While two Senate Democrats already have seen the handwriting on the wall and bailed out of re-election races, five others trail Republicans in states where President Obama and his trillion-dollar health-care-reform plan are increasingly unpopular.
From Nevada, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid trails badly, to Arkansas, where Sen. Blanche Lincoln is polling at just 40 percent in head-to-head matchups with four possible Republican challengers, opposition to the health-care bill is reverberating.
“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 of Texas, chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, told The Washington Times.
“An increasing number of voters, and particularly independents, have made clear they intend to hold Democrats accountable for recklessly spending their hard-earned taxpayer dollars and crafting this contentious legislation behind closed doors. Next November, we’re confident that voters will cast their ballots in favor of restoring the much-needed checks and balances in Washington.”
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.
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, and Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat, on Tuesday both dropped out of re-election bids, with Mr. Dorgan saying his decision “is not a reflection of any dissatisfaction with my work in the Senate.”
“After 35 years in Congress of representing the people of Connecticut, I will no longer be a candidate,” Mr. Dodd said at a press conference Wednesday afternoon outside his home in East Haddam, Conn. “This is my moment to step aside.”
Dodd acknowledged that wining re-election in 2010 would be difficult but said his recent bout with cancer and the deaths of a sister and Senate colleague Ted Kennedy contributed to his decision, which he made on Christmas Eve.
“Those challenges gave me pause and made me take stock in why I am running,” Mr. Dodd said, adding he was in “the toughest political shape” of his career. “I’m proud of the job I’ve done and the results delivered.”
Most striking is the plight of Mr. Reid, Nevada Democrat. After shepherding the health-care bill through the Senate — making deals throughout that Republicans decried — the Nevada senator finds himself in a pickle with 11 months to go before midterm Election Day.
Mr. Reid has been polling in the mid-40s in recent surveys, trailing two Republicans hoping to unseat him. In addition, the latest Rasmussen poll found 49 percent of Nevada voters have a “very unfavorable opinion” of Mr. Reid.
That number mirrors the unpopularity of the president in Nevada. While Mr. Obama beat Sen. John McCain 55 percent to 43 percent 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 believe Mr. Obama’s plan will prompt 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,” Republican strategist Scott Reed said. “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.”
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In Arkansas, Mrs. Lincoln, a Democrat who found herself smack in the middle of the national debate over health care, is paying a price. She trails four possible Republican challengers in the latest Rasmussen survey, with her support running from 39 percent to 41 percent in head-to-head matchups.
Opposition to the health-care plan runs high in the state — 65 percent — 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.
Pennsylvania incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter, who last year switched party affiliation from Republican to Democrat, fares the same. He trails GOP primary challenger Pat Toomey by four points, Rasmussen found.
While Mr. Obama beat Mr. McCain by 11 points in the state, Mr. Specter’s approval rating has fallen to less than 50 percent, and 53 percent of voters oppose his health-care plan.
And 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, leads a potential challenger, former governor George Pataki, by just 0.2 percent in an average of all 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 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 Ohio 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 potential 2010 U.S. Senate matchup 40 percent to 33 percent, according to a December Rasmussen poll.
The Democrat incumbent trails the GOP challenger in Colorado, where, again, Mr. Obama’s rating has fallen to 50 percent and opposition to his health-care plan has spiked to 55 percent. Former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, a Republican, leads incumbent Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet by nearly 10 points, 46 percent to 37 percent.
In Connecticut, Mr. Dodd was trailing all three GOP candidates, attracting just 35 percent to 40 percent of the vote. Even Linda McMahon, the ex-CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, polled six points higher than Mr. Dodd.
A whopping 80 percent of voters in the state say the health-care bill is likely to force an increase in middle-class taxes, according to the most recent poll. And while Mr. Obama remains popular at 57 percent, that’s below the 61 percent he took in 2008, and just 33 percent strongly approve of the president’s performance.
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 North Dakota, Mr. Dorgan was getting pummeled by Republican Gov. John Hoeven, trailing 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 just 41 percent.
Some Democratic strategists say the party must make efforts to explain the health-care bill to Americans.
“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, “It’s day four of the new year, 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.