New York’s state Senate, gay marriage and Mike Bloomberg

January 10, 2009

This week, New York took one more step towards becoming a one party state. For the first time in four decades, Democrats took control of the state Senate, locking the GOP out of all levels of state government.

As you might remember, this outcome was not a foregone conclusion: After Democrats seized a 32-30 majority on November 4th, three of their state Senators threatened to bolt the caucus for somewhat unclear demands – a mix of identity politics and policy disputes.

This created a chaotic situation in which Democratic leaders begged the Gang of Three to stay in the party, at first offering them a stunning amount of concessions before retreating when the caucus’s rank and file protested.

At the end of the day, Democrats managed to cut a deal with Sen. Ruben Diaz, Sen.-elect Pedro Espada and Sen. Carl Kruger to get them to vote for Democrat Malcolm Smith as Majority Leader. On Wednesday, the deed was consummated and the state Senate was officially taken over by Democrats.

The biggest question mark that now remains is gay marriage. Governor David Paterson, like his predecessor Eliot Spitzer, was interested in legalizing same sex unions – and this was the main reason Ruben Diaz, a staunchly homophobic minister, threatened to back Republicans.

Rumors have been circulating that Democrats told Diaz they would not introduce a gay marriage bill over the next two years if he stuck with the caucus. The party’s leadership has denied having made any such promise, but Diaz has indicated that discussions with party leaders have reassured him about the reform’s prospects.

Democrats are already saying that too many of their members would vote against the bill for gay marriage to pass the state Senate. That might be true (they do, after all, only have a 32-30 majority), but for such information to be leaking this early clearly suggests that the Democratic leadership has no intention of pushing gay marriage very hard in the coming months.

The second question mark is the leadership change’s impact on Mike Bloomberg. The New York City Mayor might not be a partisan Republican, but he has frequently clashed with Albany Democrats, and state Assembly President Sheldon Silver takes great delight in squashing Bloomberg’s plans.

Over the past year, Bloomberg donated a lot of money to Republicans to help them retain control of the state Senate and he campaigned on behalf of GOP incumbents. For Democrats to now seize control of the state Senate will make Bloomberg’s ties to Albany even more raucous.

This could make it tougher for him to convince Albany to pass New York City-related bills for which Bloomberg needs state approval (this is especially the case for taxation-related issues). And don’t forget that Bloomberg could remain in Gracie Mansion until 2013 now that he changed the city’s term limit laws, so this will affect him in the long term.

On the other hand, Bloomberg could gain a huge boost soon if David Paterson appoints Caroline Kennedy to the Senate. The former first daughter’s connections to the Mayor have caused some prominent Democrats to express worry, and Kennedy refused to answer when Politico asked whether she would support Bloomberg’s Democratic challenger in this fall’s election. If she becomes Senator, Kennedy would be unlikely to do much to help the Democratic nominee, further reducing the party’s hopes of regaining City Hall.

Then again, Caroline Kennedy might no longer be favored to win Paterson’s nod. The Village Voice now thinks that the front-runner might be Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand! Could it be that the main alternative to a woman with little to no public record (but who, we are told, leans to the liberal side…) are two conservative Democrats (Reps. Gillibrand and Israel)? It’s hard for progressive Democrats to know where to turn. On the other hand, the list of those who are known to have received Paterson’s Senate questionnaire keeps getting lengthier. The latest known contender is Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown. [Update: Kennedy and Paterson held their first in person meeting to discuss the seat yesterday.]

Also: I will introduce yet another look for the website in the days ahead. I will be hosting Campaign Diaries myself, which will lead to a fair amount of changes – and it will also mean that I will be allowed to put in some ads again. (My longtime readers will remember that I had ads until the summer.) I know that will annoying, but that should help me take care of the website’s operating costs.

Rumors: Voinovich and McCaul Mull Exit, Florida and Missouri Search Senate Candidates

January 9, 2009

Throughout December, politicians across the country promised they would use the holiday period to reflect on their electoral plans and come to some decisions. It is no surprise, then, that the first few days of 2009 are so rich in retirement and recruitment drama. In fact, there should be plenty more in the weeks ahead and the rumor mill is working full time.

Ohio, and Voinovich’s retirement:

Kit Bond’s somewhat unexpected retirement announcement has made Republicans paranoid that other Senators are looking to follow suit, and it did not take long for articles to pop up about Ohio’s George Voinovich, who is in his 70s. Today, The Columbus Dispatch and Political Machine are both reporting that he is very seriously looking at the possibility of retirement; the latter story hints that Voinovich might be coming out with an announcement as early as next week.

Both parties have candidates waiting in the wings (see my Senate page for more background), and an open race would be hotly contested by both parties. But there is no question that a Voinovich exit would be horrendous news for the GOP at a time they already have a lot to deal with.

Florida, and Sink’s candidacy:

Former Governor Jeb Bush’s decision not to run for Florida’s open Senate race has freed up other Republicans who are now considering a bid; but Democrats are still waiting for their towering figure, state CFO Alex Sink. The latest speculation was sparked by an interview Sink gave to St. Petersburg Times. She notes that “open seats like this don’t come around very often” and describes herself as “very strongly considering” running. It would be hard to blame the DSCC if they got excited by such comments, and it does sound like Sink is leaning towards a run.

Missouri, and the GOP nomination:

Barely 24 hours have passed since Kit Bond’s announcement that he will not seek re-election, but there have been plenty of maneuvering among Missouri Republicans. Politico reports that former Senator Jim Talent was likely to jump in the race; and Rep. Roy Blunt also looks like a probable candidate now that his son (outgoing Governor Matt Blunt) touted his father’s prospects. And former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman told The St. Louis Dispatch that she was “thinking about it.”

As I suggested yesterday, it looks like the GOP will not be able to avoid a divisive, crowded (and thus unpredictable) primary. To make matters worse, Republicans are already taking shots at each other, with Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder criticizing Steelman’s words on Bond. That confirms that Steelman’s candidacy could make this a particularly bruising primary, since it could lead to a replay of the alliances of the 2008 gubernatorial contest that left nominee Kenny Hulshof to weak to run an effective campaign.

An open seat in Texas?

Rep. Michael McCaul is considering a run for state Attorney General, a position that is now occupied by a man who is rumored to be eying Texas’s Lieutenant Governorship. McCaul’s move would open TX-10, a staunchly conservative district that gave George Bush 62% of the vote in 2004 but that has been rapidly trending leftward due to a rising Hispanic population. In fact, McCaul’s re-election race became unexpectedly competitive in the final weeks of the 2008 cycle. But the DCCC never invested in the district, and McCaul survived by 11%. In other words, Republicans would be favored to hold on to an open House seat, but Democrats would have a shot at scoring an upset.

Poll watch: A trio of Senate surveys finds competitive ’10 races

January 9, 2009

Arnold Schwarzenegger is the only Republican who can hope to make California Senator Barbara Boxer break a sweat. Of course, the first obstacle to the Governator’s candidacy could be the GOP primaries, as conservatives would be sure to try and derail him, but would Schwarzenegger really stand a chance if he made it to the general election?

Research 2000 is the first polling outfit to test that question, and it found a competitive race: Boxer leads Schwarzenegger 49% to 40%.

For an incumbent to post a single-digit lead and to stay under 50% is always a sign of vulnerability, and there is no question that Boxer is not the most entrenched of Senators: Her approval rating is a mediocre 48% (against 46%), leaving no doubt that she could be beaten. In other words, a Boxer-Schwarzenegger dual would be competitive.

On the other hand, Arnold’s numbers are not that promising. The Governor is not your average challenger; he is very well known, already polarizing and has thus little room to grow. The usual rules that test an incumbent’s vulnerabilities (particularly the 50% threshold) are thus less relevant in a Boxer-Schwarzenegger match-up. Furthermore, Schwarzenegger’s own approval ratings are very low (only 42% of respondents approve of his performance, versus 51%), and that raises obvious questions as to his electability.

In fact, given how much hope some Republicans have put on a Schwarzenegger candidacy and given the presumption that he would be a very tough opponent for Democrats to beat, this poll’s results should be more comforting than worrisome to the Boxer camp.

Meanwhile, Rasmussen released a poll of New York’s Senate race. The results contradict Wednesday’s PPP survey that found Caroline Kennedy leading Rep. Peter King by only 2%: Rasmussen shows Kennedy in a far more comfortable position, leading King 51% to 33%.

I see no reason to take this as a sign that Kennedy would start a re-election race in a good position if she were appointed. On Wednesday, I commented on the PPP poll by writing that “Kennedy carries one of the most famous last names in American society, she has high name recognition, and she was supposedly a darling of the Democratic base; King, by contrast, has low name recognition and most respondents can only situate him based on his party affiliation… A poll released in such a context should have found very favorable results for Kennedy.”

The same analysis holds true for Rasmussen’s poll. Testing a Boxer-Schwarzenegger match-up two years before the election can lead to valuable results since both candidates are very well known; all a Kennedy-King poll tests is Kennedy’s vulnerability and her own numbers give her little comfort: She hovers around the 50% mark, less than 50% think she is qualified for the job and only 21% think that she would have been considered if she was not named Kennedy.

Finally, ARG offered us the cycle’s first look at New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg’s vulnerability. The Granite State dramatically swung blue over the past three cycles, and Gregg is one of the last state Republicans who is left standing.

Three Democrats are mentioned as possible contenders, and it is a shame that ARG did not test Gregg against Governor John Lynch, the least likely to make a run but probably the strongest challenger if he does so. However, ARG did match up the incumbent against the state’s two Democratic congressmen. Gregg crushes Rep. Carol Shea-Porter 54% to 35%; he beats Rep. Paul Hodes 47% to 40%.

Since Hodes and Shea-Porter each represent half of the state, they have enough of a profile to make these numbers valuable, and Gregg’s modest lead against Hodes should be enough to confirm to Democrats that the Senator is vulnerable.

On the other hand, Gregg is clearly not as endangered as Democrats might like, as his large margin against Shea-Porter attests too. Perhaps most interestingly, Gregg gets 30% (against Shea-Porter) and 22% (against Hodes) of the Democratic vote. That is a number that the Democratic nominee can hope to improve during the campaign, but it is also a measure of Gregg’s entrenchment and moderate reputation. In Maine, Republican Susan Collins held on to such level of support throughout the 2008 campaign.

Alaska and New Jersey: Recruitment season in gubernatorial races

January 8, 2009

Can Alaska Democrats hope to trip up Sarah Palin in 2010? At the very least, they now have a credible candidate for the gubernatorial race: Bob Poe, a former Alaska State Commissioner of Administration.

There is no question that Poe will face a very uphill race, and it is extremely difficult to even conceive of Palin losing in her re-election bid. Ted Stevens’s quasi-survival and Don Young’s victory this past November only increased Alaska’s profile as a staunchly red state, so how could Democrat even hope of forcing Palin to break a sweat?

On the other hand, the Democratic nominee in this race will undoubtedly become one of the better known challengers of the country because of Palin’s profile and her national ambitions. Democrats might rally to his side in the hope of derailing Palin, and the press is likely to cover this race more than it deserves – just as the 2006 New York Senate race got extensive coverage.

Finally, there is a clear benefit for Democrats to fielding a credible candidate, even if there is little to no chance that the incumbent loses. In 2010, Palin is likely to spend as much time as she can traveling across the country to rally the conservative base and raise money for fellow Republicans. Giving her no reason to spend any time in Alaska would free her up to build an extensive national network, just as Barack Obama did during the 2006 midterms.

On the other hand, for Palin to be forced to think about her re-election bid will take time away from those travels; that would hurt other Republican candidates and it will damage her own 2012 prospects.

Over the past decade, New Jersey Republicans have been as hapless as their New England counterparts. Voters detest Democratic politicians and Trenton’s fishy politics, but they hate the GOP even more – and that allows Democrats to survive September scares cycle after cycle. Republicans are hoping that Governor John Corzine’s re-election race in 2009 finally proves to be their breakthrough; and Corzine, after all, has attracted his own share of controversy over the years.

The GOP just managed to recruit a top-tier candidate, Chris Christie. The former U.S. Attorney attracted attention for prosecuting corruption cases in the state, and that is exactly why Republicans is excited by his candidacy. They hope Christie can come to represent the promise of a clean politics against Trenton’s Democratic establishment, allowing the GOP to improve its image and finally snatch away a statewide victory.

Before setting his sights on Corzine, Christie will first have to survive a contested primary. In the past, primary outcomes have hurt the GOP by eliminating the more electable candidate; but Christie should have enough establishment support to make his way to the general election and he could prove a tough opponent for Corzine. Much will depend on the national environment and whether Corzine has to carry on his shoulders the unpopularity of Washington Democrats on top of that of Trenton Democrats.

GOP’s Senate nightmare continues: Sen. Bond announces retirement [Updated]

January 8, 2009

In a clear sign that 2010 could be just as brutal for Senate Republicans as the past two cycles, Missouri Senator Kit Bond just announced that he would not run for re-election.

This bombshell creates a big opening for Democrats and yet another headache for an already diminished Republican caucus.

Republicans can at least tell themselves that the Senate seat was already vulnerable. Bond was a vulnerable incumbent who had never garnered more than 56% in any of his four previous senatorial victories, so his retirement does not suddenly endanger a safe Republican seat. In fact, Missouri was listed as the fourth most vulnerable seat of the cycle in my latest Senate ranking.

On the other hand, Bond’s retirement further damages Republican prospects of holding on to this seat. It takes a very damaged kind of incumbent for a party to be better off defending an open seat than fielding that incumbent. (In this cycle, only Mel Martinez and Jim Bunning fit that description, and the former has already relieved Republicans by announcing his retirement. The NRSC is surely praying for Bunning to follow Martinez’s example.)

An open seat is inherently unpredictable. It can be highly competitive or it can be a blowout – and this does not necessarily depend on the quality of recruitment because the national environment can have a much greater impact on open races. Democrats would love to reproduce the scenario of Missouri’s 2008 open gubernatorial race, where Democratic nominee Jay Nixon cruised through the general election and crushed then-Rep. Kenny Hulshof by 18%.

The biggest factors in that election was the contrast between the two candidates’ level of preparation. Nixon had been preparing to run for years, and he faced token opposition in the Democratic primary; on the GOP side, however, State Treasurer Sarah Steelman and Hulshof faced off in a bruising contest that hurt Hulshof’s general election prospects. The fact that Missouri’s primary is held relatively late (in August) did not help Hulshof: Nixon already had a foot in the governor’s mansion by the time Hulshof turned his attention to the general election.

(The same thing happened in New Mexico, where Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce’s battle left the latter bruised and financially ruined once he got to face Tom Udall in the general election.)

Unfortunately for Republicans, a similar scenario could unfold in 2010: Democrats have one obvious candidate, Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, daughter of former Governor Mel and former Senator Jean. She was already mentioned as a candidate before Bond’s announcement, so today’s development dramatically increases the probability of her jumping in the race. Carnahan could probably clear her party’s primary field.

Republicans, meanwhile, have a deep bench in Missouri, but they lack a towering figure whose entry would be enough to clear the primary field. Steelman and Hulshof could both run for Bond’s seat; other potential candidates are outgoing Governor Matt Blunt, former Senator Jim Talent, Reps. Roy Blunt and Jo Ann Emerson. Most of these Republicans could run a competitive campaign against Carnahan, but could they survive the primary season? Have Talent and Blunt kept enough stature to force potential rivals out of the race?

The problem for Democrats, however, is that they do not have a particularly deep bench in the state, and there is no obvious candidate they can turn to if Robin Carnahan passes on the race. Her brother (Rep. Russ Carnahan) could perhaps make the race competitive.

Beyond Missouri’s Senate race, Bond’s retirement should worry Republicans that more Senators are finding prolonged life in the minority too unattractive to run for re-election; this could become even more of a problem when they realized just how painful it is going to be to only function with a 41-person caucus.

Bond’s retirement was somewhat unexpected. We were of course aware that Bond is a four-term Senator, but there were no obvious hints that he was about to forgo a 2010 run and Bond was nowhere near the top of the list of potential retirees.

That list still features Senators like Iowa’s Chuck Grassley and Ohio’s George Voinovich, who were deemed far more likely to retire than Bond or Martinez. For either Grassley or Voinovich to call it quits would lead to a nightmarish cycle for the NRSC, but Republicans should also start asking themselves how certain Senators like Richard Shelby or Judd Gregg are of running for re-election. I dare not even imagine the dreadful state in which their retirement would plunge the GOP.

Update: Potential Republican candidates are wasting no time positioning themselves for a run, and Politico reports that former Senator Jim Talent (who lost to Claire McCaskill in 2006 after serving only four years in the Senate) and former House Minority Whip Roy Blunt are both leaning towards a run. That would be quite a formidable clash in the Republica primary! It also looks very likely that Carnahan will mount a run for the Democratic nomination.

Chris Matthews bows out of Pennsylvania Senate race

January 8, 2009

A few months ago, it looked fairly certain that Chris Matthews would challenge Senator Arlen Specter in the Pennsylvania Senate race. But that certainty was soon replaced by (initially too cynical-sounding) speculation that Matthews was only trying to make himself more desirable to his MSNBC employers in order to have more bargaining chips during contract negotiations.

The fact that we learned more about the likelihood of a Matthews run from NBC executives than from political journalists suggests those rumors weren’t excessively cynical after all, and all speculation ended yesteday when Matthews finally clarified his intentions: Last night, he told the staff of Hardball that he would not run for Senate and would stay at MSNBC instead.

Many were already celebrating Specter-Matthews as the marquee race of the 2010 cycle (despite the fact that neither men was assured of surviving the primary), so Matthews’s decision certainly costs us entertainment-wise. But it is certainly not a setback for Democrats, who undoubtedly have stronger candidates they could field against the incumbent Senator than a somewhat controversial TV host whose only electoral experience is a failed House primary in 1974.

The trouble for Democrats was that many of their potential candidates might have been scared away by the prospect of running against the Matthews show – just as Al Franken’s entry in the Minnesota Senate race in the past cycle sucked the oxygen out of the room for potentially stronger Democrats. (It does look like Franken ended up winning, but I believe that another Democrat could have prevailed more easily.)

If Matthews had jumped in the Senate race, Democrats would have once again risked wasting one of their top pick-up opportunities by letting the celebrity and entertainment factors trumpet other considerations; and Matthews would have come to the Senate race with his share of baggage, starting with years of complaint about the sexism of some of his comments.

With Matthews’s exit, the attention will turn to other Democrats with a lower profile, starting with Rep. Patrick Murphy and Rep. Allyson Schwartz. Both have already acknowledged their interest in the race, and both would be strong contenders. (Here we could potentially find ourselves in a situation where the DCCC and DSCC clash, just as the NRSC and NRCC are expected to clash on Reps. King and Kirk. Schwarz represents a relatively safe district for Democrats, but an open seat in Murphy’s PA-08 would host a competitive race)

Other potential Democratic candidates include state legislators; Rep. Sestak has already ruled out a run. It is worth pointing out that Pennsylvania Democrats have no “dream candidate” whose mere entry would (justifiably or foolishly) strike Republicans with fear! Ed Rendell could be such a candidate, but the two-term Governor has not been attracting that much Senate buzz and he was busy in December trying to push Matthews in the race.

And don’t forget that we are also waiting for Club for Growth President Pat Toomey to announce whether he will run against Arlen Specter in the Republican primary. His decision will arguably be far more important than what any Democrats will have to say (including Matthews).

As Senate leadership caves on Burris, focus shifts on his electability

January 7, 2009

Few topics have created controversy on this blog since the general election – perhaps even since Hillary Clinton’s withdrawal – but Roland Burris’s appointment seems to be dividing my readership just as much as it is confusing Democratic politicians. But we might be heading for some resolution. Harry Reid has yet to announce that he will seat Roland Burris, but today’s events suggest it will not take that much longer for the Democratic leadership to blink.

Burris is now accumulating the support of prominent Democrats who are coming out in his favor, including former President Jimmy Carter, Rep. Jim Clyburn and Senator Diane Feinstein. Most importantly, Harry Reid and Dick Durbin had dramatically changed their tune by the end of a forty-five minute meetings with Rod Blagojevich’s pick.

No more warnings that Burris will never be part of the Democratic caucus; no more talk of a “tainted” appointment. Instead, Reid and Durbin outlined a procedure through which Burris could come to be seated. (He needs to get the Secretary of State to certify the appointment and testify in front of the state legislature that he engaged in no pay-to-play for his appointment to be transmitted to the Senate Rules Committee and then to the full Senate). This might still sound like a lengthy procedure, but it is much more of an opening than the Democratic leadership was willing to allow a few days ago.

(In a fascinating twist, The Star Tribune notes that Durbin’s comments on the importance of a certificate signed by both the Governor and the Secretary of State make it very difficult for the Democratic leadership to attempt to seat Al Franken, who does not have such a certificate yet.)

But the most reprehensibly nonsensical flip-flop is that of Illinois’s Secretary of State Jesse White. As soon as Blagojevich announced he would appoint Burris last week, White came out with an attention-grabbing statement that grabbed headline across the country. “Because of the current cloud of controversy surrounding the governor,” White wrote, “I cannot accept the document.”

Even when Burris’s defenders replied that White had no authority to deny the Governor’s decision, his office declared only reluctantly acknowledged that White was not sure he had the power to slow down Blagojevich’s appointment. Yet, in a disingenuous interview he gave this morning, White laughed off suggestions that his refusal to sign Blagojevich’s document has any significance. “They could have seated him without my signature,” he said, rejecting the idea that his role was anything but a “ceremonial” one. “Roland Burris is going to be seated,” White added.

The exact reasons for White’s turnaround are unclear to me (perhaps was it the pressure of his opposing an African-American once race was injected in the conversation?), but his attempts to downplay his initially confrontational stance are a great indicator of just how much the momentum has shifted in Burris’s favor.

With the increasing likelihood that Burris will be seated in the weeks ahead, Democrats have to start thinking about his re-election race. For one, we would know that there would be no special election in 2009 and that Burris would not face voters before 2010.

He could face a competitive Democratic primary, and challengers could use his ties to Rod Blagojevich to take him down on ethical grounds. He could be especially vulnerable if Blagojevich is still talked about in 2010, as he would most certainly be he is indicted and tried. That would be a long judicial process that would haunt Burris throughout the next two years. What could potentially save Burris is that it will be hard for an African-American to run against him given how racially charged the debate surrounding his appointment became.

If Burris survives the primary, Democrats undoubtedly could lose this Senate seat. Just how vulnerable Burris would be in the general election depends (just as in the primary) on how much Blagojevich is being talked about; but the circumstances of Burris’s appointment make him an obvious target for the GOP if they can field a credible candidate.

Illinois might have become a reliably Democratic state over the past two decades, but the state GOP is not in as much agony as in New England and New York. Blagojevich’s troubles give Illinois Republicans a chance to portray themselves as the clean, reformist party – much as Democrats hammered the state GOP on ethics at the start of this decade. For Burris to be the Democrats’ standard bearer on the November 2010 ballot would be quite a gift for the GOP’s effort to frame state politics.

The problem for GOP, of course, is that it has a thin bench; Republicans who are the most often mentioned are Reps. Roskam and Kirk, and both could mount a strong challenge to Burris. Yesterday, Kirk left the door open to a Senate run and only ruled out a gubernatorial candidacy.  Had there been a special election this spring, Kirk would have been highly likely to run since he would not have risked his congressional job.

Yet, both Roskam and Kirk would have to give up their House districts for a 2010 run. Unless the coming months suggest that Burris is likely to survive the Democratic primary or unless internal polls show that they have a great shot at the Senate seat, odds are against either of them jumping in the race.

(Just as with Peter King, this is a situation where the NRCC and NRSC could clash: The NRSC’s preferred candidate is undoubteldy Mark Kirk, but his departure from the House would create a huge headache for the NRCC in this blue-trending district.)