The Sad Saga of Chris Dodd

Robert Menendez carried out his duties as the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee today when he told a reporter from The Hill that he “absolutely” stands by his colleague, Chris Dodd—who has fallen 16 points behind his likely 2010 Republican challenger in the latest Connecticut poll.

“Are you serious?” Menendez asked the scribe. “Chris Dodd is going to be reelected. He’s a great senator.”

This is what his Democratic colleagues elected him to do, so Menendez’s rally-around-the-incumbent fervor is perfectly understandable. After all, it was his sly backroom maneuvering last spring on behalf of fellow New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg—destroying a series of potentially crucial wink-and-nod agreements that Lautenberg’s primary challenger, Representative Rob Andrews, had struck with key party leaders and, in so doing, turned the actual primary campaign into a carefree waltz for the incumbent—that helped satisfy Senate Democrats that Menendez was the rightful heir to Chuck Schumer’s D.S.C.C. throne.

But, really, you need a sense of humor to appreciate Menendez’s feint. Because the last time a Democratic senator faced the dire outlook back home that now confronts Dodd was in 2001 and 2002, when Jersey’s own Robert Torricelli, subject of a federal investigation into the cash and pricey gifts that an imprisoned donor had showered on him, began racking up poisonous poll numbers.

Menendez wasn’t the D.S.C.C. chairman back then—he was a member of the House, representing New Jersey’s 13th District. And he responded to the smell of Torch’s blood not with an impassioned defense but with hints that he might challenge the incumbent in an ’02 primary.

It made enough sense—Menendez craved a promotion to the Senate, detested Torricelli (who had blocked Menendez’s attempts to run in 2000 by recruiting Jon Corzine into the race), and recognized the rarity of an opportunity to move up. But it never got off the ground. Torch had too much money and too many allies on the inside. Like every other ambitious Garden State Democrat in ’02, Menendez decided the risk of running and losing wasn’t worth it; better to wait for another day (which, for Menendez, came in 2006).

But that didn’t undo Torricelli’s supreme vulnerability in 2002, if not within his party then against the Republicans in the fall. And no matter how adamantly Menendez and every other Democrat on Capitol Hill and in Connecticut now rallies to Dodd’s defense, there’s no papering over the hideous political condition in which the Nutmeg State’s senior senator finds himself.

The Quinnipiac University poll released on Tuesday shows Dodd, a 28-year veteran of the upper chamber, notching just 34 percent in a 2010 match-up against former Republican Representative Rob Simmons, who netted 50 percent—this in an emphatically blue state that Barack Obama just won by 23 points.

The culprit, fairly or not, is Dodd’s emergence as the chief Congressional scapegoat for the AIG bonuses that nearly incited a peasant revolt last month. Add months of embarrassing scrutiny into the VIP loans he was given by Countrywide Mortgage, and Dodd is fast becoming a caricature of the bought-and-paid-for senator. This is not the kind of image that can be easily undone.

Overstating the severity of Dodd’s political problems is impossible. Not a single Democratic Senate incumbent was defeated for reelection in 2008 or 2006, and only one—South Dakota’s Tom Daschle, by a scant 4,000 votes—was unseated in 2004. Torricelli, who finally abandoned his reelection campaign when he fell nearly 20 points behind his Republican challenger in September 2002, was the last Democrat to face such bleak prospects.  

And for the foreseeable future, the Torch saga figures to haunt Dodd. Already, the question is being asked: When and how will Democratic leaders, fearful of losing a safe Senate seat, prevail on Dodd to pull the plug, just as they finally did with Torricelli ’02? A high-profile ambassadorship or an appointment to head of the Peace Corps—in which Dodd served as a young man—have been suggested as potential parachutes.

It should be noted Torricelli hardly went eagerly in ’02, and there’s every reason to believe that Dodd will be just as stubborn—maybe even more so.

As his political troubles mounted in ’01 amid a leak-happy federal investigation, Torricelli wailed that he was being “publicly raped” and worked furiously to pad his campaign account and shore up his support with key party and interest group leaders in New Jersey—where organizational muscle takes you farther than in most states.

This was enough to scare off would-be intraparty usurpers—like Menendez. Dodd, with deep ties to the Connecticut Democratic establishment that go back decades, will probably be able to resist a primary challenge, too—no matter how bad his autumn numbers look.

And though they had little personal regard for him, Torricelli’s Capitol Hill colleagues stood by him. “When there is a candidate who is seen as vulnerable, people step over themselves to get into a race. That’s just not happening here,” Patty Murray, the D.S.C.C. chairwoman for the 2002 cycle, said as Torricelli consolidated his Democratic support in late ’01. Dodd, far better liked by his Democratic peers than Torricelli ever was, can expect similar public support.

What finally drove Torricelli from the race, any savvy New Jersey Democrat will tell you, had a lot more to do with state politics than the trepidation of the party’s national leaders.

Sure, Washington Democrats were apoplectic when, at the end of September ’02, a devastating memo from prosecutors that described the most damning accusations against Torricelli as “credible in most material aspects” was released. Already in grave danger, Torricelli’s poll numbers collapsed overnight. Just five weeks before Election Day, he fell behind Republican Doug Forrester by double-digits. With their party’s tenuous control of the Senate on the line, national Democrats began agitating for Torch’s exit.

New Jersey’s Democrats were just as panicked. With a doomed senator at the top of their ticket, they risked fomenting a down-ballot tsunami—the kind that might sweep Republicans into all of those county and local offices that average voters don’t care about but that are worth a fortune to a political machine. They sent word to Torricelli: If you stay in and take the party down with you, you’ll never eat lunch in Trenton again.

Finally, Torricelli caved, clearing the way for state Democrats, after first being refused by four other choices, to replace him on the ballot with Lautenberg, then two years into an unhappy retirement from the Senate. When he left the Senate, Torricelli returned to Jersey and launched his own lobbying and consulting firm and, at least for a while, won a spot in then-Governor Jim McGreevey’s inner circle—a valuable place to be for a new lobbyist, and something that would not have been possible had Torch not played ball at the end of September ’02.

Dodd is just as proud a man as Torricelli, and just as insistent (without using the exact phrase) that he’s been publicly raped. At the very least, this makes it unlikely that he’ll be accepting any golden parachutes anytime soon. He’ll press ahead this year and into next, and there’s no reason to think he won’t secure his party’s backing for another term.

The question is what will happen if (or maybe when) it becomes clear that the race is a lost cause—that Dodd cannot win under any circumstances, but that the seat would be saved with a replacement candidate. Could Democrats, nationally or in Connecticut, dangle something over Dodd’s head, the way they did with Torricelli?

Here’s guessing the answer is no, because with Dodd, there’s a motivating force that supersedes venality: family honor. Dodd was 23 years old in 1967 when his father, Senator Thomas J. Dodd, faced a humiliating censure from his Senate colleagues for using campaign money for personal purposes. Connecticut Democrats turned their back on the elder Dodd, shunning him three years later when his term was up.

But Dodd fought back, bolting the party to seek reelection as an independent—a campaign for personal redemption, not just another six years in the Senate. And his son Chris was at his side, serving as his campaign manager. Ultimately, the damage from the scandal was too much, and Dodd was handily defeated (although his presence siphoned enough votes from the Democratic nominee to hand the seat to Republican Lowell Weicker), and shortly after the election, he suffered a heart attack and died.

His father’s demise fueled Chris Dodd with a sense of purpose. He entered politics in 1974, winning a House seat from eastern Connecticut, and in 1980 moved up to the Senate. Every feat he’s notched, every rung he’s climbed, he has regarded as a form of redemption, for his father and for the Dodd family name.

“Every time I walk on the Senate floor, I feel that he’s vindicated,” Dodd once said of his father.

Offer him an ambassadorship or threaten him with political isolation—it’s hard to imagine any of this will keep Chris Dodd from fighting for his Senate seat until the very end, no matter how bitter it proves to be. Would you expect anything less from the son of Thomas J. Dodd?

The Sad Saga of Chris Dodd