavily tied to the Obama administration’s stimulus plan and financial rescue efforts, Republican strategists say the pool of vulnerable congressional Democrats could expand if the recession persists and deepens.

Connecticut Democrats have been jolted by slumping poll numbers for Democratic Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, under fire for personal financial irregularities and for his prominent role in the Wall Street bailout effort and the banking rescue plan as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee.

A Quinnipiac University poll earlier this month found that 51 percent of Connecticut voters said they “probably” or “definitely” would not vote for Mr. Dodd in 2010 #8212; the first negative rating ever for the five-term senator.

Republican party strategists say the fight to prevent a “filibuster-proof” Democratic Senate majority has given them a potent talking point and fundraising tool with potential contributors and candidates. With the Minnesota Senate seat still in the balance, Democrats are effectively two votes short of the 60-seat supermajority in the Senate.

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