WASHINGTON (AP) — The stars keep aligning in Senate Democrats’ favor, boosting their hopes of winning a supermajority in the next election while Republicans wonder what else will go wrong.
Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, picked by President Barack Obama on Tuesday for Commerce secretary, is the fifth GOP senator to abandon re-election plans next year in a competitive state. The retirements give Democrats hope of picking up seats that may have been beyond their reach otherwise.
Meanwhile, Republicans are deeply worried about their re-election prospects in Kentucky and are nervously eying several other incumbents on the 2010 ballot.
Democrats, who were in the Senate minority only three years ago, now see a chance to push their majority above 60 in the 100-member chamber. That’s a crucial number because it would allow them to cut off Republican filibusters and control Senate actions with minimal GOP interference.
To be sure, Democrats have their own concerns, and their optimism may prove unfounded 21 months from now. They have untested appointees in Colorado, Illinois and New York who must run next year to keep their seats. And a president’s party often proves unpopular in his first midterm election, as Democrats and then-President Bill Clinton learned in 1994.
But for now, Democrats feel they have good odds to pick up Senate seats for the third straight election.
With all the retirements, plus “other opportunities in states held by vulnerable Republicans, we believe we have a very good chance to strengthen our majority in 2010,” said Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
The Republican woes start with five retiring senators who had decent-to-good chances of winning re-election: George Voinovich of Ohio, Kit Bond of Missouri, Mel Martinez of Florida, Sam Brownback of Kansas and Gregg. All but Kansas are states closely contested in every recent election.
Democrats have not won a Kansas Senate seat since 1932. But the state’s popular two-term governor, Kathleen Sebelius, might break that string if she decides to run for Brownback’s seat.
In Florida, former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush chose not to seek Martinez’s seat. But the Democrats lost their most promising candidate, too, and the race is unsettled.
In Missouri, Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, a Democrat whose late father was a governor, is running for Bond’s seat. GOP leaders are backing Rep. Roy Blunt, a former House Republican whip.
Ohio Republicans think Rob Portman, a former congressman and White House budget director, is their strongest contender. The Democratic field is unsettled, but the eventual nominee will try to tie Portman to former President George W. Bush’s economic record.
In New Hampshire, Bonnie Newman, the Republican appointed to succeed Gregg, apparently does not plan to run for a full term in 2010. No matter who steps in, Republicans felt that Gregg, a three-term senator and former governor, was by far their best hope.
There is one Republican incumbent who some party leaders wish would retire. Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky narrowly won his 2004 race and has raised little money for next year’s contest. Republicans see him as a lackluster campaigner despite his GOP-leaning state and his baseball Hall of Fame background.
In a sign of the party’s unease, Bunning, 77, has had testy exchanges lately with Mitch McConnell, his fellow Kentuckian and the Senate Republican leader. “How many times do I have to say it?” Bunning asked hotly in a conference call with reporters after McConnell questioned whether he would run in 2010.
Republican senators who could face strong challenges also include David Vitter of Louisiana, who apologized after being named in a 2007 investigation of a Washington prostitute. Some Louisiana party activists believe he has repaired most of the political damage.
Democrats also may make hard runs at Republican Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Richard Burr of North Carolina. But both men have proven to be savvy campaigners who tend to exceed expectations.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, head of the Republicans’ Senate campaign committee, says Democrats will run into more problems than they expect.
With the Democrats in control of the White House and both houses of Congress, Cornyn said, GOP candidates will hold them accountable for increases in the deficit and for any tax increases. “I have no illusions that it will still be a challenging election cycle,” he said, “but there are opportunities.”
The GOP’s best opportunities may involve newly appointed Democratic senators with thin political resumes.
In Illinois, Roland Burris was appointed to Obama’s former seat by now-deposed governor Rod Blagojevich. Burris has lost several statewide races and Democrats may try to deny him the Senate nomination next year in hopes of running a stronger campaigner. But ousting Burris, the only black senator, might anger an important Democratic constituency.
In Colorado, newly appointed senator Michael Bennet, the former Denver Public Schools Superintendent, has never run for statewide office. But it’s unclear whether Republicans can find a strong candidate to oppose him.
New York’s newest senator, former Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, is a young but proven campaigner who was appointed to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s former seat. Republicans could be hard-pressed to beat Gillibrand in the reliably Democratic state unless Obama’s popularity utterly collapses.