Bob Menendez, Into the Wind

On the topic of his party’s chances in next year’s elections, Robert Menendez is a study in resolute optimism.

Not that he has much choice. Mr. Menendez, New Jersey’s junior senator, chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which recruits and provides financial and political support for the party’s U.S. Senate candidates. Optimism is part of the job.

But in 2010, Mr. Menendez will have to deal with some unpleasant realities that his predecessor, the irrepressible Chuck Schumer—who chaired the D.S.C.C. in the elections of 2006 and 2008, when Democrats picked up a combined 14 Senate seats and lost no incumbents—never faced.

For one thing, Democrats, with control of the White House and both chambers of Congress for the first time since 1994, are now in something of a defensive crouch. In ’06 and ’08 they were able to get by just pointing out the (many) shortcomings of George W. Bush. In ’10, they’ll have to show results.

And then there’s history: Losses in a midterm election are almost automatic for the White House’s party, which has avoided them only three times since the Civil War. Slippage is even more likely when you consider that the Democrats now (in theory) have 60 seats—the most for either party in 30 years.

The chairman’s spin?

“We obviously have the wind not blowing at our back, but blowing a bit in our face,” Mr. Menendez told the Observer this week. “But in the face of that, I’m encouraged by a couple of factors.”

One of those factors is the high number of seats being vacated by Republican senators–six, three of them in states that Barack Obama won last year (New Hampshire, Florida and Ohio) and one in a state he nearly won (Missouri). The other two Republican vacancies are in Kentucky—a red state, but one where Tea Party fervor could propel Rand Paul, the fringe-y son of Ron, to the G.O.P. Senate nomination, thus creating an unexpected opportunity for Democrats–and Kansas, where Democrats really won’t have a chance.

“The Republican retirements have created open seats and pick-up opportunities in five key states,” Mr. Menendez said.

Obviously, if the Democrats can win two or three of these races, they’ll stand an excellent chance of bucking history. But that’s easier said than done. “I don’t think the open seats are a given for them,” Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said.

The main problem is that while Democrats fared well in states like Ohio and Florida in 2008, they did so under near-ideal conditions. The same formula that worked like a charm last year—pointing fingers and that old stand-by, blaming Mr. Bush—won’t get them very far this time around. “When the climate is good for them, (Democrats) can win those states, but it’s close,” Ms. Duffy said. “In a bad climate, they’re going to struggle–and things are not looking that good right now.”

This leads into the second factor that Mr. Menendez stresses: Republican infighting. In numerous states, the favored candidates of the G.O.P. establishment are facing serious primary challenges, many of them fueled by the “back-to-basics” conservative revolution being pushed by South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint.

In the post-Bush G.O.P., where mass defections have vested the ideologically extreme base with outsize influence, some of these insurgents could actually win. And even if the insurgents don’t win, they could still cause severe damage to the long-term viability of the establishment’s preferred candidate.

“Their mainstream candidates–the candidates they’d like to see win–[are] moving more and more to the right, outside the scope of where you want to be in the general election, which is the center,” Mr. Menendez said.

Ground zero for this phenomenon is Florida, where national Republican leaders were quick to line up behind Governor Charlie Crist, who had crafted a popular, moderate image, for the seat that Republican Mel Martinez vacated. But conservative activists have mobilized behind Marco Rubio, a charismatic former state House speaker who, according to the most recent Rasmussen poll, is now tied with the governor. Crist has responded by veering sharply to the right-creating hope among Democrats that Rep. Kendrick Meek, their likely candidate, can claim the middle no matter who the G.O.P. nominates.

Something similar may be brewing in New Hampshire, where the state’s former attorney general, Kelly Ayotte, is the G.O.P. establishment’s choice to run for Judd Gregg’s seat. Ms. Ayotte leads Democratic Rep. Paul Hodes in polls—but she’s also facing a potentially serious primary challenge from Ovide Lamontagne, a conservative who previously upset the establishment’s candidate in the 1996 gubernatorial primary (and then went on to lose the general election in a rout).

G.O.P. primaries also loom in Ohio, Colorado, and Illinois, to name just a few. “These primaries complicate Republican plans because they soak up resources—a lot of money is being spent, [and] many of these candidates will have to spend millions in their primary,” Mr. Menendez said.

Of course, while Mr. Menendez generally receives high marks for recruiting strong candidates, there are some potentially problematic primaries on the Democratic side.

The highest-profile of these is in Pennsylvania, where Arlen Specter, whose party switch gave Democrats their 60th Senate seat earlier this year, is being backed to the hilt by the White House and Mr. Menendez’s D.S.C.C. But his lead over his primary challenger, Rep. Joe Sestak, keeps narrowing—and in general election match-ups with Republican Pat Toomey, it’s a dead heat. Some wonder if national Democrats are propping up a dead horse.

“It’s clearly a competitive primary,” Mr. Menendez said. “But Arlen Specter is working incredibly hard. He has visited every county in the state, met with every Democratic Party from each and every one of those counties, has been a great addition to our caucus since he arrived…and I think he’s going to do very well.”

There’s also potential primary trouble for Democrats in Ohio, where the D.S.C.C.’s preferred candidate—Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher—has failed to pull away from his intra-party foe; in Colorado, where appointed incumbent Michael Bennet is being challenged by a former state House Speaker; and in North Carolina, where the D.S.C.C.’s candidate has waffled on whether to run (he finally decided to do it) and now faces a primary against the better-known secretary of state.

And that’s not even mentioning New York, where Kirsten Gillibrand has benefited from a concerted effort by the White House, the D.S.C.C. and Mr. Schumer to clear the primary field. And yet, she is still struggling in polls—even trailing. According to a new Quinnipiac poll, New York City Comptroller Bill Thompson bests Ms. Gillibrand by a surprising 13 points. To put that in perspective, Mr. Thompson, who has not announced his plans for 2010, only ran even in an earlier poll against Tom DiNapoli, the unelected and largely unknown state comptroller.

“I’m not fazed by Kirsten’s situation,” Mr. Menendez said. “She’s never run a statewide race. She was from upstate New York, ran in a congressional district, had no exposure statewide, and had no paid media statewide—or even in the heart of the most populous part of the state, New York City, like Thompson has. So I just view it quite differently.”

There’s also the matter of Connecticut, where nearly everyone agrees that five-term incumbent Chris Dodd can secure the Democratic nomination if he wants it-and that he’ll lose in the fall if he does.

“This is an incumbent where, if you’re giving (national Democrats) a little sodium pentothal, they would like him to get out of the race,” Ms. Duffy observed.

Mr. Dodd has been beaten relentlessly for his closeness to the financial services industry and has emerged as a popular scapegoat-in Connecticut and nationally-for the sub-prime mortgage catastrophe and subsequent Wall Street meltdown. He’s already spent heavily on ads and has been campaigning hard, but polls show him floundering, losing by double-digits to his most likely G.O.P. foe.

The obvious parallel is to Robert Torricelli, the former New Jersey senator who waged a re-election campaign against similarly dire poll numbers (and in a similarly blue state) in 2002—until party leaders, fearful of losing a seat they never should lose, convinced him to drop out five weeks before the election. In Mr. Dodd’s case, Democrats would have an obvious replacement candidate—Connecticut’s mega-popular attorney general, Richard Blumenthal—who would likely crush any Republican candidate.

Mr. Menendez, who was actually offered the chance to replace Mr. Torricelli on the ballot that year (and declined), said that “as far as I know, (Dodd) is absolutely intending to go all the way.”

Still, he didn’t speak of Mr. Dodd’s continued candidacy as a foregone conclusion, saying, “I believe that at the end of the day, we will find that as Chris continues to work it, if he chooses to run, he’ll be in position to stir a strong reservoir of support that has been developed over years…and can succeed if he chooses to do so.”

All told, Democrats and Republicans will be defending 18 seats next November. Earlier this year, at the height of Mr. Obama’s honeymoon (and with the G.O.P. brand in utter disrepair), Democrats giddily talked of adding to their Senate majority. Now, with unemployment stuck in double-digits and voters showing impatience with Mr. Obama and his party, Ms. Duffy said they’ll do well to break even next fall—”and with every day that the environment does not improve for them, their chances of keeping 60 get worse.”

Mr. Menendez, ever the optimist, said that Democrats will show results on health care and jobs over the next year—with no help from the Republicans. “And if we make the progress that we’ve already begun to see and that I believe we will make on health care reform, they’re going to have been the party of opposition, not the party of any constructive ideas,” he said. “And they will have ceded the most important issues to us.”


  Bob Menendez, Into the Wind