- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2009

A rash of retirements among Senate Republicans plus difficult re-election prospects for several incumbents has boosted the Democrats’ chances to enlarge their majority beyond 60 seats next year for the first time since 1977.

All four Republican open seats in the 2010 midterm elections are in states where Democrats have won recent statewide races, offering their party “more opportunities this cycle, [and] giving Democrats a good shot at reaching or exceeding 60 seats,” says veteran elections analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

But Republican strategists say they expect the political environment to be friendlier to their party after nearly two years of the Obama administration and Democratic rule on Capitol Hill, and some candidates are already preparing to run.

Former Bush administration budget chief Rob Portman announced his candidacy Wednesday for the seat of retiring Republican Sen. George V. Voinovich of Ohio, one of a half-dozen Republican Senate seats considered to be in danger next year.

At the same time, a new poll released Wednesday said New York voters have noticeably cooled on Caroline Kennedy’s bid to fill Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s seat and now prefer state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo by 31 percent to 24 percent as the replacement for Mrs. Clinton when she is sworn in as secretary of state.

Mr. Portman, a six-term House member who headed the Office of Management and Budget and was U.S. trade negotiator for President Bush, is one of the GOP’s rising stars. But his state has turned sharply Democratic in recent elections as its manufacturing base rapidly deteriorated. All of the top state offices are held by Democrats and Mr. Obama carried Ohio in November by 200,000 votes.

“Our economy is in crisis, and Ohio has been hit especially hard. We need proven leadership with a track record of cutting through partisan politics in Washington to address the many challenges we face,” Mr. Portman said in a statement announcing his candidacy.

House Republican Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio immediately endorsed his former colleague, saying: “There is no stronger candidate to represent Ohio in the U.S. Senate.”

The Republicans who have announced they are leaving the Senate at the end of next year, in addition to Mr. Voinovich, include Sens. Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, Mel Martinez of Florida and Sam Brownback of Kansas. Thus far, no Senate Democrat has announced a retirement.

Several Republican incumbents are also considered vulnerable next year, including Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, whose affair with a prostitute damaged his re-election chances, and Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky, who narrowly won in 2004 with 51 percent of the vote.

“Whether he runs again or not, this seat is at considerable risk,” Mr. Rothenberg said last week in the Rothenberg Political Report.

Mr. Rothenberg says the political terrain for Republicans next year may be just as rough as it was last year, but with a few more caveats.

“Given the numbers and states involved, Democrats once again have the advantage this cycle. But much depends on retirements, candidate recruitment, party fundraising, the condition of the GOP brand and voters’ reaction to the Obama administration,” he said.

But former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, who successfully headed the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, is a believer in a long-acknowledged rule in congressional election politics: the party in power in the White House almost always loses seats in Congress in its first midterm election.

“Right now, the generic ballot and party ID are terrible for Republicans, but when you look at this historically, it is unlikely that’s where it will be in two years. Democrats now have the burden of government and making tough choices. Once they make those decisions, they are going to have disappointed elements in their coalition,” Mr. Davis said.

At least one Democratic senator up for re-election next year may be running into some trouble. Elections analyst Charlie Cook has called Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada “very vulnerable,” noting his “poll numbers are somewhat anemic.”

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