2010 Senate Races: Another Tough Cycle For the Republicans

Stuart Rothenberg January 28, 2009 · 11:05 PM EST

It’s been less than three months since voters went to the polls, but the 2010 Senate cycle is off to one of the fastest starts in memory.

After being pummeled two cycles in a row — losing six seats in 2006 and what looks like eight seats in 2008 — Senate Republicans face another challenging cycle. Even though they hold just 41 Senate seats, they are defending 19 of the 36 Senate seats that will be on the ballot next year.

The 2010 class includes 19 GOP-held seats, while the 2012 class has just nine and 2014 has only 13.

Democrats begin with at least half a dozen good opportunities, depending on candidate recruitment and how President Barack Obama performs over the next two years.

While the GOP remains battered, Democrats are likely to have a substantial financial advantage, and four incumbent Republican Senators have already announced they won’t seek re-election. Still, the end of the Bush administration and complete Democratic control of the nation’s capital could well make things a bit tougher for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee this cycle than they have been over the past four years.

Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning (R), a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame and the first pitcher to win 100 games and record 1,000 strikeouts in both leagues, faces a very difficult race. Three high-profile Democratic statewide officials are looking at a possible challenge, and even GOP insiders are worried about Bunning’s strength after his surprisingly narrow 2004 victory against a lightly regarded challenger who is now the state’s lieutenant governor.

Bunning, who pitched no-hitters in both leagues (including a perfect game for the Philadelphia Phillies against the New York Mets on Father’s Day in 1964), says he is going to run for a third term. But he has plenty of time to reconsider that decision, and the 78-year-old conservative could ultimately conclude that retirement is an appealing option. That decision would not upset party strategists whose first priority is holding the seat.

All four of the GOP’s open seats could be battlegrounds, with the safest one on paper, Kansas, actually becoming the most difficult one for Republicans if outgoing Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) opts to make the race. Rep. Jerry Moran (R) is already running and Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R) is looking at entering the race — either one would be a credible contender.

The retirements of Sens. Kit Bond (Mo.), Mel Martinez (Fla.) and George Voinovich (Ohio) surely enhance the DSCC’s chances of adding to its 59 seats (provided Democrat Al Franken is eventually seated as the Senator from Minnesota), but the GOP will not give up those seats readily.

Former Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who most recently served as director of the Office of Management and Budget and was also the U.S. trade representative, is running in Ohio and gives the National Republican Senatorial Committee a solid candidate. While the DSCC is already portraying him as the “architect” of the Bush administration’s economic policies, Portman’s mainstream conservatism should fit the state well.

A number of Democrats are looking at the race, including Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner and Rep. Tim Ryan, and it’s virtually certain that the DSCC will have a strong nominee to support financially.

In Missouri, GOP Rep. Roy Blunt is said to be eyeing a possible Senate race, but other Republicans are mentioned as well, including former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman and former Sen. Jim Talent. Party insiders seem inclined to line up behind Blunt, a former secretary of state, if he announces his candidacy.

On the Democratic side, all eyes are on Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, daughter of the late Gov. Mel Carnahan (D) and former Sen. Jean Carnahan (D-Mo.). State Attorney General Chris Koster (D) receives mention as well.

In Florida, both parties could see crowded primaries now that former Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink (D) have announced they will take a pass on the Senate contest.

On the GOP side, former state Speaker Marco Rubio, Attorney General Bill McCollum and a handful of Republican House Members, including Rep. Connie Mack IV, are mentioned. Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.) has already jumped in the race, and least two other Congressional Democrats and the state Senate Minority Leader are said to be mulling bids. Just don’t pay too much attention to the early polling in that state.

After those contests, the focus turns to candidate recruitment against incumbents, with Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and David Vitter (R-La.) topping the list of possible Democratic targets and with Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and appointed Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) topping the NRSC’s list.

There are a few other seats that are worth mentioning. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is serving his fifth term, so Democrats will try to recruit a strong challenger, if only to try to encourage him to consider retirement.

Some observers regard the Illinois Senate seat to which Ronald Burris (D) was just appointed as a tossup. I don’t. I see it as clearly favoring Democrats.

While there are a number of scenarios that would put that seat into play, each would require a series of developments that would enhance GOP prospects — from the candidacy of Rep. Mark Kirk (R) to Burris running for re-election and state voters seeing the Senate race as a referendum on embattled Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) and state Democratic corruption.

While all of that is possible, it strikes me as far too premature to assume that all of the dominos will fall the GOP’s way in a state that has become reliably Democratic.

Democrats are well-positioned to add to their numbers in the Senate in next year’s elections. But how the public’s mood evolves during the next 20 months will tell us the extent of that opportunity, or whether it even exists.

Correction: In the Jan. 22 edition of my column, I misidentified Henry Barbour. He, of course, is the nephew of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.