- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Five-term Connecticut Sen. Christopher J. Dodd unexpectedly has emerged as one of the most vulnerable Senate Democrats heading into the 2010 election cycle, with a new poll, a new challenger and new ethics problems all surfacing in recent days to give Republicans hope for taking the seat.

Mr. Dodd’s powerful perch as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee is proving a liability as the financial bad news keeps coming. His abortive presidential run - during which he moved his family to Iowa for a year - did not play well with home state voters. And a Senate Ethics Committee probe of his personal financial dealings has dragged on with no quick resolution in sight.

“It’s amazing because if you’d asked anyone two years ago if Senator Dodd was vulnerable, they would have thought you were nuts,” said Kenneth Dautrich, who teaches public policy at the University of Connecticut and founded the school’s Center for Survey Research and Analysis.

“Now all the indications are we are in for a real race,” he said.

The Republican Party has not fared well in New England in recent years, and Brian Walsh, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, acknowledges that the “demographics in Connecticut make it an uphill battle for us.”

“But there’s no question this could be a tremendous opportunity for us,” Mr. Walsh said. “If we want to pick up seats, we have to stay on the offensive, and we’re definitely doing that in Connecticut.”

Bolstering the Republican hopes was a new Quinnipiac University poll conducted earlier this month that found Mr. Dodd in a statistical dead heat with potential Republican challenger Rob Simmons, a former congressman who confirmed over the weekend he would enter the race.

Mr. Simmons, who barely lost his House seat in 2006, edged Mr. Dodd 43 percent to 42 percent in a head-to-head matchup, despite lacking the name recognition of his rival.

“These numbers have to worry [Mr. Dodd],” said pollster Douglas Schwartz. Mr. Simmons “is not well-known outside his district, yet he is running neck-and-neck with Dodd at this point,” he said.

Democrats caution that the election is a long way off and that Mr. Dodd is a proven vote-getter in his home state.

“Senator Dodd has been in the eye of the storm before,” said Eric Schultz, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “The voters can see he’s working every day with President Obama to get the economy back on track.”

Republicans also may be facing a divisive primary fight. State Sen. Sam Caligiuri and Tom Foley, a businessman from Greenwich, are also said to be eyeing the race, especially given Mr. Dodd’s unimpressive polling numbers.

The congressional banking committees have long been coveted as a conduit for campaign cash and support from the financial-services lobbies, but the political advantage has been tempered as the economy has soured. Mr. Dodd took a leading role in passing the original $700 billion Wall Street bailout package last fall, which has proved unpopular with voters.

In another sign of the pitfalls of his position, Mr. Dodd was the top congressional recipient in 2008 of campaign contributions from giant insurer AIG, now a focus of the public’s anger for its payment of bonuses to traders who racked up ruinous losses requiring a government bailout, according to the watchdog group Opensecrets.org.

Connecticut newspapers also have hammered Mr. Dodd in recent months over his personal finances.

Democrats already are hitting back at Mr. Simmons, releasing a statement Monday reprising the Republican’s praise of former President George W. Bush, an unpopular figure in Connecticut, and political contributions that Mr. Simmons received from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

But in one sign of the party’s nervousness, Mr. Dodd was quietly given a pass to vote last week for a Republican amendment on a spending bill that would eliminate the annual automatic cost-of-living pay raise for members of Congress. Most of Mr. Dodd’s fellow senatorial “old bulls” braved the political heat to vote against the amendment and defeat it.

Mr. Dautrich said the 2010 race will be decided by the large numbers of independents in Connecticut, whom Mr. Dodd has been able to win over in past races.

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