GOP eyes the mid-term

Salena Zito
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Posted: Mar 29, 2009 12:00 AM

Five minutes after George Bush won re-election in 2004 and began talking about Social Security reform, the pundits lined up those Senate Republicans they expected to be in trouble in the 2006 midterm election.

Some things never change.

Five minutes after Barack Obama took the oath in January and began signing executive orders and expanding government, those same pundits began lining up the Senate Democrats they expect to be in trouble in 2010, Obama’s first midterm.

Historically, a president's party loses seats in Congress in midterm elections, so in theory, 2010 should favor the GOP. Yet it is hard to imagine the GOP making significant gains because most seats held by Democrats facing re-election are in states that "went Obama" in 2008.

Colorado is one state showing signs of a possible GOP pickup. Democrat Michael Bennet, appointed to replace former Sen. Ken Salazar when he became Interior secretary, has little name recognition.

“If Bennet is opposed by someone like Pete Coors, who almost beat Salazar in 2004, or popular former Gov. Bill Owens, that seat could easily go to the GOP,” said University of Arkansas political scientist Rob Maranto.

Villanova University professor Lara Brown thinks a good conservative Latino recruit like Loretta Sanchez would be a smart move for the Colorado GOP.

Two other possible GOP pickups are the seats of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut. Polling in those states has found both men on remarkably shaky ground.

Brown says Dodd’s connections to the AIG and Countrywide scandals make him vulnerable to a possible primary fight.

“An enterprising Democrat might decide that taking Dodd on would be good politics," she said, pointing to a "reformer-type, someone who will not be perceived as a corrupt politician."

The race gets more interesting if that happens because Dodd would have to pivot between his primary challenger and a GOP candidate.

Both of these seats offer the GOP opportunities. Yet unless a major voter backlash arises to the Democrats’ legislative agenda -- and if Democrats use the budget reconciliation to pass health-care reform, there may well be such a backlash -- Reid and Dodd still have substantial resources to eke out wins.

Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., offers the GOP another opportunity -- maybe. Bayh is an amazing politician (he formed his own moderate-Democrat working group in the Senate) and could stave off a GOP attack.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., is similarly positioned and, wisely, is doing similar things to keep her seat.

Then there is the curious case of Sen. Roland Burris in Illinois. According to Villanova’s Brown, the only way the GOP takes that seat is if Democrats form a "circular firing squad" and fracture their party in a bitter primary.

The primary in President Obama’s home state is early -- February 2010 -- giving Democrats plenty of time to regroup if they dump Burris.

The GOP has a “maybe” chance in New York with Hillary Clinton's old Senate seat, although her successor, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, is well-suited to the state -- an upstater who isn’t so heinously conservative that Manhattanites vote GOP. In reality, 2010 probably will not be a reverse of 2006 for Republicans; maybe they pick up one or two seats overall.

Brown thinks Obama's potential drag on Senate candidates will be based strictly on the economy: “Americans don't like being patient for economic growth. ... Economic prosperity is ideologically linked to freedom and opportunity.”

Any politicians who counsel voters to lower their expectations likely will find themselves on the wrong side of public opinion.

People may be patient for most of this year, but at some point Obama’s reservoir of goodwill will run dry. If his approval rating falls below 50 percent before March 2010, then he likely will drag down those Democrats running that November.