Connecticut Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell's decision not to seek re-election could create big political drama in a small state, where Democrats hope to reclaim the governor's mansion for the first time in nearly two decades while keeping embattled Sen. Christopher Dodd in office.
The Democratic Governors Association says it is making Connecticut one of its top priorities in the 2010 elections, hoping to pickup a gubernatorial seat there after losing New Jersey and Virginia earlier this month. Connecticut hasn't had a Democratic governor since William O'Neill left office in 1991.
But Democrats will be challenged to run a strong race for governor as they also focus on Dodd's re-election, said Scott McLean, a political science professor at Quinnipiac University in Hamden.
The party already lost one of its U.S. Senate seats in the state when Joe Lieberman, a 2000 vice-presidential candidate, won re-election in 2006 as an independent. Although Lieberman caucuses with the Democrats, he has shown no inclination to rejoin their ranks.
Dodd, who has been under fire for a mortgage controversy, says he is running again in 2010 and has President Barack Obama's support. But his potential challengers, including former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, are keeping up the drumbeat of criticism over his financial dealings.
Losing the governor's race would be painful, especially since Democrats hold the legislative majority, McLean said _ but losing the party's grip on its remaining Senate seat in the state would be a blow on the national level.
"If the stakes are high enough, the Senate race could end up really overshadowing the governor's race," McLean said.
Rell has not publicly endorsed a Republican successor. She said Tuesday that her focus for the rest of her term will be to resolve Connecticut's budget problems, and dismissed suggestions she may be viewed as a lame duck.
"I am still the governor and we have a lot of work to do," she said after emerging from a New Britain church, where she conducted the swearing-in ceremony for fellow Republican and Mayor Timothy Stewart.
A Quinnipiac poll released Tuesday showed Rell beating all Democratic challengers in the 2010 election. Rell said she is grateful for that result, but it does not change her mind about her decision not to run.
Christopher Healy, Connecticut's Republican Party chairman, said he thinks gubernatorial and Senate races both will focus on the dollars-and-cents issues that worry everyday residents.
"I think the overarching message for Republicans, which I believe has new currency, is based on the fact that people are unhappy with the parts of government that control the purse: taxes, spending, regulation and so forth," he said.
Nancy DiNardo, the state's Democratic Party chairwoman, said the open field for governor is "good news for our party, and the people of this state."
"I feel confident that our bench of candidates for this position will bring to the table the kind of ideas and proposals that Connecticut voters will be able to relate to and have confidence in," she said.
Although Connecticut's Democrats will be playing offense in the governor's race and defense Dodd's re-election bid, DiNardo said the party is up for the challenge.
"Certainly having an open seat for the governorship is going to draw a lot of national attention to Connecticut," DiNardo said. "While we'll be running two significant elections at the same time, we've had practice doing that here."
Several Connecticut Democrats have already formed exploratory committees for the governor's race and one, former House Speaker James Amann, has publicly announced his candidacy.
Fewer Republicans have spoken of running for governor, saying they were awaiting Rell's decision. House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero Jr., Senate Minority Leader John McKinney and Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele are all considered potential GOP candidates.
Among Democrats other than Amann, businessman Ned Lamont _ who became a national political figure in 2006 by defeating Lieberman in the Democratic Senate primary _ announced last week he was forming an exploratory committee.
Exploratory committees also have been formed by Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz, Stamford Mayor Dannel Malloy, state Sen. Gary LeBeau and Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi.
Rell has been Connecticut's governor since 2004, when former Gov. John Rowland resigned during a corruption probe that would eventually lead to a conviction and prison time. She was elected to her own term in 2006, becoming the first Republican woman elected the state's chief executive.