2010 Preview: The Hottest Races in the Senate for Democrats

Election Day 2010 is still more than a year away—423 days to be exact. But it’s never too early to begin looking at what will be the hottest races to watch. Over the next two days, your Gagglers will look at a handful of must-watch Senate races, a list that will no doubt evolve over the next year as the battle for Congress begins. First up, a look at the seats currently held by Democrats. The party began the year with a comfortable margin in the Senate but now look at risking not just losing their 60-seat majority but possibly control of the chamber itself. On the vulnerable list: some of the best known Democrats in the country, including Chris Dodd, Barbara Boxer, and Harry Reid. Over the recess, party activists warned Democratic voters not to be complacent. With a little more than a year to go, can Dems turn it around?

The question isn’t who is considering a run against Blanche Lincoln but increasingly, who isn’t? Just a few months ago, the two-term Democrat’s reelection bid looked like a safe bet, but public furor over health-care reform and Washington’s out of control spending habits seem to be making Lincoln more vulnerable by the day. At least five Republicans are planning to run against her, including former state GOP chairman Gilbert Baker, while a prominent Democrat, state Sen. Bob Johnson, a conservative, is threatening to get into the race, too. The bad news for Lincoln: A recent poll found that she was losing to every potential GOP candidate, in spite of the fact none have widespread name recognition in the state. This isn’t completely Lincoln’s fault: While Democrats hold several major elected positions in the state, Arkansas has tended to vote more Republican in recent years. George W. Bush won the state twice, andt just last year, John McCain carried the state with 59 percent of the vote. For her part, Lincoln knew it would be tough, and she was prepared, raising nearly $4.5 million. According to her last FEC report, she still has more than $3 million in the bank—a pretty formidable nest egg for a potentially tough race.

Is Barbara Boxer seriously in trouble? One of the more outspoken liberal members of the Senate, Boxer seemed like a shoo-in for a fourth term, and she’s still probably pretty safe. But last month a poll found Boxer leading her potential GOP challenger, former Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fiorina, by just four points, and some Dems panicked. To Boxer’s advantage she’s got almost $5.5 million in the bank—thanks to a little fund-raising help earlier this year from a guy named Barack Obama. And Fiorina hasn’t always been so great on the stump. Last year, she was benched as one of John McCain’s top surrogates after a series of off-script flubs. The question is whether Fiorina has learned from that experience and whether she’ll use it to be a better candidate. Her real-world business experience could be a plus, especially now that her rocky tenure at HP is now looked upon more favorably. But in the end, this might not be about Boxer or Fiorina at all, but more about California’s feelings about the economy and other issues beyond the candidates’ direct control.

: Not unlike Arkansas, Colorado has become a swing state where political leanings are increasingly hard to predict. Incumbent Michael Bennet was named by Gov. Bill Ritter to fill Ken Salazar’s seat after he left the Senate to join the Obama administration. A former superintendent of the Denver Public Schools, Bennet had never held public office and is largely untested as a candidate. Sensing an opportunity, at least six Republicans have said they’ll challenge Bennet, and he’ll likely face a primary fight from former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who has said he’s considering a run, too. But Bennet isn’t taking the fight lying down. He’s traveled the state extensively, holding town halls on health care and other issues, and he’s raised a significant amount of cash, nearly $3 million according to his last campaign-finance report.

Chris Dodd may be the most vulnerable Democrat up for reelection in 2010, thanks largely to questions about his close ties to the financial industry. Dodd was the sponsor of a controversial amendment to the stimulus bill that allowed the insurance giant AIG to pay out more than $165 million in employee bonuses in spite of the fact it was the subject of a federal bailout. This summer, Dodd came under fire again for mortgage discounts he received by embattled lender Countrywide. Last month, the Senate Ethics Committee cleared him of any wrongdoing, but polls show the flaps hurt Dodd with voters back home. At least four Republicans have lined up to challenge Dodd, including former Rep. Rob Simmons, who led Dodd by nine points in a Quinnipac poll released in late July. But Dodd seems to be regrouping, thanks in part to his high profile role in the health-care reform debate.

Perhaps no other Senate seat has been as tied up in controversy as the one formerly held by President Obama. Current Sen. Roland Burris has been caught up in the scandal surrounding his appointment to the seat ever since former Gov. Rod Blagojevich named him to replace Obama last year, and his troubles prompted him not to see a full term. Now there are more than a half a dozen candidates looking to fill the seat, including GOP Rep. Mark Kirk and Democratic state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, who are currently the favorites in the race. Kirk, a moderate, had John McCain in town last month campaigning for him, but Giannoulias still has a serious primary challenge on his hands with Chicago Urban League President Cheryle Robinson Jackson in the race.

On paper, Harry Reid shouldn’t be in trouble. Democrats have made major political inroads in Nevada in recent years, culminating in Obama’s big win in the state in 2008. But Reid, who is seeking a fifth term, has seen his personal approval ratings back home dip to new lows amid widespread unemployment and troubling budget numbers in the state. A Las Vegas Review-Journal poll out last week found that if the election were held today, Reid would lose his seat to one of his two GOP challengers, State Reps. Danny Tarkanian and Sue Lowden. The bright spot for Reid: Republicans seem to be in as much trouble as he is back home, and until recently, the party struggled to field good potential candidates, giving Reid a major headstart on what will no doubt be a tough race.

Arlen Specter shocked Washington when he announced last spring that he was quitting the GOP to run for a sixth term as a Democrat. It was, he said, a matter of political survival. Polls showed him trailing former Rep. Pat Toomey in the GOP primary. But will Specter even make it past the Democratic primary? After months of speculation, Rep. Joe Sestak announced last month that he’d challenge Specter for the Dem nomination—setting up a somewhat awkward situation for folks at the White House, who initially suggested they would do what it takes to help Specter retain his seat. A new poll out today from Franklin & Marshall College finds Specter comfortably leading Sestak by 26 points—though 46 percent of those polled are undecided, a pretty alarming number for Specter’s camp. In the general election, the poll finds Specter narrowly ahead of Toomey, 37 percent to 29 percent.

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