Nutmegged! Can Dodd and Lieberman Survive?

ctsensweb Nutmegged! Can Dodd and Lieberman Survive? Both of Connecticut’s U.S. senators were greeted with ominous new poll numbers on Tuesday. The new Quinnipiac University survey showed Chris Dodd, a senator’s son who first won election to the upper chamber in 1980, scoring his lowest ever marks and Joe Lieberman trailing by a whopping 28 points in a re-election trial heat.

But while Dodd must face the voters two years before Lieberman (whose seat isn’t up until 2012), it’s the Democrat-turned-independent who probably has more to worry about, and to mull over.

Dodd’s situation probably looks a lot worse than it actually is. The Quinnipiac poll gives him a negative job approval rating (41 percent approve/48 disapprove), marking yet another decline in his once-sterling numbers. Two months ago, he enjoyed a positive approval rating, 47 to 41 percent, and last July the spread was a healthy 17 points, 51 to 34 percent. At his all-time peak, back in early 2001, Dodd sported a 71/16 approval mark.

The culprit is obvious: the nagging saga of Dodd’s mortgage dealings with Countrywide Financial, which were first reported last June. The suggestion was that Dodd, the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, received a sweetheart deal reserved for "friends" of the company’s chairman. But only this week, nearly eight months after the story broke, did Dodd provide the media with documentation to substantiate his claims of innocence.

The scandal’s durability, especially in light of the housing market collapse that helped plunge the country into a recession, has made Dodd supremely vulnerable to political attacks. By a 54 to 24 percent margin, respondents told Quinnipiac pollsters that they weren’t satisfied with Dodd’s mortgage explanation (the poll was taken before he granted the media access to his records on Monday); 56 percent said they were less likely to vote for him because of it. And most damningly, 51 percent said they would "definitely" or "probably" not vote to re-elect Dodd next year.

And yet, there is good news for Dodd.

Even though questions still linger (and Dodd didn’t help himself by only allowing reporters to inspect his financial records in his office on Monday – refusing to provide them with physical copies), the Connecticut Post concluded on Tuesday that "there are many indications" that his explanations will hold up.

That doesn’t mean Republicans won’t hype the mortgage episode relentlessly in ’10, but it would reduce the highly suspicious tone that state and national reporters have used in covering this story – a major reason why voters have been so skeptical. Barring any more developments, this should be enough to arrest Dodd’s slide heading into ’10. (Again, the key here is that his explanations do, in fact, hold up.)

More importantly, though, Dodd stands to benefit from a lack of credible competition. Connecticut remains a staunchly Democratic state, and there are no indications that he’ll face any trouble securing his party’s backing next year. His approval rating among Democrats is still 62/25 percent.

The state Republican bench is thin, although Governor Jodi Rell, nearly five years after replacing the disgraced John Rowland, remains untouchable, with an approval rating of 75/19 percent (67/26 among Democrats!). But is intent on seeking a second full gubernatorial term next year, and will not be challenging Dodd.

That will leave the G.O.P. hoping that to entice one of two aging former congressman, Chris Shays (defeated for re-election in 2008) or Rob Simmons (unseated in 2006), to challenge Dodd. Each would be credible, but not nearly as formidable as Rell. And without Shays or Simmons, the Republicans would be left to field an unknown and untested candidate. Victory by default – sort of the way an unpopular Bill Nelson won a second Senate term in Florida over Katherine Harris in 2006 – seems a viable route for Dodd next year.

Lieberman’s situation is more complicated. His approval rating sits at 45/48 percent, which isn’t too good – but also not automatically fatal. Moreover, since his term isn’t up until 2012, he has a few years to improve it. But he has faces two formidable obstacles that Dodd doesn’t.

First, Lieberman doesn’t have a clear base of support – unlike Dodd, who can count on running with the support of the Democratic establishment and the party’s loyal voters next year. Among Democrats, Lieberman’s approval rating is a miserable 21/70 percent, and among independents, it’s just 48/46 percent. Only with Republicans does he score well, 75/20 percent.

But Lieberman has made it clear he won’t be switching to the G.O.P., and since aggressively campaigning for John McCain last summer, he’s largely returned to the Democratic fold in the Senate, making peace with his party’s leaders there and siding with them (and against McCain) in this week’s stimulus drama. His support among Republicans, it seems, comes from their memories of 2006, 2007, and 2008, when Lieberman was at war with the Democratic Party. But in 2009, 2010 and 2011, as he realigns himself with Democrats, those numbers figure to return to earth.

This means that the formula that worked so well for Lieberman in his 2006 re-election bid – overwhelming Republican support plus a majority of independents – won’t be available in ’12.

An even bigger hurdle, perhaps, is that – again, unlike Dodd – Lieberman faces the prospect of challenge from a figure with Rell-like popularity. That would be Richard Blumenthal, the state’s attorney general ("eternal general," he calls himself, since he’s held the job for nearly 20 years).

Blumenthal, like A.G.s around the country, has skillfully used his office to rack up enviable media coverage and stratospheric poll numbers. His approval rating sits at 71/13 percent. He will turn 63 later this week and has made no secret of his interest in serving in the Senate someday. But the opportunity has never been there; since his election as A.G. in 1990, Blumenthal has been blocked by Dodd and Lieberman. Liberal activists first turned to him in 2006 when they sought a primary challenger to Lieberman, but the ever-cautious Blumenthal passed, paving the way for Ned Lamont’s entry.

Looking ahead to ’12, though, Blumenthal clearly sees opportunity. Last week, he declared that he would seek re-election as A.G. in ’10 and strongly hinted that he would then pursue Lieberman’s Senate seat in ’12.

This would be a very tough race for Lieberman, and the first question is: would he run as a Democrat or an independent? Right now, it’s inconceivable that he could defeat the mega-popular Blumenthal in a Democrats-only contest. But running as independent doesn’t look promising, either. The Quinnipiac poll gave Blumenthal a 58-30 lead over Lieberman in a potential general election match-up. Worse, the survey didn’t include a Republican candidate, who presumably would further erode Lieberman’s numbers. (Quinnipiac didn’t attempt a Lieberman-Blumenthal Democratic primary match-up.)

So what can Lieberman do? First, he needs to decide on a strategy. A large number of Democrats will simply never support him again. But if he were to abandon his independent posture and decisively re-align himself with the Democratic majority in Washington, he could slowly win back old friends and supporters over the next few years. He could also rack up I.O.U.’s from powerful Democrats who could turn around and help him in ’12. Championing Barack Obama’s agenda in the Senate and leading the charge for Dodd in ’10 could improve Lieberman’s ’12 odds considerably.

The flip side, though, is that abandoning his independent status would ensure that a ’12 primary would be Lieberman’s make-or-break moment. Losing the primary and then running as an independent yet again would severely test the patience of voters; plus, Blumenthal likely won’t be as polarizing as Lamont was.

The best bet for Lieberman may lie in shoring up his Democratic credentials and trying to intimidate Blumenthal – who has backed down from multiple opportunities to seek higher office in the past – from coming after him. (Of course, if Blumenthal were to pass, other Democrats – like Congressmen Jim Himes or Chris Murphy — might take a shot.) Alternately, he could stick it out as an independent and hope that, somehow, Democrats nominate a Lamont-like candidate in ’12 instead of Blumenthal.

The good news for Lieberman that his poll numbers were significantly better not that long ago; just last March, he was scoring a 52/35 percent approval rating. His role as a McCain surrogate hurt him badly in his home state, but memories can fade. If Democrats had no better options, it wouldn’t be a stretch to envision Lieberman sliding back into their good graces and emerging as their nominee in ’12. But they probably will have other options, leaving Lieberman in a difficult spot.