Can Democrats Hold Senate Edge in 2010?
WASHINGTON - This week's back-to-back retirements by two senior Senate Democrats puts the focus on one of the key questions of this election year: Will Democrats be able to maintain the overwhelming majority that has enabled them to push President Obama's agenda through the Senate, or will Republicans be able to whittle it down?
The Democrats' 60-to-40 voting edge has hampered the GOP's ability to slow legislation and broker the kind of bipartisan deals that are normally required for bills to pass in the Senate.
At the moment, Democrats face an uphill battle to maintain their dominance. Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the non-partisan Cook Political Report, rates the races for eight Democratic Senate seats as competitive, compared with five for Republicans. It's the first time since 2004, Duffy says, that the political ratings favor the GOP.
Moreover, Democrats have weak spots in unexpected places: The Senate seats once occupied by Obama and Vice President Biden are being hotly contested by Republicans. Also facing a tough challenge is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The party's Senate leader already has spent heavily on advertising to improve his image in his home state of Nevada.
Politically, this week's announcements by Sens. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., that they will not seek re-election this year "canceled each other out," said Nathan Gonzales of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report.
Dodd, who drew a 54 percent disapproval rating in a Quinnipiac University Poll of Connecticut voters in November, described himself Wednesday as being in "the toughest political shape of my career." His decision to quit, analysts agreed, probably helped the Democrats.
"Their chances of holding the seat got a whole lot better with Dodd's departure," Duffy said.
Sen. Robert Menendez, head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, immediately endorsed Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who announced he would seek Dodd's seat. "We will do everything to help him win," Menendez said in a phone interview.
Menendez acknowledged his party faces a difficult challenge in North Dakota, where Dorgan announced his retirement Tuesday. Dorgan won three Senate races in a state where Obama got just 45 percent of the vote last year. On Wednesday, Menendez learned that his party's most promising candidate for Dorgan's seat, Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., has decided to run for his House seat rather than the Senate.
Other Democratic seats in jeopardy:
Illinois. Republican Rep. Mark Kirk has an "excellent chance" of winning the Senate seat that once belonged to Obama, says Paul Green, a political science professor at Chicago's Roosevelt University. Kirk has won two tough races in a congressional district that Obama carried with 61 percent of the vote last year. There are five Democratic candidates vying for the party's nomination in a primary Feb. 2.
Delaware. Republican Rep. Mike Castle - who has won 12 statewide races in Delaware as lieutenant governor, governor and as the state's lone member of Congress - is running for the Senate seat that Biden held for 36 years. Menendez is counting on the vice president's son, who is also Delaware's attorney general. "Our expectation is that Beau Biden will run," the senator said.
Arkansas. Sen. Blanche Lincoln is facing a challenging re-election in a state where Obama got 39 percent of the vote last year.
Colorado. A Rasmussen Reports poll last month showed former lieutenant governor Jane Norton, a Republican, beating rookie Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, 46 percent-37 percent. Bennet was appointed to the Senate last year when Ken Salazar became Interior secretary.
Pennsylvania. Sen. Arlen Specter, who left the Republican Party last year, faces a primary challenge from Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa. Meanwhile, polls show Republican Pat Toomey and Specter in a tight general election matchup.
The Republicans have some trouble spots of their own. In Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire and Ohio, the retirements of Republican incumbents leave the GOP with open seats to defend in battleground states.
Other Republican seats to watch include Louisiana, where Sen. David Vitter will be facing the voters for the first time since admitting that he used call girl services, and Florida, where Mel Martinez resigned his seat last year.