What on Earth Does Judd Gregg Want?

Democrats are still in good shape to win Judd Gregg’s New Hampshire Senate seat in 2010, despite the Republican’s abrupt withdrawal on Thursday as Barack Obama’s nominee for Commerce secretary.

As it now stands, Gregg will return to the Senate and serve out the remainder of his third term, which expires after the 2010 election. This means that Gregg’s former aide, 63-year-old Bonnie Newman, who had been tapped to serve as his successor, will not get to serve in the Senate after all. But since Newman had pledged not to run for it herself, competition for the seat should remain as wide open as it was before Gregg’s announcement.

That said, the 61-year-old lawmaker didn’t quite slam the door shut on seeking a fourth term next year, something that would significantly alter the dynamics of the race. In a press conference Thursday afternoon, Gregg said that he would "probably not" be a candidate next year, and in a conference call earlier in the day he said he didn’t "intend" to and that "sometimes, there’s other things to do in life." There are two ways to read this.

Maybe Gregg is being sincere, and the seeming imprecision of his language doesn’t mean anything. After all, he had been perfectly willing to leave the Senate for a less-than-glamorous cabinet post—when F.D.R. had to offer Henry Wallace something, anything, after kicking him off the Democratic ticket in 1944, he made him Commerce secretary—in a Democratic administration. He would have been invisible in the job and Republicans wouldn’t have forgotten his "betrayal;" there would be no post-administration career in elected politics for Gregg.

Add in the fact that it was Gregg who initially approached the Obama administration (at least that was White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’ claim on Thursday), and a picture emerges of Gregg as a restless senator, a man looking to move on to a new challenge or out of politics altogether—not a guy who might now turn around and seek another six years in the Senate.

But come on: When a politician has an opportunity to make a Sherman-esque statement and opts not to, it almost always means something. At the very least, Gregg seems to be trying to leave himself enough wiggle room in case, say, six months from now he decides he’s got nothing better to do than run again. Or maybe he already knows that he wants to run again, but thinks it would look better if he seems to reach that conclusion gradually.

Changes of heart like this aren’t entirely unprecedented. One of the more famous examples came in 1995, when South Boston Congressman Joe Moakley, then the chairman of the House Rules Committee, informed the Bay State delegation and ambitious politicians in his district that he would retire after the 1996 election. He scheduled a press conference to make the announcement, but when the moment came—with television stations carrying it live—Moakley stepped to the microphone and declared: "Contrary to my primary inclination, I am not retiring. I still intend to seek reelection, and I intend to be here fighting, kicking, scratching to keep those programs I helped put in years ago." He stayed in the House until his death in 2001.

Why might Gregg, despite his evident fatigue with the Senate, decide to stick around? Maybe he’ll realize there really aren’t that many things that he wants to do in life. New Jersey’s Frank Lautenberg realized this almost immediately after announcing he’d leave the Senate in 2000. His retirement proved miserable, and when he was given the chance to return in 2002—thanks to Bob Torricelli’s implosion—he jumped at it.

Or maybe his family will encourage him to run again. (It was actually Moakley’s wife who insisted that he abandon his retirement plans back in ’95.) Gregg’s fellow Senate Republicans, already facing a challenging national battleground in ’10, might also see him as their best chance to hold on to a seat from New Hampshire and urge him on.

If Gregg does ultimately run, his fate will largely hinge on how much political damage the Commerce episode causes. Before he was nominated for the post, Gregg was in decent shape for 2010. New Hampshire has shifted dramatically toward Democrats in recent years, but it remains a very winnable state for the right Republican in the right year.

Gregg, the son of a former governor and himself a former governor and congressman, is a well-known commodity to most Granite State voters. His family’s reputation and his low-key image have kept him fairly popular with the independent voters who used to swing New Hampshire elections to Republicans but who are now voting Democratic. A University of New Hampshire poll last summer showed Gregg with a 52-23 percent favorable rating. It seemed unlikely that Democratic Congressman Paul Hodes, who is now running for Gregg’s seat (and who is probably the strongest Democratic candidate besides Governor John Lynch, who doesn’t seem interested in running), would challenge Gregg.

But Gregg will pay a price for his sudden Senate withdrawal. Independent voters who view Obama favorably may see the move as something akin to sabotage. Many will wonder why Gregg, who cited the basic incompatibility between his and Obama’s philosophy in his withdrawal, put the new administration and the public through such a drama in the first place. His initial refusal to take the post without a guarantee that a Republican would be nominated to replace him left a bad taste with voters, too.

But there is time for these feelings to ebb. Republicans may have been miffed that he would team up with a Democratic president, but he can win them back by showing partisan loyalty in the Senate in the months ahead. If his overall poll ratings don’t decline too much, New Hampshire Republicans, however unenthusiastically, would probably rally around him, sensing that he’d be their best choice to win in ’10. He’ll have to hope that the rest of the electorate simply moves on to other things.

The best bet is that, for one reason or another, Gregg will ultimately stay on the sidelines in 2010. But until he makes a more definitive statement, he’s buying himself time and preserving the option of running again.

What on Earth Does Judd Gregg Want?