NRSC Chief Looks at Key 2010 Senate Races

With Democrats now one seat away from the sixtieth Senate vote they need to shut off Republican-led filibusters, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee clearly has his work cut out for him in 2010.  

The near-certainty that Democrat Al Franken will emerge on top in the six-month old Senate race in Minnesota and thus becoming the 60th Democratic senator means Republicans have to defend eighteen of the 36 Senate seats to be decided on next year.  Five of the seats held by Republicans are being relinquished by GOPers and at least three of the incumbents seeking re-election (Robert Bennett of Utah, Jim Bunning of Kentucky, and David Vitter of Louisiana) are almost sure to face primary challenges.

Given this scenario, NRSC Chairman John Cornyn was unusually upbeat as he faced political reporters last week at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.  Admitting that “the mathematics aren’t friendly to us in 2010,” the two-term Texas senator nonetheless voiced optimism about candidate recruitment so far.

“Getting the right candidate is 90% of the game,” said Cornyn, who noted that there are first-rate Republican hopefuls either running or seriously considering Senate races in Ohio, Florida, Colorado, Delaware, Connecticut, and Illinois (where the Republicans “are cast as reformers” because of controversy surrounding impeached former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his appointment of Sen. Roland Burris.

Referring to a luncheon I attended the day before in which many national conservatives voiced anger over the NRSC’s blessing of moderate Gov. Charlie Crist for the Senate in Florida, I asked Cornyn why his committee would make a move like that when Crist had a primary race against conservative former state House Speaker Marco Rubio.

“Gov. Crist is the strongest candidate that will enable us to hold the seat,” Cornyn told me, “Marco Rubio…[has] a bright future ahead of him, but right now the Mason Dixon poll shows Crist beating him in a primary by 53% to 18%.”  By nominating Crist, Cornyn believes, “we won’t have to spend precious resources in Florida” to retain the seat of retiring Sen. Mel Martinez (who has also endorsed Crist).

It is a different story in Pennsylvania, however, where conservative former Rep. Pat Toomey is so far the lone major candidate for nomination to the seat of Republican-turned-Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter (who Toomey came within two percentage points of denying nomination in the ’04 primary).

Would the NRSC give its early backing to Toomey, I asked?  Cornyn replied, “That primary is still forming and there are other people looking at the race.”  To endorse Toomey now, he believes, “would be premature.”  (Sources close to the NRSC say that the more moderate Rep. Jim Gerlach has been sending out feelers about switching from the three-candidate primary for governor to the Senate race).

Looking at the Middle of the Road

Cornyn did explain that “I could never get elected in Connecticut or a state like that” and the party did have to field Senate candidates far less conservative than he is in certain states.  Among the candidates he discussed were Rep. Mike Castle in Delaware (who may run for the seat vacated by Vice President Joe Biden in which the likely Democratic candidate is his son, State Attorney General Joe Biden) and Connecticut (where moderate former Rep. Rob Simmons has announced for the seat of Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd).

“I talked to Rob, and the [Republican nomination] is a work in progress,” said Cornyn, “I hope there’s not a bloody primary.”  (The other likely GOP hopefuls are State Sen. Sam Caliguri, a moderate-conservative, and multi-millionaire Tom Foley, former U.S. ambassador to Ireland).

Cornyn also revealed he had talked to former New York Gov. George Pataki, also a moderate GOPer, about a bid for the Senate in New York against Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand (who was appointed to the seat of Hillary Clinton last year).

Pataki “is thinking about it,” said Cornyn, “and would have no problem clearing the primary field.”

The NRSC chairman also mentioned Chicago-area Rep. Mark Kirk, a social issues moderate, as a strong candidate against Burris (who faces a stiff primary challenge from businessman Christopher Kennedy, son of the late Robert Kennedy).

“But if Mark doesn’t run, there are other possible strong candidates,” he said.  (Although Cornyn gave no name, sources in the Illinois GOP suggested to me he was referring to Steve Preston, Housing and Urban Development secretary under George W.  Bush).

Fresh News on Texas and Nevada

In on surprising turn, Cornyn discussed the scenario of his fellow Republican senator from the Lone Star State, Kay Bailey Hutchison, resigning from office by December to run full time for governor.

Under Texas election law, he explained, a “snap” special election would be held (“probably in May”) and, in Cornyn’s words, “it will be a real race and not a walk for us.”  He said that Democrats will probably field a strong contender such as former State Controller John Sharp or ex-Houston Mayor Bill White and that the Republicans “will not have a slam dunk.”

Cornyn also addressed the recent Mason-Dixon poll showing 45% of Nevada voters would not support Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for re-election next year.  According to Cornyn, “We’re not there yet,” but “this is an invitation for the right candidate to step forward.” Among those mentioned for the GOP nod in Nevada are Rep. Dean Heller, former Rep. Jon Porter, and Henrietta Fore, former U.S. Treasurer and head of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The campaign chairman for GOP Senate hopefuls would no make no predictions other than, bad mathematics notwithstanding, 2010 had to be better than 2008 “when there was a huge national wind against us, we were outspent $154 million [by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] to $91 million, we were on offense in only one state [Louisiana], and our candidates got carpet-bombed.”