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GOP sees chance to pick up seats in 2010

Obama has filled his Cabinet with some of his party's top political players, creating congressional vacancies in solidly Democratic states -- and making them potential battlegrounds.

March 09, 2009|Mark Z. Barabak

These are tough times to be a Republican, with fewer members in Washington, polls showing strong voter disdain for the party and partisans inside the tent squabbling over who (Chairman Michael S. Steele? Uber-talker Rush Limbaugh?) speaks for the GOP.

But there is a bright spot, thanks to an unlikely source: President Obama.

By stocking his Cabinet with some of the Democrats' top political prospects, Obama has created a number of opportunities for Republicans ahead of the 2010 midterm elections.

In some states, the president stole his party's strongest U.S. Senate prospects. In Illinois and New York, he watched as governors there botched efforts to fill vacated Senate seats, turning those solidly Democratic states into potential battlegrounds.

At this point, few analysts see a serious threat to the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate (though much will depend on the state of the economy in fall 2010). If anything, handicappers say, the party is likely to gain a few more Senate seats, after picking up 14 in the last two elections.

"Looking at the map overall, it's not good for Republicans," said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "It's just a little bit less bad because of some of [Obama's] appointments."

Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, acknowledged "another challenging election cycle" for the party, with Republicans having to defend 19 of 36 Senate seats, including three in politically important states -- Florida, Ohio and Missouri -- where incumbents are retiring.

But, Walsh added, with Obama's Cabinet selections "a number of opportunities exist that weren't there several months ago."

Democratic strategists agree.

Start with Arizona. Obama's selection of Gov. Janet Napolitano to head the Department of Homeland Security turned her office over to the Republican secretary of state, Jan Brewer.

That gives Brewer an edge to win a full term as governor and almost certainly ends the chances for a 2010 Senate race that Democrats would love to have seen: Napolitano vs. Sen. John McCain.

Similarly, the appointment of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack as Agriculture secretary thwarted Democratic hopes he would take on longtime Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley. In Kansas, the selection of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as secretary of Health and Human Services has greatly diminished Democrats' chances of picking up that state's open Senate seat.

"They had a short list of Democrats that could make the Kansas race competitive, and Obama wiped that list out completely with one choice," said Nathan Gonzales, who tracks campaigns for the Rothenberg Political Report, another nonpartisan newsletter.

Another seat that appeared secure for Democrats may be up for grabs in Colorado after Ken Salazar left to become Interior secretary. His replacement, former Denver schools chief Michael Bennet, is a political neophyte who could face a primary fight.

"It would have been a terribly uphill climb" to beat Salazar, said Colorado Republican Chairman Dick Wadhams, who suggests Republicans have "at least a 50-50 shot" of beating Bennet.

Colorado was one of the hardest-fought states in the 2008 presidential race. Not so Illinois or New York. But developments since Obama's election and his appointment of former Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of State have created a possible opening for Republicans.

In New York, Gov. David A. Paterson chose former Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand to replace Clinton after a prolonged search consumed by the drama surrounding Caroline Kennedy's desire for the Senate seat.

Paterson's awkward handling of the process -- followed by a clumsy effort to discredit Kennedy after he made his pick -- hurt both the governor and Gillibrand. Worse, from a Democratic perspective, the party could lose Gillibrand's House seat; a special election in her conservative-leaning district is set for March 31.

Even more embarrassing would be a loss in Illinois, where Democrats have been hurt by the scandal surrounding former Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich and his appointment of Roland Burris to fill Obama's vacated Senate seat. Already, potential primary challengers have lined up to face Burris if he should ignore strong hints from party leaders and decide to run in 2010.

"The jury is out in Illinois and New York," said Duffy of the Cook Political Report. "But at least Republicans can now wait and watch, where before the states wouldn't have gotten two minutes of their time."

Democrats are loath to criticize Obama. After all, it's his prerogative as president -- and party leader -- to fill his administration with whomever he prefers, regardless of the electoral consequences. Besides, Democrats everywhere have a vested interest in Obama's performance as president.

As Democratic spokesman Eric Schultz put it: "Surrounding himself with the best people in our party and making progress in getting our country back on track is important to our success in 2010."

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mark.barabak@latimes.com

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