Democratic Senators, Govs Hang it up

Political reporters will remember January 5th as a good day to hang it up.  

Two Democratic U.S. Senators announced totally unexpected decisions not to seek re-election this year.  The surprise exits of veteran Sens. Christopher Dodd and Byron Dorgan dramatically changed the political landscapes in Connecticut and North Dakota respectively.

And as polls showed him going down to defeat this fall, Colorado’s Democratic Gov.  Bill Ritter chose the better part of valor and opted not to run.  And in Michigan, the Democratic considered his party’s sure standard-bearer to succeed fellow Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm said he wasn’t running after all.  The stunning decision of Lt. Gov. John Cherry leaves Michigan Democrats without a heavyweight contender for governor and increases the odds on any of the five Republican hopefuls succeeding Granholm.

 This sudden chorus of Democratic swan songs comes just as Democratic spokesmen were pointing to the fact that fourteen Republicans and only ten Democrats in the House of Representatives have so far said they aren’t running—apparently undercutting the GOP claim that 2010 is shaping up as an ominous political year for Barack Obama’s party.  But the foursome of major Democratic office-holders who suddenly said “I’m outta here!” again raises the speculation that a major Republican tide could swell in this election  year.

 Connecticut: “Dodd Almighty” Out, “Eternal General” Up

 The news Wednesday morning that—after six years in the House and thirty in the Senate—Chris Dodd was calling it quits sent immediate shock waves throughout the Nutmeg State.  Within hours of the announcement by the 65-year-old senator (once dubbed “Dodd Almighty” for his political durability), another liberal Democrat considered a part of the state political landscape said he was running for the Senate.

 Richard Blumenthal, who began his political career as an aide to Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Nixon White House and has been state attorney general for twenty years, finally did what he has long wanted to.  With a Senate seat open for the third time in twenty years, Blumenthal declared for it and all signs are he will wrap up the Democratic nomination.  The fact that State Democratic Chairman Nancy Dinardo flanked the politician known as “the eternal general” at his news conference said it all:  Blumental will be the nominee, no other Democratic possibilities (such as two-term Rep. Chris Murphy need apply).

 As if to accept the inevitability of Blumenthal as the Democratic nominee, State GOP Chairman Chris Healy launched some early salvos at him.

 “Blumenthal has spent twenty years driving out businesses and driving up the cost of electricity, health care and every day living,” Healy told me, “He defended Chris Dodd’s costly and incompetent record in the Senate and any Republican candidate will offer Connecticut voters a choice that promotes freedom and opportunity.”

 Throughout 2009, polls almost universally showed voters aware of the controversy about Dodd’s alleged “sweetheart deal” on a mortgage and former three-term Rep. and GOP front-runner Rob Simmons running ahead of the Senate Banking Committee chairman.  With the political situation changed dramatically, a PPP poll conducted a day before Dodd’s announcement showed that among likely voters, Blumenthal leads Simmons by 59% to 28% among likely voters statewide.  Blumenthal also leads world wrestling magnate Linda McMahon by 60% to 28% statewide and venture capitalist Peter Schiff 63% to 23%.

 Republicans are now expected to step up efforts at their state convention this summer to keep wealthy political newcomers McMahon and Schiff below the 15% of the delegates needed to force a primary against front-runner Simmons.  

 North Dakota: Dorgan Bows to Inevitable; Hoeven Likely Candidate

 Where the exit of Chris Dodd in Connecticut clearly put state Democrats in a better position with Richard Blumenthal as their likely Senate nominee, they can’t feel as good about North Dakota.  After twelve years as the Roughrider State’s lone U.S. Representative and then another eighteen as U.S. Senator, Democrat Byron Dorgan said yesterday he would not seek a fourth term.  

 Like Dodd, liberal Democrat Dorgan had been a major player in the health care legislation that passed the Senate and polls showed voters were upset with him.  A Rasmussen poll last month showed Dorgan losing to Republican Gov. John Hoeven by margin of 58% to 36% statewide.  Republican powerhouses in the state such as former GOP National Committeewoman Connie Nicholas have been moving heaven and earth to get the conservative Hoeven to run but so far have not gotten an answer from him.

 Now signs are strong that Hoeven will say “I do” to GOP overtures and make the race. 

 But unlike their counterparts in Connecticut, North Dakota Democrats do not have an impressive bench of prospective successors.  Dorgan and fellow Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad have dominated the political landscape for nearly a quarter-century and the state has not sent a Republican to either the House or Senate since 1986. But the next generation of strong political leaders has yet to emerge on the Democratic side, unless Rep. Earl Pomeroy relinquishes the at-large House seat to run.  This is considered very unlikely, so the Senate seat now most likely to change hands this year is in  North Dakota.  

 Colorado:  Hickenlooper Finally In the Loop

 The worst-kept political secret in Colorado has been the anger Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper felt when he was passed over for appointment to the Senate last year, when fellow Democrat Ken Salazar was appointed secretary of the interior by Barack Obama.

 Instead, Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter named Hickenlooper’s onetime top aide, Michael Bennet, to the seat.  Republicans now feel they have a better-than-even chance of ousting the obscure Bennet this fall.

 And last week, swirling in deficits and faced with the prospect of raising taxes or making major budget cuts, Ritter threw in the towel and announced he would not seek re-election.  Polls had shown the Democratic governor once considered a potential national leader for his party trailing the likely Republican nominee Scott McInnis.  A Rasmussen poll showed former Rep. McInnis beating Ritter by a margin of 48% to 40% and a PPP survey showed McInnis trouncing Ritter 46% to 38%.

 Now Ritter is out.  Signs are strong that Hickenlooper will wrap up the Democratic nomination for governor and finally move up to the statewide race he has long savored.  

 Last year, 33-year-old State Sen. Josh Penry, considered more conservative than McInnis, stunned pundits and pols by departing the race for governor and leaving the former congressman the de facto nominee.  While there is talk of him getting back in, it doesn’t appear likely.  

 Michigan:  Cherry Picks a Withdrawal

 My fellow White House correspondent Deb Price closed the press briefing on Tuesday by asking Press Secretary Robert Gibbs if the President had talked to Michigan’s Lieutenant Governor John Cherry before he ended his bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination that day (Obama had not).  

 But the news was a big political development.  The Democrat long considered a cinch for nomination to succeed lame-duck Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm was out of the race, leaving Water Wonderland Dems with a very weak field.  

 Cherry, a favorite of the United Auto Workers, “cast the tie-breaking vote to pass the largest tax increase in Michigan’s history, so the political environment couldn’t be worse for any lieutenant governor to succeed a governor,” former state GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis told me.  Indeed, a Rasmussen poll showed Cherry losing to any of the three leading GOP prospects.

 There are four other relatively obscure Democrats in the gubernatorial primary scheduled for August.  But talk is now about state House Speaker Andrew Dillon jumping in the race.  Dillon is considered one of the “hard left” of his party and a champion of universal health care.

 The most recent EPIC/MRA poll showed that, among likely GOP voters, Rep. Pete Hoekstra and State Attorney General Mike Cox were in a virtual tie (29% to 28%) and Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard was at 14%.  All are considered strong conservatives.  Also in the race are businessman Rick Snyder (3%) and State Sen. Tom George (2%).

 But given the recent developments surrounding the attempted Christmas Day bombing in Detroit, former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Hoekstra has had his profile raise considerable through national TV appearances.  In addition, Hoekstra is the lone candidate from Western Michigan, which historically turns out very well for Republican primaries.