President Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. won’t be on the midterm ballot next year, but their former Senate seats will be, and both races are now either tossups or leaning Republican in high-visibility contests.
Mr. Obama, who was a freshman senator from Illinois when he was elected president, and Mr. Biden, who was in his sixth term as a senator from Delaware, come from states that have been running strongly Democratic in past elections. No one doubts that Mr. Obama would have been a re-election shoo-in had he remained in the Senate and that Mr. Biden had his seat for the foreseeable future.
But in another sign of political winds that appear to be blowing against the Democrats in the 2010 cycle, Republicans and independent political analysts say the chances are at least even that their seats could be taken over by two strong Republican candidates next November, when the GOP is expected to make gains in Congress and in the state governorships.
“Not to steal one of President Obama’s favorite words, but in Illinois and Delaware, Republicans have a truly historic opportunity to win both the president and vice president’s Senate seats, and we’re fortunate to have the strongest possible candidates already in the race,” said Brian Walsh, chief spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
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“There is still a long way to go until the election, and we certainly expect polls will fluctuate, but it’s clear that even in traditionally blue states, voters are demanding accountability and want to restore checks and balances in Washington,” Mr. Walsh said.
In Illinois, where Democrats are still reeling from an explosive “pay to play” corruption scandal that led to the arrest and impeachment of Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, five-term Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, the expected Republican nominee, is running for Mr. Obama’s seat. The Democratic front-runner is state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, whom an opposing Democratic campaign adviser calls a “deeply flawed” candidate.
Illinois Republican leaders have been pounding Democrats for widespread corruption in the state’s government, noting Mr. Giannoulias’ ties to real estate developer and Democratic fundraiser Tony Rezko, who was convicted last year of fraud and money laundering.
“His family bank, where Alexi served as an officer, made loans to Tony Rezko, who is now sitting in a penitentiary,” Republican state chairman Pat Brady said.
But Democratic campaign strategists have been among Mr. Giannoulias’ critics, too.
“Alexi Giannoulias’ own vulnerabilities are so significant, and far more damning than Kirk’s among the electorate. … His nomination would put Barack Obama’s former Senate seat in extreme jeopardy for the Democrats,” pollster Geoff Garin said last month in a widely distributed polling memo for Senate candidate David Hoffman, who is opposing Mr. Giannoulias for the Democratic nomination.
Earlier this year, the White House and state Democratic leaders thought that state Attorney General Lisa Madigan would guarantee that Mr. Obama’s seat would remain in Democratic hands. But after getting the full Oval Office treatment to persuade her to run, she turned down Mr. Obama.
Party strategists say Mr. Giannoulias was their second choice, though White House adviser David Axelrod, who lobbied for Ms. Madigan, isn’t enthusiastic about the turn of events. “She would have walked into the seat,” he told the New York Times last month.
“The Blago saga will hang heavy over our politics,” Mr. Axelrod said.
Sen. Roland W. Burris, who was appointed by Mr. Blagojevich to fill the vacancy, decided not to seek the election after he became the target of a Senate ethics committee investigation arising out of the corruption charges against Mr. Blagojevich. He was cleared of wrongdoing, but the panel said he had provided “incorrect, inconsistent, misleading” information about his conversations with the embattled governor and that his actions were “inappropriate.”
The latest Rasmussen poll has Mr. Kirk, a party moderate who represents the northern suburbs of Chicago and has regularly won support from Democrats and independents there, in a statistical dead heat with Mr. Giannoulias, trailing the Democrat by 42 percent to 39 percent last week. An earlier poll had them tied at 41 percent.
Mr. Brady, who is privy to internal Republican Party polls, said Mr. Kirk “will win by five points or more. I don’t think this is as close as pollsters say.”
The Cook Political Report and the Rothenberg Political Report are calling the contest a tossup, but both election handicappers think the Republicans have a good shot at taking the seat.
“The state has a strongly Democratic bent, but the party’s [corruption] problems, questions about Giannoulias, and an unusually appealing moderate Republican nominee give Democrats major problems in the Land of Lincoln,” the latest Rothenberg Political Report said.
Mr. Biden’s seat in Delaware also appears vulnerable. Rep. Michael N. Castle, a Republican who has won nine statewide elections as the state’s only House member, has been leading state Attorney General Beau Biden in polls. Mr. Biden has delayed saying whether he will be a candidate for the remaining four years of his father’s term.
Mr. Castle, a 70-year-old former governor, is a moderate whose cross-party appeal has drawn support from Democrats and independents over a political career that spans more than 40 years. A recent head-to-head voter survey by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic polling firm, showed Mr. Castle leading the younger Mr. Biden by 45 percent to 39 percent.
A Public Policy Polling analysis of its findings pointed to two strong trends in Mr. Castle’s favor: a 52 percent to 23 percent lead among independent voters, and the fact that he draws far more support from Democrats than Mr. Biden does from Republicans. The analysis found that 48 percent of Democrats view the Republican lawmaker favorably, while 15 percent of Republicans have a positive view of the 40-year-old Mr. Biden.
Independent analysts still think the vice president’s son will enter the race, but there has been growing speculation about why he has not revealed his intentions more than two months after Mr. Castle announced his candidacy. He returned home in October after a year’s tour of duty in Iraq and has been spending more time with his family while he considers his options.
“Both personally and politically, this was necessary and smart. There probably isn’t much of a need for Biden to establish his campaign early, since he doesn’t need to build a brand-name recognition and certainly won’t encounter any trouble raising money,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior elections analyst at the Cook Political Report.
Stuart Rothenberg has put the Delaware Senate race in his “lean Republican Takeover” column but cautions that “even if Beau Biden takes a pass on the contest, the combination of the state’s Democratic bent and Castle’s popularity strongly suggest a very competitive contest.”
But many oddsmakers and analysts still think the edge goes to Mr. Castle. “This race is close, and Biden, if he gets in the race, will have a decent shot at winning. But Mike Castle looked like the favorite last winter, and nine months later he still does,” said an analysis on Public Policy Polling’s Web site.
• Donald Lambro can be reached at email@example.com.
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